Interfaith Dialogue

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Goals & Principles | Dialogue Guidelines | Decalogue Commandments | Rights & Responsibilities | Languages & Skills | Types & Levels | Lessons Learned


Interfaith Dialogue Video

Goals & Principles

Fr. Thomas Keating is a Roman Catholic priest and Trappist Monk who has made a major contribution to the centering prayer movement and to Interfaith spirituality.  He is convener of the Snowmass Conference and a member of the international monastic inter-religious movement.  He authored the following report:

A report on an experience of on-going inter-religious dialogue might be helpful at this point. In 1984, I invited a group of spiritual teachers from a variety of the world religions — Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Native American, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic — to gather at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, to meditate together in silence and to share our personal spiritual journeys, especially those elements in our respective traditions that have proved most helpful to us along the way.

We kept no record and published no papers.  As our trust and friendship grew, we felt moved to investigate various points that we seemed to agree on.  The original points of agreement were worked over during the course of subsequent meetings as we continued to meet, for a week or so each year. Our most recent list consists of the following eight points:

  • The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahman, Allah, Absolute, God, Great Spirit.
  • Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
  • Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
  • Faith is opening, accepting and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
  • The potential for human wholeness (or in other frames of reference) -- enlightenment, salvation, transformation, blessedness, "nirvana" -- is present in every human person.
  • Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service of others.
  • As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance and illusion, weakness and suffering.
  • Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one's own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality.



Dialogue Guidelines

At the annual Snowmass conference in May 1986, we came up with additional points of agreement of a practical nature:

A. Some examples of disciplined practice, common to us all:

  • Practice of compassion
  • Service to others
  • Practicing moral precepts and virtues
  • Training in meditation techniques and regularity of practice
  • Attention to diet and exercise
  • Fasting and abstinence
  • The use of music and chanting and sacred symbols
  • Practice in awareness (recollection, mindfulness) and living in the present moment
  • Pilgrimage
  • Study of scriptural texts and scriptures

And in some traditions:

  • Relationship with a qualified teacher
  • Repetition of sacred words (mantra, japa)
  • Observance of periods of silence and solitude
  • Movement and dance
  • Formation of community

B. It is essential to extend our formal practice of awareness into all aspects of our life.

C. Humility, gratitude, and a sense of humor are indispensable in the spiritual life.

D. Prayer is communion with Ultimate Reality, whether it is regarded as personal, impersonal, or beyond them both.

We were surprised and delighted to find so many points of similarity and convergence in our respective paths. Like most people of our time, we originally expected that we would find practically nothing in common. In the years that followed, we spontaneously and somewhat hesitatingly began to take a closer look at certain points of disagreement until these became our main focus of attention. We found that discussing our points of disagreement increased the bonding of the group even more than discovering our points of agreement. We became more honest in stating frankly what we believed and why, without at the same time making any effort to convince others of our own position. We simply presented our understanding as a gift to the group.


Decalogue Commandments

Ground Rules for Inter-religious, Inter-ideological Dialogue:

These principles of dialogue were formulated by Professor Leonard Swidler of Temple University. The text is printed in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20:1 (1984).

The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.
Inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue must be a two-sided project within each religious or ideological community and between religious or ideological communities.
Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.
In inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue we must not compare our ideals with our partner's practice, but rather our ideals with our partner's ideals, our practice with our partner's practice.
Each participant must define himself... Conversely, the interpreted must be able to recognize herself in the interpretation.
Each participant must come to the dialogue with no hard-ançl-fast assumptions as to where the points of disagreement are.
Dialogue can take place only between equals... Both must come to learn from each other.
Dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.
Persons entering into inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.
Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner's religion or ideology 'from within'; for a religion or ideology is not merely something of the head, but also of the spirit, heart, and 'whole being,' individual and communal.

Three Goals of Interreligious Dialogue

  • To know oneself ever more profoundly and enrich and round out one's appreciation of one's own faith tradition
  • To know the other ever more authentically and gain a friendly understanding of others as they are and not in caricature
  • To live ever more fully accordingly and to establish a more solid foundation for community of life and action among persons of various traditions

(Leonard Swidler, Toward a Unlversal Theology of Religion, p. 26)


Rights & Responsibilities

  • We confess our failures and lack of love, respect and sensitivity to people of other faiths in the past. We intend to forgive one another, seek the forgiveness of others and commit ourselves to a new beginning.
  • We affirm that good interfaith relations can open the way to better interethnic relations and peace throughout the world.
  • We recognise building true community (koinonia) , both among persons and various ethnic and religious communities, as our primary objective. We need to develop a global theology that will be appropriate for the unfolding sense of a globalised world.
  • We affirm the importance of promoting a culture of dialogue within and among all religious communities and indigenous traditions.
  • We condemn violence and terrorism as being against the spirit of all true religion and we pledge ourselves to removing their causes.
  • We shall respect the integrity of all religions and ensure that they have the freedom to follow their own beliefs and practices.
  • We believe that the different religions are enriched by identifying agendas in which they can collaborate, such as making peace, protecting the environment, eradicating poverty and ensuring the human dignity of all.
  • We affirm that it is important for us all to listen to and learn from other religions so that we can value religious plurality as a factor that enriches our communities.
  • We endeavour to live out and explain the truths of our own religion in a manner that is intelligible and friendly to people of other faiths.
  • Cultural diversity as well as religious diversity in our communities will be affirmed as a source of enrichment and challenge.
  • Prepared by the Rt Rev. Kenneth Fernando for the Network of Interfaith Concerns of the Anglican Communion



Languages & Skills

Four Levels of Interreligious Dialogue

  • The dialogue of llfe, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joy and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.
  • The dialogue of action, in which persons of all religions collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.
  • The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.
  • The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.

(M. Thomas Thangaraj, The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1999, pp. 95, 96.)

Five Types of Interreligious Dialogue
Informational: Acquiring of knowledge of the faith partner's religious history, founding, basic beliefs, scriptures, etc.
Confessional: Allowing the faith partners to speak for and define themselves in terms of what it means to live as an adherent.
Experiential: Dialogue with faith partners from within the partner's tradition, worship and ritual - entering into the feelings of one's partner and permitting that person's symbols and stories to guide.
Relational: Develop friendships with individual persons beyond the "business" of dialogue.
Practical: Collaborate to promote peace and justice.

Assisi Decalogue for Peace
 During the interfaith prayer service at Assisi, ten of the 200 faith representatives each read one of the following ten commitments in their own language. In March, Pope John Paul II sent a copy of the Decalogue for Peace to all heads of state. In an accompanying letter, the Pope stated that the participants at the Assisi gathering were inspired more than ever by one common conviction — humanity must choose between love and hatred.

  • We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are opposed to all true religious spirit and we condemn all recourse to violence and war in the name of God or religion. We undertake to do everything possible to eradicate the causes of terrorism.
  • We commit ourselves to educate people about respect and mutual esteem in order to achieve peaceful coexistence and solidarity among members of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.
  • We commit ourselves to promote the culture of dialogue so that understanding and trust may develop among individuals and peoples as these are the conditions of authentic peace.
  • We commit ourselves to defend the right of all human beings to lead a dignified life, in accordance with their cultural identity.
  • We commit ourselves to engage in dialogue with sincerity and patience, without considering what separates us as an insurmountable wall, on the contrary, recognizing that facing our differences can become an occasion for greater reciprocal understanding.
  • We commit ourselves to pardon each other's errors and prejudices of the past and present, and to support one another in the common struggle against egoism and abuses, hatred and violence, and in order to learn from the past that peace without justice is not true peace.
  • We commit ourselves to stand at the side of those who suffer poverty and abandonment, speaking out for those who have no voice and taking concrete action to overcome such situations, in the conviction that no one can be happy alone.
  • We commit ourselves to make our own the cry of those who do not surrender to violence and evil, and we wish to contribute with all our strength to give a real hope of justice and peace to the humanity of our time.
  • We commit ourselves to encourage all initiatives that promote friendship between peoples, in the conviction that, if a solid understanding between peoples is lacking, technological progress exposes the world to increasing dangers of destruction and death.
  • We commit ourselves to ask the leaders of nations to make every possible effort so as to build, at both national and international levels, a world of solidarity and peace founded on justice.



Types & Levels

The Seven Stages of Deep-Dialogue

By Paul Mojzes and Leonard Swidler

Outlined below are seven stages that many people experience in the process of dialogue with other religions and cultures.

Stage One: Radical Encountering of Difference
 Early encounters with those of other religions are inherently challenging and even threatening as I face a new worldview, a new way of interpreting reality, and new ways of responding that are clearly other. I am tempted to appropriate the other to my own worldview. I soon realize that this disruption to my worldview and ways of responding won’t go away, nor will it accommodate my own worldview and ways of responding. I may be tempted to withdraw from the situation, only to discover that my place in society may not allow for such withdrawal. The decision to proceed moves me on into the second stage.

Stage Two: Crossing Over — Letting Go and Entering the World of the Other
 As I make the decision to engage the world of the other sincerely, I find myself called to explore, to learn anew, and to reassess my norms regarding adequate and appropriate expressions of values, and to critique my traditional attitudes. I find that I need to approach the new worldview with openness and a bracketing of my stereotypes and prejudices. As I do this, I find myself moving into stage three.

Stage Three: Inhabiting and Experiencing the World of the Other
 The experience of empathy and interest then expands into a sense of freedom that opens doors to learn many things from this other world: what is of greatest importance, modalities of interaction, what causes suffering to those in this world. As I experiment with integrating ways of thinking and acting in light of my discoveries, I sense an excitement and a deepening relationship with those of this world. At a certain point, after I have gained some competence in negotiating this environment, I discover that this is not my true home. This moves me into the fourth stage.

Stage Four: Crossing Back with an Expanded Vision
 The new knowledge I have gained in alternative ways of thinking and acting is now part of my repertoire as I regain my sense of belonging in my own world. I am able to think and act from both perspectives as the context may require. My own sense of identity has deepened, has changed, and no matter what choices I freely make to believe and to act, I can no longer assume that my former unilateral way of being in the world is the only way. My attitudes and concerns are irrevocably reshaped to hold the other in view, in relationship. This moves me into stage five.

Stage Five: The Dialogic Awakening — A Radical Paradigm Shift
 I experience a profound shift in my worldview as well as expanded consciousness of concerns and needs and causes of dysfunction in world realities and viable ways of human response. I can no longer return to my former worldview that did not have a place for this other. Further, I am irrevocably shaped to the possibility that there is a plurality of viable worldviews, concerns, and human responses. This changes my sense of myself. I become aware of the interconnectedness of myself and many/all others, including Earth and all her needs and potentials. This awakening is what moves me into the sixth stage.

Stage Six: Global Awakening — The Paradigm Shift Matures
 This stage of Deep-Dialogue opens me to the common ground that underlies the multiple worlds with which I am surrounded. I can perceive that the unique differences essential to these worlds are contained in a field of unity. My own inner world is now apparent as a range of perspectives and unique to myself. I am increasingly open to dialogue with others in my various communities of life, to a transformed relationship with them and an embrace of the context in which these communities are situated. There is for me an expanding world of communities of life with greater potential for ongoing dialogue, new learning, and deepened relationships. This moves me to stage seven.

Stage Seven: Personal and Global Transforming of Life and Behaviour
 One of the most significant transformations that has taken place on this journey is a greater and more encompassing moral consciousness and ensuing practice. The communion that I experience with all — self, others, and the Earth — is profound. I sense that my care for myself, instead of being in competition with concerns for the welfare of other realities, is integral to the care of the whole. As I come to deeper self-realization and greater self-fulfillment, I experience deeper meaning in relationships and in my whole life.
Paul Mojzes is an American professor of religious studies.
Leonard Swidler is an American professor of ecumenical and interfaith studies.


Dialogue is not Debate

Debate is oppositional: two or more sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong. Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward a common understanding.

In debate one searches for the other positions flaws and weaknesses. In dialogue one searches for strengths in the other position.

Debate creates a closed-minded attitude, a determition to be right. Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude, an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.

In debate winning is the goal; in dialogue finding common ground is the goal.

Debate defends one's position as the best solution and excludes other positions. Dialogue opens up the possibility of reaching a better solutions than any of the original solutions.

Debate assumes there is a right answer and that someone has it. Dialogue assumes many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution.

Debate implies conclusion. Dialogue remains open-ended.

Nine Guidelines for Listening to Others
 These guidelines were developed by Kay Lindahl, the founder of the Listening Center in Laguan Niguel, California. Kay is also the chairperson of the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN).

We include these guidelines here because listening is so vital to any form of dialogue, including interfaith dialogue. These guidelines are designed to facilitate healthy dialogue and deep listening and to create a safe space for meaningful conversation on all levels:

  • WHEN YOU ARE LISTENING, SUSPEND ASSUMPTIONS - What we assume is often invisible to us. We assume that others have had the same experiences that we have, and that is how we listen to them. Learn to recognize assumptions by noticing when you get upset or annoyed by something someone else is saying. You may be making an assumption. Let it be - suspend it - and resume listening for understanding of the other.
  • WHEN YOU ARE SPEAKING, EXPRESS YOUR PERSONAL RESPONSE - informed by your tradition, beliefs and practices as you have interpreted them in your life. Speak for yourself. Use "I' language. Take ownership of what you say. Speak from your heart. Notice how often the phrases "We all", "of course", "everyone says", "you know", come into your conversation. The only person you can truly speak for is yourself.
  • LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGMENT - The purpose of dialogue is to come to an understanding of the other, not to determine whether they are good, bad, right or wrong. If you are sitting there thinking: 'That's good", 'That's bad", "I like that" "I don't like that", then you are having a conversation in your own mind, rather than listening to the speaker. Simply notice when you do this, and return to being present with the speaker.
  • SUSPEND STATUS - Everyone is an equal partner in the inquiry. There is no seniority or hierarchy. All are colleagues with a mutual quest for insight and clarity. You are each an expert in your life. That is what you bring to the dialogue process.
  • HONOUR CONFIDENTIALITY - Leave the names of participants in the room so if you share stories or ideas, no one's identity will be revealed. Create a safe space for self-expression.
  • LISTEN FOR UNDERSTANDING, NOT TO AGREE WITH OR BELIEVE - You do not have to agree with or believe anything that is said. Your job is to listen for understanding.
  • ASK CLARIFYING OR OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS to assist your understanding and to explore assumptions.
  • HONOUR SILENCE AND TIME FOR REFLECTION - Notice what wants to be said rather than what you want to say.
  • ONE PERSON SPEAKS AT A TIME - Pay attention to the flow of the conversation. Notice what patterns emerge from the group. Make sure that each person has an opportunity to speak, while knowing that no one is required to speak.



Lessons Learned

James Fleming is an Irish, Roman Catholic priest with extensive experience in Muslim-Christian dialogue. Listed below are some of the learnings he has aquired in his more than 20 years of interfaith work:

  • Relate to others as equal partners in the search for truth
  • Recognize that listening as well as speaking is necessary for a genuine conversation. Remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words."
  • Treasure the sense of wonder that comes with encountering the new, the unusual and the surprising. Record such experiences in a journal if possible
  • Be hungry for knowledge about the other person's culture and religion. Learn to understand what others actually believe and value. And allow them to express their beliefs and values in their own terms. This does mean that we cannot, with experience and knowledge, challenge other people's cultural values
  • Be honest in sharing your beliefs and do not try to water them down to accommodate. Other people see through this and lose respect for you
  • Do not mispresent or disparage other peoples' beliefs and practices
  • Be aware of your own need for ongoing conversion to your own professed beliefs. Remember, it is not our job to convert others to our beliefs, but to be faithful to our own
  • Respond to others as a gift, not as a threat
  • Be sensitive to vulnerable people and do not try to exploit them
  • Remember that it's our differences that can make a difference, so rejoice in the richness of our diversities

The Language of Interfaith Conversation

In this article, Canadian multifaith educator, JW Windland, argues that a sensitive use of interfaith language expresses our common humanity, builds relationships of respect and trust, and pursues peace. Click here to read article...

Rights, Responsibilities and Skills of Dialogue

In this chart, American interfaith educator, Patrice Brodeur, demonstrates that for true dialogue to occur, it needs to take place within a protective environment of mutually accepted rights and responsibilities, rooted in two fundamantal values: respect for the human person and trust in the process of dialogue. Click here to view the chart.

Toward A Christian Biblical Understanding Of World Religions

From the beginning the disciple community was surrounded by different cultures and faiths. This community made its way in that multicultural world and grew through its life and witness. The life of Christ, who lived and died and was raised, was present in the power of the Spirit in the life and deeds of the early church. From that life, the early Christians were empowered to serve God's world and to love their neighbour as they had been loved by Jesus Christ.

With the acceptance of Christianity by the reigning powers, there came the temptation to allow those powers to reshape the gospel. As a result, Christians have a sadly chequered history in their attitudes towards their non-Christian neighbours. It was fitting that in 1986 the General Council of the United Church offered an apology to its Native members for the suffering that resulted from confusing European culture with the gospel. In November 1996, at the World Council of Churches' Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, the Conference affirmed, "the gospel is always expressed through culture." In other words, culture (where we live, language, customs, traditions, etc.) affects the way we experience and express the gospel. The way we experience and express the gospel also has its affect on culture.

How are we to understand the saving significance of Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world in which we are called to love our neighbour? It would seem that we have two obligations in this matter: first, to affirm that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself; second, to love our neighbour as Christ loved us.

As we come in contact with neighbours, co-workers, or casual acquaintances who embrace other faiths, we see that the same capacity for good and ill that shapes us, shapes them. We are often struck by the "Christian" quality of their lives. How are we to understand our own convictions and commitment to Jesus Christ in relation to them? Can we proclaim God's salvation in Jesus Christ in a way that respects the convictions of those whose faith is different? Can we understand Christ in a way that values other religions and God's work in them? When we say, "Jesus is Saviour," does it mean a clear line is drawn between who is saved and who is not?

There are many ways to describe the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. Here are four approaches (listed alphabetically). You may find that no one approach fits your own understanding.

Exclusivist Approach

  • the only path to God and salvation is an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord
  • Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and humanity
  • God's revelation and saving work in the incarnate Christ possesses finality in determining the destiny of all creatures
  • this approach proclaims the importance of membership in the Christian community
  • this approach believes that evangelistic mission is vital
  • those who do not make an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ may be excluded from the love and ultimate purposes of God
  • texts such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are cited in support of this position.

Inclusivist Approach

  • the reconciliation of the world takes place uniquely through Jesus Christ
  • the saving work of Christ is essential for peace with God
  • there is room for the salvation of those who make no explicit profession of faith in Christ
  • grace is experienced and Christ is present wherever people experience the goodness of God’s creative love and redemptive mercy
  • Jesus Christ is the Wisdom/Word through which all things were made and through whom all things will be restored and perfected
  • the purpose of evangelistic mission is not so much to save as to enlighten
  • John 1:1-5 and Colossians 1:15-20 are cited in support of this position.

Pluralist Approach

  • there are many paths to God
  • there is no absolute "court of appeal" by which to evaluate the different paths
  • Jesus is the way for Christians, but not necessarily the path for all
  • no single religious tradition can speak with finality about God/spiritual truth/ultimate truth
  • our relationship with other faiths is to be one of respectful dialogue
  • co-operation with other faiths is for the sake of the common global good
  • Isaiah 55:8 and I Corinthians 13:12 are cited in support of this position.

Transformationist Approach

  • no single religion has a monopoly on truth
  • from its beginning, Christianity has been a constantly evolving expression of faith
  • respectful dialogue and mutual learning may lead to transformation for all participants
  • Christian faith may be transformed by such encounters in ways that we cannot imagine
  • Christians can expect to experience Christ in their encounter with people of other faiths
  • Mark 7: 24-30 and Acts 10:1-16 are cited in support of this position.

The four approaches above are not exhaustive. Participants may find themselves in agreement with some aspects of several of the approaches. You are encouraged not to be limited by these approaches, but to identify those aspects that fit with your understanding of Christian faith. To offer an example, the 1989 San Antonio Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) took a position that might be characterized as mid-way between the "Exclusivist" and "lnclusivist" approaches and which avoids final definition. The Conference said:

We cannot point to any other way to salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God... We are well aware that these convictions and the ministry of witness stand in tension with what we have affirmed about God being present in and at work in people of other faiths; we appreciate this tension; we do not attempt to resolve it.

The above is excerpted from Reconciling And Making New - Who Is Jesus Today? – published by the Committee on Theology and Faith, United Church of Canada, 1997. (The above section was originally entitled Working In Us And Others; it was changed by Paul McKenna for purposes of clarity.)


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