Multifaith Musing:
Essays and Exchanges, 2010

Book foreword by Paul F, Knitter (vi-viii) and Introduction by Dorothy Yoder Nyce (1-6)


In this collection of essays, Dorothy Yoder Nyce – my friend, student, and fellow searcher – illustrates and embodies a truth that has been dawning on, and calling for reform of, the mainline Christian churches (even many of the evangelical churches) for the last half century: as the Asian Catholic Bishops have put it: “Dialogue is the new way of being church.”

Pentecost, which might be called “the big bang” that launched the ecclesia, will continue rippling through the ecclesial universe of the second millennium mainly through the energy of dialogue. In order for the community of Jesus-followers to be faithful disciples in our present world they need to understand “Christian” to mean “dialogical.” To continue being the church of Jesus Christ, we will have to be the dialogical church of Jesus Christ.

Because of her own life experiences, because of the demands of her own Mennonite Christian faith, because of the friends she has made in other religions, Dorothy Yoder Nyce has felt and responded to this call to live the Gospel in a lived engagement with persons of other faiths. As I read through the essays in this collection – both the more scholarly reflections as well as the living dialogical conversations that she records and imagines – I heard her giving expression to two primary reasons why interreligious dialogue has become for her, as it has for a growing number of Christians, a moral imperative. The world which the church is called to serve, challenge, and transform is a world in dire need of dialogue for two daunting reasons: it is a pluralistic world, and it is a violent world.

A Pluralistic World

Pluralism – the vast variety of peoples, cultures, religions – has, of course, always colored the fabric of human history. But today, mainly because of the push-button speed of communication and travel, those differing colors have become all the more evident. In fact, for many people, these colors have become bewildering or blinding. This is especially true of the multiple colors of religions. Religious pluralism – the abundant, persistent, exuberant diversity of religions – is confronting, often perplexing, Christians as never before. The shapes and colors and even smells of other religions are no longer on the other side of the world. They often emerge from the house next door! In her broadly acclaimed book, Diana L. Eck gives convincing data that there is A New Religious America (the title), and she describes “How a ‘Christian Country’ Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation” (the subtitle) (Harper San Francisco 2001).

The manyness of religions, therefore, isn’t going to go away. It seems that religious pluralism is “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” If that’s the case, the simple, immediate conclusion is that Christians have to learn to co-exist, to live with and be good neighbors to people who are Buddhists, and Hindus, and Muslims, etc. But, as Yoder Nyce makes clear in this book, being good neighbors to each other means more than tolerance, more than just accepting the pluralistic state of affairs. Rather, it means learning about each other, appreciating and valuing each other. Pluralistic co-existence – that is, really living and thriving together as different religions – requires dialogue.

A Violent World

But co-existing and getting to know and value each other are not enough. Because our world is not just a pluralistic world but a violent world, we have to do more together. I’m talking mainly (but not only) about the violence that erupts from the barrel of a gun, the impact of a missile, the explosion of an airplane crashing into a building. I’m talking about military or terroristic violence. The dreams of a new age of peace after the fall of the Soviet Union have turned, it seems, into nightmares. Besides the multiple, rampaging conflicts of ethnic and/or religious groups, the world is witnessing what some call the “clash of civilizations” – a clash fueled by the terrorism of scattered movements pitted against the military might of world powers. As we have seen since 9/11, religion – in this case, both Islam and Christianity – is so easily used to fuel such violence.

But if such “use” of religion for violence is, as is generally said, a “misuse,” then the religions of the world will need to do something to prevent that misuse. And they’re going to have to do it together. So, besides co-existence, we also need cooperation among the religious traditions of the world. As Yoder Nyce makes clear in her final essay, people of all religions must come together and act together and so prove that religions can be a much more powerful tool of peace than they are a weapon of war. But such cooperation can be realized only through dialogue. The well-known dictum of Hans Küng, therefore, rings true: “There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions. And there will be no peace among religions without dialogue among them.”

What Is Dialogue?

But just what do we mean by dialogue? The answer to that question is embodied in the examples of interreligious conversations that are “transcribed” in many of the essays that follow. Playing my role as an academic, I would distill from these essays the following definition of dialogue: it is a relationship between differing parties in which all parties both speak their minds and open their minds to each other, in the hope that through this engagement all parties will grow in truth and well-being. Dialogue therefore is always a two-way street that can lead all who travel it to greater understanding and cooperation. All participants in a dialogical encounter have to be ready both to listen and to speak, to teach and be taught. A true dialogue is always both a “give and take” – one gives witness to what one holds to be true and at the same time accepts the witness of what the other holds true and dear. Everyone seeks to convince and is ready to be convinced. And if in the dialogue I come to see and feel the truth of your position, then I must also be ready to clarify, correct, even change, my views. Dialogue is always exciting; it can also be threatening. For many of its readers, this book will be both exciting and threatening.

Christian = Dialogical

So as the Christian church makes its way into the second millennium, this understanding and challenge of dialogue can help Christians to grasp and practice what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. In a sense, the moral imperative of dialogue is calling all Christians to be “catholic” – not Roman Catholic, but truly catholic. “Catholic” means “universal” – embracing of, open to, sent into the whole world with its many peoples and cultures and religions. But for most of church history, this universal quality of the Christian community has been viewed as a one-way street. We bring the saving message to them; we give, they receive.

But “catholic” understood as “dialogue” means that the relationship between the church and other cultures and religions must be two-ways. If the church is to grow and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus, it must not only deliver the Good News but also be open to whatever Good News God may be providing through other religious traditions. Not only by “teaching all nations” but also by learning from all nations can the church cooperate with other religions in the work of overcoming violence and bringing justice to the poor of our planet – and to our poor planet suffering from environmental devastation. To call themselves Christian means that the community of Jesus’ followers needs others – people and religions who are really different. Only through a dialogical relationship with others can the church understand and be faithful to the message of Jesus.

Dialogue is indeed a meaningful, challenging “new way of being church.” This is what Dorothy Yoder Nyce makes so clear, compelling, and exciting in this book. I expect that it will enable many others to share the excitement of this new way of being church, which is a new way of being human.

Paul F. Knitter
Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture
Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY


Questions matter. Might religious plurality be vital to the Creator’s Wisdom? Does the context (culture) in which one lives determine religious truth for a person? With elements such as light, beauty, and water being key features of religions, might they also contribute creatively to resolving conflicts between living faiths? Do you learn from what you imagine? Does support for or loyalty to one religious tradition ever justify passing judgment on a person for whom another tradition gives deep meaning? Might detailed knowledge of goddess worship among Hindu people—stories, linkage, rituals—be useful for non-Hindus, similar to how students of diverse faiths who attend Christian schools might be required to take a Bible course? To what extent does knowing people of different religions require living with them for several years? If faith traditions provide sense of purpose, enable the practice of moral principles, and grant wisdom and joy, why would members of one not wish to be informed about or deeply respect traditions of others? Is scripture essential to personal faith or right living? What prompts a person to pursue a given, religious course?

On starting to write this piece, the phone rang. A friend from India, visiting his son in Texas, greeted, “Hello, Dorothy; this is Pawate!” Our friendship, as staff members together at a south Indian international school, had emerged in part through his and his wife’s being Hindu. Earlier that day, an e-mail message reported the death of a Hindu friend’s son-in-law; she deserves due care. A couple of hours later, a Hindu friend from Nepal passed our house, her second-grade son pedaling his bike. Two weeks earlier, we attended a Hindu wedding in Virginia, staying the nights with a young Hindu couple who invited us to join the blessing ritual with a priest for their new home—our Sunday worship. A week before that, we were invited for a curry meal with a local Hindu family, here from Bangladesh. And recently, a special Sikh friend never responded following lung transplant surgery. She was honored through sacred acts of love that we shared at the hospital, gurdwara, and crematorium. How enriched friendships and musings can be when marked by religions.

This book addresses how people might receive or learn from people loyal to diverse living faiths. Such openness complements being faithful to and growing in personal faith. It credits Divine design for diverse living faiths. As a Hindu friend expresses dependence on God, I affirm without comparing personal reliance on Mystery. As Sikhs or Muslims embrace their scriptures with high regard, I honor biblical truth with respect, not claiming it as better than theirs. Seeing even modest celebration for the Hindu holiday Holi, I may question the somber quality of Christian thought about Advent. As a person loyal to another living faith claims its wisdom, I need not apologize for or deny Sophia’s strength. Exchange makes possible reciprocal learning and personal growth in belief.

The first dialogue in this book encourages a person to both expect and credit Wisdom from diverse religions, to avoid limiting the Universal Being or Creativity. Principles recur: difference is good; strengths flow from plural faiths; self-exploration is part of the interfaith process. Water, vital to multi-faiths, illustrates the symbolic. It prompts finding the sacred in the common and finding common meaning between religions. The sacred in sound, movement and story reinforces how culture and religion ever overlap. While anyone might misunderstand another person, religious tradition or ritual, exchange enables respect toward that other or otherness. The art form of temples engages Mystery; walking with and finding the Divine in beauty crosses cultures.

Several dialogues examine scripture—Christian and Hindu. Only time and space keep the author from exploring Sikh devotion to their text, the Guru Granth Sahib—honored as the present Guru. Whereas Jews, Christians, and Muslims may be called “People of the Book,” the quantity of religious texts within Hinduism far exceeds that among those three. Exchange on scriptures involves loyal speakers familiar with their texts. In one setting, partners nudge each other in personal study, while the other exchange finds “insiders” teaching a group of “outsiders.” God’s universal being matters for Christians. The difference between ancient procedures for worship and epics inspire or teach today’s faithful Hindus. Knowing another religion’s texts requires disciplined study.

A change of format marks the dialogue titled “Splitting Differences.” Seven characters discuss themes of religion in a one-act play. While content portrays more Hindu and Muslim conflict in India, the link with politics remains near the surface. Sacred rituals, ignorance about others, fear, the tie between memory and revenge, and examples of honesty yet restraint appear. Peace-building efforts apply more broadly; food bridges difference.

Two dialogues highlight the female god/ess image. While most readers expect the goddess of varied forms and names within Hindu mythology, Jews and Christians less likely attend to “Yahweh and his Asherah.” Intent to process information and layered story-telling, readers find response to the figure(s) through history to differ markedly. That fact can be valued without denying ancient religious heritage. Whether to name women and identity as a cultural or religious issue might surface for some readers. The value of a steadfast form to meet fears, of shakti (power/energy/Spirit) to enrich being, enters sacred thought—depending on who speaks. People of faith might ponder occasions to gather or celebrate, in light of these exchanges. Distinct concepts of Divine Mystery—God of Relationship, Ultimate Being, or Multiple yet One—furthers respect without judgment. For, “religious plurality must be part of the Creator’s Wisdom.”

Essays offer a style to complement exchange. Chapter nine, focused on how personal experience enlarges vision, might even be read as a Preface. Versions of chapters three and twelve were first presented at New Perspectives on Faith meetings in Goshen, Indiana. That organization’s mission: “to foster inter-congregational, inter-denominational, and inter-faith conversations that contribute to new perspectives on faith for a new millennium,” is distinct for a small town. It reflects both a need and growing desire. Max Mueller’s observation: “To know one (religion) is to know none” reflects on the (Christian) need to be informed about and value sacred meanings and traditions of other living faiths, for its own strength and survival. The paradox of world religions—that both cause conflict and promote peace-building—appears through brief examples. Problems of fundamentalism, scripture that inflicts personal or group pain, and ‘just war’ issues might be met by nonviolence (ahimsa in its broad, Hindu sense), social activism of Engaged Buddhism, or hospitality. Individuals like Thomas Merton, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim healer named Amma, and Thich Nhat Hanh model peace-building.

In addition to major essays, this book includes a distinct format—imagined, informed, and interreligious dialogues. Dialogue suggests that more than one person contributes. “Imagined” alerts readers to the fact that examples of exchange are ‘creations,’ not a reporting of actual conversation. “Informed” indicates that content builds on disciplined study and personal experience, even when imagined. “Interreligious” means that views or practice of more than one religion or ecumenical group receive attention and shape content.

Religious dialogue has multiple formats, as do prayer or study of scripture. While some dialogue takes place within a person—in response to insight read or heard—most is external and expressed between two or more people. Exchange may follow study of another’s culture, observance of sacred ritual, or response to emerging questions. When people of diverse religions meet common problems through social service agencies, such action also reflects dialogue. Being willing to share beliefs, not intent to debate them, is central to dialogue. Based in self-respect, exchange expects to take risks of disclosure and openness. A process between people, dialogue shapes relationship. A spirit or attitude toward another evolves whether of goodwill, trust, suspicion, or contrast.

Imagined exchange can express friendship. It cannot achieve what face-to-face encounter might, but it encourages readers to practice direct dialogue. It validates being informed in addition to having opinion. It reveals serious learning through careful listening and honest expression. It claims the integrity of one’s own and another’s belief. And, hopefully, it motivates mutual action—to address injustice or ill will or to extend friendship. Built on knowledge yet informal, what follows reflects how exchange might proceed. Informed exchange offers a creative outlet, like storytelling, for serious process and worthy content. Information helps partners to overcome ignorance and stereotypes. It counters arrogance of spirit. Being informed of another’s point of view follows intentional listening and deep hearing.

Used interchangeably in different settings, the terms interreligious and ecumenical can refer to distinct groupings. The former more often designates world religions while the latter refers to categories like Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant or distinct denominations within the latter. Dialogues within this resource highlight both broad categories. Exchange may imagine Hindu and Christian speakers, two Hindus, or two Protestants depending on the theme. A one-act play finds several Hindu and Muslim college students in conversation. Diversity inherent within religious groupings is natural. What people of faiths hold in common can enable understanding. Difference is also good, part of Divine Wisdom. As ‘hybrid’ people—ever connecting and overlapping in new ways—individuals engage distinct others, without negative “othering.” Learning from difference strengthens personal commitment.

Each person’s present has a past and future. My religious heritage of Protestant Mennonite within Christianity holds. My living in and returning to India multiple times since 1962 has convinced me of Divine Wisdom inherent within diverse faith traditions and ways of being religious. Friendships developed over forty years and mentors—in person or through writing—teach truth, formal and informal. Being part of a minority, radical Protestant view instills a justice flavor into identity. Sustained exposure to Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh thought through loyal adherents can counter ignorance and arrogance. Further, intra-Christian worship and interreligious exchange convince me of the richness of distinct conviction and loyalty within breadth. No single belief system or practice of corporate praise of the Divine satisfies or expresses wholeness. Max Mueller’s axiom, “To know one religion is to know none” holds true. As religious folk assess personal faith claims or grow in openness to truth from others, they discover loyalty expressed in new ways for future being.

However, fears can emerge. Fear of openness may reveal lack of experience with truly hearing others. Or, it might reflect being insulated from exposure to difference. Fear of ignorance might cause one to hesitate welcoming another. Fear of difference defines xenophobia. Such fear might prompt disdain for those who differ. Fear also occurs with change. To change one’s view of another, when an earlier perspective proves to be wrong, requires effort. To admit the wrong reflects courage. To endorse rather than negate the other affects self-perception too. Fear of conflict, within or beyond the self, can also recur with dialogue. But on seeing difference as strength, partners lessen conflict; each absorbs new insight into personal belief, reducing fear.

Who participates in sacred exchange shapes dialogue here—youth or adult, women or men, being from India, Canada, or the United States. While principles of exchange apply elsewhere, my global experience, and therefore dialogue, centers in India. Its rich religious diversity invites. Being a small minority may enable some Indian and South Asian Christians to honor religious difference, to avoid judgmental absolute claims. However, dialogues here intend to inform partners and shape attitudes, rather than reconcile conflict already active. Academic interest, age, location and extent to which speakers know each other also affect exchange. When more than two people interact, the arts of listening and sharing broaden.

Many voices write about exchange. Paul Knitter names four essential ingredients of dialogue: difference, trust, witnessing, and learning. Aware that “all truth is limited” and that “God is bigger than any religion,” Knitter suggests three reasons to dialogue: because we are neighbors, because we need to solve common problems; because peace among nations will only follow peace among religions.1 While Beverly Lanzetta describes dialogue as “intensely communal,” Ross Reat finds it when reading, pondering, and humbly crediting other religions. Raimon Panikkar notes multi-steps for dialogue: from a faithful, critical understanding of both one’s own and another’s tradition (on-going and new conviction) to internal and then external dialogue, one tests interpretations in the process.

Religious plurality must be part of the Creator’s Wisdom. It reflects God’s richness. It offers strengths of loyalty and openness to those who practice faith in unique ways. As Christians enact the rite of baptism or Hindus offer prasad (food) during worship, they honor sacred rites. As increasing numbers of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist faithful relocate in the west, how Christians and others receive them activates the universal guideline: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Diana Eck, having lived in India seven years and extensively researched America’s present, diverse religious scene, states, “To attempt to understand the religious viewpoint of someone of another faith is one of the greatest challenges of the human mind and heart, as is the challenge to be understood by the other.”2 As readers engage with themes of sacred traditions, conflict, scriptures, concepts of Divinity, and sources of Wisdom, honest sharing of what gives life meaning grows.