The encounter of religions “is today one of the most profound human problems.” – Raimundo Panikkar
Questions occur. Is religious faith so personal that only the individual deserves to express or scrutinize it? What will induce increased understanding of and respect among people who possess different religious faith loyalties?
This article presents primarily the introductory essay to my DMin thesis Dialogues to Foster Interreligius Understanding completed at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, 1997. Here faith means “the capacity to be open toward transcendence.” All religions point adherents toward something beyond themselves. Religious plurality is part of Divine wisdom; it depicts creation activity as truly “very good.” Plurality is here to stay; people decide whether to pursue good or evil outcomes through diversity.
“There will be peace on earth when there is peace among world religions” declared Hans Kung. In the search for Truth or God, people image and utilize myriad names and forms. Some express faith more than others through sight, ritual, words, or social action. Both tradition and current experience shape faith formation. Exposure to people and practices of other living faiths enhances a Christian’s openness to the One God. It strengthens faith for the follower of Jesus the Christ. Christians either claim, doubt, or deny interfaith study; relating augments personal faith. From experience, I wish to testify to how interfaith engagement has in the past and will continue to enlarge my own integrity and loyalty as a Christian. Engagement affects sensitivity, awareness or knowledge, and commitment.
The context for this paper is India. Although from the US, I have lived in India for varied amounts of time on seven occasions, the first from 1962-65. A spiritual and religious presence marks life in that region of the subcontinent. Among religious options, Hinduism predominates with three-fourths of the population. Although percentages vary through time; about eleven percent follow Islam and less than three percent choose Christianity. How the spiritual pervades varies too, depending on festivals or sites, on history or geography, on literacy or weather. The advent of a monsoon shower might prompt prayer of relief from drought as surely it follows the Muslim imam’s call from a minaret. Proximity to one of numerous sacred rivers, to temple or mosque, or to a figure called holy might lend itself to expressions of worship. To validate another’s right to recognize God or claim meaning in life gives a Christian space to affirm personal faith.
Religious plurality must be one of the Divine’s most creative and intentional expressions of Wisdom. Not to counter boredom, it reflects God’s richness. Not to prompt antagonism, it offers the gift of openness toward those who practice faith in unique ways. As Christians enact the rite of baptism or Hindus offer prasad (food), they honor each other’s sacred space. When a Parsi hostess invites a Christian woman to thank the One God for a meal that they are about to share, or when a Christian removes his shoes before entering a mosque, each suggests that religion is worthy. To respect another’s religious loyalty brings rapport to one’s own tradition in return.
Knowledge about each living faith helps people to be aware. To look at Christian faith through the lens of a Hindu worldview is not mine to do. Nor will I ever fully understand Hindu practice or philosophy. But I do intend to present content in ways that would have been useful to me, prior to first going to India in 1962, or that will benefit other Christians who engage with questions or opportunities of multi-faiths. Time periods have distinct foci. India was moving into its second decade of independence during the early 1960’s. Indian people needed time to examine the shackles of centuries of outside control and to determine authentic marks of Indian heritage. Hinduism, with its depth and breadth, its complexity, and its relation to other living faiths, formed part of the configuration.
In my twenties, my worldview grew by leaps when in India. My life had been sheltered by a small-town, rural community in Iowa. Not understanding them, I distanced myself from western1 “hippies” who milled around India’s cities or temple courtyards looking for meaning in life. Not intent to devalue anyone’s quest for meaning, this study continues my own journey to understand the One God. The further or deeper that journey goes, the more I rejoice in being freed from presuming to know the limits of how the Divine might Connect with or Direct2 people. The distinct faith pilgrimage of each person deserves respect.
I personally do not bypass controversial issues that appear on my journey; they gather around like a Kashmiri shawl. For the past number of decades, I have addressed feminist issues of justice, especially in the church, for women. Many voices now share the podium. Having taught Bible and Sexuality at the college level for sixteen years, I know how students need to be thrust into sorting out and naming their criteria for interpreting scripture. Some students respond with openness to the thrust while others resist new ideas or possibilities. Further, I celebrate, as I anticipate how Christian feminist insight spreads out like the wind, as the truth of Sophia/Wisdom/Spirit filters through theology during the next decades. [See – Wisdom/Sophia/Spirit.]
I frequently express a minority voice within the Mennonite church. For example, I endorse gay and lesbian Christians because of my basic understandings about God. I choose not to be separately ordained because I believe that in adult baptism Christians are convincingly ordained to our prime task—to tell God’s Good News of Inclusion. My calls for each church member to claim personal authority and then move toward authentic exchange of power between leaders and followers have been another point of difference. Personal openness is required whenever re-examining views of both the self and other.
So also with interreligious issues—openness toward them is far from automatic. For people whose theology does not allow options, change will always be difficult to achieve. But just because I do not expect to see revolutionary movement in Christian attitudes or actions toward people of other living faiths does not inhibit my approach or exploration. Others, particularly theologically trained Asians, do share my worldview or I share theirs. A new “how” of exchange presents itself for the coming century. For my remaining years, I feel Inspired to both learn and teach what will move people toward God’s profound Way of inclusion.
A personal confessional statement to make very clear the foundation which grounds the Christian speaker in dialogues seems appropriate. I choose to follow Jesus’ path or teaching about who God is and how to live with “the neighbor.” For me, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection point me toward the One God of the universe. I believe that the thrust of Jesus’ teaching calls believers to better know, trust, and worship the Divine Being who Created and Sustains all life. Jesus was therein God-centered; he invites followers to be God-centered. He also modeled for believers doing justice on the human level.
Although called Christian because of Jesus the Christ, my ultimate faith abides in God’s Be-ing. For me, God-ness includes human expression (Jesus, self, and neighbor) and Spirit (Sophia/Wisdom). My intent is neither to expand on the Trinity nor to debate Christology. Nor does it endorse universalism. Not declaring that all souls will find salvation in God’s grace, I claim Jesus Christ as my channel to salvation in God while remaining open to the possibility that God could choose to offer salvation through additional channels.
Idolatry enters Christian expression as surely as Hindu practice. Any replacement of God—human or divine—reflects idolatry. To presume something to be literal which is metaphor depicts idolatry. Also, Mennonite theologian Gordon D. Kaufman states: “The tendencies toward absoluteness and exclusivity in traditional Christian faith easily lead to a kind of idolatry that makes it difficult to take other faiths seriously in their own terms, . .”3Therefore, I wish to grant to God alone the responsibility to determine who among people on earth, throughout time, believe in Truth.
My goal for DMin work—Learning Units, Electives, and tasks to test competencies of Empowerment, Servanthood, and Collegiality—during the past three years has been: “Using feminist insight to foster openness among North American Mennonites to value and grow in understanding the interreligious reality of Hindu-Christian proximity in India.” My project thesis emerged then as “Dialogues to Foster Interreligious Understanding.”
Why my Interreligious Interest?
My mother often read about mission work; in turn, titles of her speeches to church groups in the ’40s (when I was a child and adolescent) included “Opportunities in China” and “Call from India.” Her brother and family were Mennonite missionaries in Dhamtari, located in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh. Mission leaders brought Indian national visitors to our home. I recall the special occasion in 1953 when my cousins returned to the States—including their slides of that distant land.
When a senior in college, a good friend Mary Jean (whose father was a missionary doctor in Dhamtari) and I agreed that someday we would meet over there. We did, four years later. By then, I had lived and taught in the Mussoorie hill station for a couple years. My interests had grown beyond exotic curiosity to reading about Hindu and Indian Islamic faiths. Sikh women were more than those who wore Punjabi outfits; their turbaned men were more than taxi drivers. Perhaps I valued their obvious distinctives because I had grown up a Mennonite of the group whose women wore a prayer veiling for worship.
In India, I daily heard the Muslim call to prayer. From the local minaret, the cry echoed across the valley. I distinguished the faith of shop keepers by their hats worn; initially, Hindu forehead markings confused me. When traveling, I slipped out of my shoes to enter temples. Ambivalent about entering others’ sacred space that I did not fully comprehend, I wished to both observe and respect how people connected with God.
I knew fear (for personal safety, not holy awe) when husband John and I found ourselves in a frenzied crowd at a temple’s festival in Puri. At such times, Christians had best stay near the coastal sea and enjoy the fresh shrimp bargained for dinner. When we visited Varanasi, I lacked background knowledge to evaluate fairly its “holy chaos,” although a Muslim guide sensitively presented that holiest Hindu city. The quiet of near-by stupas and the panorama of Buddha’s teaching appealed to me more. To stand under the type of bodh tree where Gautama received enlightenment profoundly touched me—but words fail to express just how. To tour the Ajunta Caves further taught of the era when Buddhism and the country’s leader, Ashoka, influenced Indian life.
Such encounters, while special, continued to provide only surface insight. I longed for explanations. I experienced God and wondered what God “meant” for those who worshiped in diverse ways. I read books by: Swami Prabhavananda, the Wisers, Lanczkowski, and Kraemer. But limits of time left others on the shelf: books by Renou and Sen, each titled Hinduism, one edited by Munshi and Diwakar, and Bernard’s Hindu Philosophy.4
Content in Blossoms in the Dust, by Kusum Nair, resonated with exposure during winter vacation months to rural, village India, hosted by missionaries. We walked by animist, mini poles leaned together in fields in Bihar. We shared in Christian foot-washing, observed true friendship between eastern and western people, joined the village folk for annual “Thanksgiving” events, heard the distinct tones of Christian singing, and enjoyed experiences with family units separated during boarding school months.
I sensed competition between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and wondered. While Hindu families or small village groups worshiped different forms of the Divine, competition did not seem to be a factor. I asked myself, ‘What confusion must arise for them when they note the splintered denominations of Christianity?’ While I valued Mennonite ideals of community and peace, a deeper yearning to savor and witness to Christian commonalities surfaced and grew. A need for ecumenical endeavor “took hold” of me; it has left me restless with particular loyalties ever since.
While in India from 1962-65, I heard very little of the combined Church of South India (CSI) or of what must have been debated as the CNI was being conceived. With energies totally immersed in Woodstock School activities, where I was teaching, thoughts remained dormant. Though puzzled by Christian fears of compromise, I expressed few questions of interreligious dialogue but valued ecumenical worship.
We first returned to India for the summer of 1967 under husband John’s National Science Foundation assignment. Significant features from being in Jabalpur revealed themselves, afterwards, if not fully while in process. We were with no other Christians, in the Institute program. We sought out the Methodists for Sunday morning worship. I had the luxury of simply absorbing more of India—the interplay of culture and religion.
Even then, I did not seek out people to help me understand what I observed or where my interreligious “trains of thought” traveled. Like original Mennonites from Europe in the sixteenth century, or most Mennonites in North America, and even more so in India, I remained, for the most part, in religious isolation. This posture occurred within a country pulsing with sacred symbols and activity.
Experience with Mennonites
My Mennonite heritage endorsed separation. Taught to separate church and state, we avoided the political realm, even denying how politically-energized church involvements were. Taught to be “the quiet in the land,” we primarily met with those like us—good ethical people, hard workers, and driven by the “Anabaptist Vision” that provided identity. My article of key features—”discipleship or following Jesus, a volunteer church separate from the world, and love and nonresistance in human relationships” appeared in 1994.5
Further expressions of isolation could be noted. In North America, Mennonites lived primarily in large, often rural Mennonite communities—Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Goshen, Indiana; Kalona, Iowa; Archbold or Kidron, Ohio; Kitchener, Ontario; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Fresno, California. Only in Kansas did the three larger groupings of Mennonites—Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite, and Mennonite Brethren—live in closer proximity. Even so, that each group has its own small college is a comment on separation. Mennonites did not join National Council of Churches, and certainly not World Council of Churches. That a veteran missionary George J. Lapp connected with the National Christian Council in India remains for readers to discover in his archival papers.
So, how was a lone, Mennonite western couple to make sense of the varied influences in Jabalpar, in central India in the summer of 1967? Married for six years, I did not have a child! With no concept of personal choice in that aspect of life, certain women pitied me. The city had a major military or cantonment section. Predictions weeks before targeted June 15 as the day the monsoon would arrive—and so it did. Weekly restaurant meals with Institute teaching staff found us returning repeatedly to topics of religion. As chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup, we seriously worked to meld points of understanding. One Hindu professor struggled to perceive my attempts to describe a personal relationship with God.
Mr. Ahmad, a staff member, gave me a gift at our last meeting: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored, even though content described a Christian’s shift of loyalty to the Muslim faith. For the first time, I experienced being evangelized by a person convinced of his “better way.” I needed to be neither defensive nor offended. I felt that God could receive and utilize both of us.
Two decades later, as a board member for eight years with Mennonnite Board of Missions, for five years chair of the Overseas Committee, I had a memorable experience that brought Mr. Ahmad to mind. We were looking ahead to the next five-year block of mission endeavor, overseas and “at home.” On seeing statistics, I commented:” In light of centers of population growth, it is remarkable that Christianity has continued to be the chosen faith of between thirty to thirty-three percent of the world. Further, God is likely vital to or interactive with people’s faith other than Christian.
That last sentence caused the chairman to call an executive session of the board “to assess whether Dorothy’s theology is compatible with being an MBM board member.” To have my belief in God’s breadth questioned had its impact. To observe that only one person affirmed my insight when in the executive session, while three others complimented my courage and view in private spoke volumes. I stayed on the board, but I vowed then to examine more fully the theology of God’s limits to or breadth of salvation.
Late in 1996, an incident reveals how the matter persists. Having been asked to write for two Mennonite journals about “Things Mennonites Can Learn from Christians in India,” I responded with details from Indian Christian writers. [Content is processed in my dialogue titled “Wisdom from the East: Interreligious Proximity.”] Learnings from Indian writers include: Each religion claims unique or distinct features. God has been at work among all religions. With God known to be the center of the religious universe, all faiths are free to respond.
Neither editor accepted the article. One said, “The article contains controversial concepts. This is particularly true that there are different approaches to God of equal value.” The other replied, “. . .it raises some thorny issues that should be addressed more completely by including different views on the uniqueness of the biblical revelation.” Neither response surprised me. Does the former intend to declare that different approaches to God in fact are true or that such a concept is too controversial and not to be endorsed? The second editor believes that discussion of one approach, without options, is to be avoided.
My goal with the article had been for North Americans simply to hear informed Indian Christians, to recognize that through proximity with other living faiths, their faith has integrity as expressed. But editors chose not to so expose their readers or to so credit the Asian thinkers. While the decision disappoints me, perhaps a forum context is to be preferred for content that requires personal and corporate scrutiny. Perhaps North American Mennonite leaders will counter Asian views that confront established, North American “sacred cows.” Perhaps to avoid controversy meets journalistic goals.
Several Mennonite leaders have written about religious plurality. Theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, recently retired from the Harvard Divinity School faculty, wrote the first chapter for Hick and Knitter’s The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. Another Mennonite6 describes Kaufman’s essay as: “thoroughly pluralist/relativist, not representative of Mennonite theology of course.” I differ with that judgment and value Kaufman’s asking Christians to admit that our perspective on life is one among other attempts to find an orientation for our historical situation. Since no faith “possesses absolute or final truth,” we need to exchange with others, being open to their perspectives rather than insist only on our “special truth-claims.”
Missiologist Wilbert R. Shenk states: If I am to respond faithfully as a Christian to people of other faiths, my starting point must be a Christology that clarifies and develops a mode of response that seeks to be faithful to the example and spirit of Jesus Christ. (correspondence) He notes John Howard Yoder’s essay, “But We Do See Jesus,” as a “most profound and original work.” [See Appendix B for a listing of Mennonite writings.]
Other Mennonites corresponded with me: One referred to the frustration caused for Paul Varghese (Mar Thoma bishop), when a student in the U.S. Varghese felt that a former missionary in India had “never learned to appreciate Indian spirituality and that he brought an imperialist mindset to his treatment of mission in India.” A second commented: “[In India] None of our missionaries were engaged in frontier thinking comparable to what was happening [elsewhere].” A third pondered: Now that we [Mennonites formerly persecuted for being different] are part of the dominant culture, wealthy, educated, it behooves us to ask what role God has in mind for people of other faiths. A fourth: In view of the growing recognition among Christians today [of salvation in other faiths] . . . Mennonites, like other Christians, need to ask what the right motive or true imperative is for the Christian world mission. A fifth counseled me: “Be cautious about sharing your findings, because many people without the background study you and I have done just get upset about ‘new ideas.'”
Features of Theory and Method that Shape My Process
Feminist thought inspires and directs my approach. avoid labels, being less of an evangelical feminist and more of a reformist, neither revolutionist or traditionalist. Because I find many biblical texts about women to be worthy of further study—to be “re-deemable”—I choose to re-form them. The task of interpreting entails de-constructing, before re-constructing, much of what I have inherited.
The feminist approach validates personal experience. But individuals or distinct groups cannot assume that their particular experience is also universal; the same principle shapes my approach toward multi-faiths. Feminists value difference. What each inherits or encounters or thinks important differs, sometimes radically, from another. But shifts in viewpoint or conviction do not require one to denounce all prior personal being.
I recently learned that an Indian Mennonite now studying in the U.S. reported that western missionaries “taught Christian converts to totally turn from their Hindu context.” My feminist principles would question such denunciation of either a person’s religious or cultural heritage. To comply with such requirement denies human connection. It could force a believer to invalidate the merit of universal Truth. It counters wholeness, whereas feminist thought equates wholeness with salvation.
I have lived in India six times, for varied lengths. I do not, therefore, comprehend Indian classical dance or poverty, as will an Indian friend. But I claim some sensitivity to the religious depth of the former and the debilitating impact of the latter. And I turn to Indian women who endorse a “spirituality of risk” in order to upgrade women’s public status and sense of private worth. Arshia Sattar wrote in a newspaper article: “Feminism is becoming a movement of inclusion rather than one of exclusion. It is this plurality, this blooming of a hundred flowers, that gives it its strength.”7
Feminists value our pluralist world. Inherent to feminist theory and women’s lived experience is difference. To hold plurality together suggests a profound unity. With multiple ways to build a house or dress for a concert or share the One God’s love, we value our own procedure while we learn from a neighbor’s pattern. Options and expressions expand. The same occurs with religion. To depend on one meaning for God-concept or salvation or sacred ritual often reflects human intent to control or limit God’s Wisdom. Feminism can be rich in contradiction and open to diversity.
To value the integrity of another’s religious belief system is a feminist and a human issue. Because the world “belongs to none of us and All of us,” there is no choice but to “respect and learn from people whose faith expressions are radically different from our own,” suggests Mary E. Hunt.8 Rosemarie Tong identifies feminist theory as “not one, but many.” An Asian Indian, on hearing that comment, might think first of the Hindu philosophical question of God—Is God One or Many? Since feminist thought refuses to stop changing, it expects to bear details of belief with some lightness. Similarly, ancient Israelites held diverse names or descriptors for God.
The approach to plurality shapes a person’s worldview. People who determine and promote absolutes often misunderstand the freedom of change. Absolute certitude on ethical issues fails to cope with ambiguity. People who are open to re-examine and re-vise or envision views receive content—seen, heard, or intuited as through sacred symbol—through a stance of anticipation. I value a comment from the multi-cultural collective that wrote God’s Fierce Whimsy: “Wherever people talk about God building in them and for them a greater capacity for connection, that’s scripture.” Tong concludes: “Apparently, not the truth but the truths are setting women free.”9
Just as earlier paragraphs revealed details of my personal and denominational heritage, so the past few have explained my feminist framework. Readers will discover inherent feminist method. Features of method include: participation, the authority of personal experience, plural views along with interdependence, and connection rather than dualism.
The term feminist has been cited in literature for a century. On returning from India thirty years ago, I heard Mennonite women counter Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; I resonated with its truth. The privilege is mine to now read feminist critique from the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Shifts in focus include new questions and data, a process to destroy negating content about women in order to create positive “proof,” and a method that validates gendered being.10
Another approach to method that I wish to note, albeit also too briefly, draws on Raimundo Panikkar’s thought as explained by David I. Krieger.11 Panikkar’s multi-steps begin with a faithful and critical understanding of one’s personal tradition. A similar understanding is required of another tradition, to the point that one’s understanding becomes conviction. Then an internal (intra) dialogue needs to take place between the two speakers’ convictions within the self before a person engages in dialogue (inter) with the adherent of the other tradition. Each dialogue partner takes this series of steps before both test their new interpretations.
Panikkar names three prerequisites for interreligious encounter: deep human honesty in the search, great intellectual openness (devoid of preconception or prejudice), and profound loyalty to one’s own tradition. On the surface, Christians might most easily meet the third criteria. Yet, loyalty has often countered openness or not validated another’s search as germane to personal honesty; therefore, such weakness detracts from being “profound.”
Krieger explains how interreligious understanding corresponds with a “founding event” in which something taken-for-granted gains a “new horizon.” This ‘event’ occurred for me during my DMin study of Asherah. Only after perceiving the importance of “Yahweh and his Asherah” for many ancient Israelites, did I address what I had taken for granted about the biblical Yahweh. My concept of Yahweh had concluded that Yahweh was in fact the One God. That idea was central to my view of monotheism.
To believe in a single God meant that my name for that God (YHWH/Yahweh) in fact identified the I AM, the One who Causes all to be. I had, at one level of understanding, already affirmed that to believe in monotheism meant that all people in essence believe in the same One. There can be but one of One, though different names or forms will express the One. But not until I more fully accepted the fact of the “Yahweh and his Asherah” pair was I freed to see that my concept of Yahweh was in fact a name for the Actual Concept or Being. As with the name Allah, Yahweh identifies that Other Being behind or surrounding or penetrating all that is—the ultimately Unnamable. That insight offered a “new horizon” to shape my multi-faith openness.
New horizons (beyond information) also accompany my intent to identify the universal God at the center of the religious universe, rather than the particular Jesus of the Christian faith. While Jesus the Christ remains the key Way for me to comprehend God-ness, I am free to grant God Wisdom to provide other channels for this world’s diverse people. Numerous Christians are to be thanked for confirming such Truth. David Scott, long-time resident and seminary professor in India and S. J. Samartha’s book, One Christ—Many Religions, have helped me to see that “Christocentrism without theocentrism leads to idolatry.” I join Samartha to confess that “the only way to be Christ-centred is to be God-centred, but in a religiously plural world to be Christ-centred is not the only way to be God-centred.12
Panikkar explains that to understand is “to be convinced” or to credit the truth of a statement. Convinced, I presume to understand better my own tradition and present stance, than I did before. In turn, to understand another religion means to have insight into its truth, sufficiently to turn toward it. For conversion to last, an integration of both traditions is then needed.
Without fear of losing faith, individuals dialogue. Panikkar contends that a quality of human existence for all people is that we are given faith—a capacity to be open toward transcendence. Openness for each person finds expression through “free will and questioning thought.” Not adherence to doctrine, faith opens us to “attain to what we are not yet.” Faith needs belief—expression or symbol—to convey itself. In the common search for the absolute, people then encounter each other. One person allows another person to understand his/her symbols, through analogy, as dialogue proceeds. Previous meanings are transformed or deepened; conviction then enhances religious or cultural understanding.
I invite readers to expect and look for signs of Panikkar’s steps within the dialogues of this project. Where does critical affirmation of one’s own tradition occur? How does genuine learning about another’s tradition lead to being convinced by it? Do you recognize when dialogue partners combine two traditions into a common language within themselves? Having met together, do they on occasion test their interpretations? Krieger draws from Panikkar by naming dialogue “a religious act par excellence.” It assists me to value relationship, to admit personal limits, and to “transcend myself, in order to save myself.”13
Procedural Details for Creating Interreligious Dialogues
The central methodology for this DMin project finds expression through dialogues that both inform and challenge. Hopefully, readers will see a theological framework for interreligious exchange. To draw readers into cross- cultural experience through real life conversations is a way to present content. People have differing opinions about the subject of or approach to dialogue between religions. Past encounters with that which differs—people, faith, or ideology—will affect how a person both listens and gives expression. My hope is to foster greater openness to that which people identify as sacred while strengthening personal faith.
Initially, my plan was to create meditations. I wished to bridge between notable strands of spirituality—the more contemplative and that which commits itself to action—in India. In the context of Asian economic poverty, a “spirituality of risk” proves to be essential. Millions of people are fully absorbed in survival tasks; others strive to bring about greater justice for all disadvantaged people. Jesus’ patterns take precedence for activist Christians.
Also expressive of spirituality, Indian ascetics remove themselves from Indian society in order to contemplate. Their goal is to find union with Ultimate Reality. Family connections are severed as vowed individuals depend totally on the good will of others to supply life’s basics. An alternate approach finds devotees giving considerable energy to devotional duties. With Lord Krishna often the focus of loyalty, participants go on extensive pilgrimage, write devotional poetry, fast regularly, or in other ways reflect a self-giving stance.
North American Mennonites who practice meditative disciplines focus mostly on prayer, scripture reading, and journaling. Few who practice restraints wonder daily if there will be food to eat. Prayer can be personal or intercessory. Symbols may or may not enhance the rituals enacted. Compared to experience in India, duration of meditation rarely leads to a person’s losing connection with present reality or to performing extraordinary feats. Scripture reading implies literacy and access to the Text. Journaling reflects a priority with time and a sense of Direction for personal thoughts.
As I prepared to write meditations, I needed to work through cultural distinctions. Themes of interreligious inquiry rarely surface in the private realm of meditation, I observed. Unless with a spiritual director, to exchange theology with others less naturally follows secluded endeavor. But active exchange is vital to religious plurality, I believe. I intuitively know that I long for a more activist feminist spirituality to invade meditative recesses.
I therefore read or re-discovered useful resources.14 I began to make lists of possible themes to cover in meditations. Items overlapped or grew with each listing. Which might effectively combine? What sequence would enhance them? Where might North American Mennonite interests dovetail with Indian Hindu complexity? The dilemma of length presented itself. Topics like purity and pollution, duality and non-duality, incarnation and reincarnation—all vital to Hindu-Christian exchange—needed space in which to be explained. A several-page meditation seemed too limiting.
My next delay, itself unexpected, came through the question, ‘How do I proceed?’ Not until I read a book titled Am I a Hindu? did I feel inspired. A collection of imagined conversations between a Hindu father and his son, the resource provided fairly elementary responses to issues of religious belief and practice. ‘That’s it,’ I thought. The style of exchange seemed authentic. The son asked worthy questions and the father graciously explained. To utilize the guru or master and disciple combination seemed natural from a land where patience with the mentor-mentee mode for learning is common.
After creating first drafts of several meditations, I found the Student to be as informed as the Teacher. A master-disciple duo seemed less understandable for North American readers. The same-ness of speakers affected vitality. My supervisor recognized the problem and suggested that I write dialogues. “Go and read Plato,” he said. I did. I also read dialogues on prayer, peace research, and other themes, and I imagined interreligious questions being posed. Patterns varied: two people responded to a lecture; one person imagined a conversation with a church leader dead for some years; one included letter excerpts from different friends of a character; some included three or four people in the conversation; one brought possible readers into the dialogue.
Vigor returned and a shift followed. I would write dialogues about Hindu-Christian issues using different voices. For some, by intent, the reader would not know if speakers were women or men. Considerable study and note- taking of a theme preceded writing. On other occasions, I had written a one-act play and several shorter segments of conversation from biblical stories for worship settings. Writing dialogues gave me the opportunity to be creative while teaching or sharing what I had learned. You have the results in hand.
People read early drafts. My supervisor read and commented on all of them. One friend who grew up and served as a missionary in India read most of them, graciously. A retired English professor read four and asked solid questions for clarity. Several Indians read particular dialogues, including the one of Hindu-Muslim conflict. To provide perspective from different ages, my mother read one and my daughter another.
I alone am accountable for content and form as it appears in my dialogues. Friends enhanced the readability or invited me to reconsider points. Had any other person with experience in India written a dozen dialogues, viewpoint, purpose, details, and theme choices would be quite different. I had to be satisfied with fewer end products because they all became longer than anticipated. Hopefully, more dialogues from my lists of possible themes will be born.
So, why create dialogues? I believe that they can serve as an effective teaching tool. Dialogues, or key excerpts from them, might stimulate group discussions in academic or congregation settings. They provide information and portray an approach that combines listening with faith expression. They might be used in workshops to introduce North American Christians to interacting with neighbors of different living faiths. To any degree that they prompt readers to re-examine personal faith issues and worldview, dialogues foster understanding.
A report of responses from those who went to India for the Mennonite World Conference in Calcutta, January 1997, and who read the shortened booklet with eight dialogues, will follow in the Evaluation section.
Who Might Benefit from this DMin Project?
My hope is that anyone who has genuine concern for interreligious encounter may benefit. Those include varied North American groups or individuals: Christians who find themselves in non-western cultures, denominational mission agency staff or personnel, seminary staff who teach in the area of missions, Christian college staff who teach in the area of world religions or who send students into cross-cultural settings. Congregations which connect directly with global settings where religions co-exist or church members who relate to neighbors of other living faiths will also benefit.
Indian Christians might benefit to a degree. Whereas my intent has been to learn primarily from those who have written directly out of experience with multi-faiths in India, I realize that other Indian Christians have neglected, or been discouraged from, serious dialogue. They might have been taught to negate their Hindu heritage. I would hope that dialogues here offer useful insight.
In addition to those more directly linked with interreligious, global settings, I would hope that North American Christians more generally would benefit from this project. Increasing numbers of Hindus and adherents of other living faiths are locating in North America. How Christians here receive them, including how they/we witness to Christian Truth, while also learning from their distinct religions, will determine how the biblical principle of “loving the neighbor as yourself” is lived out.
Therefore, I particularly offer this project to other seminary students. We share a discipline of study and learning. We care about how ministry takes place, broadly and in specific instances. We are, in some ways, to be accountable for how we influence church members to mature in faith. We have the opportunity to mentor others: to avoid bearing false witness, including toward people of other living faiths; to share God’s love as we receive those who differ from us; to present the human, radical Jesus with integrity as he consistently taught and lived God-centered being.
Who will benefit from this project depends in part on the cross-cultural and interreligious exposure of those who read it. While experience in non-western settings could prepare a reader for this content, no such background is required. Much depends on the worldview of readers—worldview can be broadly based from a posture of respect for difference and commonality in settings far or near. It can also be narrow even after a person has had multi-cultural encounters.
Benefits depend also on how Christian readers approach issues of theology or scripture—interpretation, Truth, the One God, and Jesus the Christ. If a reader welcomes new horizons, dialogues provide that. If a person’s posture toward a spectrum of options tends to be defensive or definitive, content might stretch the discomfort level. What I have portrayed reflects either what I genuinely believe or where my questions linger.
This project does indeed emerge in an integral way from my learnings as a DMin student. Readers are encouraged to read Appendix C – Questions for Consideration during the DMin Study Process.” Early in the program I created a list of study questions. To that listing I returned repeatedly, to check whether learning was taking place or to re-phrase questions in light of my work. I could respond to specific items, but I would also value knowing from readers if they perceive from dialogues where I might have lodged particular questions or responses.
In addition to solid interest in and validation of openness to interreligious learning, the project dialogues have offered me a fine channel for being creative through a medium that invites engagement and response. They expect readers to choose to re-examine, re-vision, and re-claim personal views. They provide information, much of which indicates my learning, from direct experience or resources. I am pleased that dialogues offer a platform for Indian Christian writers’ views. Those who wish to could always identify Indians with different perspectives. I am willing to own my bias and the reasons for it, toward those cited.
This project fosters inquiry and critical reflection. Ideas are in process. None of us has final answers. Interreligious questions shift from one decade or generation to another. People of the twenty-first century can, if we have carefully observed, avoid mistakes made in the past, regarding people of living faiths. New horizons lie before us, for sensitive, honest, trustworthy exchange amidst the religious plurality that is here to stay.
As a guiding principle for relating to differences in multiple contexts, I recommend a notable hymn: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” And I conclude with counsel from Gordon Kaufman: “Only as we find ways of stepping back from. features of our traditions (both religious and secular) that wall us off from others, can we hope to come into genuine understanding of and community with them. Building such community with others, it seems to me, is the most profound religious necessity of our time.15