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 Global Perspective

July 16, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 16

Global Perspective
Fr. Francis Gonsalves is Jesuit in the Gujarat Province, India. He lectures in systematic theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, and has published many articles on theology, spirituality and social justice issues.



The greatest obstacle to interreligious dialogue is religious conditioning which does not allow one to see beyond what is taught by the religious hierarchy.

Pruning pride and prejudice: Dialogue in India

By Francis Gonsalves, S.J.

The Church in Asia has been a trailblazer in interreligious dialogue. However, Indian religious, laity and clergy whose work involves interreligious dialogue say stagnancy has swamped Church efforts to effectively encounter other religions.

In India, some say we have not progressed beyond the "institutional model" or "ashram/dialogue center model" of dialogue. The people of India expect more. And they want more.

The period after Vatican II, roughly 1967 to 1987, was a golden era of dialogue with a proliferation of kaleidoscopic forms of worship, ashrams and dialogue centers, and saffron swamis chanting naamjaps laced with om incantations. Raimundo Panikkar and Jesuit Tony de Mello were revered gurus of the time.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a retreat from this openness. The global good feelings from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany disintegrated into tribal genocide in Africa, civil wars in the Balkans and intractable conflicts in the Middle East. The assertion of particular identities based on clan, creed, culture and caste stalled the much-anticipated globalization.

India at this time saw growing religious fanaticism, which climaxed in violence against Christians (1998 and thereafter) and the anti-Muslim "Gujarat Genocide of 2002." This is the climate in which the Church mission of dialogue has stalled.

How can we restart our efforts? A meeting of religious, laity and clergy convened by the South Asian Jesuit provincial coordinators in Bangalore came up with at least three points:

To work, dialogue must include justice.
Jesuits have been active in dialogue, inspired by the mandate of the 34th Jesuit General Congregation held in Rome in 1995, which was the first time that Jesuits in Asia and Africa were conspicuous by their numeric presence and participation, to foster a four-fold dialogue: of life, action, religious experience, and theological exchange.

This mandate has pushed younger, restive Jesuits into many interfaith initiatives involving human rights. For example, Jesuit Antony Raj works with dalit panos (former untouchables) and adivasi kondhos (tribals) in central Orissa state.

In this dialogue one finds that great injustices have been done in the name of religion. Therefore, those who would seek to dialogue must work to correct these injustices.

This can be difficult. Cedric Prakash, director of Prashant, the Jesuit Center of Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Gujarat asks, "Can we dialogue with the Hindutva (Hindu right wing) hierarchy while their cohorts are murdering and raping Muslims?" Prakash stressed that "justice must be an integral part of dialogue."

To move forward, dialogue must incorporate a political dimension
Because in India, today, there are many religious fundamentalist groups, including the ruling political party, the BJP, who drag religion into every political and social debate. For this reason, Jesuit Vincent Sekhar, the main convener of the meeting, believes that the church must "incorporate a political dimension" into dialogue.

An example is the so-called "Freedom of Religions Bill," which actually curbs freedom since people have to obtain the approval of government authorities for changing their religion. The state governments of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have already approved the bill to harass religious minorities.

The Indian Church, especially the hierarchy, is naive and does not understand the complexity of such issues well enough to respond adequately. Hence, we must become politically more astute and active.

To be effective, dialogue must cut institutional binders.
Feminist theologian Dr. Astrid Lobo and her Hindu husband, Dr. Kalpesh Gajiwala of Mumbai point out that "the greatest obstacle to interreligious dialogue is religious conditioning which does not allow one to see beyond what is taught by the religious hierarchy."

"People are afraid to think for themselves, to trust their own God-experiences, to define their own perception of Truth," they added.

Cheriyan Alexander, professor of English at St. Joseph's College, Bangalore, notes an institutional hesitancy. Alexander, a member of the ancient Mar Thoma Church of Kerala said, "While my church professedly promotes ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, there are many conservatives who consider it a compromise of the central Christian doctrines regarding salvation."

Sebastian Paindath, a Jesuit theologian, hopes to see the church change its language. "The Indian psyche resonates with mystical and exploratory language," he said, but "Our theological language is too dogmatic, not exploratory, too conceptual, not mystical, too analytical, not symbolic."

Bananas in Liturgy
Our meeting in Bangalore showed how much we have progressed in religious dialogue, but it also showed how far we have to go. At the meeting, Jesuit theologian Michael Amaladoss stressed the need for a deeper understanding of dialogue and the openness to encounter the other(s) unconditionally. We all agreed. But something strange happened.

I was surprised when we had a Eucharist on the very first morning of the meeting. We invited all the participants for the Eucharist. We spoke about all of us being brothers and sisters of one united India. Then at the offertory, the participants offered up the bread and wine, together with a plate of bananas. At communion, the sacred species and the plate of bananas were passed around. Catholics, obviously, consumed the host and wine. But, the people of other faiths were made to feel part of the "eating bit" by giving each a banana!

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