By Eduardo Faleiro
The last three decades have witnessed unprecedented conflict within and among nations, and religion has often been misused and invoked to justify sectarian strife. The United Nations which was created “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” sees interfaith dialogue and cooperation as an important step toward global harmony.
The United Nations Summit on Religions convened in the Millennium Year felt that all religions offer helpful means to advance the cause of justice, reconciliation and peace, though, at times, religion has also been used to fuel hatred and armed conflicts.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted in 2007 a resolution on “Promotion of Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace.” The resolution emphasizes the importance of promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among people in all their diversity of religion and belief and calls upon the Secretary General to bring the promotion of interfaith dialogue to the attention of all governments.
The Asian Synod was held in 1998. At the Synod, the Asian bishops and the Roman Curia discussed for the first time, what it means to be Church in Asia. During the deliberations, they called for a radical decentralization of the Roman Catholic Church. “If the Asian churches do not discover their own identity they will have no future” was the running theme. The Synod manifested fundamental differences between the Asian theologians and the Vatican. Most of the bishops called for a dialogue with other religions, with the cultures of Asia and with the poor.
Christian theologians in Asia make a positive contribution to the culture of peace. The Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences is one voice of the Asian Christians. Its pronouncements go beyond, and often stand at odds with, what we hear from the Vatican and from mainstream Catholic theologians. The FABC as well as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India stress interreligious dialogue, local decision making and inculturation. “The motivation to engage in (interreligious) dialogue,” says the FABC, “comes about as a result of a whole new way of thinking, seeing and reflecting upon the world and its meaning. A prerequisite for dialogue is that the partners come with an open mind which appreciates differences and pluralism. All forms of exclusiveness have to be shed. Implicit, therefore, is an end to exclusivist and triumphalistic attitudes, the sense of superiority and “chosenness” and the notion that one’s own religion is the one and only which deserves absolute and formal status.”
The FABC articulates its theological vision thus, “Asia is the womb of the great world religions. All great scriptural religions were born on Asian soil. The Church has to be in constant dialogue with the religions of Asia and to embark on this with great seriousness… There may be more truth about God and life than it is made known to us through the Jesus of history and the Church.”
Michael Amaladoss, director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions at Chennai, observes: “Many traditional doctrines of the church are being questioned by Asian theologians. For some Europeans this is threatening … In the liturgy, except for a few adaptations, we are not free to pray as Indians or Asians. Our prayers are translations. I do not see any theological or spiritual principle for this. In India, most Christians live the popular religion and live as Indians in their ordinary way of life. But when it comes to official liturgy, we suddenly become non-Indian or non- Asian.”
He adds, ‘Not only in Asia but also in Europe, the church is unwilling to adapt to the new circumstances.” In reply to a question as to whether the Asian church is too dependent on Western churches, Amaladoss says: “To some extent the dependence is imposed from outside. Finance from abroad has led to a state in which it is said that the church as people is poor but it is rich with institutions. We should live within our means. If the Asian churches were less dependent on the Western church financially and culturally they would be free.”
Inculturation is the process by which a religion becomes inserted into the local culture. During the first decades, Christianity was a Jewish sect, it then spread to parts of West Asia and adopted that cultural milieu. When Christianity reached Europe, it accepted the Greco-Roman culture prevailing there and with the Reformation, the Protestant denominations assumed the cultural elements of the different European nations. However, when Christianity was imposed on colonized peoples it maintained the Western garb and promoted the culture of the colonial powers. Kuncheria Pathil, former president of Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, says: “The Indian churches should seriously think together about rediscovering once again the authentic spirit of inculturation and make the church both authentically Indian and genuinely Christian.”
Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram at Bangalore is one of the several Catholic seminaries which emphasize the Indian and Eastern cultural, spiritual and philosophical heritage. Dharmaram has also a Center for the Study of World Religions which promotes interreligious dialogue in the context of India’s religious pluralism. Such institutions do make a significant contribution to unity in spirituality and could be emulated by similar organizations of all the diverse religious traditions in the country.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)