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Of Friendship, Tea and Dialogue by Philosopher and Priest, Dr Ivo Coelho. Written exclusively for and first published in Live Encounters Magazine
When I was younger, perhaps in the years when I was just beginning to read philosophy, I found myself extremely open to all religions, and interreligious dialogue rather easy. We were introduced to Hinduism and in a lesser way to Buddhism by people of the calibre of Fr Richard De Smet, SJ and Sr Sara Grant, RSCJ, which is why it would not be entirely wrong to say that the first religion I really reflected on was Hinduism, at least in its Advaitic incarnation. As for the Buddha, I have, I think, always found him a fascinating figure: in many ways, the Buddha remains the dream of the intellectual type of person.
Things became complicated when I began to get deeper into the religion into which I was born. That was another adventure in itself, and anything I write will probably be a simplification, but this much I can say: from Raimundo Panikkar I picked up the idea that the only way to get out of a religion is either to sink into its depths or rise to its heights. In other words, you cannot really judge a religion unless you have first experienced it, lived it profoundly. So I decided to allow myself to sink into the depths of Catholic Christianity. That kind of process, of course, is not one that has a clearly marked terminal point, so I guess it is still going on for me. But I know that taking my own religion seriously made the understanding of other religions and interreligious dialogue that much more difficult.
So where do I stand at this point?
I believe I have an enormous respect for the religions of the world, though I am not equally familiar with all of them.
I believe also that dialogue cannot take place by first cutting away everything that bothers or seems like an obstacle. I believe deeply, I hope, in Jesus called the Christ with the faith of the Catholic Church, and I know this puts me in difficulty in different ways with different religions. For both my Jewish and my Muslim brothers and sisters, Jesus as professed in the Creed is quite impossible to accept. And my Hindu and Buddhist brothers and sisters will have problems from another angle, for are we not making too much of history and of the word, and should we not instead transcend the whole sphere of the vyavaharika, the everyday, in favour of that which is beyond, the ultimate, the absolute, the paramarthika? So there are difficulties, major ones. But my point is that dialogue cannot and does not proceed by first putting aside everything that seems to be an obstacle. If it were to do that, there would be precious little left to dialogue about.
So how then might we proceed?
I am convinced, first of all, of the importance of friendship. Friendship, as Aristotle says, is the condition for doing philosophy. It is also the absolute condition for interreligious dialogue. Friendship is the lived recognition of our common humanity, beyond differences on the level of belief. Even if we never come to agreement, friendship will remain an absolute value and something to be treasured.
But friendship is a goal to be achieved. Perhaps we need to stress, even before that, the importance of simple contact. It is quite amazing how we can live our independent lives even in the midst of the most startling diversity. I have lived most of my life in cosmopolitan Mumbai, rubbing shoulders at home and at school with Hindus, Muslims and even the occasional Jew. Just now I am living in Jerusalem, surrounded by Jewish neighbours. But it does not follow automatically that we know one another, or even that we have sufficient contact. Contact needs to be achieved. It is the most basic step in dialogue. I heard a friend saying recently that there is no dialogue in the abstract, and there is much truth in that.
Stephanie Saldana, author of The Bread of Angels likes to speak in this context of the sheikha with whom she was privileged to study certain surahs of the Koran in Damascus. This sheikha, who ran a Koranic school for Muslim girls, believed that no religion has a monopoly on salvation: people of all faiths can go to paradise provided they do what is in their holy book. She was not an ultra-liberal sheikha by any means, Stephanie says, but here she was, a beautiful human being who could recognize and respect and love the humanity in another human being from another religion and another culture. Interreligious dialogue has to have a human face. Dialogue between Islam and Christianity might not mean much, but dialogue with another human being, yes.
And then there was the ‘settler’ I met at a Taize prayer meeting in Ratisbonne, who spoke to me about his way of dialogue: giving a lift to any Palestinian he passed on the road. This man knew the importance of simple contact and interaction. Much of the time we tend to demonize the Other simply because we do not really know him or her. My friend told me how he had once taken a rather orthodox young man from his settlement to meet a Palestinian family in their house. It was the very first time this young man had ever come in proper contact an Arab family, and he came away a little changed by his encounter. “They seem to be quite nice, after all.” Friendly contact has a way of breaking down the walls we have put up between ourselves.
Contact and friendship bring up the topic of leisure and language. If we are to be friends, we need to invest time, and we need to have a medium of communication. This became so wonderfully evident to me last year when we paid a visit to the Benedictine monastery of Abu Ghosh, not far from Jerusalem.
Benedictine monks pray and work. They have no external ministry. This means they have time for people.
Brother Olivier, for example, meets many people from all walks of life and all religions. For his diaconate ordination last year he said he was surprised by the number of people who turned up: Christians of course, but also Muslims, men and women, Palestinians as well as Israelis, religious Jews as well as soldiers, and even twenty Israeli bikers with their Harley-Davidsons. I think the secret is that Olivier and many of the monks speak Hebrew, and they have time to waste with people. That is the wonderful thing about being a monk: no other ministry, and plenty of time for people. “We show that we must live together, and that we can,” said Olivier. “I can tell you that my political views are quite different, but I experience that people love me just the same.” And he told us of an sms that he received from an Israeli soldier that made him cry and laugh: “I miss you. Take care of yourself. Don’t go out into the sun.”
Tea is another wonderful ingredient in interreligious dialogue, especially in a country like India. If someone invites you for tea in his house, it is usually a sign of esteem and friendship, and you would do well to accept it. And if a turbulent group confronts you, offer them some tea, and you will see how the temperature drops significantly.
This is what Baba Devdas, a Salesian Catholic priest, does in the village where he runs a place for ‘street kids.’ He often gets groups from the neighbouring village barging into his house, and they are not always reasonable and sometimes potentially violent. What do you do, I asked him. I make them sit down first, he told me. Then I offer them water – you always offer water first in a hot country, it is the basic courtesy. And then tea. And they usually become quite reasonable by then. So I often think of tea as an important element in dialogue, including the interreligious variety.
Tea, after all, has ancient religious roots. As cha it comes from the Sanskrit word dhyan, meditation; from there it migrated to China, where it became cha’n, and eventually Japan, where it became the better known Zen. But in India it is a sign of friendship, especially when it is ‘cut.’ So when your host pours half the cup into the saucer and offers you the saucer, don’t hesitate to drink from the saucer.
And then the importance of simple information. That became evident to me when a Hindu gentleman once approached me in Nashik. The Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan had just concluded, and Mr Patwardhan was writing a book on the new Kargils in the centre of India – by which he meant Christian missions all over the country. He felt these where the new and hidden centres of conflict.
But he wanted to be fair to the Christians, he said, and so he had decided to meet some and hear from them their side of the story. We had several sessions. Unfortunately he would turn up without warning, and I, as usual, always had a thousand things on my plate. I was not too patient, and he was not too open. What I realized in this short exchange was that not even the basic information about our religions could really be taken for granted. We cannot take for granted that we share the same data; and even when we do, it tends to be tremendously slanted in one way or another. Interreligious dialogue will often involve working painstakingly through the little details which we take for granted, and once again, friendship and leisure are a tremendous help.
From here we can go on to more sophisticated reflections. Panikkar distinguishes dialectical dialogue from dialogical dialogue. Bernard Lonergan notes that, where dialectic treats subjects as objects, dialogue deals with subjects as subjects. I find Gadamer’s remarks terribly enlightening in this regard: When we claim to understand the other person in advance, we actually succeed in keeping her claim at a distance. The dialectic of charitable or welfare work, Gadamer says, operates in this way, penetrating all relationships between people as a reflective form of the effort to dominate. And the educative relationship is also but an authoritative form of welfare work. When we want to deal with subjects as subjects, there has to be the effort not to co-opt the other into our schemes. We cannot pretend to understand the other in advance. Such understanding destroys dialogue, because it treats the other as an object, it fails to relate to her as subject.
Which brings us to another important aspect of dialogue: the ability to hold things together in tension. We will often not be able to ‘resolve’ the inherent tensions in dialogue. Two examples come to mind here: Swami Abhishiktananda and Stephanie Saldana, once again. Swami Abhishiktananda, the Benedictine monk Henri Le Saux, underwent the acute experience of the tension between Christianity and advaita, between the vyavaharika and the paramarthika. He was never able to transcend these antinomies in any satisfactory way. His greatness lay instead in having lived within himself the symbiosis of two traditions, Hindu and Christian, in such a way that they both became part of himself. In the words of the theologian Jacques Dupuis, his stubborn fidelity to two faiths made of him a prophetic figure at a time when the marriage of East and West was being felt as an urgent need. He was able to live with the tension, leaving to others the task of constructing a synthesis. Stephanie Saldana, who reads the Gospel of Luke with Muslim students at the Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, echoes the same thing in a different way. How, we asked her, do her students relate to a Jesus who is believed to be God, and who is at the same time feels afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane? Strangely, she said, her students are able to connect with Jesus’ fear and weakness. How do you explain that?
Perhaps only by the fact that many of us actually do live with contradictions more often than we think. We might, for example, have strong prejudices about people from a certain community, and yet also have close friends among members of that community. The ability to hold things in tension is another very important aspect of interreligious dialogue. We need to resist the temptation to make everything the same. God is surely more complex than we think.
On the other hand, within the context of friendship, dialogue will probably demand also the courage to go beyond the bounds of political correctness and to call a spade a spade. Within friendship and in a spirit of charity, we should surely be able to speak also hard truths. Not all love is merely sweetness and light. Here the three stages of community that Scott Peck speaks about in The Road Less Travelled might be instructive: true community begins when we are able to go beyond initial politeness and dare to face the chaotic, and it is born when we are able to get beyond chaos to true understanding. Even the irenic Panikkar does not hesitate to say that true dialogue demands the lifting of all brackets. For if the other has reached his deepest level, and I, out of politeness, remain at what is for me only a penultimate level, I am not being really authentic. There is a point in the dialogue when dialogue itself give way and makes place for the witness, the testimony, the test is or the ‘third’ that speaks through us and breaks into another dimension.
But surely all dialogue calls for a generous dose of a quality that Richard De Smet had in abundance: an inner strength, a centredness, the hara that enables one to stay calm, persist, persevere, even when the going is tough and one is challenged at one’s deepest levels. Here then is the emotional dimension of interreligious dialogue, one that blends and merges imperceptibly into the religious or spiritual dimension, into that strength and gentleness and peace that comes from a Source that we somehow know is not of our doing.