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It's good to talk

Societies won't get anywhere without a little bit of dialogue

It's good to talk
Myron J. Pereira, Mumbai

June 17, 2013

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It was Pope Paul VI, who years ago, declared that “dialogue is the new way of being Christian,” and who then went on to describe the four ways in which Christians could reach out to those of other faiths – the dialogue of life, of work, of study and of religious experience.

Mostly however, we still think of dialogue as scholars discussing profound theological issues, and issuing statements on how one religion looks at another. But this is only partly correct. The fact is that in today’s society, Christians and ‘others’ already live and work together, often taking each other for granted.

These ‘others’ are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs and Jains. But they are also agnostics and ‘secularists’ who profess no specific faith.

We also need dialogue regarding science and technology, and the way they have shaped the way we live today.

All urban societies today, and the world is fast becoming one large urbanized metropolis, are inevitably pluralist. This means that space must be given to large numbers of people with different identities, who hold different opinions and values from the majority.

What has brought this about is migration. People move for better work and living conditions. They move to foreign countries. They also move within their own countries, leaving their villages for the big city.  Many flee because of ethnic or religious persecution. And once people move elsewhere, and settle down, they rarely move back again.

Every large country today has minorities. And among the most vociferous minorities today are religious minorities who demand respect for the public profession of their faith.

For religion is not individualistic, but more public and community-based. Freedom of worship and participation in public dialogue in a country is part of public order. Unfortunately, not every country is willing to acknowledge this.

In many Muslim countries, for instance, believers may profess their faith in private, but not in public. Public law is often derived from religious legislation, or the shariat, and not based on principles of reason and human rights, as in secular countries.

Most countries, including Christian ones, were once ruled by some form of theocracy before secularization took place. This is most clearly seen in India, where in spite of a secular constitution, the dictates of caste and religious rulings (in this case Hinduism) control matters of marriage, inheritance and public order.

What does the dialogue of life and work imply therefore? It implies that one gets to know one’s ‘non-Christian’ neighbor, and treats him/her with respect and fairness. We usually inherit the prejudices of our families, and easily dismiss the ‘other’ as suspicious, ‘dirty’, uncultured; and today, increasingly 'terrorist'.  The dialogue of work implies doing things together, whether specific projects, or common tasks in the workplace.

The dialogue of life seeks occasion for common celebration, and assistance in times of need. That such intermingling might also lead to inter-community marriage is, of course, a possibility. It is a constant fear to many. All traditional societies are vehemently opposed to such unions, and yet it is only through such relationships that new communities take off and pluralism receives its meaning.

Today the focus is slowly shifting from religion to spirituality, from external rules and customs, to the experience of God in prayer. If it is the Spirit which gives one guidance, direction and power, and the norms for decision-making, then God’s spirit can bring harmony into our societies, no matter which religious tradition we publicly profess.

Myron J Pereira is a Jesuit priest and media consultant based in Mumbai

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