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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Zacharias Mar Theophilus

“Though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself”.
[Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Pure Reason]

Tradition: a Historical Perspective

Webster’s Dictionary defines tradition as “a long established custom or practice that has the effect of an unwritten law handed down through the generations and generally observed”. It is the delivery of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites and customs from generation to generation by oral communication. In other words I would say tradition is something that is cherished as precious and perceived to be preserved, handed over to the succeeding generations. Douglas A. Knight in his book Tradition and Theology writes “the power of tradition derives from its very presence; it represents the truths and experiences of previous generations and thus holds an implicitly authoritative advantage over the present situation. For this reason it has the potential to be used either constructively or destructively. On the one hand, tradition saves generation from having to start life entirely afresh, with no accumulation of knowledge, experiences, and institutions on which to draw. On the other hand it can be used as an excuse for institutional rigidity and personal insensitivity. It can squelch rather than promote creative living.” The term tradition is applied as readily to oral and written literature as it is to customs, habits, beliefs, moral standards, cultural attitudes and values, social and religious institutions. It is anything in the heritage from the past that is delivered down to the present and can contribute to the makeup of the new ethos. Actually the word tradition can even refer to the process of transmission (the tradito) as well as to the materials themselves that are being handed down (the traditum) quite obviously, differentiation in method is needed if one hopes to analyze these diverse types of tradition and to ascertain how each survives and exerts its influence. Any tradition tested and tasted good will stand longer. A community is woven around a tradition and a tradition thrives in and through that community. Any tradition could become a heritage and a legacy in due course. As many streams join to swell and flow a river, as many strings twine to strengthen a tug, so many strands formulate a tradition. Every tradition, whether it is religious or cultural is like a centipede which has several legs to stand and move. Right perspective of a tradition is very essential for its proper understanding. A search for the roots and diversity of a tradition would be productive only with insights into the inner dynamics of a tradition. Historical dimension of the tradition has to be reckoned with. History and tradition are intertwined and share life blood to each other for their growth. When tradition makes innovation in its progress, new traditions are added to the old and it becomes part of the growing tradition. Though there are several roots for any tradition cultural and religious roots remain structural and dominant. In pre- modern social orders tradition is the glue that holds the society together. Traditions in every community are plural, flexible and dynamic and always try to integrate within the social system it lives. A tradition grows as it confronts new challenges and as it faces new situations and difficulties over the course of time and various contexts.

Traditions are formed and shaped in this process with their own inner dynamism and power as communities grapple with issues of life and relations from time to time. Thus a community, which rejects the past, lives in a meaning-value vacuum. Communities disintegrate when traditions are rejected. Instead of rejecting traditions, their richness must be identified and brought to light. Traditions must be made open to face contemporary situations and challenges; so traditions will grow broader and deeper. Traditions enable vibrant community living. The dynamism of traditions emerge out of its very nature within the life of the community. Various religious traditions have given to humanity important values like justice, peace, non- violence, love, service, sacrifice etc. These must be brought to bear upon the contemporary situations.

Culture: a Strong Component

Culture is the sum total of emotions, behavior, actions, reactions habits, expressions, language, dress, thinking, manners, concepts, music, arts, skills, etc of a people in a given period. African culture, European culture, Asian culture all are distinct and diverse. Faith or religion has a bearing on the culture. African culture has a strong base on native religion, while European culture developed in a Christian milieu. Asian culture has at its back a conglomeration of various religions like Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto-ism and others. The accumulated and acquired elements from various sources aggregate to give shape to a culture. Culture is nourished by the religious resources and religion thrives in a cultural milieu. Culture and religion are complementary and supplementary. Since both religion and culture has several threads, their relationship depends on many connections and disconnections as well as continuations and discontinuations. The European Christian cultural tradition underwent a radical paradigm shift during the past century. Industrialization, Scientific and technological advancement, communist philosophy etc gave birth to a secular society, which is now being reshaped again. European Christian culture is not a monolithic one. The Roman Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Evangelical and Orthodox traditions have their own place and participation in weaving the community. When Christianity arose it had a Jewish soul, but it absorbed Greek thought and Roman organization. Later on when Thomas Aquinas said, “We should try to reconcile Christian Theology with Aristotelian thought”, he felt it necessary to bring the contemporary cultures of his time into reconciliation with Christian thought. Stanley J. Grenz says “the Christian tradition is comprised of the historical attempts by the Christian community to explicate and translate faithfully the first order language, symbols and practices of the Christian faith, arising from the interaction among community, text and culture, into various social and cultural contexts in which that community has been situated”. (Beyond Foundationalism, p.118) Similarly Indian culture has many traditions owing their origin in part to the different religions that exist here. Hinduism has no founder, no code of beliefs; it never had any religious organization that wielded temporal power over its followers. The cultural heritage of India has its roots in the different components of culture i.e. musical heritage, dances, sculpturing and other fine arts, festivities, languages spoken, traditional beliefs and customs, food and many more like these. It is the development in these aspects of life that makes the heritage of India one of the most vibrant and most exhaustive. The roots of Indian civilization stretch back in time to pre – recorded history. Throughout its history armies traders and immigrants from all over the world have invaded India. India’s heritage is like a rainbow of multiple facets like performing arts, crafts, religion, customs, traditions, beliefs, philosophy, history, health, medicine, travel, cuisine, monuments, literature, painting and languages. Each one of these heritages of India reflects the influence of prevailing cultures. These were the cultures primarily taken birth from the amalgamation of migrating cultures with the Indian ones. The influence of native religion and culture is quite evident from the following learning. Many would think Indian culture is a Hindu culture. The place and contribution of the tribals and the Adivasis (natives) are tremendous. Nature worship was prevalent in Vedic period. The five forces of nature the Pancha Mahabhoota included Teja (Light) represented by the Agni (fire), and Surya ( Sun), the other four were Vayu (wind), Aapa (water), Akasha ( sky), and Prithvi (earth). These forces of nature were the first to be worshipped. The personified Gods like Vishnu with his ten incarnations came much later. Christianity and Islam came to India almost at the time of their origin. The face of Islamic culture is seen in music, art, architecture and several other inputs of cultural formations of India. The Christian presence left remarkable imprint in the areas of health, education and social change (e.g. Eradication of Sati – offering the wife on the pyre of the husband). Every Culture is a contribution of many cultures and every Tradition is a compendium of several traditions. Religion – a vital ingredient Similarly no religion can claim to be self-generated. Christianity has its roots in Hebrew religion which in turn has parallels with Babylonian religions. Modern Christianity comprises of various traditions and heritages. World council of Churches has 347 members apart from the Roman Catholics the largest Christian denomination and Pentecostals, the fast growing faith community. The Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Orthodox, the Protestants, the Reformed, the Pentecostals and the Evangelicals all provide different emphasis to different aspects of the nature and character of the church. All together and yet individually form the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The multiplicity of Hinduism also reflected itself in the absence of any terms to identify Hinduism. The term ‘Hindu’ itself is a result of corruption of the word ‘Sindhu’ by the Persians who could not pronounce the word ‘Sindhu’ as the letter ‘S’ was missing in Pahelavi, the language of the ancient Persians. The reasons; viz. the tribal origin in antiquity, the multiplicity of cults, sects and deities, the absence of central authority, etc, made Hinduism an assimilative religion which tolerated different sects that mushroomed from itself and even absorbed minor sects whose origins lay outside Hinduism and when it came in contact with religions from other countries it did not resist assimilation into itself. (W. Crooke, ‘Hinduism,, - Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics ed. James hastings, 1925, Vol 6 p.712) Even when Hinduism came into contact with aboriginal peoples like the Adivasis, no attempt was made to formally convert them into Hinduism. They were gradually Hinduised and absorbed into Hinduism. This was sometimes done by incorporating tribal deities into the Hindu and they became a Hindu cult. Hinduism thus spread by assimilation and acculturation. Thus Hinduism cannot be called one religion, it is more a collation of human thinking on attitudes and towards worship. The Vedic Seer had proclaimed “truth is one, people call it by various names” (Ekam satya, Viprah Bahuda Vadanti) Buddhism has evolved from Hinduism through the teachings of Siddhartha who came to be known as Buddha or ‘the awakened one’. It developed as a missionary religion with monastic and non-monastic followers. Jainism and Sikhism also are the offshoots of Hinduism.

All religions relate with the sacred, the Spiritual, the Beyond and the Divine. Worship of God, personal meditation, participation in Liturgy, practicing the tenets, following the rites and rituals, mystical experiences etc. are quite common. Though the signs, symbols, style of religious practices may vary there is a common thread that binds all humanity as there is only One God and One Human Community. The challenges we face as one human community is to trace out threads within our diverse cultural and religious traditions and weave them into a tapestry of love, peace and hope.

Diversity a matter of celebration:

In 1993 the American Political Scientist Samuel Huntington through his articles and later his book raised the issue of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. Meanwhile the General Assembly of United Nations proclaimed 2001 as the “Year for a Dialogue among Civilizations” which coincided with WCC initiated “Ecumenical Decade to overcome violence”. Further Pope John Paul II entitled Peace Message for 2001 “Dialogue between Cultures for a Civilization of love and peace”, recognizing that the process of globalization has given rise to movements of resistance defending cultural identities, the Pope addressed the fear that we might be moving towards a clash of civilization struggling for power and dominations. It is not easy to refute Huntington’s conclusion that we are moving towards a multicultural world where it is unlikely or impossible that one single culture will reign supreme. Different civilizations share sufficient common values so as to make communication between them possible. Conflict need not be the end result. Collaboration could be possible. “Life surmounts all kind of contradiction not by destroying them but by weaving them into larger more inclusive pattern” (Dr. S. Radha Krishnan – Towards a New world.) Diversity and plurality are facts that cannot be ignored in human history. Without mutual understanding, differences may generate conflicts that, when managed with violence, lead to considerable violations of fundamental rights of people which affect their human dignity. Diversity of our societies in terms of ethnicity, culture, languages, religions affect the harmonious living of people these days which is a growing trend of phenomenon. Although the diversity can lead us to uniformity and mutual strengthening of relationships, religious differences as an aspect of multiculturalism continue to raise controversies and challenges in our common humanity. Diversity should never lead us to division as they can enrich and ennoble. Diversity has to be celebrated and unity in diversity has to be discovered. Cultural differences and diversities are no longer considered as a threat but rather as an opportunity for common growth and mutual enrichment. No country in the world today is strictly mono-religious and or mono-cultural. The rapid means of communication and transportation have brought most diverse religious and cultural groups together in every country. And if we like it or not we have to live with such diversity. As we see around various ethnic or religious groups cohabit, some groups will be in numerical majority, others in minority. Or several minorities put together can constitute majority. The mosaic model of society can retain its beauty only in harmony; conflict will only reduce this mosaic into complete disjunction due to stress and strain


Dialogue: a way of life

Dialogue is the only way out for promoting better understanding between the conflicting groups. As the spread of misinformation through whatever means is largely responsible for misunderstanding dissemination of correct information is highly necessary to contain the conflict. This can most effectively be done through dialoguing. Dialogue is not an apex exercise of explaining the perfect position of a faith, rather it is sharing of experiences that each may understand oneself and others in the right perspective. It is not a method of engaging or exchanging concepts with pundits but it is life lived in engagement with neighbors at the grass root level. It is a way of life.

As Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent Islamic Scholar in India often says, what we need is a “dialogue of life” and this dialogue is continuously taking place at the level of the masses. The dialogue of life consists in living together with all its problems and stresses and strains and sharing each others joys and woes in human partnership. We witness this living in togetherness and celebration of life at the level of masses. There are no theories, theologies and concepts to quarrel about; there are only problems and difficulties to be shared together. This is real dialogue of life, a dialogue through living together and sharing together. “Growing world wide integration and development of a stock of common values do not exclude the preservation of distinct cultural identities. Genuine dialogue is based on the recognition of these different cultures; it aims at mutual understanding and works against the tendency to interpret otherness and difference as a threat and thus as a justification for a militant defense and protection of particular identities.” (Konrad Raiser – For a Culture of Life)

As we are called to affirm and promote dialogue as the road to a peaceful and just global coexistence in which diversity is enriching, we need to be aware of all sensitivities in order to promote effective ways of dialogue. The need to promote dialogue among different communities, religious groups and cultures is a priority for all religious communities and as well as the international community. It is through the dialogue that communities can truly meet and understand one another. The dialogue can take place between different kinds of groups: 1) political groups; 2) religious groups and 3) supporters of political or religious groups. Also, there are different levels of dialogue and a comprehensive process of dialoguing will involve all these levels. It can take place at the level of political or religious leaders; at the level of intellectuals from different groups and also at the level of masses. The nature of dialogue will vary at these levels. At the level of intellectuals it will be more of analysis of events and understanding of the nature of forces involved in promoting conflict. At this level the dialogue will also deal with the strategies of promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony. Dialogue should not only be conducted to understand the other but also should respect the integrity of the other. No dialogue can be conducted if there is no respect for integrity and convictions of the other.

A New World: Challenges Ahead

This is the age of pluralism. Religious, cultural ethical, economical, and sociological pluralism reigns the world. Till recently Europe could be identified as Christian, India as Hindu, China as Confucianist, Japan as Shintoist and Middle East as Islamist. Now the texture of every place is radically transformed. In New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Delhi, Tokyo and Shanghai you find people of various religions, cultures, languages, ethnicity, color and caste co-mingle. Various religious communities and national diversities find their presence and expressions in a new globalized world. Each may hold on to his/her religious or cultural identity. Extreme alliance to an identity often alienates people with other identities. Eric Lott in his book Religious faith, Human Identity speaks of dimensions that shape identity. The mythic, ritualistic, doctrinal, ethical, and social dimensions provide different strands to separate and distinctive identities. The identity clashes and conflicts can occur frequently unless, common identities are identified and fostered instead of stressing self identity. In order to realize this goal we may even have to risk our identities in the process of a transformation.

Globalization has broken the boundaries of nations in several ways. Now people move from place to place in search of education, employment, as a result of calamities and displacement and due to speedy communication and travel. This makes multi-cultural, multi-religious communities or a pluralistic society a reality. How to transform this to an inter-religious intercultural community transcending independent identities must be our genuine concern and urgent agenda in search of a holistic society. As Dr. Radha Krishnan states “we must look towards a new world. We must look upon humanity as something above all nations, realize that no nation is immortal, just as no individual is immortal. So many civilizations have come, floated on the surface and disappeared. What has remained is humanity…” Konrad Raiser continues to speak of an ecumenical vision for a Oikoumene- One Human Community. The ecumenical vision has been expressed as commitment to “the unity of humankind and the whole inhabited earth”; as a life - centered vision of an ecumenical earth” and as a “vision of the fullness of life for all”. The Oikoumene has been interpreted as a community of “faith and solidarity” or as representing “a sense of moral communion”. Hans Kung vehemently speaks for a “global ethic”. Kung is convinced that there would be no new world order without a new world ethic. The core of this global ethic is the golden rule which, according to Kung is acknowledged by all the world religions. This core is then developed in terms of four irrevocable directives: the commitment to “a culture of non- violence and respect for life; a culture of solidarity and just economic order; a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women”.

The vision of one human community is the need of the time. Secular fundamentalism tends to be met by religious fundamentalism. Secularism visualized a ‘Religion less’ society instead we have landed up in the resurgence of religion. Surprisingly a Fundamentalist and Militant form of religion was born. This has created not only more violence but also made religion a symbol of division and hatred. It is here the call for a New World becomes more challenging to all religions to look afresh to the essence of religion. Search for a common human tradition must be the immediate task of religious leaders and cultural stalwarts. The acceptance of fatherhood of God, brotherhood of humanity and integrity of creation could gather all on one platform. One God, One Earth, One Humanity could bring Unity, Peace and Hope in the future.

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