In a recent interview published by The Straits Times, Mohammad Alami Musa, said that faith communities in Singapore ‘are still at the lower level of inter-religious engagement and discussion, unlike America, Canada or Britain, where the level of inter-religious dialogue and communications is advanced’.
The Head of Studies of the Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies added that ‘It is not enough for religious leaders to sit around and have a meal and bring the press in and take a photo of them drinking and eating together. That is good, but we need to go beyond that with regard to dialogue and conversation’.
Given the current global situation in which acts of atrocities and violence are repeatedly committed in the name of religion and where tensions between religious communities are at their tipping points, the call for faith communities to be more concerted in their efforts to foster friendly dialogue and engagement cannot be more urgent.
Christians should not shun such interfaith engagements, but should instead actively participate in them. Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, the National Council of Churches in Singapore has been actively involved in dialogue with other faith communities, especially the Muslim community (mostly through the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura or MUIS).
However, it is extremely important that we have a clear understanding of the nature and purpose of such interfaith conversations. There are a number of approaches to dialogue, proposed by religionists of a certain philosophical or theological persuasion (some of whom are Christians), that we should be quite critical of if we are to take the Bible and the teachings of the Church seriously.
For the orthodox Christian, dialogue cannot be conducted on the basis of the religious and epistemological relativism associated by pluralists like Paul Knitter and Stanley Samartha. For them, dialogue demands that participants regard the truth-claims of their respective religions as tentative, inconclusive, and therefore in principle open to radical revision.
For example, in his book No Other Name? Paul Knitter (a liberal Anglican) insists that ‘dialogue is not possible if any partners enter it with the claim that they possess the final, definitive, irreformable truth’. Based on such a criterion, evangelical Christians would find it quite impossible to participate in dialogue because it would require them to deny that the claim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ is ‘final, definitive, irreformable truth’.
In the same way, evangelical Christians would be very wary of interfaith dialogue if they were required to follow the rules prescribed by the Indian theologian, Stanley Samartha (Church of South India). In his book Courage to Dialogue, Samartha insists that no religion should claim to have absolute status. ‘A particular religion can claim to be decisive for some people’, he writes, ‘and some people can claim that a particular religion is decisive for them, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all’.
For scholars like Knitter and Samartha, the participants of interfaith dialogue are all searching for an ever-greater insight and appreciation of the truth that no particular religion can claim to fully possess. As Knitter puts it, ‘dialogue must be based on the recognition of the possible truth in all religions’. It is only when the truths of the various religions are weaved together into a kind of spiritual and theological tapestry that the Truth (with a capital ‘T’) may be discovered.
For orthodox Christians, interfaith dialogue cannot be understood in this way. Dialogue cannot be seen as a common search for the truth.
This approach to dialogue would require Christians to hold the view that God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is incomplete, that the Christian Faith possesses only some aspects of the truth. According to this approach, Christians must be open to the truths found in other religions that are also necessary for ‘salvation’, however salvation may be conceived in the pluralist view.
Christians cannot accept this approach because we believe that God has revealed himself supremely in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. In accordance with Scripture, the inspired Word of God, Christians maintain that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given upon man by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
Does this mean, then, that Christians should not participate in interfaith dialogue, and that such activities are futile? I believe that the Christian who embraces and embodies these truths can still be fruitfully involved in interfaith dialogue, but not on the basis of the assumptions of writers like Knitter and Samartha – and certainly not on their terms.
In 2002, the National Council of Churches published a paper that outlines a Christian theology of religion. In that paper, it also discusses interfaith dialogue and argues that the fundamental purpose of dialogue for the orthodox Christian is to achieve greater understanding of the religious other. Interfaith dialogue or engagement is but an inescapable aspect human sociality, especially in a multi-religious country like Singapore.
‘Understood in this way’, the Council explains, ‘dialogue between members of different religions can be seen to be an aspect of the larger matrix of social intercourse between persons. Dialogue is a “natural” process of interaction, sharing, evaluation, discovery and respect that characterises every conversation between persons’.
The Council added that through dialogue, ‘we seek to discover one another, understand each other, appreciate our differences and develop respect for each other even as we cherish our common aspirations and commitments’. Dialogue can therefore go a long way in breaking down social barriers, exposing and correcting misconceptions, and dispelling prejudices.
Such engagements should therefore be honest and open. It should be conducted with civility and respect. And, as Alami has rightly cautioned in the interview, interfaith engagement should not be limited to specially orchestrated and sanitised gatherings, and characterised by superficial exchange of pleasantries.
The approach of the Council is in harmony with the 1991 document published by the Vatican entitled, Dialogue and Proclamation which states that ‘In the context of religious plurality, dialogue means “all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment”, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’.
It goes without saying that genuine and robust interfaith engagement requires a profound theology of religions grounded in Scripture and tradition.
It is a theology of religions that clearly and unapologetically affirms the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while at the same time acknowledging that the various religions contain moments of truth due to general revelation. On the basis of such a theology, Protestant Christians can, together with the theologians of Vatican II, declare that the Church should reject ‘nothing of those things that are true and holy’ (Nostra Aetate 2) found in the religions.
The presence of the ‘things that are true and holy’ in the other religions makes dialogue possible. But more importantly, as the documents of Vatican II also stress, the truth found in the religions ‘is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the gospel’ (Lumen Gentium 16).
This brings us to a very important point in the Christian understanding of interfaith dialogue.
For the Christian, interfaith dialogue can never be seen as an end in itself. Dialogue must always be understood as part and parcel of the Christian community’s mission of bearing witness to the grace and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is an aspect of the ministry of reconciliation that God has given to his people (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).
The evangelical Christian can therefore fully and unreservedly declare with the Roman Catholic Church that ‘Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelising mission’ (Redemptoris Missio, 1990)
 In this article, I use ‘orthodox’ and ‘evangelical’ interchangeably to refer to Christians who believe in the primary authority of Scripture as the written word of God, and whose interpretation of the Bible is guided by the Tradition of the Church.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.