Consortium of:

Interfaith Dialogue and the Pandemic: Necessity and Complexity

  May 27th 2020

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Wednesday Forum Report

Written By: Jekonia Tarigan

On 20 May 2020, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) proudly presented Wednesday Forum online with  renowned speaker, Prof. Paul F. Knitter. Knitter, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Knitter has a close relationship with CRCS, teaching courses in the early years of CRCS (2004-2006). Knitter is well-known and adored by scholars of theology throughout Indonesia, bringing many to be involved in this online seminar. 

In his presentation, entitled ‘Interfaith Dialogue and the Pandemic: Necessity and Complexity’, Prof. Knitter reviewed his extensive experience (around 50 years) in studying and practicing interfaith dialogue. He mentioned that early on he was strongly influenced by the Vatican Council which encouraged the Church (institutionally and personally) to engage in dialogue with other religions. Prof. Knitter explained that the pivotal question and obstacle in doing so is, “How can adherents of different religions practice interfaith dialogue with one another, sincerely and honestly, if they think they own the fullness of truth, or that their religion is superior?” This occurs in Christianity when Christians hold that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior. Other religions’ adherents may follow similar pattens, believing their teachings or prophet superior to others.

These examples lead to the question, “How can religious people and religious institutions overcome the obstacle of religious superiority?” Prof. Knitter argues that the best way is to develop a basis for interreligious friendships. Through friendship, people will not merely concern themselves with superiority, truth claims, and other religious convictions. In friendship, supremacy is not the main concern, but rather focusing on shared struggles and how to cooperate to overcome common problems, working together for the well-being of all humanity and all creatures. There are many issues which may be a common concern of humans today, such as the environmental crisis, poverty, famine, injustice, and, especially now, the COVID-19 pandemic. The development of friendship between people from different religious backgrounds will provide new strategies to defeat this pandemic. 

Strengthening his argument about the importance of friendship as a basis of interfaith dialogue, Prof. Knitter proposed the idea of learning from other religions. Prof. Knitter acknowledged that he is practicing a double-belonging in Christianity and Buddhism as it concerns his religious beliefs. His experience embracing Buddhism is found in his book Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian. Through this personal experience, Prof. Knitter found that the activism related to social problems such as injustice, oppression,  and many other social concerns cannot be overcome  without peace from within oneself. That is, from Buddhism, he learned that to transform the situation outside us, we need to transform ourselves first. He was influenced by Thic Nat Han, a Buddhist leader from Vietnam, who explained that the best way to get peace and to transform oneself is through contemplation. Prof. Knitter, furthermore, explained that contemplation is very useful in order to control the ego and realize our divine identity in relation to God and others. It is a mystical way to find and understand our true selves and the true relations between us and the world. Therefore, we are able to move from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.

Lastly, Prof. Knitter shared that the hardest part of social activism and friendship as a basis for interfaith dialogue is to grow compassion within ourselves. Knitter reminded listeners that God loves everyone equally. God loves nature as much as humans. God even loves oppressors equally to the oppressed. Knitter suggests one of the hardest lessons is that when practicing social activism in challenging those who oppress, we must do so with compassion. In the current crisis, and the crises to follow, people need to build friendships and cooperate to safeguard the well-being of all humanity and all of creation. To do so, we must spend time in contemplation, finding peace within ourselves, and therein growing our compassion for others. These practices serve as a good starting point for interfaith dialogue.