Dialogue Commandment #7: Dialogue is Among Equals

SEVENTH COMMANDMENT: Dialogue can take place only between equals, or par cum pari as the Second Vatican Council put it. Both must come to learn from each other. Therefore, if, for example, the Muslim views Hinduism as inferior, or if the Hindu views Islam as inferior, there will be no dialogue. If authentic interreligious, interideological dialogue between Muslims and Hindus is to occur, then both the Muslim and the Hindu must come mainly to learn from each other; only then will it be “equal with equal,” par cum pari. This rule also indicates that there can be no such thing as a one-way dialogue. For example, Jewish-Christian discussions begun in the 1960s were mainly only prolegomena to inter- religious dialogue. Understandably and properly, the Jews came to these exchanges only to teach Christians, although the Christians came mainly to learn. But, if authentic interreligious dialogue between Christians and Jews is to occur, then the Jews must also come mainly to learn; only then will it too be par cum pari.

Approaching interreligious dialogue as equal partners seems appropriate at first glance. After all, how can there be a conversation if the participants are not equal? Otherwise it is not a conversation at all; it is indoctrination, apologetics, or a way of establishing or reaffirming relative status between a superior and an inferior. The inferior may be permitted to speak, but it is a foregone conclusion that the superior”s perspective will be the norm.When we think more about it, though, this requirement becomes more difficult. If I believe my religion is true, and that it is the right path, how can I allow “competitors”? In fact, in some cases, my religious tradition may explicitly say that others are inferior. How can I consider another”s tradition to be “equal” to my own?One way to do this has been common in interreligious relations. It is to say that “all religions are really the same.” Our differences are surface differences at most; they are accidents of history, culture, and tradition. This is a tempting solution, but isn”t it really an assertion that we are equals only at the lowest common denominator? That the only way we can deal with one another is to strip away all the particularities that make our religious life, community, and culture unique, complex, and rich?A better way, in my opinion, is to acknowledge that none of us has a corner on truth. I used to think that the diversity of religious paths was an accident of human frailty, that if somehow we saw clearly, we would all follow the same way. As my relationships with people of different faiths and paths has grown, I become more convinced that the diversity exists because that is what God (the Creator, the Divine, the Cosmos) intended.It is summed up well in that oft-quoted text from the Qur”an:

[49:13] O People! We created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him…

Most of our traditions affirm that human beings are fundamentally equal in that God has created all of us, and that every human being is worthy of respect and dignity. This, I think, is the foundation that supports our reaching out to one another to enter into dialogue as equals.

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