Interfaith Dialogue – A Critical Appraisal

As the concept called interfaith dialogue has been around for well over half a century it is high time to evaluate the effect of this notion in society. It is not a coincidence that this concept came into being as a post-colonial and post-Second World War reality in the context of the loss of Western colonial power in Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka.

A closer look at interfaith dialogue reveals that it was mainly the Westernised English-speaking middle-class elite of the Christian church who initiated this process. This group was ethnically composed of Sinhala, Tamil and Eurasian people along with some Europeans. This shows that for these people interfaith dialogue was a binding factor irrespective of their ethnic affiliations. One may assume that they came together for this process because of their common faith in Christianity. However, to have a sound coherent understanding of this issue it is necessary to look into other factors that made them interested to commence this process called interfaith dialogue.

It is not a secret that this category called the Westernised English-speaking middle-class elite of the Christian Church was well established, having social and political power under British colonial rule. Under the British, this power was cemented by their Christianity (especially the Anglican branch of the Christian Church). However, when colonial rule ended they lost this prime position that they had had through their faith. Not only this particular elite of the Christian church in Sri Lanka and Asia but also the Western colonial powers had to comprehend the bitter reality that Christianity was more of a hindrance rather than an assistance to keep some grip on their former colonies. Here the possible effective and evident alternative was “interfaith” rather than “Christianity.” In this process, it is very intriguing to note that what they inaugurated with “interfaith” was not a “relationship” but a “dialogue.”

After more than five decades it is very apparent that the positive effect of this process is very minimal among the common people in the pews of the Christian church. Instead, we can observe a very negative resistance to this dialogue by many Christians in Sri Lanka. Here it is necessary to look into this phenomenon to evaluate the effect of this concept in society.

This process took ethnicity and other grass root realities such as poverty and identity created through religion into minimum consideration. Therefore for ordinary Christians, this process did not become very meaningful as a living experience. Also, many ordinary Christians were frightened by what is called “syncretism,” where they believed that the Christian faith would be watered down through this process called interfaith dialogue. For this reason, the response especially of Charismatic and evangelical Christians to interfaith dialogue has been very pessimistic and negative.

However, the fact cannot be ignored that to live in harmony we have to live together as sisters and brothers irrespective of our various identities (religious, ethnic, cultural, etc.) which are decisive in creating meaningful boundaries to feel secure in society. But the aforementioned analysis reveals that the process called interfaith dialogue has not been meaningful or powerful enough to promote and instigate this effective harmonious living in our society.

In this context what is necessary is to fashion a situation where people could reduce xenophobia, which is fear of the encounter of strangers, “foreigners” and unknown phenomena faced by various groups in society. To respond to this situation it can be proposed that it is appropriate to introduce a progression which could be called “ xenophilia” where people are encouraged to formulate positive healthy relationships with so-called strangers, “foreigners” and unknown phenomena by crossing one’s own boundaries. This process could create space for each community to wrestle with its own issues rather than handling its concerns in a structure created by somebody else to meet their own ends.