Developing Criteria for a Fair Comparison of Religions in Inter-religious Dialogues

By Christoph Wagner

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #22
London, England
August 27–29, 1999
(see list of papers from #22)

    Interreligious dialogues (IRDs), with more than 250 worldwide organizations, have grown increasingly important since the first Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago in 1893. They offer many opportunities to present the Bahá'í Faith in addition to classic teaching and public relations. Here, Bahá'ís are undisputedly on the same level with the major world religions. Therefore, an investigation of this topic is at the same time of practical andtheoretical, if not theological, importance.

    A parallel movement to be closely observed is the humanistic "World Ethos" or "World Ethics" movement, concentrating on discovering and developing common value systems without entering the transcendental realm of revelations. This movement has gained momentum in the 1990s. In between those two movements there is a growing consciousness of the need for spirituality in all spheres of life.

    The "rules of the game" of IRDs are not always clear, however procedures are slowly developing. Differing from a scientific approach to religious phenomena, IRD's do not aim at objective proofs, but at a kind of inter-subjective concordance or common experience of evidence. The most important, even indispensable method of thinking and arguing in interreligious dialogues is comparison. But is this the same method used in the science of comparative religion? With its phenomenological approach?

    In nonscientific dialogues, comparisons are being used without the conscience or knowledge of applying a method which has its own rules, whereas the rules of formal thinking (logic and mathematics) are better known and more easily remembered. The issue is further complicated by the fact that religious revelations are in themselves more often than not using symbolic language for their key issues, instead of plain language. Religious language--like poetry or the description of dreams--makes use of symbols, metaphors, allegories and parables.

    There is a formal science still to be developed. It could be called analogics, complementary to logic, because it is based on the principle of analogy, or correspondence. Analogy is the secret of imagination, creativity and innovation, not only of primary religious revelations, because, apart from silence, there is no other way to communicate messages from or insights about absolute, transcendental entities. Plain language would have to be comparative (God is greater, the greatest) or paradoxical (poverty is richness).

    Analogy makes it possible not only to compare horizontally entities that are on the same level of existence (such as organizations), but also to compare them vertically--such as entities that exist on different levels (God and man), the difference being infinitely greater than the likeness. Interreligious dialogues are meant to foster peace among religions, thus bringing humanity closer to a realization of the unity of religions (based in the unity of God) revealed and prophesied by all the key figures of the Bahá'í Faith. But they have their pitfalls, too. IRDs differ according to their participants, the religions they represent, and the style of communication. The participants may primarily be functionaries of religious organizations or individuals with personal views and experiences. The religions may have their specific degrees of universality and exclusivity, of flexibility and change. The approaches may be forensic, liberal or philosophical, each approach having clearly differing values.

    Many major issues of religious conflict, from learned disputes to bloody wars, have their origin in an ignorance of analogy. For instance, creation (by the word of God or the craftsmanship of God the creator) and emanation can be compared, and will prove to be complementary expressions of a divine mystery. The same applies to the principles of manifestation and incarnation, to the images of God the ruler/judge and the father, the paradigm shift of Jesus Christ.

    It has been an old saying that the mystics of all religions understand one another quite well, since they respect the unspeakable, while dogmatic people fight each other with words and arguments. With a deeper understanding and careful application of analogy, Bahá'í teaching in a non-Bahá'í environment as well as Bahá'í participation in interreligious dialogues might dramatically increase their impact. And the Master's instructions to try to symbolically interpret those parts of other revelations which are contrary to science or reason point in the same direction.

this paper is not yet online