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In a blog post written for this website, Michael Marten had pointed out the problems of speaking about ‘interreligious’ dialogue or the almost interchangeable ‘interfaith’ dialogue and has suggested an ‘interhuman’ dialogue instead. The increasing involvement of Humanist groups in ‘interreligious dialogue’ and the success of the book The Faitheist may indicate that the practice of dialogue is developing into the opposite direction: that the number of those feeling themselves represented by the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ or wanting to participate in such events has extended to increasingly include also people who self-identify as ‘non-religious’ (thereby accepting but simultaneously subverting the disputable binary category of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’). At the same time, the important criticisms Marten voiced are also increasingly gaining attention:in a very recent book, Muthuraj Swamy, both a scholar and practitioner of ‘interreligious dialogue’ in India, discusses ‘interreligious dialogue’ as an elite project that reinforces and in some cases constructs the very boundaries it seeks to bridge.

Like Swamy, many people who talk about being involved in ‘interreligious dialogue’ do also problematize the category they use, and for matters of transparency, I have to say that this includes myself. When I recently attended an event on the intersection of ‘interfaith’ theory and practise in Rome, the participants of the plenary discussion were introduced as all being both academics and practitioners in ‘interreligious dialogue’, yet almost all of them took, in some form, issue with the term ‘interreligious dialogue’. This was either because dialogue was seen to mean talking instead of acting, or as a general and abstract discussion that fails to get down to the much more specific root of the problems. One participant said that his organisation for a long time did not consider itself as doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ but was simply trying to do the work of the gospel. At another occasion, a leader of an international ‘interfaith’ organization told me that he did not really like the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ because he was critical about trying to influence others on theological grounds and that he preferred the term ‘religious diplomacy’ for his work that tries to bring leaders of different traditions together to make a difference in the world. Another position is that the practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is just mission in disguise, and for this it has attracted criticism both from those who ask for an encounter without ulterior motives and those who would like to see a more self-confident and direct missionary approach.

As the category ‘interreligious dialogue’ is taken to be problematic also by practitioners, I am interested in the reasons why they nevertheless use or accept the category. I think one of the reasons is that ‘interreligious dialogue’ can refer to a diversity of social practices without distinguishing among them. It serves as an umbrella term with positive connotations of goodwill, leadership, harmony or peace that is unspecific enough to allow for different actors to come together without having to disclose their precise attitude toward the other and also without the precondition that all actors share the same attitude toward the other. Within this diversity of social practises we can ask what people do in specific cases when they talk about doing ‘interreligious dialogue’.

The power of institutions in dialogue is a very strong factor in the persistence of ‘interreligious’ instead of ‘interhuman’ dialogue. The practice of ‘interreligious dialogue’ is very often done by individuals that represent or refer to an institution in order to present their position as coherent and authoritative. Those who are interested in an exchange of individual interpretations that do not claim to be representative or authoritative for a tradition and its institutions have an important role as innovators but they are usually not in a position to define the terms and conditions of the practice.

During the last months, I have been studying the high-level dialogue of the Catholic Church, particularly the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). For the Catholic Church, Catholic-Hindu dialogue does, strictly speaking, not mean the Church’s dialogue with ‘Hinduism’ but the Church’s dialogue with people who say that they are adherents of ‘Hinduism’. Although the Catholic Church has pointed out repeatedly the wisdom of the Indian traditions, the question of the truth of the ‘Hindu’ teachings is not considered as particularly relevant for the practise of dialogue. Most of the official communication of the Vatican directed at Hindus is kept general or focuses on issues of social or environmental concern. Jenn Lindsay, a doctoral candidate at Boston University, observed during her grassroots research in Rome that initiatives that describe themselves as ‘religious’ often do not differ radically in methodology or objective from, say, intercultural dialogue, and there are some dialogue events where there is no talk about ‘religion’ at all beyond the tacit assumption of ‘religious’ belonging. Much of the Church’s dialogue is of a rather diplomatic nature, which may not be surprising considering that the Church is not only a group of Catholic individuals but one of the world’s biggest organizations whose officials have to find strategies for positioning the Church on various issues and in relation to other actors.

I found that within the PCID there was a clear awareness of the plurality within ‘Hinduism’. There was no assumption that they could meet the Hindu tradition in a single person. When I asked an official how he selected potential Hindu partners for dialogue, he replied that he did not because that would amount to deciding which of the thousands of groups would be the proper representative of ‘Hinduism’. Instead, he pointed out, the Vatican relies on its cooperation with the Church structures in India who recommend participants for meetings, for example on social issues, or Indian persons of authority who would like to meet with the Pope. Personal contacts are thus channelled and filtered through the church structures. One of the central aspects of the council’s work is to advise the local churches on the framework within which dialogue is considered possible and fruitful for Catholics and what would run contrary to Church guidelines. But why should Hindus be interested in ‘interreligious dialogue’? ‘Hinduism’ as a very diverse tradition (the criticism of speaking of ‘Hinduism’ a single tradition is well known), has no strict institutional selection criteria but depends on student-teacher lineage an intersubjective practice of reputation. Besides theological and social reasons, ‘interreligious dialogue’ with the institution Catholic Church as represented by individuals like the Pope or the members of the Curia can seem attractive for Hindu leaders as his or her approach is thereby externally acknowledged if not ‘officialized’ as an authoritative voice of ‘Hinduism’.

One of the reactions I received when talking about the work of the PCID was that this was not ‘interreligious dialogue’ but rather church politics. Yet in my view this distinction would itself be problematic because it reinforces the dichotomy between the religious and the political that has been criticized by Timothy Fitzgerald and others, and which appears as particularly artificial when the focus is not on individuals but on a giant global institution. While the general approach of the PCID may for some be neither ‘interreligious’ nor ‘dialogical’ enough, it has the conceptual advantage that it does not essentialize ‘Hinduism’ but is prepared to engage also with a tradition in which few people may hold exactly identical beliefs. The Vatican communication does, on the other hand, often essentialize Catholicism by presenting a unified ‘Catholic’ perspective. This is however not because the Vatican officials are under the illusion that all Catholics believe the same but because they hold that all Catholics under the guidance of the Church should do so. The Catholic Church also speaks of a dialogue of life to which every member is called, but on the organizational level interreligious dialogue signifies the benevolent and constructive interaction between the institution Catholic Church as the bearer of truth and the individuals and organizations of the wider world.

The Vatican’s take on ‘interreligious dialogue’ may be closer to diplomacy or even the public relations of a big organization than to either the ideal of ‘interhuman dialogue’ or the sentiments behind the harmony beads referred to in Marten’s post. Yet even within the Vatican the case is not clear-cut. Looking through Church documents that contain words like ‘Hindu’ one finds two very different approaches: while one is rooted in seeking to understand the mission field or a diplomatic partner, the other takes non-Catholics as fellow pilgrims who can engage in mutual support and cooperation and even a joint search for the truth. The recent video on ‘interreligious dialogue’ by Pope Francis is particularly interesting in this respect as the dramaturgy of the video implies no hierarchy among those addressed by the Pope but places the individual’s belief in ‘love’ into the centre of the dialogue. These approaches ranging between mission, diplomacy, public relations and ‘interhuman dialogue’, all with their own conceptual challenges, co-exist side by side. For understanding what people do when they speak of doing ‘interreligious dialogue’ one therefore has to look at concrete and limited cases and take plurality of actors, aims and motivations into account that seek to shape the concept and practise of ‘interreligious dialogue’ even within a single organisation, a single edited book or at a specific dialogue event. One of the reasons why the term ‘interreligious dialogue’ is still around is that in an increasingly plural and interdependent world it sets a stage that very different organizations use for negotiations of institutional and individual interests.