Bringing people back into the religious dialogue

Karl Barth was one the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He was generally critical of every religion in the world. The story goes that once, after he had criticized Hinduism, he was asked how many Hindus he had ever met. “None,” he answered. Barth was then asked why he could be sure Hinduism deserved his criticism. He answered: “A priori”. This funny tale is often told to theology students learning about Barth for the first time,  but Barth is not a role model for dialogue between religions in the 21st century.

We need to get to know religious believers as people. Theologians speak of reasoning from our life, experience and surroundings (theological induction), as opposed to reasoning from the text of the Bible (theological deduction). To oversimplify, using the example of the relationship between Christianity and other religions, theological deduction would try to define other religions using concepts and ideas from the Bible itself. Theological induction would try to understand the experience of being a Christian amidst people of many faiths, even though the Bible does not specifically suggest how Christians should act towards (for example) Buddhists. I would like to explain the importance of theological induction a bit better using my personal experience.

My father lives in Tokyo and he is now 80 years old. At times, recently, he has been sick and in hospital, and that has made me think a lot about his role in my life.

My father became a naval officer when he was 17 years old. In the last stage of World War II, there was nobody else left except boys of that age. Luckily, the war ended a few days before his assigned departure for a suicide mission. The experience of youth for my father’s generation was totally different than for mine. Society was in ruins. My father had good luck again, went to medical school, and became a psychiatrist. He is a real family man (always came home from work at 5:30) though in the traditional Japanese male style (my mother did all the housework). My father had little interest in money or getting a promotion. For my father, the main thing was to establish a family and feed it. He never even dreamed of being able to choose the life that would best please his own tastes. My father has lived his life at a particular time and place and under conditions that are very different from mine. I was born into a richer and more peaceful time. I learned since childhood to choose things that fit my tastes in clothing, food, and lifestyle. This explains many of the differences in ideas and behaviors between my father and myself.  And one of those has to do with religion.

My father is a Buddhist. Many Japanese see Christianity as the “religion of the enemies,” as the authorities proclaimed it during the war. Nevertheless my father supported me without any hesitation when I decided to go to a Christian seminary. “It is better to work for God than to work for money,” he said, and this was typical for him.

I became a Christian when I was twenty years old and I am still the only Christian in my whole family in Japan. Accepting a religion at later stage of life is not the same as being born into it. Religiously both involve the same blessing from God, but one is an event that one cannot choose by oneself, while the other is an independent conscious action. When I made my decision, my life had been influenced by my own cultural and sociological surroundings, just as my father´s life had been in a different way. Christianity appeared as the religion of the enemies to my father, but for me it was (and it is) the religion of innovation and humanistic restoration.

I am not trying to say that everything depends on its time and circumstance, and therefore that there is no absolute truth beyond time and space, or that all religions are essentially the same. But I do want to emphasize the importance of recognizing our own limited ability to grasp religious truth. After all, we can live only our life, bound to a certain time, place, and gender, and we cannot declare whether would have the same religious convictions if our circumstances were totally different.

The funny thing is while we try to respect each person’s independence in having their own religious attitude, and our own independence as well (“I love my father as a Buddhist, but  I live my life as Christian”), our own life is inevitably entwined with other lives in other faiths. For example, my parents, though Buddhists, supported me both spiritually and financially when I chose to join the Christian clergy. They helped me become what I am now as a pastor. We tend to talk in vague images that suggest that Christian society is here, Islamic society over there, and Buddhist society somewhere off in the distance, each on its own. But it is not so simple. We are in lively communication with each other. Buddhists show kindness and love, or antipathy, to individual Muslims, and others too, just as they do to other Buddhists — and vice versa. Sometimes I work with people in the Soka Buddhist Society here in Iceland and we laugh together, saying; “look, a Japanese man is a priest in the state church of Iceland while native Icelanders have become Buddhists!”. The simple fact is that we all live amidst rich diversity, in a tapestry of mutual relationships that are complicated beyond our expectations.

Many religious leaders are aware of this, and eager to push religious dialogue forward. I think this is a good thing. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church invited many religious leaders to a discussion conference this summer, and the bishop of Iceland went all the way to Moscow to take part.At the same time, it is even more important that regular people and not just scholars talk about religion. The dialogue must be inductive, about peoples’ lives, and not just deductive, about the Bible and the Koran. People make dialogue meaningful. People need and want to learn what they share with others who live in a different reality.

Karl Barth was convinced of the existence of an “a priori” critique of Hinduism. But I am convinced of my love towards my parents and of their importance through my life. Therefore I am convinced, “a posteriori,” of the importance of religious dialogue instead of the stereotyping of religions. I need to know who I am and what I believe in, by understanding my parents through my faith. An understanding of our commonality and of the irreplaceable worth of each person in the world should not be simply a consequence of religious dialogue, but rather the reason to have the dialogue in the first place. Barth would have had a different attitude if his father were Hindu. Of course it was not his fault. He lived his reality in his life. But it would be our fault if we just continue to go the same way as he did, by closing off everyday life from the table of dialogue. In this century the main cast in the drama of religions is not only God or gods, but also we, the people.

(Prestur innflytjenda; 25. ágúst 2006 RvkGrapeVine)