The picture at the right shows the only meeting between two of my interfaith spiritual heroes: Thomas Merton and D.T. Suzuki. I read my first book by Merton when I was 14 years old, The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography. I read my first book by Suzuki when I was 17, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. The same year, I read their only collaboration, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Over forty years later I reread that collaboration, with the attendant realization that I really did not understand what they were talking about so many years ago. I’m grateful that I have been granted the time to engage them once again.
Their writings were the beginning of a lifelong appreciation of interfaith dialogue, one that I enjoyed professionally in my last years as a clergyman, when I was the Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Director of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Although Orthodoxy is less interested, generally speaking, in interfaith dialogue as opposed to the ecumenical version, I have always preferred the former. For me, it has always been more satisfying to engage someone outside my sphere—from another spiritual galaxy, if you will.
On the other hand, ecumenical (inter-Christian) dialogue, while vitally important for rational and reasonable relationships in the Christian world, has the drawback of always seeming to boil down the richness of the various Christian traditions to lowest common denominators. Dogma, doctrine, opinion, conjecture (δόξα), and theories about God are often discussed with an end to some level of agreement, usually in a formal academic proposition. It should not be surprising that, among many Orthodox, it is the ecumenical endeavor that draws such fire and ire, as it most threatens their own self-understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Interfaith dialogue challenges you to think outside your own private and sometimes privileged box. The encounter with other religious and spiritual traditions who do not recognize any centrality of Christ to a valid and experientially real encounter with the Divine is a great challenge for any Christian. Many are taught that non-Christians, so-called “heathen,” must be converted to belief in Christ. Exclusivity and a monopoly on the “truth” block us from any consideration of the other’s point of view. And this is precisely why interfaith dialogue is so necessary—especially in the world we live in today, one that is becoming more and more violent, tribal, parochial, and xenophobic.
The first principle of interfaith dialogue is that neither party asserts the correctness of their own view for the other party. It allows for openness to ideas, perspectives, and considerations that may never have occurred otherwise. The gift is in the listening. And when you listen with “ears to hear,” as Jesus said, you would be amazed at how transformative the experience can be.
In 1968, just one month before his untimely death at age 53, Thomas Merton traveled to Dharamsala, India, where the young 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, had established the Tibetan community in exile. They had three encounters over Merton’s 8-day stay. The Dalai Lama later wrote this about Merton in his own autobiography:
I could see he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. …[I]t was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word “Christian.” (Freedom in Exile, pg. 189)
The second principle of interfaith dialogue is that there is no expectation that the dialogue will actually achieve any result. The dialogue is its own reward. But if the relationship is sincere and grounded in a desire to connect, there are spaces—often hitherto unknown—that open up within, which provide room to grow as a person of faith, hope, and love. The dialogue prepares you to understand your connectedness and interrelatedness to others, to perichoresis, or “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh (another friend of Merton) has so eloquently put it.
When you know, when you viscerally feel, that you are in relation to the world and the world is such to you, then you begin to live as Jesus did, for he found a way to connect to everyone he encountered, even when they rejected him. This is what makes the miracle of the Cross and Resurrection possible. If he did not love all of us, and make his flesh our flesh, how could he have died with such transformative love and forgiveness for all? And the power of his love was so great, that it could not be destroyed. He had to rise from the dead; it was not possible for death to hold him.
Christians have in Thomas Merton a great and saintly example of how to meet the other and go beyond oneself, even as Jesus did. Dialogue with those you do not know, those you fear and even resent—this is the first step to the realization of what it means to be the Body of Christ, the ongoing Incarnation of God in the world, the continuing embodiment of love.
Mark Arey served as a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America for over 30 years. He obtained his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and his MS in pastoral counseling from Loyola College in Baltimore. He is a published author whose most recent book, The Gospel of Love: A Meta-Translation, appeared earlier this year. His other titles are listed at www.markarey.com.
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