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Archbishop: Dialogue is a means of 'God-given discovery'

The Christian Muslim Forum at Lambeth Palace

Monday 22nd March 2010

The Archbishop gave an address at the Christian Muslim Forum Conference of Scholars, held at Lambeth Palace.

As founder patron of the organisation, the Archbishop talked with other Christian and Muslim scholars about whether dialogue can really deal with religious differences without avoidance or compromise. Other speakers included Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, Maulana Yunus Mohammed and Dr John Azumah.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's speech below, or click link on the right to listen [17Mb]

Rather more than 10 years ago I found myself in a taxi in Oxford, driven by a Muslim taxi-driver. He noticed how I was dressed, assumed quite rightly that I was a Christian priest, and set about converting me. It was an experience of dialogue at grass-roots level. He was very clear indeed about the arguments he had to advance and he wanted to have some simple answers. He wanted to know for example, why, since Jesus had lived before Mohammed, I should regard Jesus as the seal of prophecy rather than Mohammed. And so forth. We had a very lively taxi journey, but I have to tell you that at the end of it neither of us had moved very far from when we had started.

But what I wanted to pick up from that experience was the sense that we can sometimes have, even in a rather confrontational approach to dialogue, of questions being asked that we wouldn't have thought of for ourselves. And in the process of trying to tackle these unexpected questions we discover ourselves in a fresh way. What I experienced in the taxi wasn't exactly dialogue and I'm afraid that probably all too many of us have had experiences of encounters which have not quite been dialogue, when somebody has been so very persuaded of where they have started that they simply can't see why anyone should ever start anywhere else. But what's distinctive about dialogue I'd say, is the notion it embodies of a conversation that continues.

A lot of the engagement between Christians and Muslims across the centuries has certainly been engagement—sometimes conciliatory, sometimes confrontational—but it's not all that often moved towards dialogue. Sometimes it's been polemic: that is, a dialogue which is set up in order to show you that someone else is wrong. In our traditions, there are pieces of 'dialogue' between a Christian and a Muslim which are in fact set up to move towards a particular conclusion. Dialogue isn't even a matter of simple debate: that is, propositions advanced, contested, argued for and against. It's in awareness of this that I use the term dialogue in connection with the notion of discovery.

Let me speak as a Christian for a moment. (There will be echoes, I know, in Muslim lives but I'll begin from where I stand.) A very significant part of the Christian tradition, especially the Christian mystical tradition, is the conviction that you will never have said enough about God. If God is infinite then you will never run out of things to say. And you'll never come to a place where you can say, 'all that has to be said about God has now been said'. Our speech about God brings us constantly to the edge of a mystery which is at one and the same time dark and even alarming, because it throws out all our preconceptions, and yet is also inviting, because we know it is a mystery of endless love and invitation and welcome. So the process of talking about faith, for Christians who've inherited that particular strand of Christian reflection, is always a process of coming to the point where you look into a mystery. Your words, you believe, are true, and yet they are not a truth that allows you to say there's no more to discover. So the Christian is engaged constantly in moving into the endless mystery, moving out from a complacent and self-defensive security in faith, in trust that the mystery that lies ahead is the mystery of welcome and love. In that pilgrimage, every single human life has something to contribute to our awareness because in every single human life we see something of how the infinity of God's mystery winds itself into the mystery of a human life and personality. Every human face made in the image of God—so we believe as Christians—reflects something of that mystery. Every human face is worth attending to. Every human voice is worth hearing. How much more so when you see another human face and hear another human voice directed towards God. The language that the other person uses about God may not be the language you use; you may disagree and find areas of enormous strangeness between you. And yet you will still want to say, 'In that attention to the other, I will discover something of God'. The image I've repeatedly used in speaking about dialogue at its best is that it is a process where I try and 'look at another person's face turned towards God': not a face turned towards me in a rapid, perhaps adversarial, relationship, but to look at their face as they pray and absorb the reality of God, and then to speak and listen with them.

That's the first and, I believe, the most fundamental aspect of dialogue for me as a Christian. I don't enter into dialogue with any primary intention of persuading or changing, but with the hope of growing. And that perhaps is a crucial distinction. I suspect that in my conversation with the taxi-driver both of us would simply have liked the other one to change or at least shut up! There might have been a longer conversation had we had a longer journey, in which we both accepted that we had some growing to do.

Now I grow as I attend to and absorb what somebody else sees and hears as they turn towards God; above all in a person of conscious faith. But I grow also as I learn more about myself and my own convictions; and that I suppose is one of the areas where dialogue becomes difficult and challenging. A great deal of supposed inter-faith dialogue—not to mention a great deal of what once used to be called 'comparative religion' as a subject of study—in fact misses its target completely because it doesn't begin by seeing that people are asking different questions. When I see some of the great classics of comparative religion of a certain kind, whether it's the work of Professor John Hick, or Fr Hans Küng, my worry is that these are people who are eager to persuade everybody that their differences don't really matter in the way they thought they did, that everyone is really asking the same questions, and that it ought to be possible to find the same answers.

But of course they're not asking the same questions, and one of the most revealing moments in the dialogues I have been involved in over the last few years, was sitting across a table from Mona Siddiqui at a Building Bridges seminar. She fixed me with her gaze and asked 'So what do you mean by salvation?' It's a moment when you realize that the categories that slip off the tongue for a Christian are not the questions a partner in dialogue may be asking. 'What must I do to be saved?' may be a Christian question, but I doubt very much whether it's a natural Muslim question or even a Hindu question – or a Buddhist question where the question might be 'What could I do to be released?' (which is a slightly different category). My point is that in dialogue I start questioning my own questions. I look at myself and say 'Is that the obvious or only way of asking the question?' 'How do I listen to someone else's questions and see how mine relate to them?' In other words, in dialogue I discover the things that are not necessarily at the forefront of my mind. I discover something beyond what suits my 'comfort zone'. I may discover resources within my own language that I didn't suspect and I may discover tensions in my own language that I didn't suspect, as I listen and absorb from another. So the worthwhile-ness of dialogue is for me not only a matter of learning more about God, but learning more about what I understand of God and where I stand in relation to God. I discover something of God: I discover something of myself. I discover that I have not yet mastered all that could be said about God and never shall. I discover that the ways in which I have been talking about God need more probing, more querying and more deepening.

I suspect that at the very simplest level for most Christians who first encounter a real discussion with Muslims, the sort of question that the taxi-driver put to me about chronology is not something that would have occurred to me. For a Muslim it is very clear that the fact of the succession of prophets settles the matter. Here is the end of the story; here is the climax not in Jesus, but in Mohammed. That's not how the Christian sees it. So the Christian is forced to say, 'How do the resources in what I say begin to address that question as a real question?' I may find things in my own tradition which may help me with that. The ongoing conversation may bring more to light: listen, react, explore, discover.

Both our faiths of course are missionary faiths. We believe that the truth we have been given by God is a truth that can transform any and every human life in any and every human situation. Precisely because we have that in common, it's not always easy to find a space that we can inhabit together. And yet it's just that passion for a universal truth, and for the human equality and inter-connectedness that goes with it, which makes us recognize in one another the same impulse, and the same seriousness. That too is part of what grounds and makes sense of the dialogue we want to pursue. Each of us, in proportion to how serious we are about our faith, longs for others to share it. But the point about the dialogue is that we are (so to speak) bracketing for a moment the desire that someone else should share and fully identify with us, and taking the time necessary to explore and discover one another in the hope that something of God and our selves is discovered in that moment.

So, dialogue is a very specialized kind of talk: a conversation without too many 'tight' definitions of what a good outcome would be. And that's not easy to defend sometimes in our world. You've probably noticed this. People ask, what is the point of dialogue if it isn't to convert your dialogue partner? why are you wasting your time? And because we live in a culture which is impatient, short-term-ist and very much focused on measureable outcomes, you will always find people who will say to you, in respect of Muslim–Christian dialogue, 'How do you measure its success?' And if you say that you're not going to measure its success by how many people change from one side to the other, some people may want to say it's not worthwhile. I believe that those of us who are engaging in dialogue need to say very clearly that the worthwhile-ness of it is in that deepening of discovery that occurs within it. It's one of the many means that God gives us to sink more deeply into the infinity of God's work, presence and purpose. It needs no justification other than that. If it becomes primarily an argument somebody has to win, or primarily a negotiation about something on which we all agree; then it's much less than it can be.

I want to suggest that, understood as a means of God-given discovery, dialogue actually brings us up against a greater and fuller awareness of the sheer mystery of the God with whom we all have to do. It instills in us a deeper gratitude that the mysterious, infinite God who surrounds and pervades everything that is has nonetheless spoken a word to us which changes us. Now, the change that was wrought in us by the gift and revelation of the infinite God is what we begin from in gratitude and acknowledgement. And in recognizing that gift, that mystery, we find our appetite kindled, our taste for truth awakened; and so we turn to one another, looking, listening and confidently praying that in that encounter we grow.

I don't know whether I shall ever again meet my Oxford taxi-driver, but I pray that however much that conversation felt like an exchange of misunderstandings, we may both have grown just a tiny bit during that encounter. And the very fact that I am telling you the story of that encounter now, is partly to illustrate my own experience of being brought up against what I didn't know I didn't know, in a conversation. And that surely is a very significant aspect of dialogue: the discovery that we don't know even what we don't know. And we must, in attention and listening find that out if God is to do what God wants with us.

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