By Anastassiya Perevezentseva
ROME — Lehigh University Rome interns had a chance to assist in the organization of the seminar, “Full, Conscious and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World,” co-sponsored by the College Theology Society and The Lay Centre.
During the panel dedicated to laity as participants in interreligious dialogue, I noted a strong emphasis on a specific form of interaction, termed “the dialogue of life,” in a presentation by Professor Sandra Keating.
Prof. Keating’s examination of the writings of ninth-century West Syrian theologian Abu Raita al-Takriti as an example of the “dialogue of life” between Muslims and Christians led me to reflect on my own experience of growing up in multi-religious Kazakhstan.
I have participated in the dialogue of life between predominantly Muslim and Russian Orthodox people from childhood. Kazakhstani people of various backgrounds are each other’s neighbors, colleagues, friends and relatives. By living in one community, people are prompted to share joyful moments together, to mourn together, to participate in the exchange of thoughts and ideas, to help each other out in daily activities and to support one another in times of difficulty.
On a basic human level, we related to the feelings of others, even though the way they celebrate or mourn certain events in life may be dictated by very distinct cultural and religious traditions.
People in Kazakhstan are very accepting of each other’s faiths. For example, it is not unusual to see citizens wish each other well on both Muslim and Christian religious holidays.
At The Lay Centre, this dialogue of life — the ability of students of different faiths to relate to each other on a basic human level — is interwoven with academic conversations.
The Lay Centre students study religion and therefore are often more knowledgeable about their own religious tradition than the average person. I have witnessed more profound conversations and even debates because of the students’ solid theological foundations.
Explaining your faith or the specific religious practices of your own country can only positively contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of your own religion and the beliefs of others: one cannot explain to another person something that they do not know.
An academic focus of a conversation also allows people to discover how concepts and ideas that were once studied in a religion class are not an abstract belief, but a visible part of another person’s daily life.
Therefore, I do agree with Dr. Keating that certain laypeople, who are well formed in the teachings of their faith, should have the ability to participate in a theological dialogue between religions, even when the dialogue of life still remains the primary means of interreligious communication not only for laity, but for many representatives of various religions across the whole world.
The second panelist, Prof. Giovanna Czander, used the example of the Focolare Movement to describe how the four principles of the interreligious dialogue they promote could be applied in the daily life of the laity.
The four principles are: to exhibit the most universal and unconditional love and the highest form of charity (agape); to exclude no one from this love; to live by the Golden Rule; and to love others so much that they will love you back.
I was most interested in learning about the “dialogue of action,” which seems to me the most suitable way to promote interreligious dialogue among youth. Magnanimously serving others or working towards a noble cause requires the four principles of the Focolare Movement as a prerequisite.
While cooperating towards a higher cause, students potentially can engage in a discussion about the moral principles that guide them, which may stem from their religious tradition: justice, mercy, respect for human life and others.
Another form of dialogue mentioned by Prof. Czander that I found interesting was “spiritual dialogue.” She mentioned as an example of this type of dialogue an event organized by the Christian and Jewish communities in New York City. The participants studied Scripture in pairs, using the Jewish tradition of studying the Torah with a partner as an example. This type of activity removes any fear associated with compromising our own religious identity, which often arises in interreligious dialogue, and instead provides us with an opportunity to learn something from other religious traditions that can only enhance and develop our own spiritual life.
Listening to the presentation and examples of various forms of dialogue made me realize how much wisdom is contained in the four rules of the Focolare Movement centered around selfless love: if starting inter-religious dialogue is the most difficult part, it is possible to overcome any obstacles, such as prejudice and fear, by making a self-giving sacrifice, which Prof. Czander connected to Christ’s Passion in her presentation.
Both presentations offered many interesting ideas; I am only mentioning a fraction of them in this reflection. I am confident that the lessons the interns and I have learned from sitting in on these two lectures will serve as an inspiration to promote inter-religious dialogue on campus in effective and creative ways.