His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel Elder of Chalcedon
G20 Interfaith Forum 2021
Dialogue on Dialogue
Sunday, September 12, 2021
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Orthodoxy has a long experience of cohabitation with other religions and Christian denominations. However, this experience has not always been a peaceful and easy one, especially following the rise of nationalism during the second half of the 19th century and the influence of global geopolitical forces throughout the 20th century. A series of historical events have shaped the Orthodox relationship to religious pluralism, redefining the religious landscape through movement of populations and migrations. Thus, I would like to thank the organizers of today’s conference for their invitation to discuss the question, or rather principles, of dialogue.
The Orthodox Church in general and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in particular have developed a deeper understanding of what dialogue is, not only as a means of survival, but also as a theological space for communion and deification. The recent document endorsed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and prepared by a group of Orthodox scholars from various backgrounds, entitled For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, explores, among other social issues, the centrality of dialogue as part of an Orthodox Social Ethos. This modest presentation intends to examine the challenges and opportunities of Ecumenical and Interfaith dialogues in and for the Orthodox Church, considering dialogue as a dimension of her ethos.
Taken in its most rudimentary definition, dialogue, in the sense of διάλογος, is a simple exchange of words. Immediately, the term takes on a theological dimension. For how can there be an exchange of words without participation in the very mystery of the Word, the Word of God, echoing the first verses of the Gospel according to Saint John the Theologian: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was turned to God, and the Word was God. In the beginning it was turned to God. All things were through him, and nothing that was, was without him. In him was life and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness understood it not.” (John 1:1)
Every dialogue has its roots in the life of the Divine Trinity, which is known through the incarnation of the Logos, the Word. For St. John Chrysostom, this feature of the divine dialogue must primarily be received as a gift granted to us by God himself. For God offers Himself first and foremost through the words of the prophets, the apostles, the saints, and through the natural environment. God speaks. From the very first hours of His revelation, He is a being of relationship, waiting for the consecration of his chosen people, giving them the ten commandments as a sign of His love. If we stick to a broader definition of dialogue as an exchange of words, the words addressed by God to His people are varied in nature. While some are real conversations, others are vocations, calls, and elections. The conversion of hearts within the people of God becomes the preferred area of prophetic action. In fact, with its announcements of misfortune and the proclamation of God’s judgment, the heart of the prophetic message is a call to conversion. From Amos to Hosea, from Isaiah to Micah, the curse and the imminence of divine judgment calls for a change in the life of humanity. As such, the Orthodox Church is dedicated to a sustained dialogue with other Christians because their unity is the only real expression of God’s love for the world
In this sense, encounter and dialogue require risk at both the individual and the community level. All dialogue is personal, since it involves the interaction of unique, irreplaceable persons, Christian or not, whose personhood is intricately connected to their individual social, cultural and religious specificities. Opposition to ecumenical or interreligious dialogue usually comes from fear and a lack of knowledge or exposure to religious diversity. Interreligious dialogue, for example, recognizes the differences among religious traditions and promotes peaceful coexistence and cooperation between people and cultures. Interreligious dialogue does not mean denying one’s own faith, but rather changing one’s attitude towards the other. So it can also heal and disperse prejudices and contribute to a mutual comprehension and peaceful conflict resolution. Bias and prejudice are rooted in misrepresentation of the Other – that is why dialogue can chase away fear and suspicion. It is essential for peace, but is only effective if it is undertaken in a spirit of inclusion, mutual trust, and respect. Dialogue defines our relationship to the world in its difference from ourselves.
Dialogue exists in all our social encounters, from our own families to the political sphere, but it is also found in our encounters with those who are religiously different from us, whether they are Christian or not. For Orthodox Christians living in non-Orthodox countries, interreligious encounters and dialogue are and will continue to be important means through which to achieve respect for religious differences and proclaim the truth. Ecumenical dialogue isn’t just about finding common ground, it is about the unity of all Christians in the communion of Churches. Dialogue is ultimately a form of communion according to Orthodox theology, especially when it comes to the quest for Christian unity.
Therefore, dialogue is a divine mission from which humanity cannot be separated, for dialogue unites. It must thus be understood as something different from negotiation, debate, confrontation, invective, teaching, etc. To paraphrase a famous quote from Claude Lévi Strauss when speaking of civilization, dialogue “implies the coexistence of cultures offering the maximum diversity among them, and even consists of this coexistence.” Dialogue appears as a paradoxical tension between coexistence and exposure to the maximum level of diversity.
This lesson applies to us in the ecumenical as well as in the interfaith field, where dialogue is not only theoretical, but also a praxis of coexistence. By this I mean that dialogue cannot only be conceived as a means, but is also an end in itself, and this because of its transformative capacity. Dialogue understood as a means of conversion loses its effectiveness. But when it becomes transformative, it takes on its full intensity. Dialogue makes it possible to combat prejudice. Even Plato wrote his texts in dialogue form, because the transmission of wisdom needs otherness. It decompartmentalizes. It connects. Dialogue builds bridges between Churches and across religions.
What I have said previously does not exclude inter-Christian dialogue from acting for peace. A characteristic example of this is the meeting of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem in 2014, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting of their predecessors Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. As a direct result of this meeting, a prayer for peace was held on 8 June 2014 in the Vatican Gardens, bringing together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres. This unprecedented gesture, with which Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was associated, raised great hopes among all those involved in the dialogue. Unfortunately, a new war erupted but a month later.
The so call “return of religions” was anticipated by the rise of a diplomatic ecumenism which developed in the context of the Cold War and which aimed to open communication with Christians caught on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The World Council of Churches, for example, had enabled real progress to be made by building bridges on both sides of Europe. Pope John Paul II’s commitment to peace, especially during the first meeting in Assisi in 1986, is also remembered. It was the first inter-religious meeting of this scale. That same year, the United Nations had proclaimed 1986 as the “International Year of Peace” at a time when East-West opposition was still polarizing the planet and the war in Lebanon was raging.
Dialogue becomes an inclusive principle to which our churches are called to contribute on the global scene. Interreligious dialogue in particular has emerged as an indispensable dimension of peace negotiations between states and within societies.
One can read in For the Life of the World: “The Church knows, moreover, that the full mystery of God’s Logos transcends human comprehension, and communicates itself in ways too numerous and wonderful to calculate or conceive. The Church thus seeks dialogue with other religious traditions not out of any desire to alter the deposit of her faith, much less out of any anxiety regarding that deposit’s sufficiency, but out of a reverent love for all who seek God and his goodness, and in a firm certitude that God has left no people without a share in the knowledge of his glory and grace.” (For the Life of the world, par.55)
As the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of June 2016 reminds us, interfaith dialogue is today a central dimension of the search for peace. The conciliar text states, among other things:
“Honest interfaith dialogue contributes to the development of mutual trust and to the promotion of peace and reconciliation. The Church strives to make “the peace from on high” more tangibly felt on earth. True peace is not achieved by force of arms, but only through love that “does not seek its own” (1 Cor 13.5). The oil of faith must be used to soothe and heal the wounds of others, not to rekindle new fires of hatred.” (Encyclical, para. 17)
The Orthodox Church strongly supports the importance of interfaith dialogue. Even before its institutionalization and democratization in the early 2000s, the importance of this type of dialogue was rooted in the exposure of Orthodoxy to religious pluralism in its different geographical environments. Interreligiosity is thus powerfully linked to its coexistence with religious actors and communities of diverse sensitivities and traditions, for interreligiosity is lived above all in the daily life of the faithful.
The churches’ engagement in both ecumenical and interfaith dialogues generates particularly strong reactions within our communities. The rise of fundamentalism as a phenomenon that cuts across all religious traditions with shared specificities such as the literal interpretation of sacred texts, moral rigorism, political instrumentalization and finally a powerful opposition to any form of dialogue, be it ecumenical or interfaith. Indeed, religions and Christian confessions, in finding themselves, quickly succumb to the isolationist temptations of the most radical fringes. Extremism and radicalization seek to privatize the truth by promoting confrontation. Dialogue then appears to be the only way to build bridges to work for peace and mutual understanding.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There are therefore points of convergence between ecumenism and interfaith issues which are not limited to social issues. It seems to me necessary to deepen a slightly more serious reflection on the possible synergies between these spheres, respectful of their specific goals, and to better understand the complexity of the world in which we live.
Dialogue is a theological paradigm in which conversion becomes not only the starting point of repentance, but also that of salvation as a union between God and humankind, in a process of reconciliation between the Creator and His creature. In closing, allow me to remind you of this short but powerful sentence by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: “Truth does not fear dialogue.”
Thank you for your kind attention.
 Available at www.goarch.org/social-ethos