The Four Principles

of Interfaith Dialogue and the Future Of Religion

Kenneth Cracknell

This paper summarises the content of four seminars Kenneth Cracknell gave to devotees over the past three years, two in Cambridge, one in Belgium and one in Los Angeles. His analysis of the four principles of interfaith dialogue are very practical and devotees have found them most useful in their meetings with people of faith. His further elaboration on the future of religion addresses, among other things, the issue of mission and dialogue, which seems to present an obvious contradiction but which may be more of a paper tiger. Kenneth's wealth of experience in relationship with people of other faiths and his subsequent maturity of understanding, provide an important yet simple and concise presentation on the basis of contemporary interfaith dialogue.

My involvement with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness stems first of all from dealing with issues of religious freedom. Some proposals being put before the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1984 were designed to limit the powers of so-called sects and new religious movements to make and keep converts in Western Europe. These proposals, clearly inspired by the anti-cult movement, were so half-baked as to be ludicrous (I remember very well reading them for the first time on a long distance bus coming into London. As we rounded Hyde Park Corner I said to myself, 'Well, this document is not going anywhere.') Yet the fateful combination of a European Parliamentarian who thought he could make his reputation on this issue and some influential people in high places, meant that the Strasbourg Assembly would take them seriously.

As a servant of the British Council of Churches at that time, I wrote a position document for our Executive Committee. The church leaders who composed that Executive saw immediately the threat to religious freedom it posed by the Cottrell proposals and supported the stand I was about to take. Thus I became the friend of all new religious movements whose only offence was to want to proclaim their message and to gather communities of believers. (It should go without saying that I did not become the friend of those groups who were in breach of existing Criminal Codes in European countries). Among those most in the sights of the Cottrell proposals was naturally the Hare Krishna movement, 'Jezebels in yellow dresses', as they were called at that time by a Northern Irish political and religious leader. I made my first visit to Bhaktivedanta Manor and soon realised that I was not dealing with a 'new religious movement' but an ancient form of Hindu devotional philosophy, known more properly as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. And I came to respect the integrity and the knowledge of the ISKCON leadership with whom I worked in the Cottrell time.

That might have been that, except for an invitation which reached my desk in London from Northern Ireland. To be sure Irish churches were members of the British Council of Churches, but in the eight years that I had spent in serving other member churches, in Scotland and Wales as well as England, no invitation to discuss interfaith matters had ever reached me from the Irish church. Obviously they had other concerns, for the civil disturbances were at their height during this period. But here was an invitation from Saunaka Rishi Dasa in Belfast to come to Ireland, to stay at the Hare Krishna centre in Lough Erne, to travel with him in order to make contacts with bishops of both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches, to visit Trinity College in Dublin and to join in interfaith dialogue situations as and when they arose. Among these I remember vividly a group of Cistercian monks talking with Vaisnava devotees, not so much about prayer and spirituality as contemporary farming techniques. I immensely enjoyed my time on the island as well, becoming aware of the worshipping life of the community and being invited to expound my understanding of God and God's ways within the teaching framework of the life of the community. The food was also just wonderful. But above all there began my close friendship with Saunaka Rishi Dasa which has led to a profound set of encounters with a religious tradition very different from my own, but in which I have felt the Spirit of the living God.

From this friendship have arisen opportunities to engage with Vaisnava devotees in the issues set out in this article. Four of them are significant: one in Belgium, two in Cambridge and one in Los Angeles. At the first and the last of these I was the guest of the Society: the two in Cambridge, members of the Communication department conference were our guests at Wesley House. Saunaka invited me to address the first two gatherings on the principles of interfaith dialogue. This is the material which forms the first part of the article. On the second two occasions it seemed good to engage the devotees with a more theoretical topic (one, though, which has profound practical implications). This material forms the second part of this article.

Part One: The Principles of Interfaith Dialogue

First, dialogue begins when people meet each other. Unfortunately, this is not a blindingly obvious truism. Sadly, very many people believe themselves to be experts on other people's faith and spirituality solely on the basis of having read a newspaper article about them. Even scholarly persons become 'experts' on Hinduism or Islam by working in their studies and libraries but without encountering real live Hindus or Muslims. But dialogue does not begin when the Bhagavad-gita meets the Bible, or when Confucianism is compared with Christianity. Dialogue takes place only when an actual Vaishnava meets face to face with an actual Christian, or when real followers of Confucius sit down together with real disciples of Jesus. Dialogue is about people not systems, and it takes place between persons not books. And it must be a real meeting between individual men and women, without stereotypical prejudices and premature pigeonholing, for other people will forever remain opaque to us if we are determined to classify them and to label them. Martin Buber got it right, decades before the contemporary interfaith dialogue movements got under way: dialogue (Zwiesprache, he called it) takes place 'between one open-hearted person and another'.� Such dialogue can happen at any time: between two neighbours, two fathers at a PTA, at a wedding or in a restaurant. It can also be highly structured as in the case of a Vaisnava-Christian weekend in January 1996 (a report of this can be found in this issue). But at whatever level it always involves people rather than books.

Second, dialogue is about building up trust in the other person and learning to tell the truth about another religious tradition. Chiefly this is achieved through listening. An old Rabbi said that God gave us two ears and one mouth, so that our hearing may be twice as much as our speaking. And how much listening we all have to do! All studies of inter-group relations point to apparently inherent needs to caricature and stereotype non-members of particular groups, 'the outsiders'. It seems that such tendencies are acerbated when religion is the chief factor in forming group consciousness. So, from the 'inside' of Christianity we murmur about the legalist attitudes of Judaism, the stark monotheism of Islam, the idolatry of Hinduism, the militancy of Sikhism, the atheism of Buddhism and the brainwashed gullibility of followers of new religious movements. Yet an encounter in some depth with followers of any of these paths will put an end to such glib generalisations. Jews believe in love and forgiveness just as much as Christians; Muslims have often penetrated deeply into the meaning of what it means to call God 'the merciful, the compassionate'; very many Hindus are entirely monotheist and no more idolatrous than Christians who may use crucifixes and icons in their devotional life; few people are more gentle or generous than followers of the Guru Nanak; Buddhists have much to teach Christians about 'selflessness' and 'detachment' (the Buddha's silence about God is not atheism as we know it). My own long experience with ISKCON devotees tells me that they are as rational and clearheaded as Christian believers, no more and no less (we have irrational and wooly-headed Christians too).

But such ideas and conceptions cannot be a matter of mere assertion from some expert or other if people are fundamentally to change their minds and hearts and get rid of their prejudices. Only personal encounter in some depth enables us to hold more generous and honest convictions about other religious paths and ways. Only personal knowledge can enable us to speak the whole truth and nothing other than the truth about their followers.

Third, dialogue enables us to work together for the proximate goal of a better human community. To be sure, in our meeting with other people and learning more about our religious ways we will discover profound differences as well as common ground. (Interfaith dialogue is not about saying that all religions are the same, though some people have thought so).� These differences often turn on the ultimate nature and destiny of the self, the soul, the human spirit. (Hence the importance of the recent Vaisnava-Christian dialogue: 'The Nature of the Self'). Nibbana and personal salvation in a heavenly realm are incompatible visions and irreconcilable final destinies. But meanwhile Hindus and Christians, along with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains live in a world of threatening ecological disaster, in which there are finite and diminishing resources, violence and war, drug dependence and neurosis. The religious vision and experience of all humanity is needed now as never before if we are to avoid our cosmic cataclysm. No doubt 'religion' is a source of fanaticism, conflict, bigotry, vicious hatred (on religious 'systems' see below) , it often functions as the bearer of racist, classist, sexist ideology, and is capable of manipulation by malign and unscrupulous persons. But more, much more, it is the treasure-house and repository of the human spirit at its best, or at its most inspired. Try these visions for the creation of peace and the dispelling of fanaticism (so central to the message of the late Yitzhak Rabin): from the Bhagavad-gita 11.55, 'Have no hatred for any being at all; for all who do this shall come to me'; from the Qur'an, 'Do not strut about the land with insolence; surely you cannot cleave the earth or attain the height of the mountains in stature.' (Surah 17.37); from Buddhism in the Itivuttaka, verse 27, 'None of the means employed to acquire religious merit has a sixteenth part of the value of loving kindness.'; from Judaism, the words of the Prophet Micah, 'Do justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with your God.' (Mic. 6.8) and from Christianity, 'Though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.' (1 Corinthians, 13.3).

Similar wisdoms and aspirations in each tradition speak of working as communities of faith for the feeding of the hungry, the ending of drug dependency, the overcoming of racism and sexism. And, even more to the point, we have already seen such programmes implemented. I think for example of the World Congress of Religion for Peace (WCRP), not only internationally, but in the specific context of South Africa, and remember how my friends Farid Izaak, a Muslim from the Cape Coloured community, and Gerry Lubbe, an Afrikaner pastor, shared the same prison cell, having marched together to protest apartheid. I think of a visit I made several years ago to the Food Bank of the Interfaith Council of the Greater Metropolitan Washington Council of Churches, where people of many faith traditions came together to help the cold and hungry, only fourteen blocks from the White House. I think of a Conference in London about drug abuse and dependency where Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus taught westerners yet again about meditation and healthful patterns of living.

Fourth, dialogue becomes the way of authentic mutual witness. The question of mission and evangelism in relation to interfaith dialogue is never far from the surface when Christians get together. Nor was it far from the Krishna devotees in either Los Angeles or Cambridge, because Gaudiya Vaisnavism is essentially an evangelistic movement with the mission of raising Krsna consciousness throughout the western world. Is it really possible for adherents of missionary faiths to have dialogue with one another, or are we forever committed to monological proclamation? Many issues raise themselves here. What, for example, is mission? If it is synonymous with proselytism and propaganda (the desire to make clones of what one is oneself), mission will become demonic in ways which the Jews knew only too well in old Christendom. Forcible conversions, pogroms, ghettos and a 'final solution' make many Jews fear the very word 'mission' on the lips of Christians. Similar considerations make the term 'crusade' obnoxious to many Muslims and continue to make it impossible for a Christian 'missionary' to gain a visa for India or to cross the borders of Burma.

Yet, mission may be a much more neutral term. Large business corporations spend months in preparing their mission statements with the result that Coca Cola, for example, boasts of its mission to bring its product to every town and village in the whole world. All this makes the point that Christians do not have to repudiate the 'mission' of the church nor Vaisnavas the mission of ISKCON when they get involved with interfaith dialogue. All they need to do is be honest and say that they wish to share their faith and to bear their witness. And in dialogue they will be asked to do just that.

My own experience is that I am asked continually to give a reason for the hope that is in me. Indeed many of the people I met recently in Los Angeles wanted to ask about Jesus in some way, with the real hard questions being asked. (How can any person bear another's sins, and why do Christians want to avoid their own guilt instead of doing something about it by reparation and fundamental change of lifestyle and behaviour, thus altering one's karma, and so on). It seems to me that Vaisnavas are better prepared to speak about their faith than many Christians, yet here again interfaith dialogue will present them with questions they have not yet properly faced and challenges that will live with them long after the conversation is over. Situations of interfaith dialogue offer moments for testimony and explanation which have lasting significance to the participants.

Part Two: Dialogue and the Future of Religion

The most frequent questions put to me at meetings, even after I have laid out the 'Four Principles of Dialogue', concern the motivation for dialogue and the aim or goal of dialogue. Is it a mere exercise in goodwill? Does it have, or ought it to have, a secret agenda like converting the other person ('evangelism has failed, let's try dialogue')? Isn't it a way of uniting all religions into one big mish-mash? I discern in such questions an underlying anxiety about the future either of individual religious denominations or of the future of religion itself.

One way of responding I have developed is to suggest that we talk about the range of religious possibilities now open to humankind (assuming that we get through the next dangerous decades of impending ecological disasters). I think there are nine things that could happen� (if you can think of any others, or of any variations on the nine I would be delighted to hear from you.) I will set them out first as a list and then comment on each of them.

1.����� Religion in all its manifestations will simply disappear from the face of the earth.


2. ���� All our existing religious communities will go on much as they are doing now, some disappearing, some new ones arising, but essentially keeping ourselves apart from one another.


3. ���� All our existing religious communities will go on much as they are doing now, some disappearing, some new ones arising, but becoming a little more co-operative and supporting one another especially in questions of religious freedom.

4.����� Religious research and scholarship will find a way of uniting all religious traditions, making one great world religion in which all religious communities will find a place.


5a. �� One religious community will have become so attractive that everyone in the world will have joined it, making one single religious community.

5b.��� One religious community will have become so attractive that most people in the world will have joined it, leaving just a few small survivors.


6. ���� One religious outlook will so have enlarged and distorted itself so that its religious community will take in quite happily people of other persuasions.


7.����� All major strands of religious outlook will so have expanded that each one of them becomes capable of taking others into itself, making a new kind of religious community.


8.����� God will act and create something that is utterly beyond our present-day imagination.


1.�� Religion in all its manifestations will simply disappear from the face of the earth

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 1���
 This outcome has been predicted, if not devoutly wished, by sociologists and psychologists since Marx and Freud. Full-blooded scientism has also felt that it could do without God and evolution has seemed to replace any hypothesis of divine intervention in the affairs of humankind. But religion is 'the opium of the masses' in only one of its aspects and appears as a neurotic illusion only in people who are sick from other causes. The prolonged socialist experiment in Russia and elsewhere did not see a withering of the religious impulse. The ubiquitous reign of the psychotherapists in the USA have in no way diminished Americans' hunger for the divine. One would be hard put to discern the secular triumph over religion in either of these societies, while elsewhere in the world ancient religious traditions are renewing themselves, as in the case of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Even in Japan there is 'the rush hour of the gods' as one observer has called it, and Africa is rapidly becoming the most Christianised continent in the world. It does not seem likely that the religions of the world are on the way out.

2.�� All our existing religious communities will go on much as they are doing now, some disappearing, some new ones arising, but essentially keeping themselves apart from one another.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 2

Indeed there is no doubt that religious traditions are powerful in the affairs of humankind. John Bowker has written about 'religions as systems' demonstrating that just as all systems have boundaries and limits, so also do 'religions'. He believes it would be possible to draw a map of the world showing where the contiguous religious boundaries are, and then to predict that these meeting points will be areas of serious human conflict even to the point of bloodshed. He is, of course, utterly correct in this: we have only to think of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia (Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic), Ireland (Catholic, Protestant), Sri Lanka (Hindu, Buddhist), Israel and its Muslim neighbours and India with its rise of new fundamentalisms. Bowker also reminds us that at the centre of the systems are the appointed (or self-appointed) guardians of the tradition. Figures like the Pope and the Curia, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Ayatollahs, the Rabbinate, the Pundits of Indian tradition, all know where the boundaries are and what the 'perils' are of crossing them. The general rules for them to give their followers are 'stay home', 'don't mix with the others', 'keep the food laws' and above all, 'don't marry out'. Their views may well be that all religious traditions will be around far into the future and that big walls need to be put up between each community. Good fences, as Robert Frost wrote, make good neighbours. Interfaith dialogue has no priority for such guardians of the tradition, whether at the macro level (the Sheiks in Riyadh, the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast) or the micro level (most  but not all  local church pastors or temple presidents).

3. � All our existing religious communities will go on much as they are doing now, some disappearing, some new ones arising, but becoming a little more co-operative and when necessary supporting one another especially in questions of religious freedom.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 3

This is the position most often held by men and women who have been seriously challenged by the vision of a multi-faith society, yet who have deep commitments to their own religious communities. Such views often lie behind the formation of Councils of Churches and Interfaith Councils. There will be immense goodwill involved, and this will almost certainly mean things like interchange of visits, visiting speakers and festivals during 'One World Week'. At the national level in the UK it has led to the forming of the influential Interfaith Network.

4. � Religious research and scholarship will find a way of uniting all religious traditions, making one great world religious system in which all religious communities will find a place, and in which none will be excluded.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 4

This is the dream which sustained many of the pioneers in the world interfaith movement, and which in developed and nuanced form still motivates men and women in interfaith dialogue. It takes at least two forms. One is a deliberate and careful 'syncretism' of all the best elements in the world's religious traditions often using some mystical basis to make the choice, as in the 'perennial philosophy'. A well-known form of this kind of syncretism is 'theosophy'. The other form is a deliberately constructed metaphysical framework or ideology in which all religious truth may find its place. Certain forms of Hinduism have claimed to offer just such a metaphysic as do forms of Christian theology, for example that of Schleiermacher or John Hick. One Christian church, larger in the USA than in the UK believes itself to offer an institutional framework or ideology, namely the Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist Church.

5a. One religious community will have become so attractive that everyone in the world will have joined it, making one single religious community.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 5a

This is the foundational belief of the great missionary religions whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. It is clear from the present Pope's new book, On Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that he believes that one day all the world will become Roman Catholic. I live among Southern Baptists who believe that one day 'every knee will bow at the name of Jesus' and they are sending thousands of missionaries each year to all parts of the world. I suppose the Mormons believe the same, for their missionary effort is unabated. Most Muslims likewise believe that one day the whole world will become the Dar as-salaam, the house of Islam, instead of the Dar ul-harb, the house of war. No doubt readers will be able to think of similar notions among Hindus and among Buddhists.

5b. One religious community will have become so attractive that most people in the world will have joined it, leaving just a few small survivors.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 5b

This is the modification of position 5a with a touch of realism. One religion will certainly have conquered all the others but space will have to be left for the invincibly stupid and the wilfully obdurate to go on doing their own thing. In a great Christian world where all will owe obedience to the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) there might still be a few hundred thousand ISKCON devotees! Or, alternatively, in a great Hindu world where all people are united in the love of Lord Krsna, there might yet still be a few Franciscans and Jesuits saying Mass!

6. One religious outlook will so have enlarged and distorted itself so that its religious community will take in quite happily people of other persuasions.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 6

This represents a genuine fear on the part of people holding views 2 or 3 that this is the way things are going. It may also represent a deliberate decision on the part of some that their religious tradition should be enlarged and modified (they would not use the word distort) so that it could absorb the worship practices or spirituality of another tradition. From one Christian point of view one hears talk of 'Hinduised Christianity' or 'Christianised Hinduism', and people speaking of themselves as 'Christian Buddhists' and 'Buddhist-Christians'. While 'Can a Christian be a Buddhist, too?', is a genuine question, guardians of the faith suspect that quite serious issues in historical Christianity are being overlooked.

7. � All major strands of religious outlook will so have expanded that each one of them becomes capable of taking others into itself, making a new kind of religious community.

Diagrammatically expressed:

Fig. 7

This position is different from 5a and b in that all major stands of religious tradition will have grown and developed in such a way that they have built upon existing areas of overlapping, as well as 'recapitulating' all that is best in their own traditions.

8. God will act and create something that is utterly beyond our present-day imagination.

This is impossible to represent diagrammatically, but here is a try:

Fig. 8

I give an example of the indication in Christian scriptures that we can only dimly grasp what is in store for us. We are told that we have still to be led into all the truth (John, 16.13). In the present time we can only see 'in a mirror, dimly' (1 Corinthians 13.12). It has not yet been revealed what we shall be (1 John 3.2) and we look for a time when 'all creation is set free from its bondage to decay' and when all of us obtain 'the freedom of the glory of the children of God' (Romans, 8.21). He who is the 'Eschatos' as well as the 'Protos', the End of all Ends, the Omega for all the Alphas (Revelation, 21.6) still has to make 'all things new' (Revelation, 21.5). 'You ain't seen nothing yet', is thus an ungrammatical but accurate guide to our present situation as Christians. I think that there are indications in the Bhagavad-gita and in other sacred writings that the future is not as we currently suppose and that for Vaisnavas the situation is not dissimilar. 'You ain't seen nothing yet', applies to all who believe that God is active and working our God's own divine plan.

Doubtless it takes a certain courage to move forward into this unknown new future; nevertheless, we need to contemplate this particular leap of faith. For myself, there is both exhilaration and invigoration in undertaking theology in interfaith contexts, and like many others I become more sure of my faith in Christ as I share what little understanding I have of Him with my neighbours and friends in other traditions. In turn, they enable me to see more of His significance in terms which often match and sometimes surpass those I am accustomed to. I truly believe I ain't seen nothing yet and invite my Vaisnava friends to a similar exciting future.