Hechler: Experiences in Interreligious Dialogue

Studium in Japan: Interreligiöser Dialog

Miriam Hechler

Experiences in Interreligiuous Dialogue

A Report from ISJP = Interreligious Studies in Japan Program


First a few words about me and my way to Japan. My religious background is influenced by a charismatic congregation I visited as a teenager and also by pietism as student. I planned to study abroad after my intermediate exam and while jogging with a friend she told me about EMS program. I was very interested in east-asian culture and religions. So I applied for the program and came to Japan for the winter semester 2006/2007.

During this presentation first, I will first be showing you some pictures for you to get an impression of NCC and excursions we made.

I am going to speak about my experiences with interreligious dialogue during my stay in Japan and about how it influenced my thinking and my service in the württembergische Landeskirche.

My focus today lies on interreligious dialogue, but I also learned a lot during my internship in a Japanese congregation in Chiba (near Tokyo).

1. Be careful with generalizations

First I'd like to share a very important insight I had in Japan. Generalizations about a certain religion or about religions in general are usually wrong because they don't reflect the diversity of a specific religion. One has to consider many different levels, like folk religion vs. teaching in scriptures vs. doctrinal statements vs. personal belief; and different tendencies. Living in Germany, one could be well aware of this fact, i.e. that a religion cannot and should not be generalized. Experience though shows, that this is usually not the case. For example, most people in Germany view Islam simply as a whole, thus generalizing without differentiating between the different schools of islamic thinking, ethics... etc. On the one hand, sometimes generalizations need to be made regarding a religion, so as to be able to understand common ideas, principles and ideologies and to find common ground. On the other hand, certain generalizations, i.e. popular public generalizations, need to be picked apart and often discarded, as they don't reflect the diversity of its members as they experience their religion.

The program strongly supports this differentiated approach. Now many different pictures, people, encounters come to my mind when talking about Buddhism. This is totally different from studying Islam in a seminary or by reading books and thus I can now conclude that I know very little about Islam (due to the limited scope that I studied Islam).

In general, the program imparts a humble approach to studying a religion: to first listen to the interpretations that members of the examined religion make about their own religion, then to listen for a second and a third time and really focus on truly grasping and understanding what the other person tries to convey.

2. Consider different settings and levels

Interreligious dialogue has much to do with the setting in which it takes place. Differences in setting can for example be the difference between an informal dialogue, talking with a student of Buddhist teaching over a simple dinner compared to an official dialog with official representatives. I can grasp another religions on different levels, e.g. on the intellectual level, on the level of doctrines and on the level of spirituality – and therefore, everything regarding the examined religion will influence me in a much different and differentiated way. I am now able to feel my own devotion to Jesus Christ whilst seeing members of a Buddhist new religion living their daily life in devotion to their deity. Thus connections on different levels are possible and lead to a fuller understanding of other religions.

3. Consider different contexts

This implies, that I should be careful if I think I found a similar concept in another religion. If we find ideas that are existent in all religions, it does not mean that the used terminology and religious concepts have the same meaning. For example, on one occasion, we had a very enlightening discussion about "jihi", i.e. "grace" with another student. First assumptions were, that this is a common ground between Christianity and Buddhism as, at first light, the terms seem to have the same meaning. After some discussion we realized and understood, that the buddhist „jihi" was not meant to be something that is imparted by god as a person to a specific loved human person, but more being a standard principle, that is given to everybody in the same way. Because people are different it has different influences on their lives. This was in my view quite different from the understanding of God's grace in Christianity.

The other interesting insight was, that the established and the new religions in Japan have similar problems to the ones that Christian churches experience, which are predominantly related to patterns that can be explained sociologically:

1. that they also have members that visit the temple only once a year
2. that new religions have conflicts with members of established religions
3. that established religions try to connect to their members by visiting the old and sick people.

I have therefore concluded, that all this is not simply related to a lack of spiritual life in churches, but can be explained by sociological or religious studies.

4. Dialog leads to a differentiated belief, but does not imply giving up one's own religion

Dialogue has not only led me to a more differentiated view of other religions but has also led me to a more differentiated understanding, practice and experience of my own belief.

I can therefore affirm, that I have personally profited through the encounters we had in Japan, which were provided by the program. There is a stark contrast between considering theology of religions by simply reading interesting essays, having discussions in seminaries and talking to other theology students or by developing my own point of view through incorporation of the experience and dialogue I had e.g. with the amiable person that I talked to yesterday about basic thoughts in his Buddhist belief.

Because of these encounters, I felt challenged to scrutinize and more deeply search within our own traditions for answers to interreligious issues. So the other students and I started a bible study group, meeting once a week to discuss questions regarding what biblical tradition says about other religions – from very critical passages in Isaiah and Abraham encountering Melchizedek as well as god-fearing persons in the New Testament. Through my studies within the scope of above named bible study group, I was not convinced enough to completely change from an exclusivistic to an inclusivistic or pluralistic view, though I had to make modifications of previously positions and views I held and thus came to a wider view of the Christian tradition.

The same applies to the subject of what I regard as making the Christian belief unique. Before the program (and the study group), I lent towards Karl Barth's distinction between religion and belief. Today I think that the very identity marker of Christianity is not so much grace of God versus man-made redemption and belief versus religion, but Jesus Christ himself as God that becomes human or, as I have begun to see it, as the triune God.

But now I would like to come to the issue of what this means for me today, back in Germany and for my service in church.

Nowadays, every time I hear generalizing statements that begin with „Islam says..." or "Buddhists think..." etc., during discussions in a congregation or with other Christians, I feel an inner resistance to these generalizations and often follow my urge to verbalize it. This sometimes stops the discussion dead in its tracks, e.g. during a discussion, when someone was building up to the argumentative view that we (as Christians) have to fight other religions, though it has to be stated, that not everyone thinks that way.

I also try to incorporate useful elements from Zen-practice in my educational work, e.g. when I tell the pupils how to sit in a good position that helps them to better concentrate on the ritual with which we start each religious education class.

At school, it is not always easy for me to teach about other religions, as, on the one hand, I am tasked to give my students a general understanding of other religions, but on the other hand I know that much of it could and most often will be used as a basis for simplified thinking that in the end leads to stereotyped arguments which make further dialogue more complicate or even impossible.

Not all experiences at school though have been negative. Last summer I had a very enriching interreligious experience, when my religious education class unit was held by the class' form teacher and in exchange I got half of the ethics class, which included many Muslim pupils. Fortunately, my prescribed teaching unit that morning was „What is a prophet?" as an introduction to an Amos unit (5th grade). I decided to show a picture by the artist Sieger Köder and led them in finding out what the picture is referring to i.e. prophets.

A protestant pupil was the first to identify the picture's topic, i.e. that the class that day would be about prophets. But when we tried to define what a prophet is and what he does, the answer from one Muslim pupil was very interesting: „A prophet understands the feelings of the people and helps us to belief in God." I was baffled. That was a completely new definition of the aspects of a prophet to me, but I realized that it came from her devotion to the Prophet Muhammad and consequently wrote it on the black board. Step by step we connected this view with Amos', even though I had very different results in mind when I prepared the unit. Another great experience during the class was, when one of the protestant pupils asked if Jesus could then also be defined as a prophet. I let the Muslim pupil answer by giving her view and supplement it by a Christian view.

It might very well also be possible that I still would have been open to such an inclusive, holistic view and definition even if I had not been to Japan, but I most probably would not have realized the different levels we acted on in this unit. I therefore see my experiences with interreligious dialogue as a big treasure, not just for me personally, but also for my teaching vocation.

Generally I think, that the ability to communicate doctrinal issues to somebody who has not grown up in a Western culture in turn will empower that person to communicate the, i.e. his/her, Christian belief to people, that are more or less alien to church and Christian belief, even though these persons might be living in Germany and have had religious education at school and, or during their one year of confirmand education. How would I explain the Christian idea of guilt, specifically being tightly coupled with the concept of redemption through forgiveness? The same applies to the realm of my preaching: "What does 'grace' mean?". How can I say that in a language that non-Christians or people without a Christian culture background would understand, e.g. by finding suitable examples and analogies?

In the last months, the issue of different social environments in church has been discussed a lot. The different social environments also need a new approach and possibly new methods to communicating our beliefs. Here, interreligious dialogue offers valuable and inspiring lessons and methodologies.

Furthermore I can understand the fascination that some people have for Buddhism, that have no qualms of having contact with other religions. On the other hand, I do not believe, that "the grass is always greener on the other side", as I have said previously.

So, in conclusion, I have brought back not only a wider knowledge about Japanese religions from my time in Japan and in my studies of interreligious dialogue, but I have also started to develop abilities that are important in interreligious dialogue. These in turn have benefited me in my pastoral service, like really being able to listen to what other people want to convey having a philosophy of mutual respect regarding other worldviews but at the same time to also stand by what I belief myself as a Christian and to communicate this in a way that makes it easier for my dialogue partner to understand.