Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Crossing Religious Borders

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Crossing Religious Borders

Article excerpt

The Spring, 2008, issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies focuses reader attention on interreligious dialogue "at the grass roots." (1) Use of this metaphor rightly urges us to pay attention to the concrete and practical purposes, goals, and strategies of engaging in interfaith dialogue "on the ground" and at the local level. Another metaphor also useful for exploring the possibilities of interfaith, interreligious exchange is that of border-crossings: crossing religious borders. Given the multiple processes of globalization that mark our time, it is instructive to notice that globalization as a label points to a series of border-crossings: the transfer of capital, the migration of peoples, the mixing of cultural mores, the criss-crossing of ideas and practices, the frequency of cross-cultural travel. With respect to religious communities, easy access to international transportation and electronic media make border-crossings among religious groups more possible and frequent than ever before.

Historically, multi-religious contacts have been invited and/or pursued through religious border-crossings known as missionary activity and interfaith exchange. Both are risky business, for religious border-crossings, like geographic border-crossings, usher people into the unfamiliar, where exchange can be thrilling or threatening or both.

Testimonial writings enable us to see the ways these interactions have occurred and do occur; such narratives challenge us to pay attention to grassroots experience of religious persons in relation to those of other traditions. Through four case examples, we will look at a range of ways people have negotiated differing religious convictions, that is, remaining convinced while simultaneously being receptive to the religious convictions of others. Although religious differences often yield defensiveness, argument, and harsh judgment, the four narratives cited here--drawn from missionary activity and interfaith dialogue--display alternative ways of receiving and relating to the religious other, whether that other is continents away, across the kitchen table, or inside oneself.

The narratives challenge us not to presume the ways that missionary activity occurs or the ways that interfaith dialogue is done. Vincent Donovan's and Rigoberta Menchu's stories offer us glimpses into the goals of one missionary and the effects of missionary work on one recipient. It is useful to stay close to the practitioners of these activities since their testimonies tell us what happened, not what is presumed, intended, or expected to happen. With respect to interfaith dialogue, Diane Eck and Donna Schaper provide glimpses into ways such dialogue works within the self and within the family, not only between or among communities in conversation.

Before engaging these four testimonial narratives themselves, it will be useful to note some historical patterns and practices so as to contextualize them. Missionary activity, one of the chief ways by which religious borders have been crossed and convictions shared throughout history, has been practiced in a variety of ways. Two practices stand out, differentiated by purpose and presentation. One seeks permanent border-crossing--or conversion--through teaching, preaching, proselytizing, and evangelizing. The goal is formal, official induction into a community of believers and practitioners through rites of initiation (such as Christian baptism) and lifelong participation. Full presence and participation are fostered regarding the beliefs and behaviors marking that missionizing community, whether it be Christian, Islamic, or Buddhist--examples of traditions that have been known to be proactive, at times even aggressive, as they share their ways of seeing and being throughout the ages and across the globe. When participation occurs under pressure from those in power, conversion occurs via coercion.

A second missionary practice places priority on identifying and addressing basic human needs such as health care, social services, and literacy education. …

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