I was just asked on camera in Vienna why interreligious dialogue matters. I am here for the launch of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue here. There has been some controversy about the 'hypocrisy' of the Saudis establishing this Centre (in conjunction with the government of Spain and Austria), but the choice is simple: stand outside and shout about the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, or get engaged and thereby encourage the journey towards openness that some elements are progressing (and not in a vacuum).
Interestingly, this criticism is being articulated in the opening seminars this morning. The session I am sitting in (on conflict resolution) is being chaired by a rabbi. The speakers include both male and female Saudi intellectuals who are addressing the difficulties of dialogue – especially in contexts where some loud voices find dialogue to be both threatening and undesirable. So, those engaged in promoting dialogue are, not surprisingly, sensitive to ignorant observations from those outside who are driven by lazy stereotype as well as (implicit or explicit) threats from inside.
The level of presentation and discussion here is remarkable. There are guests from all over the world and from all the main faiths and other agencies/NGOs committed to interreligious and intercultural dialogue, conflict resolution and education.
Anyway, more anon. However, my response on camera earlier was simple: the alternative to dialogue is monologue. Monologues can make the speakers feel they have said something – even if no one has listened or heard. Dialogue starts with listening – to the 'language' understood by the interlocutor, paying attention to the world (and world view) of the interlocutor, subjecting your own theological or philosophical presuppositions (and lived experience) to perusal through the lens of the other.
OK, I put it more simply and directly than that. But, the point is clear. Dialogue shouldn't need to be defended; it might sometimes be risky, but it is fundamentally a no-brainer.
Or, as I said when preaching at Christ Church, Vienna, yesterday morning, the journey is as important as the destination. We certainly won't reach the destination unless and until we have embarked on the journey. I know it is a bit trite, but you can't steer a stationary car.