When did “Interreligious Dialogue” begin?

It is hard to find today a major city that does not have an “interfaith” or “interreligious” council or a university that does not sponsor some sort of “dialogue” among world religions. But when and where did “interreligious dialogue” begin? Most scholars would point to Chicago in 1893 when the first “Parliament of the World’s Religions” met in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition of the same year.

But most things in history have antecedents. If we peer back into the Middle Ages, one finds many written “dialogues” –contrived conversations among a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, and/or a “Gentile.” Examples include Peter Abelard’s Dialogus inter philosophum, Iudaeum et Christianum (ca. 1136-39), Gilbert Crispin’s Disputatio Christiani cum Gentili (ca. 1092-1093), Petrus Alfonsi’s Dialogi (ca. 1109-10), among several others. Although Christian writers produced the majority of these, a few Jews and Muslims did so as well. Judah Halevi’s Kuzari (ca. 1140), provides a Jewish example and Ibn Taymiyya’s The Correct Answer to those who Changed the Religion of Christ (1317) is a Muslim one. In all of these, the faiths of the religious opposition and/or the outlook of a generic “pagan philosopher” are presented in an unflattering light or at least deficiently while the faith of the author winds up robustly vindicated by the end of the dialogue.

But there is one medieval outlier: Ramon Llull’s Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men (ca. 1274-76), a work which, though Christian, is extraordinary in its charitable treatments of Jewish and Muslim perspectives and in its desire to foster religious peace.

Who was Ramon Llull? Born on the Mediterranean island of Majorca (which had recently been wrested from Muslim rule by the Kingdom of Aragon), Llull led an aimless, dissolute life, according to a biography of him penned by some admirers. In 1263, however, he experienced a religious epiphany in which Christ on the Cross suspended in mid-air appeared to him. The vision recurred six times, he later claimed, and resulted in him leaving friends and family to pursue a devout life, eventually becoming a Franciscan tertiary. The visions also led him to formulate three life goals: 1) to die in service to God while seeking to convert pagans and especially “Saracens,” i.e., Muslims; 2) to establish monastery schools that would teach foreign languages to enable missionary work; and 3) to write a book of apologetics, the logic of which even the most hardened skeptic could not resist. To prepare himself for these tasks, he sought out and lived a life of solitude for nine years, during which in learned Arabic (from a Muslim slave) and read deeply in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish theology and in classical philosophy.

In the mid 1270s, he penned the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men, published first in Arabic and then Catalan, Llull’s native tongue. The work is comprised of four books with a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, Llull introduces readers to “the Gentile,” who though learned in philosophy is perplexed about religious matters. Fearful of death and about the fate of his soul, the Gentile becomes sad and anxious and sets out from his native country “to see if he could find a remedy for his sadness.” Eventually, he happens upon “three wise men”—a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim. Just before his arrival, one of the sages (Llull does not say which) laments religious discord and pleads for unity: “Ah! What a great fortune it would be if . . . every man on earth could be under one religion and one belief, so that there would be no more rancor or ill will among men, who hate each other because of the contrariness of beliefs and of sects! . . . ”

When the Gentile arrives, he conveys his plight to the three men. In turn, they seek (in Book I) to comfort him, explaining that God created the world, that there is life after death, and that the good and evil will receive their just deserts, in addition to a number of other beliefs upon which all three faiths agreed. The Gentile spirits begin to lift, but he becomes distraught anew when he learns that the three men do not profess the same faith: “Are the three of you not of a single religion and belief?” he asks. It is then agreed that each wise man make the case separately for his faith, but “none would contradict the other while he was presenting his arguments, since contradiction brings ill will to the human heart . . . [and] clouds the mind’s ability to understand.”

Book II is then devoted to the Jewish response, in which Judaism is presented in eight essential doctrines. In Book III, the Christian makes his case in fourteen articles, followed by the Muslim, who (in Book IV) expounds Islam in twelve articles. The Gentile alternates between listening attentively and asking probing questions. While Llull, more implicitly than explicitly, portrays Christianity in a more favorable light than the others two, the work as a whole is remarkably free from slander and caricature. There are no typical broadsides against Mohammed or the Qur’an, no charges of Jewish deicide or of the blasphemy of the Talmud. “Scrupulous in his use of authentic Jewish and Muslim sources,” Llull, in the words of the historian John V. Toland, “presents a remarkably fair and accurate portrayal of each of the three religions. Llull’s tracts stands out as an irenic island in a sea of tempestuous disputation and polemic.”

The ending, too, is remarkable. Customarily in medieval written dialogues, a dramatic, often contrived conversion takes place at the end of the work. In Llull’s book, this does not happen. Instead, the Gentile simply thanks his three interlocutors for pointing him in the direction of the true religion, for which he wants “to work for the rest of my life to honor and proclaim.” He then prepares to depart, asking the three wise men if they want to know which faith he is inclined to accept. Collectively, the wise men indicate that they would in fact prefer not to know. As one puts it: “And if, in front of us, you state which religion it is that you prefer, we would not have such a good subject of discussion nor satisfaction in discovering the truth.” Astonished, the Gentile departs as the three men “by force reason and by means of [their] intellects” continue their conversation. Each also “asked forgiveness of the other for any disrespectful word that he might have spoken against [the others’] religion” in the course of the dialogue.

I should not overstate my case, for, again, the work was written with an apologetic motive and the Christian point of view accordingly comes off more favorably than the others. Even so, given the polemical historical context, the work is remarkably irenic and deserves being recognized as an antecedent of modern-day interreligious dialogue.

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