This paper looks at the ‘living’ experience of building a dialogue between different cultural systems, between ethnic groups and primarily between religious organisations, which consist of more than 40 different types in Tomsk, Western Siberia. Over the past 10 years of regular meetings (2-3 times a month), almost all leaders and representatives of religious organisations and movements in the city learned about each other, changed stereotypes into more accurate impressions of ‘others’, discussed the most pressing issues, developed mechanisms to achieve consensus and mutual respect, and even created joint projects.
A special role was played by scientists, who have created a neutral space where religious representatives are able to engage in equal dialogue and strive to achieve a common understanding. This article describes, in detail, the history and technology of creating interreligious dialogue, which, in our opinion, is universal and can be extrapolated to the other cities and countries. The positive effects of such activities, or the social functions of informal dialogue, will also be described. The article shows addresses formal dialogue, which is held regularly (several times a year) by the authorities in different countries, but is a kind of declarative and ineffective in building the harmonious relations between religious and ethnical groups. The Russian Orthodox Church, Islam, Roman Catholic Church, Judaism, Lutheran Church, Methodist Church, Evangelical Christian Baptist Church, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Church of Glorification (Pentecostals), other Protestant movements, Buddhists of the Karma Kagyu, Baha’i”, Ananda Marg, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and others are present in Tomsk and maintain close contacts. During several years of the existence of formal dialogue, the groups have passed through some stages in their understanding and accepted the idea of real dialogue. This experience is valuable primarily because it shows that for the construction of a tolerant space in a particular city or region it is not necessary to attract large financial or other state and structural resources. A few interested people who connected with the scientific sphere were able to build an informal dialogue and change the situation in the religious sphere for the better.
Introduction and methodology
This article is devoted to the experience of creating a space for interreligious dialogue in the city of Tomsk, a city in Western Siberia. ‘Interreligious dialogue’ created in this region seems to be applied as a universal technology for establishing interethnic and interreligious relations in any other cities, regions, and countries. This is not a formal dialogue that takes place periodically in different countries and regions, when representatives of the authorities invite representatives of the main religions to discuss certain issues. Such events are of course important, but ineffective for the serious harmonisation of relations in the city or region, do not deeply affect ideological issues, and do not concern the majority of social groups. The article will show a different experience.
Dialogue is understood here as an informative and existential interaction between the communicating parties associated with the intention of a universal perception, through which it is possible to understand each other. The dialogue presupposes a discussion between representatives of different parties, which gives it depth and informality, interest of all sides of the dialogue. The parties interact in order to hear the position of the ‘other’, to see the uniqueness of the interlocutor’s world, to experience the perception of the world from the position of another person (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019).
Over the past 15 years, the article’s author, being a sociologist by training and a PhD candidate in philosophy, has studied social processes in Russia related to modern religiosity, officially registered religious associations, digitalisation in the sphere of religion, peculiarities of relations between ethnic and religious associations, factors determining the development of a tolerant space, and much more. His applied field research has always been focused on classical sociological approaches and methods that allow comparing the theoretical constructs and conclusions of colleagues from other regions and countries. The understanding of sociology within the phenomenological and constructivist approaches became the basis for the interpretation of meanings, which participants of religious associations exhibited in their daily actions. Observations and interviews of different types allows access to important information about the attitude of religious representatives towards not only dialogue, but everything ‘different’.
The idea of creating a ‘live’ dialogue arose in 2010, as the space where it would be possible to observe how the interactions of representatives from different traditions and cultures actually take place. This was a kind of experiment, during which the peculiarities of dialogue within the ethno-religious sphere became obvious. In addition, a priori, there were obvious positive consequences of acquaintance among religious leaders who would lose their stereotypes and myths about other people’s religious systems. In the beginning, there were many difficulties, as not all members of a religion understood the relevance of such events and were not ready to open their world to others. But gradually, the participation of scientists as mediators and moderators reviled the importance of such meetings to the majority of the religions in the Tomsk region. Communication skills and objectivity, to which the researcher aspires, allow creating a space of dialogue, where members of religious organisations can feel comfortable, but without such moderation, dialogue is not possible. An example is the situation when in another large city in Siberia, an unsuccessful attempt was made by one of the religious leaders of Tomsk to create a dialogue, because representatives of other religions felt competition and did not support its holding. Leaders of religious groups want to see the ‘other’, but they need to provide a platform, a basis. First of all, as a researcher, it became obvious that it is necessary to understand the technologies and principles, the methodology of building a dialogue, describe the consequences of informal dialogue, and understand how to improve this process.
Next, the article will try to cover in more detail the process of creating an informal dialogue and describe the understanding of the author’s experience, which can be extrapolated to other regions. According to the structure – first, an understanding of what is put into the concept of ‘dialogue’ will be presented, the main participants and stages of development from the moment of emergence will be described. Then you will see the principles and technologies of such events; the methods and ways of working, in general; a certain sequence of actions; understanding the logic of which one may reproduce this experience in other countries and regions of the world does not require large resources and already has the testing experience because the method is universal. In conclusion, the main functions of interreligious dialogue, which it performs in society, recorded by researchers participating in the dialogue, will be shown. Their description is not a theoretical construct, it follows from the empirical reality, if necessary, this experience can be repeated, using the principle of triangulation and delving into the understanding of the role of such a phenomenon in society.
The author shares the ideas related to the understanding of dialogue and the construction of the communicative space of such famous scientists as R. Panikkar, M. Buber, M. Bakhtin, Yu. Habermas, etc., and their words very accurately express the understanding of what dialogue should be. M. Bakhtin defined dialogue as a process of co-creation, i.e. a mutual process involving the specific activity of its subjects, the perception of one’s interlocutor as ‘Another’, an attempt to think like Another, to see the world through his eyes and relate it to his vision. “To be means to communicate” (Bakhtin, 1979).
These thoughts are relevant to ideas of M. Buber. The central thought of Buber’s philosophy is being as a dialogue between God and man; man and man; man and the world. “Personality reveals itself by entering into relationships with other personalities”; “To be is to communicate dialogically. When the dialogue ends, everything ends… Two voices – are the minimum of life, the minimum of being.” Thus, M. Buber writes about the self-value of dialogue for the human ‘I’. And the real dialogue should be spontaneous, giving an ‘unpredictable answer’, ‘mutual surprises’, representing ‘the real duel’, instead of the prepared and in advance known result. (Buber, 1993).
The concept of communicative action, put forward by the German philosopher J. Habermas, complements the understanding of the dialogue. Communicative action is “when actors go to the fact that internally agree among themselves the plans of their actions and pursue certain goals only if they agree on the situation and the expected consequences” (Habermas, 2000). All these important ideas try to follow the moderators of events held in Tomsk, and the same ideas are often heard from the representatives of different religions.
Interreligious dialogue is a kind of long-term research platform where direct participation and observation are possible, when the moderator proposes an important topic for discussion and evaluates the results of reactions. This is a kind of ‘slice’, the main results of the empirically obtained knowledge. Mostly, the representatives of science play their natural public role, reduce negative stereotypes in society, showing their civic position. Through dialogue we begin to see not a representative of another religion, but a person with his specific nature and perception of the world (of course, if this subject does not harm others)
Main characteristics of Interreligious Dialogue
‘Dialogue of religions’ appeared in Tomsk, Western Siberia (which has an urban population of approximately 730,000 people) in 2010, when employees of Tomsk universities and researchers of religious spaces decided to gather representatives of different religious associations for a roundtable. The dialogue was supported by the heads of several religious organisations and the heads of the Culture Department of the Tomsk region.
The dialogue was attended by almost all of the 30 religious groups, which have maintained contact throughout the dialogue’s existence: the Russian Orthodox Church; Islam (Sunnis and Shias); Roman Catholic Church; Judaism; the Lutheran Church; the Methodist Church; the Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons); the Church of Seventh Day Adventists; the Church of Praise (Pentecostal); various Protestant denominations; Buddhists of the Karma Kagyu school; Jog-Chan; the religion of Baha’i; various Hindu movements: Ananda Marga, Sahaja yoga, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Sri Chaitanya Saraswat math, and followers of Agni yoga (Roerich); Y.P. Blavatsky; Slavic Vedas; the Anastasia movement’ the ‘Sect of Atheists’; representatives of other belief systems – of various yogic traditions and Daoism; and esoteric paths – those working with pendulums and biolocation, etc.).
Many well-known researchers and scientists of Tomsk and Russia more broadly, have visited the events of this Interreligious Dialogue and have highly appreciated their activities; for example, A.V. Malashenko, S. V. Wolfson, V. M. Muchnik, I. V. Nam, A. N. Starostin, A.V. Bocharov, A. A. Bykov, N. N. Karpitsky, N. Yu. Konopaltsev, S. S. Avanesov, T. V. Meshcheryakova, O. V. Khazanov, R. V. Okhotenko, M. G. Mikheev, T. A. Titova, etc. The events are regularly attended by journalists, representatives of government agencies, students of Tomsk universities, and everyone who wants to see the ‘live dialogue’.
Over the years, the dialogue was devoted to such important and diverse topics such as tolerance and dialogue opportunities; radical and extremist mindsets in religion; the specificity of modern religiosity; family problems from the standpoint of different traditions, values, and ethical issues; the nature of compassion; social service; the idea of salvation in different traditions; genies and angels in the Qur’an and the Bible; topics devoted to the role of individual traditions and their specifics; ideas about God and prayer; religious people’s attitude towards parishioners with different ecclesiastic degrees; and many others
Stages of development, technology and principles of interreligious dialogue
Interreligious dialogue in Tomsk has passed through several stages. They are replicable for other regions, as they are based on the principle of gradual involvement in the regular interaction of participants with different value orientations and worldviews. This principle is just the first: due to acquaintanceship and the development of informal, friendly relations, as well as regular meetings, participants of round tables begin to show sincere interest in other worldviews and the capability to build stronger relations. If we approach the question practically, trying to answer the question “who should be engaged in this”? we note that one person is enough for a certain city or region. It can be a representative from the scientific community or an employee of the Culture Department or another authority, who, having become interested in the process, will be able to delegate the functions of gathering participants for round tables and coordinate future events.
The stages of building the dialogue were conceptualised and determined based on nine years of experience. At the first stage, all participants of the dialogue (representatives from about 30 religious groups) were discussing its importance, social significance and role in a society, and the characteristics of religious movements. Nevertheless, it was a quite formal interaction. The participants of the meetings talked about their organisations and their importance, in fact, without entering into a real dialogue.
At the second stage, clarifications and mutual claims emerged. The participants were able to see the ‘otherness’ in the dialogue’s process, but they still kept a closed position. They were not ready to deeply discuss the foundations of their faith, particularly in comparison with other traditions. They still maintained a desire to prove the superiority of their tradition and even to impose their ideas.
In the third stage, religious representatives no longer tried to convince others of their own position, but only tried to show the importance of their religion. The participants understood the differences between religious groups and organisations, while trying to see some universal and common grounds for coexistence in a complex, multicultural, and dynamic society. They were trying to hear the position of the other in order to enrich their own experience (Karpitsky, Petrova, Khazanov, 2014).
The second most important principle of building an interreligious dialogue is connected with the special role played by science – since 2013, this particular dialogue has been held at Tomsk State University, as a seminar at the Department of History of the Ancient World, the Middle Ages and the Methodology of History. This is a central principle and constitutes the technology of creating a dialogue space: the interaction of science and religion attracts representatives of religion to engage in dialogue with each other. Without such intermediaries it is difficult to build the relations with other religious representatives. The scientific approach recognises the right to exist for different truths and worldviews. Adherents of the various religions are comfortable among the researchers who consider such categories as ‘Paradise’ or ‘God’ as universal, perceived differently across cultures, yet equally important for human consciousness in its structure of motivation and thinking. Religious leaders, in turn, do not intend to convince others of their correctness, but attempt to make their judgments clear and justified (Bykov, Sedova, 2014).
Thirdly, everyone acts in the spirit of cooperative dialogue, and moderators of events are obliged to regularly remind participants of this principle, because there is a temptation in the public sphere to talk about their importance, relevance, consistency of philosophy, and sometimes we see representatives of religions display a sense of superiority. No one should try to promote their religion by convincing others that ‘their position is better’. Participants with such a mindset stopped attending the Interreligious Dialogue’s events because they did not see opportunities for active missionary work. Representatives of science and religion try to follow the principles of normal dialogue: give each other the opportunity to speak, do not interrupt, ask clarifying questions, etc.
It is critical to engage religious leaders by giving them the opportunity to make a presentation in order to educate young people and other participants. At each event, one of the representatives, usually the leader of a religious organisation, makes a presentation of his religion or reports on some social problem or philosophical question and explains his understanding within the framework of this tradition. We try to give the speakers the freedom of choosing the topic, so the person can talk about things that are important to him or her and so it sounds natural and not forced. After that, all participants can ask questions to clarify any of the information, speak in turn, and take part in the discussion. For holding similar events in other cities and regions we would recommend to involve leaders of religious movements to conduct excursions to their centers and religious buildings, which allows the leaders to acquaint everyone with the peculiarities and practices of religion, as well as increase interaction even more.
In general, the regularity, the establishment of friendly and informal contacts, and the result of such interaction are of great importance for joint projects. During the nine years that the dialogue has been in existence, the participants have organised: cleaning on the streets; tree-planting; a ‘women’s dialogue’; joint participation in social projects of particular religions (distribution of food to the homeless people, helping in orphanages and nursing homes, etc.); and the Festival of non-secular music ‘Oecumene’.
In our practice we also adhere to a personal approach, in which the moderators of the round tables try to create an atmosphere of trust, mutual support, honest discussion, and pay attention to the position of each participant.
Regular visitors to the Tomsk Interreligious Dialogue try to attract new participants to the events, as they themselves realise their importance and attractiveness. This principle is also important, since a person who visits the Interreligious Dialogue gets ‘vaccinated’ against xenophobia and negative stereotypes, and also receives a taste for finding universal ethical norms and positive ideas on a wide range of issues (Bulls, 2018)
Social functions of Interreligious Dialogue
The role of roundtables and events cannot be overemphasised, as they perform important functions and have regional significance. After a few years of such meetings, religious representatives began to question the effectiveness of such events, arguing about the lack of the practical significance. But after any socially significant events they feel the importance of a common space in which you can discuss problems and better understand how to respond in the certain situations. Moderators try to remind the participants regularly about the positive consequences of the dialogue. In addition, the dialogue has great appeal, due to the fact that in two hours anyone can find out what topics will be covered, the various views on the topics, understand how values are universal, and learn about the topics from the scientific standpoint.
At the different levels of society and for the different social groups, the dialogue has a beneficial effect on each participant, expanding ideas and allowing researchers to observe the real clash of worldviews, helps religious groups and organisations not to take a closed, ‘sectarian’ position; it harmonises relations in Tomsk and other areas (since religious organisations are part of the all-Russian structures that exist in almost every city); and helps to diagnose conflicts and is their natural prevention. Thus, the dialogue:
- Creates a communicative space in which it is possible to understand the position of the ‘other’, the ‘alien’, which is the basis for creating harmonious relations in the region;
- Reduces stereotypes, breaks down negative myths;
- Promotes social interaction;
- Forms an individual worldview; it creates a field of meanings in which it is possible to better understand and construct each individual’s own life position;
- Performs a public function by disseminating relevant information about religious movements;
- Plays the role of a ‘social valve’, relieves stress, shows areas of disagreement and misunderstanding;
- Unites people at the level of personal friendships, which is another harmonising factor;
- Performs collective service (cleaning the streets of the city, arranging joint educational festivals, for example, ‘Oikumene’, ‘Hour of Prayer for Peace’, organising excursions to religious organisations, fundraising for those in need, etc.)
Conflicts and the spread of negative stereotypes cannot be completely avoided in any society. In Tomsk there were many examples of negative stereotypes and gossip about a religious movement, spread in the mainstream media as a result of xenophobia or the political interest of some religious groups. This was stopped by scholars, and the religious organisations found support in the Interreligious Dialogue by educating others about their views and positions on certain issues.
The experience of the Tomsk Dialogue was extrapolated and partially applied in Omsk in 2014 and it is on track to be used in another cities. The organisation of such a space is possible in any country, regardless of what kind of religious movements exist or how many there are.
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