The letter recognises increasing discrimination, violence and exclusion throughout the world, and calls on both Christians and Hindus to nurture "a culture of inclusion" which " can be rightly seen as one of the most genuine aspirations of people everywhere". It looks as though what is being talked about is social inclusion - the need to counteract the "globalisation of indifference" to use the words of Pope Francis which "makes us power-hungry and indifferent to the rights, needs and sufferings of others and leads to a "culture of exclusion", indications of which are " the exploitation of children and women, the neglect of the elderly, sick, differently-abled, migrants and refugees, and the persecution of minorities". While there's no doubt that religions are united in their desire to care for the poor and the marginalised and It's right that Hindus and Christians should cooperate in this enterprises , I felt there was just a tone of preaching about the letter.
Inclusion is an interesting idea when it comes to religion. Like families all religions are exclusive. Every religion, while respecting and upholding the beliefs of other religions, believes that its teachings and practices are the best way to whatever they take to be the goal of life. People are initiated into them, educated into the meaning of festivals and religious rites and often participation ( but not necessarily attendance) in religious rites is closed to those who have not been initiated into the community or for whom the ceremonies mean nothing. I have sat outside some of the holiest Hindu temples in India because the inner sanctum was closed to non- Hindus. In these days of equality legislation such exclusion can be frowned upon. In interreligious dialogue we are sometimes told that religions have no right dialoguing with one another without the presence of other non-religious belief groups. This can in fact militate against religious freedom and it's obvious that in our daily life we engage in difference kinds of dialogues. The conversations we have with family, neighbours, friends, colleagues are qualitatively different based on our common bond and interest.
Why the letter to the Hindu community struck me as strange was because it was published at the same time as the document from the Synod on the Family, convened by Pope Francis. Against the hopes of many people the document was not inclusive, continuing to exclude from the sacraments any Catholic who has been divorced and remarried. Many people had hoped for greater openness than this but it's only an interim report for reflection and discussion and the final statement of the Synod stressed a welcome for all in the Church.
Another interfaith event which was not without its own irony was a conference on Peace and Unity. There were a number of speakers from religious and civic life, all talking of the need for peace amongst religions, of the need to talk out against atrocities carried out in the name of religion, of witnessing to true religion in the world. There was a good, friendly atmosphere. However, there was a little bit of an upset when someone objected to a remark which suggested discrimination and persecution of a religious community. One of the objections was that this community was regarded as a political party rather than a religion. It's not for me to debate the rights and wrongs of this but it did strike me how easy it is to dialogue only with those with whom one is comfortable, to judge another community without having listened its story. It's easy to talk about peace and unity at a surface level. What's the point of a conference about peace and unity when a remark exposes the reality which is that often we judge and refuse others the right to be who they say they are. But it's good that that reality is faced up to. There's a danger that interreligous dialogue can remain at a surface level - a tiger with no teeth as someone once said.
But it need not remain at that level. It can be a real contribution to peace and unity if we have the courage, determination and desire to face up to the difficult questions, to expose our fears and prejudices and be prepared to meet members of other faiths and outlooks as fellow human beings striving, as we all are, to lead as good a life as we can.