I also have some experience of dialogue at a more official level as a representative of the Church of Norway in a contact group between the Church of Norway and the Islamic Council in Norway. Besides I have done some reflections around women’s spirituality in general. In this short presentation I would like to concentrate on sharing some reflections that have come out of my dialogue experience and ask some of the questions I find important to go on working with.
Why women can make a liberating experience through multifaith dialogue
By the word dialogue I mean personal encounter, a meeting face to face, where the aim is not to change the other partner in the dialogue, but to risk being changed oneself through the process of mutual change that can be the result of a dialogue. The dialogue is not a place to try to convert anybody; it is creating a common story. Dialogue does not mean that the participants necessarily must agree with - anything! The process is an aim in itself, where the participants should learn to respect and enrich each other in spite of, and because of the differences. It can become an educational process in living in a plural society. To acquire the skills for living in religious plurality is empowering and liberating in itself, in different ways of being able to unfold our own personality and our personal story.
All religions consist of different characteristics and different traditions. It seems that in most religions there are dimensions that ignore or suppress women in many different ways. When women from different traditions and religions meet, they can share their own experiences about being a woman inside their tradition, both the difficult and the empowering parts. When we have worked together long enough to establish the necessary sensitivity of fellowship and security, we can identify and address problems we have in common, but also let the eyes of the other look into our own tradition and point out the blind spots. My experience is that the empowering takes place in a dialogue when different parts of our life stories and stories as believers are told in the room of the dialogue, where the stories and traditions of different faiths are present. The next step is that we go back to our own religious communities and address the challenges there.
Being a subject oneself and also enabling the other be a subject, is one of the main challenges in dialogue. For many women, being a subject is an experience missing in their religious tradition, as well as in society. Being deprived of being a subject in important settings of one’s life is marginalizing and disempowering. On the other hand, a fruitful dialogue gives the opportunity to experience what it means being a subject. In a dialogue there is also an expectation of borders and limits: The dialogue has its limits, and at some point it is totally accepted and even expected that you say «My view is different», «My faith and my experience are different» and even «No, I cannot do this according to my belief». Through a dialogue one experiences both differences and one’s own boundaries. This can become an important experience for women, which could go beyond the very dialogue experience.
What is so special about women?
Through my dialogue experience with Christian and Muslim women I find that we have a lot of common experiences of being women living in a religious tradition. Some experiences we share because we are women living in the same society, and some are more specific. But our stories and traditions also differ, and we very often have different views about what it means to be a woman. Even if have the same aim of making women visible and empowered inside the religious traditions, understanding the role and reason of being a woman may in practice take different ways. Even if we do not have the same concept of what it means to be a woman, we can challenge, enrich and empower each other.
Women often experience being «the Other» inside their own tradition. Enemy images of the other are not uncommon. Sometimes the Christian majority in Norway stereotypes the Muslim minority. The same is probably to some extent also true the other way around, among Muslims in relation to Christians. Women are in this respect particularly looked upon as objects. This happens when the image of Muslims suppressing and treating «their» women badly appears without any real care or respect for Muslim women. Vice versa it appears when Muslims project an image of Christian women in the West as objects, reducing them to bodies for commercial use. In both cases women are being made voiceless victims and marginalized.
Lastly I want to point out some challenges for my own tradition coming out of my dialogue experiences, and some challenges for the dialogue work.
In reference to Christian theology and language used in liturgy and preaching, I find that the dialogue challenges us in making language and content more inclusive, more gender sensitive and more sensitive towards other religious traditions. Theological work very often separates different areas from each other, areas that actually belong together, separating feminist theology from general liberation theology, and separating both these from dialogue theology. These three areas have at least two very important things in common: Firstly, they emphasize experience and action, and peoples’ stories, and are not only imparting theoretical or academic knowledge. Secondly, they seek the important, powerful questions, and they address them. Theology as well as church work and education is far too little concerned about doing this face to face with «the Other», «the Other « being the women, the poor, or people from other religions. This often makes theology and church work self-constituting and not really able to look outside its own circles, thus showing a lack of both the prophetic dimension and of reality itself.
One of the greatest challenges I find in my dialogue work right now is how to challenge in the «right» way both my own tradition and the tradition of «the Other». How is it possible to challenge and still be within the universe of dialogue? How can we, as women, challenge each other behind the barriers that are put up, outside the framework of enemy images? How can we confront each other with what we learn through dialogue without disempowering each other? I find it very important that we can talk about and discuss these ideas, face to face, in a constructive and positive atmosphere of dialogue and respect.
Anne Hege Grung is a Minister in the Church of Norway.