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  • Interreligious Dialogue? Interfaith Relations? Or, Perhaps Some Other Term?
  • Christopher Evan Longhurst


In the mix of discussions on diverse religions in dialogue, the terms “inter-faith” and “interreligious” seem to be used rather arbitrarily. Most people involved in interreligious dialogue and interfaith relations fail to distinguish clearly between them, and even the plethora of literature on interreligious and interfaith studies uses these terms rather fluidly and interchangeably. Specialized lexica also offer no clear distinction in their meanings.

This reflection seeks to offer some amplification of the terms “interreligious dialogue” and “interfaith relations,” asking what, if anything, differentiates them. Are these terms alone sufficient for a comprehensive and inclusive global dialogue around diverse religions?

The differences between these terms are specified by identifying what is unique about each term. Obviously, this is an issue for English-speaking engagement in the field, but the issue is not specific to English. German regularly uses the word “inter-religiöse” to express or translate both terms, though Italian translates interfaith as “interconfessionale” and interreligious as “interreligioso.” The Italian, therefore, similar to English, suggests a distinction; however, unlike English, it is clearer about the specificity of meanings.

Conclusions will affirm that “interreligious dialogue” and “interfaith relations” are polysemic terms—that is, they are different though related. Other terms, however, may be more suitable today for a more inclusive dialogue in our complex globalized world. [End Page 117]

Dialogue or Relations for All?

Comparing these terms in a narrow sense, when people of diverse religions gather for the purpose of engaging in meaningful and structured conversation, then they perform interreligious dialogue. This exchange is both dialogical and relational insofar as constructive and positive communication takes place. Therefore, at first it may seem to matter little whether the term “dialogue” or “relations” is used. The presumption is that persons in dialogue are also in relationship. While this is true, the goals of dialoguing and being in relation are not the same. Dialogue is a more formal, structured, and purposeful activity than simply being in relationship. Dialogue is an intentional conversation. Relations may not be intentional. Dialogue is a meaningful encounter, a respectful person-centered exchange of ideas to learn about the other’s religion and religious experience. There are ground rules and expectations for dialogue. Relations do not require such rules or expectations. Therefore, while dialogue takes place in and is contingent upon relationship, it is more formal, structured, and purposeful than inter-faith or interreligious relations.

Several recent essays in Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field addressed the interconnectedness of interreligious and interfaith studies.1 Kate McCarthy, instructor of comparative religion at California State University, Chico, emphasized the need for educators to distinguish between interfaith work and interreligious studies. She defined the former as a sociopolitical program that strives to promote intergroup understanding and peace, and the latter as an academic discipline that is both religiously neutral and dedicated to critical inquiry.2

According to Olav Fykse Tveit, Norwegian Lutheran theologian and most recent General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the term “interfaith” encompasses persons whose systems of belief sit outside religious categories, such as humanists and secularists. This is probably because the concept of faith is more personal than the idea of religions, which are in effect social organizations. Interfaith is, therefore, more [End Page 118] “expansive and inclusive than interreligious,” according to Tveit.3 Further, he implied that “interreligious” takes into account both differences and similarities among religions, whereas “interfaith” tends to focus only on similarities.4 However, to imply that interfaith dialogue tends to emphasize similarities rather than differences and is thus a more fitting term to use implies that dialogue about differences is bad, which it is not. Part of interreligious dialogue is to understand the differences more clearly.

Tveit also suggested that persons interested in religious issues, who are not practitioners of any religion, might also participate in this dialogue. Some people identify with various aspects of diverse religions, while others are nontheistic or atheistic in their philosophical outlooks and spiritual life-ways. Some may take a more academic approach, while others are experts or aficionados in related fields of study. Consequently, atheists, agnostics, humanists, meta...


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pp. 117-124
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