Building communities across faith boundaries

TONS of books have been printed; time, talent and trust have been invested on inter-faith dialogues and understanding during the last century in almost all parts of the world. Today, not a single day passes when there is no inter-faith dialogue held somewhere in the world. However, suspicion, misunderstanding and hatred continue among peoples of different religious persuasions. Religious intolerance, extremism and militancy have escalated in many parts of the world in recent years. Someone once said: “We have more religions to hate than to love.”

Purely from a human point of view, it is not easy to have authentic inter-faith leading to diapraxical solidarity. But, however challenging that might be, it is not impossible. We need the mentality and pro-life interpretation of religious teachings in day-to-day life. In this, we need to prioritise the ethico-moral urging of, and the spiritual strength from, our respective faiths. Humility to learn from others is basic to meaningful dialogue, and for effecting a culture of solidarity to live and let others live.

We need also to guard against any danger of limiting our religious beliefs within some particular culture or cultural pattern. Otherwise, we may fall into a kind of idolatry. Let me quote here Paul Tillich to explain how it would lead to idolatry, which Tillich defines as “the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance.”

On October 13, 2007, one hundred and thirty-eight Muslim leaders addressed a letter to Christian leaders all over the world. They said: “Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace in the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”

The spirit in which the above excerpt from that historic letter was written can better be imagined than described. The invitation signed by the 135 Muslim leaders to Christian leaders all over the world has served as a clarion call to set in motion a dialogical relationship between Muslims and Christians.

The late Indonesian president, Sukarno, said at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung on April 18, 1954: “Religion is of dominating importance, particularly in this part of the world. There are perhaps more religions here than in other region on this globe. But our countries were the birthplaces of religions. Must we be divided by the multiformity of our religious life? It is true each religion has its own history, its own individuality, its own raison de etre, its own special pride, its own beliefs, its own mission and its special truths, which it desires to propagate. But unless we all realise that all-great religions are one in their message of tolerance and in their insistence on the observance of the principle of ‘live and let live,’ unless every state does its duty to ensure that the same rights are given to the followers of all faiths, unless these things are done, religion is debased, and its true purpose perverted.” (From Building Spirituality and Culture of Peace: Revitalising the Spirit of Bandung in the Context of Globalised World — Towards A Spirituality of Common Future; Ed. Josef P.Widyatmadja). Sukarno echoed the mind of the majority of the people living in the religiously and ethnically pluralistic contexts of the post-colonial Afro-Asian nations.

There is no alternative to giving priority to the ethical and moral values and demands above legalism, external rites and the extra-mundane doctrines. We need to understand more the spirit behind, and not the letters of, our Scriptures. In major faiths of the world Man is the crown of creation, and has the sacred stewardship mandate to act as faithful steward/khalif or representative of God he is to love and care for. They teach both theocentric and anthropocentric values of love, morality, holiness, piety and service to the needy. However, there appears to be something wrong in us. We hear sermons but we scarcely implement them. Religion becomes dysfunctional in terms of values and objectives if it is manipulated for parochial and communal interests.

According to the Bible righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin. Without justice there cannot be peace. There is injustice in almost every areas of social life. The poor continue to remain poor. As in the Bible, a great concern for the poor and the weak is also expressed in the Qur’an from the perspective of justice. “He is not righteous who turns his face to the East or the West, but righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Day of Judgement and the Angels and the Scriptures and the Prophets: and gives his wealth, for the love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observes proper worship and pays the poor due” (Sura-2 Baqara: Ayat 177).

Religions teach adherents to work for a better world order, a more equitable society for all. Their basic tenets are essentially concern for human dignity and the fulfillment of people’s aspirations. But as we see, the religions being practiced and used in their institutional, structural and ideological manifestations have become instruments of subjugation and alienation. It is of great importance that we discover essential human values and portray them to people in a realistic manner in order to liberate them from indoctrination and domination of the weak by the powerful.

People must be, first of all, treated as people: people created as imago Dei. This fosters inter-faith diapraxis. It is not easy to have inter-religious dialogue or diapraxis in a place where the gap in number among peoples of various faiths is large, especially where the percentage of enlightened people is quite low. One key theological reason why should we nurse this attitude is that all human beings have the same origin.

This themes run through the Bible right from Genesis 1:1-2:4 to Revelation. Paul declared in Athens two thousand years ago: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples build by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made nations of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:24-25). God is the Creator, Owner, Redeemer and the Judge of all Mankind.

We need to promote inter-religious dialogues for finding common grounds on socio-economic justice and equity, eco-justice, overpopulation, globalisation, bad forces of market economy, and women’s place in society to create a vision for a new humanity. The most important step in the journey is to be able to identify the matters of common concern. This is possible when we can respect each other’s traditions and values that have contributed and can contribute to civilisation and culture.

We should recognise things that are praiseworthy in the life and conduct of people of other faiths. Paul exhorted the Christians in Philippians thus: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

The following can be recommended towards the achievement of this goal:

-Before establishing diapraxical relationship with people of faiths we need to have realistic intra-faith dialogue. A broader sense of ecumenism among the various Church denominations and confessional groups will help;

-The teachers and preachers of every religion should first practice what they teach or preach to others. There is no alternative to an enlightened clergy in any faith;

-Scriptures of every religion should be interpreted with life-oriented focus. People of different religions should try to identify the real life-issues and human needs faced by humanity; issues like poverty, socio-economic disparity, injustice, ecological imbalance, adverse effects of globalisation, corruption in high places, over-population, violation of the rights of women, children, people with disabilities, and minorities from religious, ideological and ethnic perspectives;

-Religious education and value formation should be in place up to college level in academic institutions;

-Politicisation and commercialisation of religions should be guarded against. It is unfortunate that politicians and business use religions to suite their vested agenda;

-People of any religion should be encouraged to decry any injustice to, or attack on, the followers of any religion anywhere in the world;

-Value or faith based NGOs, groups and agencies can play a vitally important role in inter-faith dialogue and diapraxical movement, and interfaith seminars and interfaith dialogues on various concerns of common interests should be organised. These will help sustain the impact of developmental activities for the poor and weak people;

-The media should be used to spread news of stories on interfaith harmony and tolerance among peoples so that other people are also encouraged to love people of faiths other than their own;

-Writers and artists should use their talents in their writing and arts on interfaith harmony;

-State and government must protect the genuine rights of the people of all faiths and ethnic groups.

If we claim that we believe in something divine, noble, peaceful and life-giving we will do well to share that with others in real life. We need to change ourselves first if we wish to change the world. We need to have the sincere will and courage to face the realities of the world in the light of the anthropocentric values that our faiths enshrine. We cannot love God, whom we do not see if we do not love the people we see.

Reverend Martin Adhikary is a Christian Theology teacher and a Social Worker.