Why Interfaith Dialogue is Urgent
Distinctions break down as you get to know members of other religions and become friends. A major task of interfaith organizations is to provide a safe place for this to happen. Too often members of different religions or cultural backgrounds may live in geographical proximity but there may be little human interaction beyond what is necessary to buy a bus ticket or to pay for the shopping at a supermarket check-out. I remember my wife Mary asking a woman from Afghanistan who was serving us, whether she liked living in Oxford. "No," she replied, "It's always raining and no one speaks to me."
Meeting people, eating meals together, inviting each other to our religious festivals, visiting other people's places of worship -- all this creates understanding and friendship.
There is also the need for education and opposition to deliberate prejudice. In Britain there are now laws against racial discrimination and stirring up religious hatred.
Positive reasons for interfaith work
First, the recognition of shared values allows us to act together for the common good.
The Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" -- is, in varying wording, to be found in every religion. At the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, such agreement was highlighted in the Declaration Towards A Global Ethic, which calls for:
1. non-violence and respect for life.
2. a just economic order.
3. tolerance and truthfulness.
4. equal rights and partnership between men and women.
It is not just a matter of words. People of faith are increasingly acting together to relieve human need. They are at the forefront of efforts to protect the environment, reminding political campaigners that it is not enough to reduce our carbon footprint, but that we need a new spirituality that emphasises reverence for Nature and all life.
During the Campaign to Ban Land Mines, the Peace Council to which I belong arranged times of prayer at the many international conferences. One Canadian diplomat said to me that these were the only times when representatives of governments, of NGOs, and of victims were together and on the same side -- all the rest of the time they were negotiating from different sides of the table. More recently religious NGOs have taken the lead in calling for a ban on cluster bombs.
The theme of this year's Parliament of World Religions to be held in Melbourne in December is ‘Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth' with an emphasis on the environment, peace, overcoming poverty, and cultivating awareness of our global interconnectedness.
These initiatives are now increasingly welcomed by the United Nations, which last autumn, for the first time in its history, devoted a session of the General Assembly to discussing the importance of interfaith dialogue. Political leaders have also welcomed the support of religious bodies in efforts to reach the Millennium Goals. And we are hoping that the UN will support calls for a decade of inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.
The most difficult area is working together for peace. At the height of conflict, religious leaders can do little except call for restraint. The pope's call for a cease-fire in Gaza was ignored. But faiths can help to prevent conflict and have a major role in peace building after conflict. Soon after the London bombings, I was invited to a service at a big London mosque where leaders of each religion denounced the terrorists' misuse of religion. The good relations between faith communities in this country helped to minimise the possibility of revenge attacks on Muslims. Muslim leaders made clear that terrorism had no basis in the Qur'an.
Cease-fires, however, only mark an end to conflict -- they do nothing to heal its long lasting wounds. The Mayan spiritual leader, Abraham Garcia, who was tortured in the civil war in Guatemala, said, "Peace isn't the simple silencing of the bullets. It must be an inner change toward other people, respect for the way they think and live." The new debate in Northern Ireland about whether the families of those who inflicted violence as well as the families bereaved by it should receive compensation shows the difficulties of moving on -- but as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, "There is no future without forgiveness." An example of this is the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which he headed.
Secondly, interfaith dialogue can deepen one's understanding of the Divine.
John Knox, I think, said, "If you study comparative religion, you end up comparatively religious," but I prefer the words Max Müller, a 19th-century pioneer, that "he who knows one, knows none."
To quote one of the popes, "We recognise and confess one sole God, although in different ways." That pope was Gregory VII in the 11th-century writing to a Muslim prince. Are Allah and God and Brahma different names for the One Divine Reality? I was once asked what I prayed for when I prayed for the Dalai Lama. I think I said something like, "I pray that he will be supported in his work for peace and commitment to non-violence." At the end of the meeting I was told the correct answer, I should have been praying that the Dalai Lama would become a Christian.
I gratefully affirm that it is through Jesus Christ that I have come to know the generous love of God, but I hesitate to judge other people's claims to have experienced the grace of the Holy One. Increasingly, we are seeing that our differences can enrich our understanding of God, whose glory transcends all our words and doctrines. For example, when I go into a mosque, with its empty simplicity, I am reminded of the transcendence and holiness of the Almighty, which sometimes gets forgotten in our rather ‘matey' family services.
But such mutual enrichment requires time and the willingness really to listen to the other. Instead of highlighting differences, you need to find out what the belief really means to a person and how it affects the way they live. It is easy, for example, to say that Muslims reject belief in the Atonement, but they ask
"Why couldn't God just forgive without a blood sacrifice?" They hold that God did forgive Adam and Eve for their sin.
For some years I was a member of a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars convened by the former Bishop of Oxford. It was moving to discover the deep reverence that some Muslims and some Jews have for Jesus. In the same way, some Christian theologians now recognise Muhammad as a Prophet -- on a par with Isaiah or Jeremiah -- but not as the final Prophet.
Again I have learned much from Jews, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, in discussing the complex dimensions of forgiveness and the mystery of suffering -- "Why does God allow hideous acts of genocide?" I now find the picture of a Suffering God more helpful than talk of the ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords.'
Thirdly, the deepest meeting point is as ‘in the cave of the heart' as we share our spiritual life.
Last year there was a memorable meeting at Black Friars in Oxford, where two monks explained their practice of contemplation or learning to be silent in God's presence, and in response the Dalai Lama talked about his practice as a Buddhist. Buddhists do not speak of a personal God, yet it became clear that in both traditions, the practice of contemplation frees us from self-centredness and deepens our compassion for all living beings. Last year also I took some of the students at the Muslim College in London, whom I teach about Christianity, to Evensong in Westminster Abbey. One of them said afterward that it was one of the most inspiring experiences of his life.
A few years ago I shared with some Sikhs in a pilgrimage to their holy places, including the beautiful Golden Temple at Amritsar. Whenever we entered a Gurdwara, we were expected to bow our head to the ground in respect for the scriptures. It made me aware how casual I have often been in my treatment of the Bible, whereas one should treasure it at least as much as love letters.
Our spiritual life can be enriched by learning about and perhaps sharing in the devotions of others. Karen Armstrong has written that, "far from being a mere exercise in damage limitation, interfaith dialogue can become a spirituality that leads us directly into the divine presence."
Rev. Dr. Marcus Braybrooke is a retired Anglican parish priest, living near Oxford, England. He has been involved in interfaith work for over forty years. He is the President of the World Congress of Faiths and is a co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum. In September 2004 he was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘in recognition of his contribution to the development of inter-religious co-operation and understanding throughout the world.' Rev. Braybrooke is author many books on interfaith work. Marcus is married to Mary, who is a social worker and a magistrate. They have a son and a daughter and six granddaughters.