Thursday, September 16, 2004

Religious Tolerance

The Episcopal Church's Interfaith Education Initiative Conference will take place September 30 through October 2 at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The theme will be "Charged to do what is Right and Just";

The Interfaith Education Initiative (IEI) was established in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the resulting fear, anger and suspicion that followed. IEI was created to promote the awareness of Episcopalians to religious plurality in the United States, to improve relations and to establish dialogue with people of other faiths. The Interfaith Education Initiative is a joint project of Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) and the Episcopal Church's Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations (OEIR).
Speakers will include Dr. Wesley Ariarajah, a Methodist minister from Sri Lanka; Clare Amos, Convenor/Coordinator of the Anglican Communion's Network for Inter Faith Concerns; Diana Eck, professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University; the Rev. Charles Gibbs of the United Religions Initiative; Clarke Lobenstein of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington D.C.; Dr. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance and Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations of the National Council of Churches.

This sounds like a great conference. In a previous post regarding Rowan Williams' comments while in Egypt, the topic of interfaith dialogue was introduced. That has given rise to further reflection on my part. Although I've had some personal experience with such dialogue, I have become aware that my education in this field is terribly lacking. If possible, I may attend this conference.

Continued dialogue between Islam and Christianity is essential right now, especially in light of public statements made by recognized Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggert, and Jerry Falwell. We who are here in the States might be able to dismiss such statements as babblings of religious right kooks, but I doubt if that is how they are heard around the globe. Don't forget that Pat Robertson ran for President, and even won a primary. Adding fuel to this fire are the bigoted rantings of General Boykin; tirades delivered while in uniform no less. We now have a blaze of Christian triumphalism that could easily be fanned into a fire of fanaticism that will consume everything in its path.

You might ask why I'm not quoting Muslim extremists. They certainly exist. My reason is a simple one. I've learned that I can never expect to change another person, and that trying to force someone to change can be to act in an oppressive and even violent manner. But I can change myself. By extension, the place where I can initiate change is within my own faith tradition.

On what shared premises can such an essential dialogue begin? I would think the first step would be to repudiate the speakers mentioned above, not only for their tone, but for their shoddy theology. Are there common themes that such dialogues might explore? I think so. Possibly we might begin by saying clearly that Christianity and Islam worship the same God. I know there are those who disagree with that statement. Before responding, take a moment to read this essay by Umar F. Abd-Allah;

We must first be clear about what we mean when we ask if Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Is it a question of indication and identity or of attributions, character and actions? Are we talking about subjects or predicates? Ultimately, we must talk about both. By focusing on the subject—the ontological identity of the object we worship and the names we use to set it apart—we enter into an area of common understanding and broad consensus.

Etymologically, Jews, Christians and Muslims originally called God by virtually identical names. The Arabic All_h comes from the same root as the biblical “God” (El_hîm, h_-El_hîm and h_-Elôh) invoked by the Hebrew prophets or the Aramaic/Syriac Al_h_ presumably used by John the Baptist and Jesus. Historically, we have identified our “object of worship”—probably the literal proto-Semitic sense of All_h, El_hîm and Al_h_—as the God of Abraham. And, in general, homo religiosus—within and without the Abrahamic traditions—makes remarkably similar allusions to God, creator of the heavens and earth.

If, however, we insist on the predicates, then we enter into the difficult terrain of theological dispute and creedal dissonance. But predicates should not be forever avoided; they are detrimental only when emphasized to the exclusion or concealment of the subject...

...When focusing on the diversity of religious predicates, we might ask: “Does anyone worship the same God?” Can any faith or its followers sport an essentialist label? Which religion can claim to have held a monolithic theological view even within its creedal schools? Hillel and Shammai—the sagely Pharisaic “pair”—sat together at the head of the Great Sanhedrin but posited sharply divergent visions of God’s character and actions. The Alexandrian Fathers and their counterparts in Antioch were not always affectionately immersed in Christian fellowship. For that matter, earlier Jews and Christians not only differed from their Hellenistic brethren on how they viewed God and Christ but held jarringly different notions of the basic structure of reality...

...From a Muslim’s perspective, the premise that Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the same God—the God of Abraham—is so central to Islamic theology that unqualified rejection of it would, for many, be tantamount to a repudiation of faith. From the Qur’anic standpoint, Muslims, Christians and Jews should have no difficulty agreeing that they all turn to the God of Abraham, despite their theological and ritual differences. Historical arguments between their faiths have rarely if ever been over what to call Abraham’s God or who was invoked by that call, and Islamic salvation history is rooted in the conviction that there is a lasting continuity between the dispensations of Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the biblical and extrabiblical prophets...
Most likely the conference in Washington will focus primarily on effective ways to move the dialogue between Christianity and Islam forward. Clearly this is the most pressing issue to be adressed in today's world. My hope, however, is that they will expand the discussion. Unfortunately, here in the States, there are other manifestations of religious bigotry going on that never makes the evening news. Maybe a discussion of the form that dialogue might take will be a future topic.


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