This has been a busy week on the interfaith front. We were very lucky and privileged to have Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald with us this last week in Scotland as the guest of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue. Archbishop Fitzgerald is a missionary, an expert in Christian – Muslim relations and the past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We worked him hard. He gave talks in Edinburgh and Glasgow, gave the Time for Reflection at the Scottish Parliament, met university students and participated in a schools’ conference.
As someone who worked at the heart of the Catholic Church Archbishop Michael informed us of some of the formal dialogues set up by the Church. One was a dialogue set up in 2003 on Exploring Spiritual Resources for Peace which produced a statement read out by Pope John Paul before thousands of people in St Peter’s Square. If such a statement was needed in 2003 it’s surely more needed today, though many people would say that the conflicts between religions are more political than religious. In some parts of the world religious and national identity have become confused. Religion is identified with nationalism and used as a reason for denying civic identity, encouraging conflict and violence. At their best religions teach the way of peace and their scriptures are, as the Vatican document states, important resources for peace but it also acknowledges that scripture has often been and continues to be used to justify violence and war. The document says
”Our various communities cannot ignore such passages which have often been misinterpreted or manipulated for unworthy goals such as power, wealth, or revenge, but we must all recognize the need for new, contextual studies and a deeper understanding of our various scriptures that clearly enunciate the message and value of peace for all humanity”.
Is this suggesting that scriptural study might be necessary for dialogue? It can be difficult to dialogue around a passage of scripture when one conversant takes the scriptures literally and the other understands it within the context in which it was written. Sometimes literal readings can be negative and cause embarrassment while understanding the context can make a difference. For example to know that the Islamic injunction for a Muslim man to have four wives was given in the context of war when many women and children would have been left unprotected in a patriarchal society makes it an expression of compassion more than oppression, as is often thought. All faiths have texts that are difficult. It’s in sharing them that we come to see them in the light of another’s self-understanding. It was only through dialogue that I came to see that the Christian text which suggests that in Christ Jesus there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or freeman could be seen as denying Judaism an identity rather than a text about unity and inclusion. Certainly not suitable for an interfaith service!
More than once Archbishop Michael mentioned that were the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to be set up now he would prefer it to be called the Council for Interreligious Relations as interfaith is more than dialogue. While formal dialogues are important good relations include working together on social projects, living together, establishing good friendships. In the end good interfaith relations depend on friendship and it’s friendship that helps us face the difficult questions and be honest in our conversations. It’s friendship that cultivates the trust that’s necessary for interfaith encounters to progress and contribute to peace in our world. It’s friendship that will help us develop our own spirituality and engage in the spiritual adventure of our age which is to pass over into the religion of another and come back to our own changed. It helps us be religious interreligiously. And while formal high powered dialogues are important good relations at grass roots level are vital – often, the Archbishop admitted, sustained by local interfaith groups which are often managed and kept alive by interfaith enthusiasts. In a sense enthusiasts are like prophets, witnessing to the importance of interfaith and encouraging the involvement of others. A friend of mine who has recently got involved a little in interfaith admitted that before this she had never met, talked to, had coffee with someone of another faith – and she will not be the only one for many of us still live within our cultural and religious bubbles.
A good number of people met Archbishop Fitzgerald. Many have said how inspired they were by him and impressed to know how much is going on in interfaith relations at a global level. I hope the Archbishop was equally impressed by what he learned of interfaith work here in Scotland. We may be a small country but we are proud of our good interfaith relations and the many opportunities that we have to develop them even more and to make links with the wider world.