Monday, December 1, 2014

“Faith-full” Dialogue


Over the past few weeks we have seen different religious communities joining in a common goal. As news of the capture of the 45 UNDOF Peacekeepers in Golan came through to Fiji, various religious groups began to hold special prayers for the safety, release of the Golan 45 and for their families, their communities and their comrades in arms. This common spiritual activity was an example of what interreligious cooperation can do.

Last year, when Sigatoka Methodist Primary School was gutted by fire, the first group to visit the Methodist Church Connexional Office and offer support and financial assistance was the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha. In their presentation they explained that they felt for the students and the Church as they also had built and managed schools. This was an example of common issues and goals bringing different faith communities together in solidarity and support.

Inter-religious cooperation offers a response to the challenge of religious diversity that not only prevents civil strife but also builds stronger communities. From this perspective, interfaith cooperation is not just a nice idea for those interested in spiritual dialogue and growth, but shifts to become a matter of greater civic concern and a possible to solution to concrete social tensions. When a diverse society finds ways to bring people of different backgrounds together to work on projects, in organizations and associations, the community is strengthened in spite of its diversity; in addition to social cohesion, creativity and productivity are likely to increase for that community.

As I have shared previously in this column, one of the Methodist Church in Fiji’s 12 Pillars is Inter-Church and Inter-Religious Cooperation. One of the Key Strategic Areas of Church’s Connexional Plan which will be officially launched next month is KSA#5- “Healing of the Nation through Strengthening Intra-Church, Inter-Church and Inter-Religious Relationships”.  This includes greater participation with other churches in activities; creating awareness of existing and developing relationships with other churches and promoting respect for the holy days of other religious communities. Since last year, the Church has been sending congratulatory messages for Eid, Diwali etc.

As our democratically elected Prime Minister prepares to speak at the United Nations, I recall that seven years ago, the UN General Assembly held a high-level dialogue on interreligious and intercultural cooperation for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and universal respect on matters of freedom of religion or belief and cultural diversity, in coordination with other similar initiatives in this area.

The Methodist Connexional Plan also commits the Church to more dialogue between churches and other faith-based organizations.

The World Council of Churches developed Four Principles of Interfaith Dialogue. These are:
1.       Dialogue begins when people meet each other.
2.       Dialogue is about building up trust in the other person and learning to tell the truth about another religious tradition.
3.       Dialogue helps us to work together for the goal of a developing a better human community.
4.       Dialogue becomes a way of authentic mutual witness.

In other words, by making time to meet people, and being open to conversation with people of different faiths, a relationship of trust will develop. Because of this respectful and trusting relationship, each person will be able to explain their beliefs and practices to others. Through explaining our beliefs to others and being open to the responses of those from other faiths, we gain a greater insight into the truth of the God we worship.

In his “Inconclusive” conclusion to “Introducing Theologies of Religions,” Paul Knitter writes of engaging with other religions in friendship in ethical responses of their beliefs to situations of suffering and violence.

“As this conversation has shown, there is greater awareness of the interdependence of human life. This awareness of interdependence has led to the understanding of the need for collaboration across religious barriers in dealing with the pressing problems of the world caused by globalization of political, economic, and even religious life.”

“All religious traditions, therefore, are challenged to contribute to the emergence of a global community that would live in mutual respect and peace. At stake is the credibility of religious traditions as forces that can bring justice, peace, and healing to a broken world. “

In spite of divergent philosophical views, it is possible to understand and approach religious traditions on the basis of common traits such as love of one's neighbour, kindness, and compassion; and even the golden rule to – “do unto to others as you would have done to you.”

This process of deep listening and friendship may not always be easy. If we are to speak to each other as friends, we must truly listen to each other out of friendship and learn from each other. We must recognize the need to be sensitive to the religious language and theological concepts in different faiths. Members of each faith should listen to how people of other faiths perceive them.

A number of faith communities, Christians and others, have genuine concerns with “Interfaith” Prayer or worship.   Many feel that the line between fellowship and sharing sacred spaces is too close to syncretism to embrace without understanding how one can participate without compromising their own faith.

While striving to share our faith and learn from other faith’s on our traditions that uphold the common good, each community of faith has a right to hold firm to their doctrines and theological perspectives.   It is important to remember that while these communities may not yet have a policy on multi-faith worship in our Fijian context and are cautious so as not to compromise their doctrinal beliefs and tradition for the sake of political expediency or political correctness – most are committed to working together to address common issues of concern and for peaceful and sustainable future for our nation. And many are willing to join the conversation on inter-faith dialogue.  It is a case of journeying step by step so that everyone, the fast and the slow can journey together.

While a proposal for the UN General Assembly has not decided when to declare a “decade of interreligious cooperation for peace” maintains the idea in its agenda. Perhaps the Fiji Government can lead the way and declare 2015 to 2025 as the decade for intercultural and interreligious cooperation for peace and prosperity”.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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