Dialoguing with world religions

By Diana Hayes
Herald,29 Oct 2006

Q: Why should we dialogue among world religions?

A: We are faced today with challenges the Church has not seen since the first century. The most significant challenge is the growing number of religions, many of which have attained a significant presence throughout the world, even in countries once predominantly Christian. The challenge for the Church in the early days was to bring the gospel to countries which had never heard the liberating message of Christ. Today, by contrast, we face the rapid growth of diverse religions, some new, others centuries old.

As Christians, how should we respond to these new challenges? On the one hand, it is crucial that we remain firm in our own faith and secure in the knowledge that Christianity is still a universal religion with faithful in almost every country in the world, most of them living in peace and harmony with persons of other faiths. On the other hand, it is important that we become more conversant with believers of other faiths. The immediate purpose of dialogue is not to convert them to Christianity but to begin to learn about them and the role that their faith plays in their lives, just as Christianity does in our own. The present time is the ideal moment to call on the Holy Spirit to help us all come together in a common dialogue that highlights the ways in which we are alike rather than those in which we differ.

There are many world religions. But the commonly recognised major ones are Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. There are some striking commonalities among these world religions. Followers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are often called “the people of the book” because they share a heritage which is handed down in a set of scriptures and trace their origins to the Patriarch Abraham. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are also called historical religions, because each has a historical founder: Siddhartha, Mohammed, Jesus.
Unifying work of the Spirit

A discussion of the role and significance of the Holy Spirit within the world is critical. The challenge for all of us is to recognise the role the Holy Spirit plays, which is that of unity, the building up of a community of love. We believe, as Christians, that the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father in the name of the Son to enable all of humanity to share intimately in the life of God. That sharing carries with it a responsibility for humanity to help maintain that community in spirit and in truth, modeling it on the Holy Trinity itself.

As humans we may differ in many ways — skin colour, hair texture, language, gender, intellectual and physical abilities, and even religious beliefs — yet we are still one. For, as the late Pope John Paul II has noted, elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside the visible confines of the Church itself as presently constituted. The Spirit is the source of union with God and with one another in Christ, but is also the source of plurality. The Spirit unites without destroying or diminishing real differences. The Spirit shows us that the diversity of gifts within the Christian and broader human community is a blessing for us all.

Today, we still see evidence of the temptation to return to a time of supposed security where anyone not of our faith was seen as the enemy. We must recognise that a ghetto mentality of “us” against “them” is not viable. The teachings of the Church call for discussion and collaboration with members of other faiths. We are encouraged not to flee or condemn but, while witnessing to our own faith and way of life, to also acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among people of other faiths as well as in their social lives and cultures.

The challenge for us today is to allow the Spirit to move as the Spirit will, rather than to attempt to capture and stifle it. We have today, as Christian faithful, the unique opportunity to engage our fellow human beings of different faiths in an open, honest and loving dialogue which can only enrich both our lives and our faith rather than threaten them. For an unquestioned faith is no faith at all and at the first challenge will shatter and crumble into dust.

A renewed earth

The Holy Spirit does not close doors, but opens them. The Holy Spirit enables us to speak in every tongue to those with whom we share a common humanity, even if not a common faith. The Holy Spirit enables us to see the kernels of truth present in other religions, as their believers see them, and allows us to build upon those shared understandings. The Holy Spirit shines forth in the most unlikely places, renewing the face of the earth and making it whole once again while preserving the diversity of plurality.

Our God remains with us in the breath of life God sent forth in the form of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is present in all human beings, different though they may be in their expressions of it.

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University.

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