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Changing Paradigms in Interreligious Understanding

Shanta Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations, National Council of Churches USA, has graciously allowed us to republish a presentation he recently made at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding. He begins with a beautiful vision of children from all over the world playing together. With that peaceful meditation in mind, he addresses the nature of interfaith dialogue, delving into and explicating four different types of dialogue that he identifies as Dialogue of Life, Dialogue of Action, Dialogue of Contemplation, Dialogue of Theological Reflection.

By Shanta Premawardhana

I want you to close your eyes…NOT in prayer, but to visualize the world in a new way.

NOW … Picture ALL the children of the world      ALL playing together in a GIANT playground.

SEE … Over there on the swings…      Christian, Jewish and Muslim children            Racing to see who can go the highest.

LOOK … Over there, see the Sikh child throwing the ball      To the Hindu Child.

WATCH — I love what I see over in that field…      Children flying kits.           Children from Baghdad, Beirut and Boston,            Children from Beijing, Banda Ache, and Bali.

SEE … Visualize in your minds eye the children over by the picnic table      Blowing up balloons …           Children from Palestine, Prague, and Portland,            Children from Paris, Pyongyang and Pittsburgh.

LOOK … Over there on the giant sliding board …      Can you see the children laughing as they slide down …           Children from Darfur, Damascus and Detroit,           Children from Dresden, Dublin and Denver.

We smile, watching the children waiting for ice cream.      Children from Jerusalem, Jakarta and Jacksonville.

Black children, White children, Asian children, Immigrant children. Privileged children, Poor children, Homeless children, Grandchildren. Orphans, Fatherless, Motherless, Hope filled, Hopeless …      ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE WORLD.

I have a plaque on my desk that says "Faith is knowing that there is an ocean because you've seen a brook." If the ocean is that playground that you visualized, or that prayer about nation not raising sword against nation, you who are in this room is the brook. Because I've seen this, I can imagine that.

I want to say how good it is to be in the shadow of Hartford Seminary. I don't have to tell you about the incredible value the Seminary and its MacDonald Center, under Professor Jane Smith's leadership is to you here in Connecticut, but let me tell you that it has provided cutting edge leadership to Christians in relations with Muslims.

Our two institutions, the NCC and Hartford Seminary have had a strong relationship over the years. Only a couple of months ago, we did two pilot events for our brand new joint project, one here at the seminary and the other in New York at Union Seminary. "God Is One: The Way of Islam" is a text book on Islam for Christians written by Hartford's own Marston Speight. We are encouraging churches to use its six week long adult education curriculum in their churches, and Hartford's Islamic scholars who are Muslims themselves are training those who will teach those classes. We've had at least two churches that have completed the class already and I know of another planning to do so this summer. If this project succeeds, I am hoping that in 10 years, we would have done this training in hundreds of local communities across this country, and as Christians learn about Islam, improve their attitudes about Muslims and churches and Mosques build relationships, there would be sea change in the way Americans view Muslims and Islam. I don't have to tell you, you know why this is important.

I work for the National Council of Churches, an organization of 35 Christian denominations … Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox, who are members of the organization. And these denominations represent over 100,000 churches across the US. That we have such a table where Churches seeped in ancient traditions come together to forge a common agenda is itself a miracle. Can you imagine Armenian Orthodox sitting next to the Society of Friends, or Historic African American Churches together with Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church!

Perhaps the most fundamental ecumenical principle that keeps churches that are so different from each other working together is called the Lund Principle: "We will act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately." It is a commitment that affirms the value of the common table, but at the same time affirms the distinctives and differences of the individual communions. This has been the primary paradigms for creating and sustaining the ecumenical table. Having come together, this Community of Communions works to engage the churches and the larger public in areas such as justice, peace, mobilizing against poverty and ecological concerns.  

Last year addressing a gathering of 130 religious leaders in conference called "A Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue" Dr. Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches said that it is time that we take the same Lund Principle that characterizes the ecumenical movement to the interfaith movement. That "We will act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately." I appreciate that coming from him. For a long time I have maintained that the word "ecumenical" itself should not be limited to the Christian ecumenical project. The word "ecumenical" derives from the Greek "oikumene" meaning the "household of God" or the entire world. It is a word with much broader meaning than the ones Christians are giving it. Although I won't use the word to refer to interfaith contexts because that would create all kinds of confusion, I hope we can use the principle to describe the interfaith table as well. We will act together in matters except those things in which deep differences of conviction compel as to act separately.

Someone said that there are two movements in the world these days: globalization and interfaith. Indeed, the world is going interfaith. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. I believe, and I hope the systems theorists among us will agree that the opposition we see by those who pull back toward political unilateralism, cultural homogeneity and religious exclusivism is a sign of a systemic pullback toward homeostasis that confirms this hypothesis. A paradigm shift, as you know, is a different way of looking at the same realities. I want to share with you the excitement I feel about this paradigm shift.

First, it used to be that religious leaders would initiate this interreligious conversation. Now, it's the governments that are bringing religious leaders to the table. I've just returned from Kazakhstan where I was a group of religious leaders helping them to prepare for a religious leaders summit in September. They are trying to set up its new capital Astana as a City of Peace. And they think that the way to do solidify it is to get interfaith dialogue to be at the center. Notice: this is the government of Kazakhstan, which, as a part of the Soviet Union, just 16 years ago, was officially hostile to religion.

Then as you probably know, the United Nations has now engaged in an initiative called Alliance among Civilizations (it used to be called Dialogue among Civilizations). Among its chief proponents is the government of the Philippines. A recent headline in Philippine newspapers read interfaith dialogue is the best solution to terrorism. "Faith is the greatest antidote to terrorism," said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and urged religious leaders to reach out across cultural and religious barriers. What they are doing is just as important as building up military forces to fight terrorism and injustice across the globe, she said. In the Philippines, the "vestiges of conflict in Mindanao are finally fading away" due to interfaith dialogue, Arroyo said.

Not only governments, business leaders are interested in the conversation. Already this year I've had two meetings with top business leaders who are wanting be engaged with interfaith relations. A group called Young Presidents' Organization comprises CEOs of major corporations who are under 50 years of age. These people with successful businesses and lots of money are sick of the extremist rhetoric. Their Peace Action Network brought together 8 religious leaders: Jewish, Muslim and Christian to ask us about how to promote interfaith relations, how to reduce the extremist rhetoric in the media because that's what's good for business.

Another group of business leaders who are Christians, said to a group of religious leaders, we've tried to bring our Christian values to our business. Its hard, because, someone said, businesses have one purpose … and that is to make money. There is no second purpose. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon we have to make sure that the stock is going up, one said, if not there will be other repercussions, like lay offs and the future of the company might be at stake. In the midst of that we've tried to bring Christian values to our business practices. But then we look around and people on our boards, people in senior management and people who are ordinary workers are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha'is and so on, and we have to ask, what are their values and we don't know. One gentleman got up and said, I am now 84. My time is gone, but I think about how things will be 20 years from now. What do we know about religion and values of people in India and China? We need you to help us find figure this out!

Not only these: educators, health care workers, politicians, police and fire departments are now the ones calling religious leaders to the table. That's a significant change. At a recent meeting at the UN, some religious leaders began to think through this change in paradigm. How do we avoid being co-opted by the political or governmental interests we asked?

In our work of Interfaith Relations, we commonly refer to four types of dialogue.. Dialogue of Life: where people try to relate to their neighbors, sharing their joys and sorrows, and being challenged by and celebrating that diversity. Dialogue of Action: where people of faith come together to out of concern for their neighbors, to provide humanitarian aid for those in need, to work on advocacy issues or to agitate against injustice and for human liberation. Dialogue of Contemplation: is when persons, rooted in their own religious traditions share their spiritual riches with each other, through prayer and meditation, reading each other's scriptures or participating in rituals, sometimes even doing interfaith services … like Thanksgiving services. Dialogue of Theological Reflection: where people of different religious traditions come together for conversation, seeking to deepen their understanding of each other's faith stories, religious heritages, scriptures and spiritual values. Let me describe these briefly and identify for you the some new questions that lead us to this paradigm shift.

Dialogue of Life

I don't have to tell you: people of other religions are our neighbors. Even though this demographic shift in the US is relatively new … large scale immigrations began only after 1965, religious plurality is not new, even in this country, before our Christian fore-parents came to these shores, there was a great plurality of religions in this continent and they still survive. Some people look at that and are thrilled to see the richness that these diverse immigrants and religious people bring to this country. But others are afraid. And after 9/11 their fears are compounded, and of course we have a government that wants to play on those fears. Here are some are real questions that Christians have raised with me in my pastoral practice of over 25 years.

I am going to surgery. My surgeon is a Bangladeshi Muslim and prays to Allah before she does surgery. If she is praying to God, then I am happy. But if she is praying to another God, can I trust her to do it right?

My son's Social Studies teacher is a Buddhist. He came home one day saying that Buddhism is very attractive to him and that he is going to a meditation class. Is this man trying to proselytize my son?

My daughter is going out with a young man from a Hindu family. He is a fine young man, but his family is very religious. They have a special place in their house set up for God statues and they burn incense there every night and say prayers. It seems creepy to me. Some people in the neighborhood came to my door asking me to sign a petition. Some Muslims have gone to the Town Council to ask for zoning to build a mosque. The petition is to oppose that. It says the mosque is a front for a terrorist training center.

Now, here the new question that we need to struggle with. In these situations, is the real question religion, or ethnicity? In other words, how much are our racial prejudices at play here. This is a question we haven't asked as clearly as we should have.

Here's an example: The recent cartoon controversy and the current immigration debate. I have just finished writing an article to a religion journal about Christian responses to the cartoon controversy. The really interesting thing about those responses was that those Christians who have had long standing relationships with Muslims understood at some depth the pain that Muslims were feeling about this. Those who didn't and I criticized, both the Danish council of Churches and the European Evangelical Alliance particularly for the way their statements were patronizing and even offensive to Muslims. US Evangelical Christians were confrontational. There were at least two critical questions, I suggested that Christians should have taken into consideration. One the publication of those cartoons was deliberately provocative … remember that they refused to publish caricatures of Jesus. Two, that it needs to be seen in the context of growing Islamophobia in Europe and in the United States. My challenge to them is that they cannot allow the Christian commitment to anti-racism to take a back seat to freedom of speech. We've begun to ask, if one of the real difficulties of creating this table is one of racism, rather than religion.

Dialogue of Action

In local communities, Interfaith Councils have formed to create food pantries, development organizations, and do community organizing. This is one of the more exciting things I've done: organizing interfaith communities to engage in neighborhood actions.

We learned that the powers that be have an interest in keeping us divided in to religious and racial communities. We discovered that if we stood together we were had power to accomplish much. If it was a matter of putting up a stop sign in a neighborhood corner or closing down a local drug house, or lobbying the State legislature and lobby for equitable school funding, small victories led to bigger victories.

The immigration protests these days remind me of those days. If the people who protest look like those in this room, white, black, Asian, Latino, there's great power in that. For a long time it was difficult to get African Americans and Latinos to come together. But Jesse Jackson is out to change that reality. He's been outspoken about the immigration question. Writing recently in the Chicago Sun-Times, he addressed his African American constituency. Its time African American joined that struggle he said. "Si se puede" (Yes, we can) the slogan of the Latino immigrant movement, he said is the new "We shall overcome."

Here's the question to struggle with as we move forward. Religious people are motivated by faith. But there are lots of activists who say they are not religious, but they are our best allies. What's going on here? How can we dialogue with those of "no faith" that we often work with in causes of justice? Or is there another way to think about "faith." For instance, if faith is knowing that there is an ocean because you have seen a brook … in other words, if faith is being able to visualize a new world and work towards it, are there people who call themselves non-religious, also people of faith? And then, if we think differently about "faith" would we be able to find a commonality between religious traditions that has been evading us?

Dialogue of Religious Experience

Sometimes local communities want to come together in prayer and worship. Many communities now have Thanksgiving services. But can Christians and Hindus worship together? What are some guidelines as we think about how to do this? Very recently the Christian Conference of Connecticut (my colleague Dr. Steve Sidorak sent it to me) adopted a document called, "Together We Pray: Ecumenical Guidelines for Christians Participating in Interreligious Prayer and Worship" It's a great document with practical suggestions and I commend that to you.

Not only are people seeking ways to pray or worship together with neighbors of other religions, but we are taking up other's religious practices. For instance, these days more and more Christians are taking up Yoga, Tai Chi and various meditation practices. My friend Father Tom Ryan has written books about how Christians ought to do this.

However, there's a problem about this that we haven't usually addressed. When we undertake another's spiritual practice, we take tend to take the practice part of it, and insert different spiritual content into it. So for instance, Christians have tended to undertake meditation, like Buddhists do, but insert Christian content into the meditative reflection. Although people tend to benefit from such exercises, there is something not quite right about that. Meditation in the Buddhist or Hindu traditions has a specific salvific purpose. In other words, it is meant to lead to a specifically religious goal. The new question we are now considering is this: what if we don't put our own religious content into another's practice. What if we used the practice with the content with which it was originally connected? So, if I as a Christian want to use Buddhist meditative practices, what if I meditated on the things that Buddhists meditate on? Or, if I were a Hindu and want to pray like the Muslims do, what if I don't simply follow the practice of prostrating myself in prayer, but do actually begin to pray to Allah who is One and affirm the teaching of the Prophet? These are the new questions we are beginning to grapple with. In other worlds, rather than undertake other's religious practices piecemeal, can we undertake them with the full knowledge of what we are doing?

Dialogue of Theological Reflection

For the longest time, we thought that all that was meant by Interfaith Dialogue was when religious scholars got together to think through theological and philosophical questions from our religious traditions. Slowly we began to realize that all these other kinds of dialogue are also taking place at the same time. Ecumenical Christians have been working on building dialogue tables for several decades now where scholars have come to the table to dialogue on concepts in their religious traditions that may be similar or different to those of other traditions. Along the way we've learned many lessons that are published in a booklet entitled " Ecumenical Considerations: For Dialogue and Relations with People of Other Religions."

A new era in the dialogue of theological reflection is now starting. Christians are asking, for instance, if it is theologically appropriate for us to do our theologizing in the presence and engagement of people of other religions. We've noticed that had we done our interpretations of the passion narratives in the presence of Jews, we may have been more alert to the misconceptions that have caused so much grief and suffering. So we are also asking the converse question, is there something inadequate about Christian theology that is done without the presence and engagement of people of other religions. If we say yes to that question, we will have to rethink a lot of our theology.

I participate in an on-going group convened by the World Council of Churches, called "Thinking Together," a group of international scholars who are themselves practitioners of several different religious traditions. Because we have Buddhists present, we can't call it theologizing together. We have finished one project on our how our religious traditions view "The Other," and now we are working on how our religious traditions think about "Conversion." Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who are part of the "Thinking Together" group think that this would be a new direction on how our traditions will begin to interpret their sacred scriptures and engage their theological traditions.

These are some of the new questions and directions that point to the change in paradigm. The point is to get to the visualization that we began with … the prayer that "nation shall not lift up sword against nation" and children from different nations and religions on the same playground. That's the ocean. Yes, its hard to think that we will ever get to the ocean, but I have faith that we will. For no other reason, than I have seen the brook. And the brook is right here in this room.

Shanta Premawardhana is the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations, National Council of Churches USA. His blog on Interfaith Relations can be found at nccinterfaith.blogspot.com.

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