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Dialogue Among
World Faiths
by Dr. Diana Hayes

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.

Both new and old are making a greater impact on the United States than ever before. We encounter them through the media and also through new immigrants. People coming from the Middle East and Africa, in particular, bring with them their faiths and cultures. These faiths appeal to a number of Christians unhappy with their own churches and to some people who have been indifferent to religion altogether and have lived as if God does not exist.

Beginnings of dialogue

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 dawn of the new millennium 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.

At Georgetown University I teach an introductory religion course that I have shaped as a study of the five major religions as they are lived in the United States. The course has two purposes: to help students who are Christian to better understand their own faith and the challenges present at this time in our Church's history; secondly, to expose Christian students to other faiths and students of other faiths to their own beliefs as well as those of Christianity.

There are many world religions. But the five that I deal with are commonly recognized as the major ones: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Hinduism, dating from 2500 B.C.E., includes a vast variety of beliefs and many sects to which the majority of the people of India belong. According to Hindu belief, individuals are born into one of five castes (social classes) based on their good or bad deeds (karma) in a past life. Through meditation and righteous living the believer may advance to another caste in his or her next life. Mohandas Gandhi is one of many modern Hindu leaders to have stressed the necessity of combining the spiritual life with social justice.

Buddhism was founded in India during the 6th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha or Enlightened One. It teaches the practice of meditation and the observance of moral precepts. It also holds that people are reincarnated, and that their lives are happy or sad depending on their actions (karma) in a previous life. Basic doctrines include the "four noble truths," which emphasize the existence and cause of suffering, and the "eightfold noble path" revolving around right views, speech, action. Buddhism flourishes in Asia but has greatly increased in popularity in the Western world through Zen Buddhism, which teaches meditation to achieve "sudden enlightenment."

Judaism began with Abraham and developed about 2000 B.C.E. among wandering Semitic tribes. It teaches belief in one God—a loving, merciful and forgiving deity who has entered into a special covenant with the "chosen people." In return for the care and protection God has promised the Israelites, they are to follow God's laws, including those delivered to Moses at Sinai. Judaism teaches that the Messiah is still to come. Obedience to God and his laws is paramount but observed differently by Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews.

Islam originated around 610 C.E. in what is now Saudi Arabia with God's revelations through the Prophet Mohammed. It remains the dominant faith of Arab and non-Arab nations in the Middle East, excluding Israel, as well as large portions of Asia and Africa. Muslims worship one God, Allah, who is revealed to them in the Koran, their sacred text. Mohammed, who was born in Mecca, is seen as Allah's prophet and messenger. Their faith provides guidelines and rules applying to all aspects of life, and their God is awesome, just, loving and merciful. All Muslims are seen as having basic duties, including professing faith in Allah and in his messenger, prescribed prayers performed five times a day, the giving of alms, fasting during the ninth month of the Muslim year, attempting at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. Heaven awaits believers and hell nonbelievers. There are two major branches of Islam: the Sunni and the Shiites. Muslims believe that Abraham was the first to receive God's revelation and recognize Jesus as a prophet.

Christianity, of course, began with God made man in Jesus Christ and his ministry around 26-29 C.E. With his death and miraculous resurrection, his followers began to proclaim him the long-awaited Messiah sought by the Jews who promised the coming of the kingdom of God and salvation for all who believed. Jesus is seen as the new covenant between God and all of humanity with his new law of love superseding the laws of Judaism.

There are some striking commonalities among these five major 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.

Faith strengthened

In exploring these world religions in my college course my purpose is not to view world religions through a Christian lens as such but to help my students look at followers of major religious traditions as persons of faith who are open to dialogue. Giving students the freedom to articulate their understandings while providing them with a foundation upon which to base their explorations usually results in not a diminishment, but a strengthening of their faith. They learn more about themselves and are better able to understand the role different religions have played and continue to play in the growth and development of the U.S.

The class is an effort to live up to the mandate of Vatican II to engage in interreligious dialogue that promotes greater harmony and understanding among the many peoples and nations of this rapidly shrinking world. Today, as we prepare to welcome a new millennium, dialogue also addresses the hopes outlined by Pope John Paul II : "...The eve of the Year 2000 will provide a great opportunity, especially in view of the events of recent decades, for interreligious dialogue....In this dialogue the Jews and Muslims ought to have a preeminent place" (The Coming Third Millennium).

Unifying work of the Spirit

A discussion of the role and significance of the Holy Spirit within the world is critical. The challenge for my students—indeed, for all of us—is to recognize 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 color, hair texture, language, gender, intellectual and physical abilities, and even religious beliefs. Yet we are still one. For, as 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 difference. 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. As we enter into the Third Millennium of Christ, we must recognize 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 Year of Jubilee and the years leading up to it are a time of preparation, self-examination, acknowledgment of faults. It is a time to recognize how the Holy Spirit has participated in human history, providing hope for the future even in the face of a harsh past and present. It is a time to recommit ourselves to building a new and more just world with our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

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. We are called to recognize the face of God shining forth through the eyes of a Muslim, a Jew or the follower of an indigenous religion. The Holy Spirit calls us to work for greater unity, love and respect among the whole human family, especially as the new millennium approaches. With God all things are possible.*

Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University and an attorney. She also teaches in the Black Catholic Studies program at Xavier University of New Orleans.

 

 


 

John Paul II's friend Jerzy Kluger

 

The two boys—one Jewish, the other Christian—were friends, neighbors, classmates in Wadowice, Poland. Together they played soccer, visited one another's families, did their homework. Until World War II separated them, that is.

The Jewish boy went on to serve in the Polish army following the German invasion of his country. He survived but lived to see most of his family die in Nazi death camps. Meanwhile, his Christian friend undertook studies in an underground seminary in Poland, where the German occupiers had cracked down on the Church.

But the bonds of love and respect that Jerzy Kluger and Karol Wojtyla had formed as youngsters in wartime Poland were too strong to succumb to separation, distance and differences. After almost 30 years, the two men were reunited in Rome. It was there Mr. Kluger had settled after the war and where, by chance, he heard a news report about a young Polish archbishop who had spoken eloquent words during a session of the Second Vatican Council. After a call by Mr. Kluger to the Vatican, the two men—one a businessman, the other an archbishop who would go on to be pope—resumed their friendship.

The story of their remarkable relationship, told in the 1998 book The Hidden Pope, does not end with their reunion in Rome in 1965. Since then, Mr. Kluger and the man who went on to become John Paul II have worked, each in his own way, to strengthen Jewish-Catholic relations. Mr. Kluger is credited with laying the groundwork for the opening of diplomatic channels between Israel and the Vatican. In 1994, he stood next to his boyhood friend at a Vatican ceremony welcoming the first Israeli ambassador to the Holy See.

Some years before, Mr. Kluger, returning to Poland for the first time, brought with him a special message from the Church's first Polish pope on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Nazi destruction of the synagogue in Wadowice. It was the same synagogue that Karol Wojtyla had visited with his young friend many years earlier to hear a noted Jewish tenor.

The friendship between Jerzy Kluger and Pope John Paul II is a model for all of us as we seek understanding and openness between people who share commonalities as well as differences. Pope John Paul II has said: "As Christians and Jews, following the example of the faith of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world. This is the common task awaiting us. It is therefore necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another."

 

— by Judy Ball

 

 
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Messenger of Peace

 

A new sculpture of Francis of Assisi, a saint singled out by Time magazine several years ago as one of the 10 greatest people of the second millennium, now stands in the Peace Park of the University for Peace in Costa Rica. The sculpture honoring Francis stands as a symbol to the world of the possibilities for peace and human dignity in the new millennium. Dedication of the new bust was held on December 10, 1998, the 50th anniversary of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

University officials invited Franciscans International at the U.N. to commission the sculpture in light of Francis' vision of peace for all of creation. In turn, Anneta Duveen, long-time Secular Franciscan, was invited to sculpt the new work. Mrs. Duveen sees her opportunity to depict St. Francis as her "millennium gift." For her, Francis is "an exciting, adventurous saint" who "simplifies things for us" and yet "keeps us on the cutting edge."

The University for Peace, created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1980, promotes non-violent solutions to conflicts and seeks to help create a true culture of peace in the world. Meanwhile, the sculpture of St. Francis will help reinforce this message well into the next millennium.*

 

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