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05/07/2003 Entry: "Inter-faith dialogue"

I've just returned from a meeting of a new group that students have established at the university to enable inter-faith conversations. The basis of the group is not uncontroversial, and certainly there are Christians who deny its relevance and legitimacy. No doubt many Muslims feel the same way. I'd been asked to speak on "peace in the Christian tradition". Sitting alongside me was a Muslim man and also a Buddhist nun. Each speaker made a brief presentation and then there was an opportunity for questions.I make no claims for the quality of my own contribution, but I am convinced that there needs to be many more of these occasions -- and not just in Swansea. The purpose of the meeting was to increase our mutual understanding. There was no attempt at syncretism. No one tried to claim that "we're all the same really". Nor was there any invective or intemperate language. Each speaker, without apology, gave the perspective of their own faith and listened with respect to the others. I'd summarise the three contributions like this:

Obviously, a one sentence summary is bound to be incomplete, but I think that gives the flavour of the event.

I was interested that when the Buddhist nun said that there was a need for society to re-discover it's moral discipline, I could sense Christians in the audience stirring in agreement. There was no argument from the Muslims either. Theologically, we are poles apart. Our motivations and beliefs are completely different. But here was something where we could usefully work together because there is (I think) broad agreement. The denial of selfishness, greed and avarice is common to us all, and foreign to the society we have created.

If members of different faiths can get together to learn about one another, with no other motivation than mutual understanding, we might well find that there are common areas of interest in which co-operation is not only possible but highly desirable. It isn't about "tolerance", which is a word I would get rid of tomorrow if I could. Still less should it be about some kind of bogus relativism that none really believes. But respect and co-operation between the faiths is not something I think Jesus would try to deflect, whatever some of his followers might say.

Replies:

This has gotten me thinking about culture. In my country people of the three faiths you mention tend to rub shoulders in everyday life. It is pretty common for us to have informal inter-faith conversations. Although religion can be a somewhat sensitive issue (the movie Prince of Egypt was banned in Malaysia on the basis of religious sensitivity), it's one we also kind of take for granted and have learnt to treat with care & respect.

In February, the Malaysian Interfaith Network was launched. The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism has existed at least since 1999, as has the Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship, which was inducted into the United Religions Initiative (URI) in Oct 2000.

I think Western countries are now grappling with these inter-faith issues because traditionally, they viewed themselves as "Christian countries". However, globalisation has forced them to realise that not everyone believes the same things they do, nor does things the same way, and there is a need to understand each other's beliefs and traditions if we are not to step on each other's toes...

Posted by irene @ 05/08/2003 07:41 AM CST

I have been inspired lately by inter-faith conversations. In particular, the idea that we as people of faith share something in common that is worth celebrating - that we all believe in a notion of an "other" or a "higher power" or of the importance of a "spiritual aspect" to our lives and beliefs.

Quite apart from how we might express it, our commitment to the important aspect of the spiritual in our lives is actually a powerful commonality - it seems many of the conversations that I have about faith with non-christians concern not the tenets of my particular belief, but why the whole notion of a spiritual life is important and worth pursuing.

Posted by dan @ 05/08/2003 02:06 AM CST

I'd have come too...but was in Melbourne.....sounds fantastic....

I'm doing a subject at the moment on the same topic....its so challenging

Posted by Darren @ 05/07/2003 11:55 PM CST

Sounds like a lovely, useful, thought provoking occasion - if I'd known about it I'd have liked to be there (I was in Cardiff though so it would have been tricky)! Thoroughly agree, there are things we can all learn and gain from mutual understanding and non-confrontational listening and dialogue, rather than the usual "us and them" attitude too often fostered. May there be many more :) alice

Posted by alice @ 05/07/2003 10:42 PM CST

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