thoughts on world interfaith harmony week

This morning I received a United Church press release in my email inbox encouraging participation in World Interfaith Harmony Week that begins tomorrow. I confess to being new to this special week on the calendar (the addition of such weeks by all manner of agencies like, in this case, the UN seems to be never ending). At first glance it seems a fine thing to endorse. How can one be opposed to interfaith harmony? It is like being opposed to motherhood or apple pie. So, no, I am not opposed to interfaith harmony. No one likes the sound of dischord. Harmony is much more pleasant to the ear and heart and soul. But I do find myself resistant to the seeming rush to resolve the problem of real interfaith differences by seeking to emphasize what religions have in common.

This has been the standard reasoning in the United Church for as long as I can remember. In today's press release Mardi Tindal, United Church Moderator, says "World Interfaith Harmony Week provides the opportunity for all of us to recognize that the common values we hold far outweigh the differences we may have." Really? How do we know that the common values we hold outweigh the differences we have? This common place sentiment is not at all obvious unless one comes to the subject with the presumption that there are universal values which under-gird all religions. But this, itself, requires a huge leap of faith. And it is not a doctrine (a teaching) that is necessarily shared by all religions. In fact, this predetermined harmony places those religions that disagree that we inevitably share universal values outside of the circle of good and acceptable dialogue partners.

I am reminded of the annual interfaith event that was sponsored by Beth Tikvah synagogue and my friend Martin Cohen when I was the minister at South Arm United Church in Richmond. Martin says that he finds most interfaith dialogues to be terribly boring because they are such polite tea parties at which it is assumed we will all be on our best behaviour (ie: no arguments please). To prevent such a tea party from breaking out at the synagogue's annual interfaith event the invitation to the panel of speakers (Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, etc) always asked each guest to speak on a particularly difficult contemporary moral issue that was so new that no religion had yet had time to reach a consensus stance on its position (each year a different issue was selected as the theme question before us). This left every speaker having to do his or her best to respond to the issue "on their feet". The point was not to come to agreement nor was it to take up a position behind hardened, familiar battle lines. The point was to experience real dialogue, real difference and, when it occasionally happened, the surprise of real agreement. We did not feel that the event had been a failure if there was wide disagreement. In fact, we found the disagreements revelatory of our fundamental differences. And, because none of us were confident of our own tentative positions, we entered the conversation humbly, open to the wisdom of others.

I wish that we could approach interfaith dialogue without the added burden of the pressure to find harmony. There is more realism and honesty in saying that we are really very different. It is not at all obvious that we share common values. Words like "love" and "justice" mean quite different things in our very different language worlds (here you can glimpse by debt to Postliberal theology). I do not expect that the Christian definition of justice being accomplished through a sacrificial act of charity by a God who suffers death on a cross in order to reconcile an unjust world is similar to, say, the Hindu understanding of justice. If we begin interfaith dialogue by making the broad brush assumption that "justice" and "love" are universals then we immediately whitewash over the huge variety of difference that is the truth of our various particularities. Yes, it makes things more complicated and messy. It just happens to be the way things are.

So how are we to live with our great differences, with our dischord? As Martin Cohen likes to ask, "Can we begin by agreeing not to kill one another?" There's an idea. Keep the sixth commandment. How about keeping the ninth commandment as well: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" (Exodus 20:1-17). In our rush to homogenize religions so that they will sing in harmony we regularly falsify the peculiar and particular truths that are proclaimed by neighbouring religions, even our own. While we are at it, we can try obeying Jesus' comand: "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44). Jesus doesn't say that we do not have enemies. He says to love them. This means discovering and respecting the otherness of our neighbours, even when that otherness flies in the face of those things that we hold most precious. It means recognizing the strangeness of others, even coming to realize that we do not share much at all in common. It means bearing the cross for the enemy. It seems to me that a Christian (and, therefore, a United Church of Canada) witness in World Interfaith Harmony Week is not helped by advocating universal harmony in the name of universal values. Instead, we are far better served by naming the all too real diversity, even disharmony, in our relationships even as we witness to the peculiar stance of the Christian church in a world of such dischord - namely, a love that is formed and informed by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, to be a living sacrifice for the neighbour, the stranger and, yes, the enemy.

1 comment:

  1. There is an irony at work within the liberal approach: we find harmony only where we find similarities or a common language... suggesting that the other side of the coin is that when we cannot find similarities or a common language, we cannot have harmony. It is divisive; it will result (once again) in the European religious wars of the 1600s.

    When "the other" cooperates and sounds like us, we have no trouble. But this approach does not know what to do with those who do not cooperate with our clarity.

    In "A Fair Country" John Ralston Saul suggests that the First Nations approach is a better way to deal with differences, with ever-widening circles of relationship. It would make a better dialogue partner for the church than the traditional liberal approach -- different, but provocative.