Interfaith Understandings
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Interfaith Understandings




Today, ecumenical dialogue and interfaith dialogue are encountering a wonderful and respectful comfort level that has taken years to discover and create. For centuries, people fought over religion: which religion is true and which is false, which is good and which is evil, whose god is better, whose god is stronger. When one says it like that, it truly does sound like children bickering.....” my Dad is stronger than your Dad, etc. Interfaith relations, however, is not children’s play. Too many people have been killed over it. We have only to remember the Holocaust to see how much damage can be done when one targets people of a particular faith.


The Holocaust did, however, become a catalyst for interfaith dialogue. So many people were shocked when the reality of the Holocaust finally set in after World War II that they had to ask themselves, ‘How could this occur?’ ‘in modern times?’ ‘by civilized people?’ As the reasons behind the Holocaust began to unfold, it became clear that another religion, namely Christianity, had had a hand in it. From early on in its development, Christianity blamed the Jews for the death of Christ. Not being able to face its own sin that each sinful human being was responsible for the death of Christ, Christianity sought a scapegoat. What rhetoric began even in some of the Scriptures, was compounded by early Church theologians for centuries.  Father Edward Flannery, who wrote The Anguish of the Jews, tells us that there are many types of anti-Semitism, but perhaps the most dangerous one is literary anti-Semitism (pp.11-15). Centuries after they wrote tracks, Melito of Sardis, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Martin Luther and others are still being read, and many wrote things that we would clearly say are anti-Semitic today. The aftermath of World War II was a wake-up call for Christianity. Christians of all denominations began to examine how they had treated their fellow brothers and sisters for nearly two thousand years.


Slowly, after World War II, dialogue groups began to form. During the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church from 1962-65, a new spirit was emerging. The Council released several documents and directives, including the Decree on Ecumenism (regarding relations with other Christian Churches) and including one short document of only six paragraphs, entitled, Nostra Aetate, (In Our Times), describing relations with other non-Christian communities. The Decree on Ecumenism began to talk about the need for Christian unity and began to articulate the nature and aim and bases of ecumenical dialogue.  Nostra Aetate decried the anti-Semitism of the past, but also looked forward to dialoging with Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and Moslems and others. In many ways, we were new at this. We hadn’t talked constructively with each other in centuries.  From the 1960s forward though, more dialogue groups began to spring up all over the country and all over the world. What began to emerge was “conversation,” “conversation between peoples”. As people began to get to know one another, relationships formed. By the time the turn of the century arrived, some dialogue groups were celebrating their silver anniversaries. They had seen each other’s children grow up. They had studied some of each other’s teachings. They had visited and even participated in each other’s worship services. They were learning more of the “other” within their midst.  A new day was dawning.


Today, we are still learning, not only about each other’s teachings and practices, but about each other’s prayer life. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a wonderful set of encyclopedias of twenty-five volumes edited by scholars in each religion, entitled: World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, came out.  In them, scholars in various faith traditions put forth their devotions, prayer practices and insights from their holy men and women. Almost every religion acknowledged that there were those who sought and found intense experiences of the “Holy”. What became immediately apparent was that there were a lot of similarities. The Merkavah tradition, coming from some of the Talmudic literature for Jews, describing the fiery chariot ride of Elijah via a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 11-12) sounded strikingly similar to the Carmelite motto, “With Zeal Have I been Zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.” (2 Kings 10:16). The Carmelite order is the only Christian religious order I know that traces its foundation to an Old Testament figure: Elijah. In the book of Isaiah, one hears of the beauty of Carmel (33:9), a mountain often inhabited by Elisha and Elijah and the priests as they battled the worshippers of Baal. After the times of Elijah, hermits often lived along the slopes of Mount Carmel until the 12th century when a group of Western hermits formed a community. They became known as Carmelites, a religious order known primarily for their prayer life. Later Carmelite figures like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux and others have guided millions of people in their prayer practices employing the same zeal uttered first by Elijah.


Dr. Padraic O’Hare, a pioneer in interfaith relations and former director of the Center for the Study of Jewish Christian Muslim Relations at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, often says that at the heart of interfaith dialogue is conversation. Conversation is, however, a two-way street. It implies listening as well as talking. Listening must come first, and before we rush to judgment, we must engage in a “holy savoring” or sorts. Then, we may be able to recognize the “holy” when it stands before our very eyes. Since Jews, Christians and Muslins all use the Psalms as prayer, MV will explore how those beautiful hymns and prayers are used in the three traditions. Buddhists also have much to teach us about mindfulness and quiet. Perhaps, if we listen to the Buddhists and others, we will learn something more about “holy savoring,” and what we learn may even reach the heavens.



Here’s to Holy Savoring!

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