In the Discworld novel Eric by Terry Pratchett, as the Wizard Rincewind and teenaged demonologist Eric Thursley escape Pandemonium, they notice that the individual cobbles on the ‘Road to Hell’ have good intentions written on them. These included “for the good of the kids”, “I meant it for the best” and “we are equal opportunities employers”.
I was thinking about it this week after a social media furore erupted following the decision by another priest to invite an Islamic cleric to lead prayers in a church.
At the outset, we should be mindful that dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions is of the essence of Christianity. It is not an optional extra – Catholics are called to work with all men and women of goodwill to further the common good.
Interreligious dialogue is a fairly new concept for Irish Catholics since – until relatively recently – ecumenism (i.e. working together with Christians from other traditions) was the only show in town.
The increased awareness of the Church’s roots with the Jewish people as well as immigration that has brought Muslims, Hindus and the followers of other faith traditions to Ireland has made interreligious dialogue and co-operation more of a priority.
Our common ancestry with the Jewish people – God’s chosen people – may be easy to understand and appreciate given the prominence of the Old Testament in the liturgy. Muslims also trace their spiritual roots to our patriarch Abraham and, as the Church teaches, they also worship the One True God.
Dialogue and the search for mutual respect and understanding must be undertaken with both love and prudence. The Church respects and admires the seeds of truth and goodness found in other religious traditions, but we Catholics also believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God – the second person of the Holy Trinity.
If dialogue is to be sincere, it must not gloss over or underestimate the existing differences”
For Christians, Jesus is not merely a prophet (as he is in Islam) nor is he one signpost towards eternal life. Jesus is not a way to God, he is the way, the truth and the life.
This is why anything that causes confusion or gives the false impression that all religions are equal or that every spiritual path is the way to God is ultimately damaging to the cause of mutual understanding. Dialogue does not seek to pretend that there are no differences or arrive at a bland form of religious pluralism.
True dialogue accepts and respects that there are divisions between the people of the earth that cannot easily be overcome by goodwill. What dialogue seeks to create is a space where difference are not accentuated, but that the followers of different religious traditions work together with respect to help make the world a better place.
This dialogue, if it is to be sincere, must not gloss over or underestimate the differences in those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge.
There is much work for theologians and Church leaders to do in arriving at a better understanding of the need – and legitimate limits – of interreligious dialogue in contemporary Ireland. A framework would be a good idea for parishes to use in preparing joint ceremonies. Shared prayers – when the prayers mean profoundly different things – are well-meaning but can also be confusing as well as denying central truths of the Faith. They also run the risk of short-circuiting dialogue and causing the very pain and alienation they undoubtedly seek to diminish.
There is a place for shared worship of the same God, but not at the expense of underlining the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ.
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