Since the signing of the document in 2019 the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue and the Ahl-al Bait Scotland Society have worked together to understand and reflect on its implications for good interfaith relations. In the first year we read it together and discussed its relevance. In 2021 we had a conference at which Sheikh Shomali and Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, spoke on and responded to the document. Last year we focussed on the question of women as one of the issues worth pursuing. This year we thought we would try something a bit different from a speaker followed by questions and discussion. We decided that a workshop that would engage participants in considering how the document related to interfaith relations would be worth a try. So, we invited three members of the planning group to say three things that stood out for them in the document. This was then followed by three open questions: The challenges in society that particularly concern me as a person of faith are …….; The challenges facing interfaith relations are ………….; As a person of faith and someone interested in inter-religious dialogue, the ways in which we can foster fraternity and help us live well together are …... Each participant then finished each of those statement in their own way in a time of quiet reflection which was then followed by group sharing, with each group then suggesting three points they would want to share with the whole group which was 50 -50 Christian and Muslim.
What I liked about this process was that it engaged people throughout the two hours. There was no time to be bored and there was much to ponder and consider. For me it was important to reflect a little on the nature of interfaith relations and the place of interreligious dialogue within that. The two are not the same thing. Many people talk of interfaith dialogue or interfaith relations, but the Catholic Church has a dicastery for interreligious dialogue. The Human Fraternity document, which was signed in the name of God and suffering humanity, covers a broad sweep of social issues which is something that we have come to expect from Pope Francis. It is truly aspirational and envisions a world free of poverty, violence, injustice, inequality etc and recognises the importance of faiths working together to establish this. My question in the planning and organising of this event was, what is the contribution of interreligious dialogue to this work and vision – what we Christians call the Kingdom of God.
I was one of the contributors to the initial 5-minute input and focussed on three words. One of those words was unproductive. The document supports and encourages dialogue. It suggests that in the way of peace and justice we need “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”. But it also talks of transmitting the highest moral virtues that religions aim for and avoiding unproductive discussions. How do we avoid these? Can interreligious dialogue and conversation ever be unproductive? I do believe that interfaith dialogue is a worthwhile activity in itself. It is a contribution to peace and a witness that friendships across divides are possible. But I sometimes wonder if those of us who are engaged in interfaith issues sometimes find ourselves in dialogue about matters in which we have no expertise just because we are interfaith activists. Should there be a difference in our conversations as people of faith from that of a social action group? What we want is that social action, justice and peace groups develop an interfaith approach to their work, working alongside others interested in the same things from different faiths and none. This is what Jonathan Sacks called ‘side by side’ engagement and the focus is on the issue. What of us, however, who are involved in interreligious dialogue which suggests the other kind of engagement which Sacks called ‘face to face.’ Do we have a special and unique contribution to make, not just to mutual understanding and respect but also to social issues? What is ours to do as people of faith and what is ours not to do? Jonathan Sacks says that it is knowing what is not ours to do that is the mark of a great leader.
The feedback from the groups of course showed a great variety of responses, including the importance of working together on issues such as climate change but also the need to understand and value the religion and cultural heritage of others and the ability to dialogue with each other with humility and a willingness to learn from another’s religion in a way that will enrich our own faith tradition and take us out of our comfort zone. There was still a call for education about other faiths – “we lack understanding of the other, we need more dialogue. This will add to respect for each other and overcome being prejudiced about other religions”. There were a number of good ideas, covering interreligious, face to face dialogue as well as interfaith engagement. Hopefully these will find their way on to the website of the Bishops’ Committee – www.interreligiousdialogue.org.uk and help us know what is not ours to do as much as what is ours to do.