My interfaith journey began when I studied world faiths at Lancaster university, met and talked with people of other faiths for the first time in my life and then went on to teach world religions as part of my job in preparing students to teach religious education in Catholic schools at a time when the RE syllabus had moved from being focussed on Christianity to include world religions. This meant trying to give students an insight into the faith of others by explaining some of their beliefs, introducing students to their scriptures, visiting places of worship and encouraging the students to engage in dialogue by visiting the International Flat and taking part in meetings of the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths. To give the students an insight into the wisdom and beauty of a faith I tried to teach it with appreciation and respect, from the ‘inside’ so to speak. Just as a stained-glass window can look quite dull from outside a building but different when seen from inside with the sun lighting up the diverse colours so too another faith can, I would suggest, only be appreciated when we have crossed over, tried to stand in the shoes of another and view it and the world from their perspective. John Dunne, a catholic theologian, sees the work of interreligious dialogue as a crossing over into the world of another and coming back to our own to see it with new eyes. It is this crossing over that brings about a transformation in faith and change of perspective. And along the way I have made many interfaith friends which I greatly value and for which I am very grateful.
So, what have I learned? I’ve seen my faith from the perspective of another and realised something of its exclusive and oppressive aspects. I was brought up to believe that there was only one truth and that was to be found in the Catholic Church. How wrong we were to think that we were the only way to truth and salvation and that others lived in ignorance of that truth. I have come to recognise, appreciate, and be inspired by the wisdom and truth that I have discovered in other faiths. So too I am glad to say has the Catholic Church. I also appreciate the diversity to be found within faiths. For me this is what makes interfaith relations interesting and challenging because it is very easy sometimes to think that when we use the same words eg God or even religion we mean the same thing. We can’t take that for granted. This is where real face to face dialogue happens and it can’t be done quickly. Recently Interfaith Glasgow in partnership with the Council of Christians and Jews produced a report on Difficult Dialogues. It recorded a dialogue that took place over several years, longer than intended because of Covid. I was privileged to be part of that and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had of dialogue because we really listened to one another and honestly shared our common understanding of shared concepts. It also brought out that there is a variety of understandings of people from within one faith and it’s important not to generalise that what one person believes and thinks is necessarily indicative of what everyone within the faith believes. Interfaith dialogue is a face to face, person to person activity.
Getting to know another faith, experiencing its hospitality and visiting its place of worship is to recognise the sacredness of all faiths. When we encounter a person of another faith we are standing on holy ground, we’re encountering the sacred, the divine in that person and in that tradition. It is indeed a privilege. And sometimes it’s to recognise that another faith might do some things better than our own or its scriptures and teaching lead us to reflect and gain a new insight into our own faith. Krister Stendhal- Ras when he was at Harvard coined the phrase holy envy in urging believers to find beauty in other faiths and there are many things that I admire and could be envious of. But I’ve also come to realise that there are both liberating and oppressive aspects in all faiths and that in interfaith relations it’s important to compare like with like. It’s easy sometimes to compare the best of our own religion with the worst of another or even the worst of our own with the best of another. There is good and bad religion.
Perhaps above all else my interfaith journey has led me to realise that I am a member of a much wider community than my own. I feel in my being that we believers make up a vast community of people who are striving to live a good life and desire the welfare of all sentient beings as well as our planet. I believe that when we each in our own way commit our lives, perhaps our day to following what we believe to be right together we generate a great energy for good, something Christians would call the Kingdom of God, which while hidden is still powerful. Together we are sowing seeds that we hope will grow and flourish, we are in the words attributed to Archbishop Romero prophets of a future not our own.