For me dialogue can be an action for peace, especially if the dialogue is between groups who have been suspicious of one another or even rejecting of one another. I was brought up in a Scotland that was highly sectarian. I grew up as a catholic, thinking everyone who wasn’t catholic was protestant and, as the only catholic family in our street with no one else going to church, I thought protestants never took their faith seriously. I even thought that protestants, having separated from the true church were destined for eternal damnation. Those days are over because of Christians from different denominations meeting one another, learning about one another, visiting one another’s churches. We recognise that together we are Christians before being catholic or protestant and are in a familial relationship with one another.
If this is true within one religion, it is even more true for people from different faiths. There’s no need, I think, to rehearse the sense of fear and suspicion many people have of Islam, seeing it as a religion of violence, spread by the sword; the belief among Christians that Jews had crucified Jesus and therefore had been rejected by God; the understanding of Hinduism as polytheistic. And many more misunderstandings which over the centuries has led to violence and destruction. And how do we overcome these misunderstandings which lead to prejudice and even hatred of one another? I once heard someone say there is enough religion in the world for hate but not enough for love. Dialogue, friendship, sharing stories so that we no longer think in terms of Judaism but in terms of my friend Adam who is Jewish, my friend Azzam who is Muslim is surely a way to transform past toxic relationships into relationships of friendship. This is to realise that we belong to a great family of faith, in which we are all united in our humanity with different paths in our common search for value, meaning and purpose in life.
I was privileged to begin my journey into interreligious dialogue at a time when I was en gaged in religious education. This was in the 1970s when the RE curriculum was changing to include world religions. This meant I had to teach other faiths, read their scriptures, visit places of worship with students. I had invitations to events such as weddings and other rites of passage. John Dunne, a catholic theologian, has described this as passing over into the world of another and returning home to fine oneself changed. This is not an unusual experience for those of us who have lived in or travelled to another culture. We often learn more about our own culture as a result of that experience. For me this passing over will not happen simply by working together, important as that is. My interest in world religions has led me to experience in a limited way but a real way, I think, the the spirituality of others and this has deepened my own spirituality. I have come to see my own Christian a and catholic faith in a new way. I have come to see what is essential to that faith and what is a cultural expression of it. I have learned not to ask of any faith, is this true but what is the truth in this. I have been helped by the beauty of the Hindu Upanishads, inspired by the Jewish belief in Tikkun Olam, encouraged by the Islamic belief in surrender, changed by opportunities to make retreats with great Buddhist masters such as Tich Nhat Hanh – and much more.
I feel interfaith relations have opened up my vision of what it is to be a believer in our world today and I feel freer because of that. This of course has also involved me in working together with others and something that binds many of us who have now become friends is our desire for peace and harmony in our world. I hope and believe that the friendships, understanding and respect that has been developed between people of different faiths in pockets all over the world is a witness to what is possible in a world and society where differences still divide rather than unite.