The Elijah Interfaith Institure in Jerusalem has just produced a book on Interreligious Friendship. It's the result of a discussion on the same topic by the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders that took place in Oxford in 2012. It's a good title but at a price of £54 it's beyond the means of most of my interreligious friends. We talked about it at a recent meeting on the Council of Christians and Jews and we agreed we'd buy one copy and pass it to whoever is leading our regular conversations which we usually base on the chapter of a book. It should make a good topic for conversation.
Included in the book but also published separately is what's called An Interreligious Manifesto which has some very interesting points in it. One of the things that surprised me though is the introduction to the manifesto states that
"While it may seem obvious that forming friendships with people from different religions can be both a prelude to dialogue and an outcome of it, we should not ignore the obstacles to or, at least, warnings against such friendships that all our religious traditions include".
I must say I have never encountered these warnings or obstacles. Of course I have been aware of different teachings within our religions which can be interpreted as exclusive but I have found that anyone willing to engage in dialogue is usually open to learning about others and establishing good relations, though of course there are some who appear to be at the table only to defend their position. One of the things I have appreciated about my work in interfaith has been the friendships which have emerged from a common working together, sharing the high points and low points of one another's lives, simply sharing meals and above all learning about the faith of others as well as sharing my own. The comment, however, makes me realise how lucky I am to live in a country where freedom of expression and worship is allowed; where a government values diversity and has a sense of common citizenship and where religious communities on the whole are not at loggerheads with one another. I know this is not the same everywhere especially in those parts of the world where a religion is closely identified with politics or nationalism. For me one of the joys of interfaith work has been the joy of making good friends. And sometimes I feel closer to friends in other faiths than I do some people in my own.
The Manifesto is talking about specific interreligious friendships and distinguishes betwen friends and neighbours with whom we share aspects of a common life - a silent dialogue I have heard it called and the dialogue of life, as the Catholic Church calls it, is seen authentic dialogue. But interreligious friendships are more intentional and focussed on a sharing of faith, spirituality, experience and commitment. They're not a means to an end that is political or even social though i do believe they sow the seeds of peace in our world. They also bring about personal transformation as we learn to appreciate difference and gain insights into our own faith. The manifesto suggests that one of the most effective ways of doing this is to study and read the scriptures of other faiths with an open mind, open to the insights of others. This is certainly true for me and one of the reasons why I appreciate scriptural reasoning so much. This allows believers of different faiths to reflect on scriptures with a common theme. It's edifying to hear how believers understand their scripture, see the similarities and differences but also see the wisdom which we can all apply to our own lives. I like it because it allows for some depth to the conversation which often gets to the heart of our faiths so that it is indeed a dialogue of heart to heart. It's this kind of dialogue that develops the trust and respect that enables us to ask the hard questions. This sometimes helps us understand the complexities and tensions within religions and of the need for all of us to support what is best in each of our faiths. The world needs faiths to stand up for one another and to speak well of one another. In this the manifesto is echoing the words of Pope Francis when he wrote to the Muslim community in 2013 when he called on Christians and Muslims to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers and to do so not only in the presence of someone from another faith "but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation". This in turn reminds me of a quote of Diana Eck's that I came across "people of every religious tradition depend upon one another to interpret one another fairly and accurately. We are the keepers of one another’s image …. This is a sacred trust"
The final recommendation of the manifesto is that " every person seek at least one friend from another religion. How that friendship is practiced and the depth of its engagement will vary according to individual circumstances. But it only takes one friend to change our orientation, to broaden our horizons, to open our heart and to make us ready for the transformation that interreligious friendship produces". And in doing this we can even move beyond friendship as in the story of the man crossing the desert who is frightened by the vision of a huge ugly ogre coming steadily towards him. He is very frightened. As the ogre approaches he doesn't seem so huge but certainly ugly and threatening. When they eventually meet and look into one another's eyes they recognise one another as brothers - and of course sisters!