This is a perfect image for interreligious dialogue which is not hoping for some kind of eclectic religion. Rather interreligious dialogue is for people, firm in their own commitment and faith but open and welcoming of the wisdom of others. It’s about embracing the other. Miroslav Volv is a theologian who has reflected on the idea of embrace as a way of counteracting exclusion which he sees as causing many of the evils of the present day. Embrace is opening our arms and hearts to welcome the other into our own space but then letting them go to be their own self. It’s not about control, making demands of the other but respecting their integrity as we respect our own. And Jean Vanier was a perfect example of this.
Another image that was presented to me this weekend is that of a tree. It’s easy to see the similarity, I think, with the image of someone with feet planted firmly on the ground and arms extended to the world. The image of the tree has been in my mind because this weekend I went to a talk by, Maggie Kelly, an artist and activist whose work explores the relationship between environmental issues and social justice. Maggie has a passion for the wisdom of trees and suffers for the pain inflicted on them by deforestation and wild fires, burning in so many parts of the world. We all know how dependent we humans are on trees. Through the process of photosynthesis they absorb the carbon dioxide that we breathe out and give out the oxygen that we breathe in. We help them produce glucose and energy and thus give them life and they help us breathe in oxygen without which we couldn’t live. We are interdependent. It’s because of this that the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, known as the lungs of the world, is so cataclysmic for us all.
Maggie spoke of the ‘wood wide web’ which she offered as an alternative to capitalism and mass extinctions. Recent research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there’s a web of roots, fungi and bacteria which connect trees and plants to one another. This wood wide web is about 500 million years old. Individual trees are connected in a network that allows them to distribute resources between one another. A dying tree might even divest itself of its resources to benefit others or a young seedling growing in a poor environment might be supported by its stronger neighbours. It also seems that this network allows plants to send one another warnings if attacked by sap-sucking enemies. This is rather amazing. We live in a world of interconnectedness far beyond our ordinary perception. We’re caught up in this great network of life and depend on it for the very breaths we take moment by moment. We would do well to be open to its example. We’re ignoring it at our peril.
One of the growing trends in spirituality is this sense of interconnectedness or interbeing as Thich Nhat Hanh would call it. It’s a gift I think that Buddhism has given us though it’s to be found in all religions but until recently not been emphasised, at least not in Christianity. While we think of ourselves as separate individuals, separate cultures, separate nations, separate religions we are living an illusion. We are much more connected than we realise through our common humanity. But even more than this so many of our religions depend on one another for their beliefs and insights. Major world faiths have elements of indigenous religions within them; Christianity emerged from Judaism and greatly influenced by it; Buddhism emerged from Hinduism; the Baha’i faith from Islam and so forth. And yet religious systems and organisations can be intent on establishing themselves through their differences from others and claim a distinct, unique and absolute truth. We see it today in nations with growing populist politics that wants to identify national identity with specific religions and cultures. We’re working according to exclusion and division and in doing so denying not just the reality of the world of which we are part but of our very humanity.
This is why interreligious dialogue offers hope for our world. It helps us see the bigger picture, takes us beyond our own securities and at the same time our insecurities. It helps us enter unfamiliar places and discover the oneness and interconnectedness of life and our kinship with all living things. Our world critically needs this way of viewing life and dialogue is a little contribution to this.