by Marcus Braybrooke
from Signs of the Times No. 22 - Jul 2006
'What is true religion?' is the question now, not 'Which is the true religion?'
These words of Bishop George Appleton some twenty years ago are even more relevant today. We have become very aware how easily religion can be hijacked by extremists, for example in former Yugoslavia or in the Middle East. This is why moderate members of all religions need to deepen their appreciation of each other and work together for a more just and peaceful world.
Religions do not always agree, but I think we should see their differences as in a sense complimentary. The image of balancing scales may be helpful. For example, an over-emphasis on God's mercy may neglect demands for justice but to stress justice may limit compassion. Only the Almighty holds a true balance. In our respective faiths we seek a similar balance as we try to do God's will.
Let me give another example. In talking with Jews and Muslims I have become more aware how complex is the subject of forgiveness. Does repentance have to come first? Some passages in the New Testament, such as the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son, suggest that, like the Shepherd or the Father, the injured person may need to take the initiative in seeking reconciliation. But others will say 'How can we forgive someone who is not sorry?' They may also say that that 'to show kindness to the cruel is to betray the defenceless.'
My books What Can We Learn from Islam and What Can We Learn from Hinduism are not 'introductions' in the usual sense, although I hope they will be self-explanatory to those Christians who know little about either religion. When I first went to India, I was told that the exterior dialogue had to be matched by an interior dialogue. Exterior dialogue is the conversation with people of another faith or the study of it. Inner dialogue is the subsequent reflection, in the light of Christian discipleship, on what we agree with, where we have questions and disagreements, and what we can learn from others. In these books I share my reflections.
Professor Seshagiri Rao, Chief Editor of the Encyclopaedia of Hinduism , describes this as a new approach to the study of the world's religions. 'Holding the great faiths as part of the religious history of humanity, the author endeavours to gather fruits of the spirit from any or all of them.' The late Shaikh Dr Zaki Badawi said that the books help 'us to see the divine in every faith and creed'.
Hinduism, for example, can help the Church rediscover its mystical tradition and to communicate better with people today by emphasising experience rather than doctrine. Gandhi's teaching on ahimsa may help us think again about the relevance of non-violence and the spiritual significance of our attitudes to the animal creation. Moreover, the exclusiveness of the traditional Christian emphasis on the uniqueness of Jesus is brought into question by the deep devotion that some Hindus show to him. Indeed, when my friend Seshagiri Rao was asked to address a Christian world missionary conference, he began with these words, 'As a fellow lover of Jesus...'
Unlike Jesus, Muhammad for a time was the leader of a community. Discussions with Muslims can help us think more deeply about the responsible use of power. For Muslims too, the separation of the sacred and the secular, which has become common in the West, makes no sense. The faithful Muslim tries to remember God in everything he or she does or says. In Radiant Prayers, a little Muslim book of 'easy prayers', which I have, there are prayers for every occasion - when the sun rises, when you take a bath, when you look into a mirror, or when you set out on or return from a journey.
Muslims regard Isa as a prophet and show him great respect. Should Christians speak of Muhammad as a prophet? Not as the final prophet but perhaps as a true prophet like Isaiah and Jeremiah?
Such discussions are not just an intellectual exercise. They help us to overcome past ignorance and prejudice and to recognise that God is revealed in all the great religions. What is necessary now is that people of all faiths affirm the values that they share.
To achieve real change, however, as I argue In my recent A Heart for the World: the Interfaith Alternative, people of different faiths need to be far more proactive in challenging the abuses of government, international institutions and the economic system. They should be the voice of the moral conscience of humanity pleading for the poor, the dispossessed and the victims of violence. They should speak together of human rights and respect for the environment.
From our different faith perspectives we can be a spur to each other in our wish to know and obey God's purposes. As the Qur'an says:
For each of you
We have assigned a divine law
and rule of life.
Had God so willed
He could have made you
a single nation.
However He has willed
to put you to the test
respecting the revelation brought to you.
Strive to excel in good things. (5, 48).