Theological and Cultural Foundations for Strong and Positive Inter-Religious Relations
by Mouneer Anis
Date added: 19/04/2016
Theological and Cultural Foundations
for Strong and Positive Inter-Religious Relations
The Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis
Archbishop of Episcopal / Anglican Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa
Primate of the Episcopal / Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East
Many people after the Second World War predicted that the influence of religion will come to an end and it will be replaced by an age of modernity and secularization. However across the world, religions continue to be influential and remain as constant factor in the life of the people.
Professor Alister McGrath in his book “Why God Won’t Go Away” wrote: “The evidence indicates that belief in God is surviving the ridicule and derision directed against it by the New Atheism. God just hasn't gone away.”[i] Reza Aslan, the famous Iranian writer also wrote: “With apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche, God is most definitely not dead. Indeed, God is a stronger, more global force in the world today than he has been in generations. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, which provides a comparative analysis of religious affiliations across the globe, religious identities are almost everywhere on the rise.”[ii]
Today as we start in the 21st Century more than 5 billion people out of 7 billion in the world are followers of different religions. Only 16% of the world population consider themselves as non-religious. Indeed Religious identities are on the rise everywhere.
However the phenomena of religious extremism and fundamentalism are also on the rise. That is why most of the bad news we hear every day about conflicts, terrorist attacks and wars have a religious dimension to them all. If we look at Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Kashmir and even my own country Egypt, we will find that in the name of religion many of these conflicts and terrorist attacks are conducted.
There is no doubt that there is a clear link between religious extremism and terrorism. Extremists commit terrorist attacks because they embrace theologies that permit the use of violence in the service of God. They have no sympathy for their victims and see them as enemies of God. The militant theologies they embrace deny the rights of others, who differ in religion or ideologies. These terrorists sacrifice their lives because they expect rewards in the afterlife in return to their martyrdom.
Another factor that leads to religious extremism is the ignorance or the misconceptions about the faiths of others.
Because of this, strong and positive Inter Religious Relations became a necessity not only for co-existence, tolerance but more importantly for working for the common good and world peace. Inter Religious Dialogue is definitely crucial in fulfilling this aim. However there are several misconceptions about Inter- Religious Dialogue.
A. Misconceptions in regard to Inter- Religious Dialogue
Unfortunately there are many misconceptions in the mind of many people in regard to Inter- Religious Dialogue and Relations. Some think that the goal of dialogue is to agree on one religion to follow. Some think that dialogue will put an end to the major theological differences between religions which is almost impossible. Others think that it is a kind of a compromise of one’s own faith. Some strongly believe that engaging in dialogue with followers of other faith make us give up on our commitment to follow the commandments of our faith like the call to Islam (Dawaa) for Muslims or evangelization for Christians. Therefore there is a need to alleviate all these misconceptions in order to break the barriers for full engagement in dialogue. This can be done by clarifying these misconceptions before the start of the dialogue. We also need to make it clear that dialogue helps us to engage with people of other faiths, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, to move from tolerance and co-existence and to working together for the common good of our societies.
One of the important ways to promote a strong and a positive Inter- Religious Dialogue and relations is to study the theological and cultural foundations for such Relations and engagement. This is what I aim for in this paper.
B. Theological foundations for strong and positive Dialogue:
First: God’s covenant with Abraham is the most important foundation of strong dialogue. The text in the book of Genesis says "Now the Lord had said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:1-3 NIV)
In this Covenant we see three components:
1- God blessed Abraham
2- Abraham is to become a source of blessings for all nations, regardless of their beliefs and ethnic backgrounds.
3- Others will bless Abraham and those will be blessed by God.
This covenant summarizes God’s purpose for humanity which we need to uphold and work on to fulfill it in our lives and in our relations to other fellow human beings. In order to do this we need to remind ourselves that, as children of Abraham, we take part in this covenant hence we should live according to God’s purpose and plan for us. God’s blessings to us are manifested in His Love and Compassion for all people. In the same way we need to be a blessing to all people and nations and share God’s love and compassion with others even if they are different from us.
In order to be a blessing to others we need to overcome any divisions in any area of life and to transform these divisions into genuine friendship. Religious leaders need to encourage this by setting an example, to be followed by their communities. There is also a need to work together for justice, peace, freedom and acts of compassion aiming at the common good of the whole society. Indeed we need not to forget that at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham and us, as his children, is to be a blessing for each other.
Second: as I reflect on the teaching of Jesus Christ, I find a very strong theological foundation for an effective dialogue.
St. Luke recorded several stories and a parable told by Jesus that summarizes his teaching in regard to relating to those who are different in faith from us, he wrote that: Jesus" sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him. 53But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. 54And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, [E]just as Elijah did?”55But He turned and rebuked them, [F]and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. 56[G]For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village." (Luke 9:52-56 NKJV)
Here we see the desire of the disciples of Jesus to destroy the Samaritans because they did not welcome Jesus being a Jew. This was a natural tribal response of the people at that time “destroy your enemies”. However Jesus came up with a different attitude all together and said. “I came to save lives not to destroy them”.
It is true that there many texts in the old testament that encourages violence against the enemies. King David wrote in the Psalm “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them; neither did I turn back again till they were destroyed.” (Psalm 18:37 NKJV)
I believe that we need to re-read our texts in light of the teaching of Christ “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44 NKJV).
As a Christian I believe that Christ came to restore the image on which God created us. By doing so Jesus is restoring in us God’s purpose for the creation and His covenant with Abraham and his descendants, which is to be a blessing to others.
Another theological principal in the teaching of Christ for an effective IRR is found in the story of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37). The story tells us that a lawyer asked Jesus “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus Christ responded with a question: “how does the Law of Moses answer this question?” The lawyer answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered rightly. Go and do this and you will have eternal life.”
When the lawyer did not find in Jesus’ answer anything that could be taken as an excuse to charge him, he asked Jesus Christ another question: “who is my neighbor?” Here Jesus told the story of a Jewish man who was attacked by thieves who stole all what he had, and left him to die on the road.
A Jewish priest passed by, but he never tried to rescue the man. Later, a Levite passed by, a Levite is a person who serves in the Temple, but he also passed by without any attempt to help the Jewish man. After that, a Samaritan passed by and he stopped, dressed the wounds of the Jewish man, put clothes on him, and he carried him on his donkey to an inn where he commanded the owner of the inn to look after the man, and he would pay on his return.
I should mention here that Jews considered Samaritans to be their enemies, and also defiled, and no one should deal with them. After telling the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, “who then is the neighbour in this story?” The lawyer answered: “the one who was merciful,” i.e. the Samaritan. Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” In other words, Jesus was saying go and love the Samaritans and be merciful to them.
In this story, we find very important principles:
1- The neighbor whom I should love is a person who is different in faith and ethnic background, a person whom I may consider as an enemy or a defiled person.
2- Loving my neighbor is a sequence of loving God “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself”. This indicates the love of God is the source of all love. St. John emphasized this when he wrote: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21 NIV).
3- Loving our neighbor involves compassion, doing justice and sacrifice. The Good Samaritan puts himself at risk in order to rescue the Jewish man. We need to keep this in mind when we engage with others in order to avoid reducing our Relations into just talks.
Jesus demonstrated his teaching by setting a wonderful example when he dialogued with the Samaritan Woman. In addition, he sent his disciples to Samaria where the Samaritans, the enemies of the Jews live, to proclaim God’s love to them. Following in the steps of Jesus, the disciples were courageous enough to travel and engage with all nations.
Third: another theological principle that forms a strong foundation for dialogue is searching our texts for the common ground between our different religions.
The Apostle Paul gave a good example of this when he visited Athens. At that time the Greeks worshiped many Gods. The story in the book of Acts tells us that “Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:” (Acts 17:22-23 NKJV). We find here that Paul was searching for a point of introduction or a meeting point in order to engage with the people of Athens. This set up a theological principal that we need to start from a point all of us can identify with or agree about; a common ground. From such common ground we can engage and discuss other difficult and sensitive issues.
This principle was behind the initiative taken by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders in 2007 called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” The foundation of this initiative is the common ground between Christianity and Islam which is the love of the one God and the love of the neighbor. The response to this initiative was very encouraging as many churches responded positively to it.
Professor David Ford, of Cambridge University, commented on the initiative of “A Common Word” saying: “Where there is the possibility of working further on issues that unite and divide. It does not pretend that there are no differences between Muslims and Christians. It therefore summons each to go deeper into their own faith while also learning more of the other’s. Its modesty therefore carries with it a radical vision of long term, loving Relations that might open up the richest resources of each faith. The all-embracing, constant and active love of God’ and ‘the necessity and paramount importance of love for – and mercy towards – the neighbour. All approved a draft of his eventual letter, A Common Word for the Common Good. It warmly welcomes A Common Word, celebrates points of resonance and convergence, faces sensitive issues (such as love in relation to God as Trinity, the problems of failure, defeat and suffering, and the relation of religion to violence), and concludes by opening ways forward through proposing a range of forms of Relations: of life, action, theology and religious experience.”[iii]
Fourth: one of the most important theological foundations for our faith communities, whether Jews, Christians or Muslims, is that we all believe that God is the greatest “Allahu Akbar”. This is indeed at the core of our faiths.
It is a great challenge for me as a Christian when I hear the call for prayers five times a day saying “Allahu Akbar”. God is great. These keep reminding me that God is greater than anyone else. He is self-sufficient (Kayoum) and all knowing. Apostle Paul wrote “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34 NKJV). This means that we cannot claim to comprehend all God’s ways and purposes. It also means that we will continue to wrestle with some questions which we have no answers for, because our knowledge is limited while God is all knowing.
C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer said: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answers.You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”[iv]
This theological principal helps us to humble ourselves as we engage with people from other faith, simply because we cannot claim that we know God’s mind and wisdom with our limited minds. In other words, we need not to take the place of God when we engage with others who are, like us, seeking to please God.
C. Cultural foundations for strong and positive dialogue:
An ideal pluralistic society is one whose influence is drawn from many different sources. It is not a monoculture like a lawn of only green grass; it is a field of wildflowers full of colors and smells.
However, there is always the potential to have conflicts and divisions in pluralistic societies if the different ethnic groups were not given the rights of citizenship which allow them to legally and publically hold diverse ethical and religious views and are allowed to choose for themselves what beliefs they wish to hold.
D. The contextual examples
There is also the tendency for the different ethnic and religious groups to tolerate the presence of each other but not to engage and work together for the common good of the society. In such case, tolerance replaces both harmony and celebrating diversity.
The question now is how to achieve such a pluralistic and multicultural society in which different ethnic and religious groups live and work in harmony with each other? In my view, the following principles will fulfill this:
1- The rights of citizenship must be granted to every citizen regardless of his or her religion, sex, gender and social or economic status. As a consequence, the rule of law must be applied in any cases of discriminations between citizens.
2- Encouraging the involvement of the different ethnic and religious groups in shaping the future of the society in order to develop the sense of ownership within these groups.
3- Encouraging citizens especially youth to work together in the areas of community services art, music and sport etc… in order to enhance the national unity.
Three contextual examples from Egypt of creating a culture that enhance a strong and positive Inter Religious dialogue in a plural society. These are:
1- The Partnership between the Anglican Church in Egypt and Misr el Kheir Foundation
Founded in 2007, Misr el Kheir is an NGO of Dr. Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, which supports “the advancement of education, the relief of illness and preservation of health, the prevention or elevation of poverty, and the promotion of arts, heritage and culture.” While an Islamic NGO, Misr el Kheir partners with Harpur Memorial Hospital in Menouf, a hospital of the Anglican Church founded in 1910 by an Irish doctor. In 2013, they held 30 outreaches to rural villages in the Nile Delta and slum areas in Cairo and Alexandria. Each outreach is different depending on the needs of the local community and hosted by the local community, often in the largest meeting place: the mosque. The services offered by doctors from Harpur Memorial Hospital in Menouf include: dental, dermatology, gynaecology, internal medicine, paediatrics, pharmacy, ophthalmology, and surgery. In addition to this Muslim-Christian partnership, the hospital owes its mobile medical clinic to Christians in Singapore who donated the vehicle in 2010 after modeling successful outreach to people of many faiths in Singapore and Malaysia.
2- The Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria
The Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria is a ministry of the Anglican Church and located at St. Mark’s Pro-Cathedral. The center is a place where Egyptian youth from all corners of society, both Christian and Muslim, come together and create art. The Arkan Center supports talented young artists by providing facilities for producing and displaying artwork, and cultural and artistic workshops. In the Arkan Center, artistic expression opens up forums for discussion that invite people to new perspectives and ideas: a quiet challenge to intolerant attitudes. As the lives of youth from many different backgrounds intersect, we see bridges of peace and friendship gradually replacing walls of intolerance and fear. Rather than come together with their differences, Muslims and Christians come together with art as their common ground, to study acting, graphics, voice, photography, painting, writing, calligraphy, peacemaking, short films, documentaries, as well as interview skills, resume courses, democracy and human rights.
3- Imam Priest Exchange project (Together for Egypt)
This 3 years project aims to spread religious harmony within the Egyptian society. The need for such harmony is great because of the growing sectarianism and extremism. With the cooperation of Al Azhar and the churches in Egypt, we were able to bring hundred Imams and hundred priests to spend periods of time together. Each period would be 3 days repeated 4 times a year. During these periods, they attend seminars, visit churches, monasteries and Mosques. They also visit community centers like schools, hospitals and community development centers. They also received training on how to be involved in the community and work together for the common good. The project was very successful and we were able to see the Imam and the Priests working together in between the periods of gathering. The Imams and the Priests mentioned that a lot of the misconception they had about the other was alleviated. They also developed friendship among each other. This was reflected on the communities from where they came. We were asked to repeat this project and make it a continuous activity.
In conclusion, I would like to repeat that God loved and blessed us all. In return, we need to love and bless others. Only in this way can we fulfill God’s purpose in our lives as individuals and as societies. This should be the foundation of our Inter-Religious Relations. It is also our responsibility to create and develop the culture in which we can work together for the common good of our societies.
Contextual examples of interfaith dialogue at the grass root level
Health Outreach, Anglican Church and Misr El Kheir foundation
Arkan Cultural center, Saint Marl Pro- Cathedral, Alexandria 9
Imam—Priest Exchange Project
[i] McGrath, Alister E. Why God Won't Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism. Seoul: IVP, 2012. Print.
[ii] Aslan, Reza. "Redefining Community: Religion of the Future." Patheos.com. 6 Sept. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
[iii] Ford, David. The Future of Christian Theology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
[iv] Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces; a Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957. Print