InterReligious Council of Central New York.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has become a turning point in human history. There is a universal conviction that the world will never be the same – although there is great divergence in understanding how that is happening. The political and economic impact is obviously profound. But are there not tremendous religious implications as well?
- The nation, at least for a little while fell to its knees, turned to prayer
- prechers and theologians wrestled anew with the problem of evil
- we continue to debate the ethics of a war against terrorism, the ethics of a pre-emptive war
- massive outpourings of charity assisted victimized families, volunteers flocked to ground zero to eradicate the rubble
- the bravery of police and fire fighters, dying to save others, has become a new symbol of our concern for one another, our love for one another
- interest in Islam, in interreligious, interfaith understanding generically is sparked.
As people have pondered the events of 9/11 those who reference Samuel P. Huntington’s 1996 book entitled “The Clash of Civilizations” are perhaps too pessimistic, too extreme. But surely a turning point, and there have been similar turning points throughout history, variously identified no doubt in the context of one’s own experience:
- Cain and Abel
- the birth of Jesus
- the barbarian invasions
- Allah’s revelations to Mohammed
- the rise and demise of the Holy Roman Empire
- revolutions – economic and political
- the Shoah
- Hiroshima & Nagasaki
- Vatican II
Even my list poignantly betrays my cultural and experiential bias. But whatever our background, do we not recognize a history too often characterized by a rigid “I am right and you are wrong” mindset, an “Accept my way or perish, if not in this life, surely in the next” mindset, accompanied by intolerance, threat, inquisition, persecution, punishment of dissidents, a total lack of compassion?
Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he, she, or they are in sole possession of the truth – and that those who differ are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad…in need of restraint and suppression. It is arrogance to believe that you alone are right and that all or any who disagree are simply wrong. But for people who believe they have the Truth it is very difficult to make room in their “conceptual framework” or their “faith construct” for the possibility that others may also possess truths. But is not living with the tension of multiple truths the challenge we face today, both on the global plane AND in our home towns? Folks who have the Truth are hell-bent on rejecting the ambiguity of living harmoniously along side others who just as fervently hold to different sets of beliefs.
Religiously, my Christianity links me to Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, the Orthodox, BUT my Catholicism keeps me separate from them/from you. So too my humanity links me to Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Secular Humanists, but my Christianity separates me from them. Though we may in “fits of tolerance and insight” allow as how we are all God’s children, a recurring doctrine of every religion seems to be that its adherents are the favorite sons and the darling most daughters. This is a bone of contention over which we have fought since Cain and Abel, and more recently between. . . . . . you fill in your own list of contemporary violent conflicts with religious roots, religious overtones:
the Middle East
so many venues, and now Afghanistan & Al Qaeda & bin Laden. It surely appears that we need more “fits of tolerance and insight,” lest our outrage degenerate into a campaign of vengeance and retribution.
As we move into the third millennium there is a very modest development which could perhaps become a proto type, a ground for some limited optimism: What once was tension between Buddhism and Christianity is becoming a powerful dialog in which the discussants appear to be mutually enriched. I have personally participated in two such formal conversations. I am no kind of authority on Buddhism, but I can attest that each experience was an opportunity for mutual understanding and appreciation; we pondered the words of the Dalai Lama, learned more about meditation from Zen teachers. Buddhist scholars for their part quoted the gospels and shared their perception of the teaching of Christian mystics. And in both California and the Catskills where the dialogs occurred, the academic and the intellectual is being complimented by cooperation in helping the poor and in working for world peace. I sensed real communion, genuine friendship. Of course this raises the “million dollar” question: can this which seems to be a dialogical success become a pattern for dialog among other religions in the world?
May I suggest two aspects of Buddhism for our consideration?
1) Buddhism, while it has a wealth of teaching, has no dogma. Teaching (the Sanskrit word is “upaya”) is rendered as “skillful means” leading to enlightenment. It is not absolute truth, but pragmatic truth. So the Buddhist teacher will willingly use the Bible, even the New Testament or the writings of any religion if they lead to enlightenment. But Buddhism’s tolerance can clash with Jewish, Christian, Islamic conviction.
2) Buddhism is a mystical religion which leads beyond words and thinking and reasoning to the silence of “transcendental wisdom.” Buddhists teach meditation whether through recitation of a mantra, contemplation of a mandola, or the regulation of breath. Their mystics enter into the emptiness, the darkness – the nothingness, the cloud of unknowing.
Is there something to be learned from these characteristics of Buddhism?
Assuredly we cannot abandon all dogma. But can we be less dogmatic – an interesting question for a Roman Catholic to pose? Can we abandon our fundamentalism and recognize that much of our teaching is “pragmatic truth.”? Can we be more tolerant, more open to dialog, to compromise, to recognizing goodness and truth in others? Are we open to “ambiguity” – the mind set that any idea may be susceptible to many interpretations, that the opposite of a truth may not be falsehood, but another profound truth – how else can the Supreme Being be at once immanent and transcendent? Using a computer metaphor, divinity’s data base is much broader than we can interpret from our simple download of selected holy messages. To cope with diversity, even while remaining rooted in our own tradition, we must learn to respect the belief systems of others; the alternative is to expect much more terror.
Think of World War II. The Allied stance was unconditional surrender – we are good, our enemies are evil – no negotiation, no dialog, no mercy. So we carpet bombed German cities; exterminated men, women, children, animals, even the mosquitoes in Hiroshima; fire bombed Tokyo killing 100,000 people, almost all civilians. Those policies and positions were not just military and political; they had religious significance as well.
Do we sense a similar uncompromising mentality today? No negotiation; we are the whitehats; terrorists are evil. Anyone who shows any understanding will pay the price. No mercy. Shoot to kill.
What is frightening is that the angry extremists who destroyed the Twin Towers (and let us agree that their culpability is personal – it cannot be extended to all their co-religionists) think they too are pitted against evil; they will consider no dialog, show no mercy. They will die before they compromise. It is no secret that for them New York and Washington were only an initial step.
It there is no answer for the immediate future, surely the long term holds more hope. The answer, the only answer, is dialog, a dialog in which religions will challenge one another
- to embrace modernity
- to embrace an ideology of religious pluralism
- to embrace a vision of globalization
a dialog in which religions will
- lead one another to conversion of heart
- help one another away from fanatical fundamentalism
- acknowledge each others faith.
Dialog is essential for ensuring that the name of the one God becomes increasingly what it is: a name for peace, a summons to peace.
Interreligious, inter-faith dialog is the way of the future. What we have learned and practiced ecumenically (admittedly haltingly and imperfectly) we must now extend to our relationships with other than Christians. Our objective in the near future has become more modest; immediate unity is not in sight, but at least we can acknowledge and try to understand our differences, try to develop trust and openness and mutual respect, perhaps identify some common ground or some common concerns, learn to appreciate each other, work together. Mutual illumination – that’s the goal!
Hans Kung has so insightfully said “until there is peace among religions there can be no peace in the world.” But Kung is a minimalist – now unless there is peace among religions the survival of the world is in question.
There is a yet further movement from dialog to prayer, to the mystical, if you will. If you will allow me a single quotation from John Paul II, let me share his extraordinary statement that “religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred or violence; the exigencies of peace transcend religion.” Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Bahais, Sikhs, Aborigines, Shintos, Mormons, Unitarian/Universalists – our prayerful dialog, even here in this place can begin to save this planet. For if there is to be peace on earth, it will begin with me, with us (religious people), right here, right now.
This first Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service brings together many of our religious traditions in an atmosphere of mutual respect and gratitude. Our presence here affirms our common humanity and celebrates our diversity. Our presence here recognizes values we hold in common and simultaneously respects differences in belief. May our embrace of diversity grow from tolerance to mutual respect, to affirmation of one another. May this indeed be the first of many opportunities for inter-religious action with a view to improving the healthy dynamic of ethical, cultural, racial, religious diversity in our society.
Most Rev. Thomas J. Costello
Former Auxiliary Bishop
Catholic Diocese of Syracuse