I did not “choose” to do interreligious dialogue; it was thrust upon me by being assigned to Pakistan after my ordination in 1978. Over the following years in the diocese of Lahore, despite a lot of talk about dialogue with Muslims, a lot of my work was ministering to the Christian community, but always within the wider context of the 96% Islamic milieu.
However, I was part of the fledgling attempts at formal Christian-Muslim dialogue in the 1980s and 1990s. They were often a fringe activity as the Muslims involved tended to be marginal to mainstream Muslim society who had little or no interest in dialogue. Similarly, most of the Christians living in suburban slums and in villages were socially and educationally marginalised so had little interest in dialogue with Muslims. In fact, the main motivation for Christian leaders getting involved in dialogue was to have influence in addressing the political and social issues of the Christian community.
In some ways, I have had much more extensive engagement in interreligious dialogue since coming to Sydney in 2002. My work in the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations involves attending events put on by Muslim organizations (talks, open days at the mosques, academic conferences), attending Muslim festive events (iftar dinners during Ramadan, at both public venues and in private homes, attending eid prayers in the mosque).
Here is one example. A couple of years ago, after travelling less than five kilometres from my home, I ended up in the Middle East! An Olympic Stadium in Western Sydney was filled with about 4000 Muslims celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. There were Muslims of every country – Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Bosnians, Filipinos – all dressed in their various national costumes, speaking many languages, now all Australians! I was one of the few Christians in the auditorium! Despite the geographical, linguistic and cultural barriers that I’ve crossed during my two decades in Pakistan, I think that I am more missionary now living in Sydney than I ever was in Lahore!
The Christian-Muslim work has led to involvement in the wider interfaith world, for example the Abraham Conference, involving Christians, Muslims and Jews, held over the past several years. This in turn led me to Christian-Jewish relations, as a result of which I was able to visit a synagogue for the first time in my life and discover more about my Christian ancestry!
These involvements have expanded into the faith world of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, as the following example shows: Over an extended weekend last year the following unfolded. On the Friday I attended a multi-faith prayer service in a Uniting Church for the UN Day of Prayer for Peace; on the Saturday I read the Christian scriptures at a similar multi-faith prayer service in a Baha’i Temple; on the Saturday evening I celebrated the Vigil Catholic Mass at home; I attended a Mosque open-day on the Sunday; and on the Monday evening I attended a talk by a Sai Baba Hindu in a Sikh Temple where a Jew gave a vote of thanks! All that in the space of four days!
Some people assume that I have a particular love for Muslims because of my experience in Pakistan. This is not so. I consider Muslims to be a mixed group like any other. There are many good, decent people among them, and they certainly have a strong religious culture but they also have their looney tunes too!
Why keep reaching out, to Muslims especially? Part of the reason, is that Jesus associated with tax gatherers and sinners! Maybe a priest of Jesus Christ should also associate with fringe groups in society! Because of the criminal behaviour of a tiny minority (in Australia and overseas), all Muslims get tarnished, and this is exacerbated by sensationalist media reporting. For me, it is a matter of justice to stand by those who are falsely accused. With most Muslims, we condemn violence as contrary to the core teachings of Islam (and of every religion).
Muslim tradition was once a great civilisation with marvellous achievements in learning, culture, science, arts, and medicine. Under colonialism it became stagnant for centuries but it is currently enjoying a resurgence. Islam has not yet negotiated the appropriate boundary between religion and politics. After a lot of toil, Christianity has achieved a separation of church and state which is a marvellous liberation for both. I believe that Christianity has the cultural and intellectual resources to help Muslims develop the behaviours and attitudes that are required for living in the modern world. However, we cannot expect Muslims to achieve in a mere forty years what it took “Western” Christianity four bloody centuries to achieve. We must keep on doing in our day what we can, so that our successors are in a better situation rather than having to start from where we are now.
Why do we keep reaching out if the fruits will only be seen in the third millennium? Ultimately, for me it is a matter of Christian conviction. We continue to spend our lives reaching out in love because that is how Christ first loved us. He gave his life on the cross. In our turn, we must give our lives in dialogue, even with little or no return. If Muslims and others see that Christians are willing to spend their lives without any return, then the love that motivates our lives may become intelligible and credible to them for the first time.
The question now is how to go deeper into interreligious dialogue and make it more mainstream in our churches. The rich teaching tradition of the Catholic Church since Vatican II remains largely unknown to most Catholic communities. One of my favourite quotations from that teaching is:
In the last analysis truth is not a thing we possess, but a Person by whom we must allow ourselves to be possessed. This is an unending process. While keeping their identity intact, Christians must be prepared to learn and receive from and through others the positive values of their traditions. (“Dialogue and Proclamation,” 49)