AMONG PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT RELIGIONS
We all want peace. And in Nigeria we particularly want peace among people of different religions. How do we go about making peace? Whatever action we take presupposes an attitude, a position or judgement we take with regard to other religions. That is what we have to examine.
Anyone who identifies himself with a particular religion can take either a narrow or a wide approach to other religions.
If he takes a narrow approach he regards his own religion as the unique depository of truth and only way of salvation. He is solidly committed to practice all that his religion demands. At the same time he is mission-minded, eager to go out and convert the world to his religion, since he deems all who do not belong to his religion as lost.
Yet he may opt for an wide approach. Because of the bonds of family, tribe, nationality, business and many other interests he may take a broad-minded attitude. He may then be indifferent to his own faith, giving it scant place in his life and compromising its demands. Live and let live! Why take pains to persuade others of your faith?
Perhaps the majority of people are somewhere in between these two opposite approaches. They take pride in their own religious affiliation, yet do not let it stand in the way of wider associations and commitments.
Such a middle approach, however, may involve compromise, and such people find themselves open to accusation from both ends: Why are they lukewarm about their religion? Or how can they play a neutral role in society and work for peace if they are so committed to their religion?
Is there any middle approach that does justice to both one's own religious commitment and to the demands of life in a pluralist society? That is what we have to investigate.
The way of religious distinctiveness
Religious distinctiveness is a fact, even though few may be strongly committed to it. Let us take the claims of Islam and of the Catholic Church as examples.
For Islam there is Allah and no other divinity; before Muhammad there were other prophets, but he is the last and seal of them all. "Anyone who desires a religion other than Islam will not find acceptance before God" (Qur'ân 3:85). This teaching is clear, and most Muslims believe that non-Muslims will have no place in Paradise.
This extreme position, however, is softened by several considerations. First of all, Judaism and Christianity are recognized as divinely revealed anterior religions: "The believers, Jews, Christians and Sâbi'ans, who believe in God and the Last Day and who do good, will have their reward with their Lord and have nothing to fear or be ashamed of" (Qur'ân 2:62). Some restrict the meaning of this and similar verses to a mere toleration of Christians and Jews in Muslim society, while excluding them from entering Paradise. Others, like al-Ghazâlî, are more nuanced: They say that Christians or Jews who do not know about Islam or who find it presented to them in a distorted way are excused for not becoming Muslims, and their fidelity to their own imperfect religion will assure them a place in Paradise.
For Catholicism, we find a similar distinctiveness. Belief in the Trinity and in Jesus as Saviour is necessary for salvation. So also is membership in the Church he founded on Peter the Rock, the Apostles, and the Pope and bishops who follow them by unbroken apostolic succession.
But again this position is softened by other considerations. Jesus is the Saviour of the world, of all men (Jn 4:42; 1 Tim 2:4,6); so, through his Spirit, he has other ways of touching those who do not know him and his Church, or who have only vague or distorted ideas about him. Those sheep who belong to him but are not in his sheepfold (Jn 10:16) will come to the last judgement and be surprised to hear that they had really accepted and loved Christ when they were feeding the hungry and clothing the naked (Mt 25:31-46). Thus Pope John Paul II asserts that every human being is touched by the universal redemptive grace of Christ. Those who respond to this grace have an implicit faith in him and are related to the Church in a way hidden mysteriously in their own frame of mind and way of life (Redemptoris missio, 1979, 10 & 14).
The way of tolerance and religious freedom
Toleration and religious freedom mean different things: Toleration is something a more powerful party offers to a weaker party, and toleration is the non-prosecution of an evil or a wrong. Religious freedom, on the other hand, is based on social equality of all the parties concerned; it says nothing about the correctness of religious belief, but merely assures the civil right of people to choose the religion they wish to follow.
The civil right of religious freedom does not mean that people are free before God to practice any religion they like. On the day of judgement, God will ask if we followed the true religion. If we did not, he will ask whether we made a serious effort to ascertain the truth. If we did not, we will be excluded from Paradise. That is the teaching of Islam (Q 2:217, 3:90-91,106, 3:140, 47:34 etc.) and of the Catholic Church (Vatican II: Nostra Aetate, Introd.).
But the judgement of civil society is not the judgement of God. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, held from 1960 to 1964, declared that it is outside the competency of civil authority to make any determination about religious truth, since that is a matter between each person and his God, and civil authority is there only to assure the temporal security, order and smooth running of society. Besides, religion is not religion if it does not come from conviction; conviction must come from within and cannot be imposed from without. Even if it is clear that a person joins or leaves a religion because of an unworthy motive, such as money, the state has no right to intervene.
Religious freedom includes the right to places of worship, religious education, and public witness to one's faith. It is limited only where religious practice becomes a nuisance, such as undue noise, blocking of traffic, or subjecting people to religious sermons or prayer against their will.
The way of dialogue
Any religious dialogue presupposes that the person of the other religion has something good to offer, that he is of good will and has some good sense and intelligence. Yet dialogue is an extremely wide concept and can apply to many very different activities. Let us begin by looking at its lower or more elemental forms and move from there to higher levels.
The most elemental form of dialogue is resistance to evil. Yes, conflict happens, in married life, within religious communities, between tribes and nations, and between religions. When one is hurt one must first put a stop to the blows, then complain, and then try to come to a settlement. Pope John Paul II complains of certain Muslim countries (such as Sudan) where Christians are often deprived of places of worship and the opportunity to organize religious education and charitable works; they are objects of suspicion and relegated to a second-class citizenship. He goes on to say, "I am convinced that the great traditions of Islam, such as welcoming strangers, faithfulness in friendship, endurance under adversity and the importance of faith in God, are sufficient bases for going beyond such narrow sectarianism" (Talk to Diplomatic Corps, 13 January 1990).
A higher form of dialogue is cooperation in social development. In Nigeria we are faced with a terrible economic and political crisis, not just on a national level, but at the grass roots. There are many things Christians and Muslim can do and are doing together to remedy the situation. This is not merely because we must either survive or perish together, but because we believe that we are all one human family of God, and in working together we are working for God. That is why so many of you are being given citations today.
Another form of dialogue is affirmation, that is, to take positive note of important events in the religious life of another person. To send greetings or to visit him on a religious feast day, to be present at a wedding, funeral or naming of a child: all these contribute towards good will and are a bridge towards closer relationships.
Shared religious experience is a deeper level of dialogue. This occurs especially when one is called on to comfort a friend in sorrow or give advice in times of crisis. A friend in need is not just one who will bail you out of a financial crisis, but who will stand by to strengthen your faith in God when you are shaken or shattered by events.
Theological dialogue is a rarer experience, something for specialists who are thoroughly familiar with their own religious tradition and that of their partner. It explores and tries to bring to light the vast area of common values hidden under unfamiliar rites or vocabulary, and where differences must be admitted it tries at least to inculcate respect and avoid exaggeration.
Finally, there is dialogue of proclamation. This is simply preaching or explaining one's own faith to another. Why should this be called dialogue? That is because no true proclamation or mission can be authentic if it does not address the mind and heart of the other, taking into account his own educational level, social and cultural background. Dialogical proclamation presupposes that your partner is interested to hear about your faith; you talk with the person and not just to him, following his own pace of understanding and not just deluging him with arguments that he does not accept. Dialogical proclamation also presupposes that it is not human persuasion that converts, but the Spirit of God working in the listener. It does not aim at the conquest of another person to oneself, but a common conversion and submission to God in one faith.
My brothers and sisters under God, let us be serious about religion, seeking the truth and trying to put it into practice the best we can, knowing that God will judge us.
Let us reach out to those who do not share our faith, not just to convert them, but to live, work and share with them in peace and love, as God commands us to do. As for our own faith, let us avoid arguments and hot debate that leads nowhere; let us also avoid hiding our faith by total silence; but let us open up to one another and share whatever is attractive and beneficial.