Inter-faith dialogue is one of the most encouraging developments of our time and a way of promoting and creating peace. However, in my view it often makes the mistake of focusing almost exclusively on tradition and history. We delve into our traditions to find things we have in common. Whatever question we are discussing, we look for strands in our Scriptures or history that can answer it. We sometimes acknowledge the need for change in order to make our faith real in the modern world, but even then we feel we need to find something in our tradition that can justify that change.
In the Christian Church for instance, when people question the reason why Roman Catholic priests have to be celibate, it is sometimes pointed out that this has only been the rule since the 11th century. That is certainly a very long time – half the history of Christianity! – but it does give people some kind of authority for saying that the rule could possibly be changed. Behind this there is the assumption that if it had always been there it could not be changed.
When we discuss the status of women in the ministry of the Church we note the fact that there were women in the very early Church who were active preachers and possibly even had the title of “apostle”. If those little bits of evidence were not there, it might be even harder for people to accept women priests and bishops than it already is.
In conversation between Christians and Muslims we acknowledge that each of our religions has been predominantly exclusive and intolerant of the others, but in order to get along with one another we search within our traditions to see if we can find elements of openness and inclusiveness in our Scriptures or somewhere in the past.
This is all quite natural. Our faiths, after all, are the product of centuries of tradition, and we have ancient Scriptures that we revere. However, what makes me sometimes uncomfortable is that I see Christianity as essentially a forward-looking faith. It is a faith closely aligned with hope. We believe in the kingdom of God, we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth. To me this means that our chief concern should be not how things were in the beginning but how they are meant to be in the end.
So if, for instance, we believe that men and women are equal in the sight of God, what does it really matter what functions women had in the Bible or the early Church or the early days of Islam? If we believe that God’s will is to create a world of universal peace, what does it matter whether our Scriptures justify war or are predominantly on the side of peace? Our faith is centred in the future that God is creating. For me, the essence of faith is not that it has been given to us by some authority in the past, but that the living God inspires with a vision of the future.
Associated with this concentration on the past is the way in which many people talk of God sending certain chosen individuals into the world to impart the knowledge of himself to humanity, as if these people were somehow in a special category different in kind from the rest of us. Muslims have a list of prophets, of whom Mohammed is the final one through whom the revelation of God is definitively and unalterably enshrined in the Qur’an. The Baha’i’s believe in a progressive revelation through a succession of special messengers sent into the world, each for his own time and culture. They do not believe that Baha’ullah is necessarily the final one, but they do believe that there will not be another one for a thousand years. The Sikhs too have a succession of ten “gurus” and believe that their Scripture is the eleventh guru that sums up and supersedes all the rest. Judaism and Christianity have a canon of Scripture that developed over many centuries but is now closed.
The common element in all these beliefs is that the revelation of God has come to us through a succession of special messengers that begins at a certain time and ends at a certain time. But who are these “messengers”? Surely they are preachers and teachers passing on their insights about the ways of God. Why should there be a restricted list? Any human being can express their insights about God, some better than others obviously, but there have been thousands of people in human history who have had something important to say to humanity about God and the meaning of human life. Why must some of them be classed as “prophets” or "divinely inspired" while the rest are just ordinary human beings? If God created the human mind and continues to work through human beings, helping us to understand the universe and the meaning of our existence, why should we think it only happens through a few special people and that it came to completion at some time in the past? Even Jesus apparently told his disciples that they would do greater things than he did, and that the Holy Spirit would continue to lead them into all truth when he was no longer with them.
Could we not have a more dynamic and creative inter-faith dialogue if, instead of comparing our traditions, we engaged in a search for the truth together, each expressing what inspires us, listening to what inspires others, being ready to receive new insights, and even ready to change our minds?
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