Opening ourselves to an interfaith world

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on January 2, 2024

We live in a world fractured by deep divisions involving wealth, race, political views, cultural values and, all too often, religious divisions.

What can we do to help heal those divisions? Could our Anglican faith communities play a role?

Interfaith dialogue is a growing international movement that has become increasingly popular as a way for people of all faiths to learn from one another, share learnings about faith and address issues we face as a global community. As the late Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist, said, “In dialogue we allow what is beautiful, peaceful and meaningful in the ‘Other’ to transform us.” Dialogue enables us to stop hurting each other and instead help create a world of peace and justice.

It can also enrich our faith life and encourage new ways of thinking about our faith. For example, we tend to think of the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story chiefly about compassion, yet it has an interfaith element as well. It lifts up someone from a marginalized religious group, the Samaritans, as the person who shows authentic faith.

Roman Catholic theologian Fr. John Dunne speaks of interfaith dialogue as “passing over,” meaning a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another religion. It is followed by the process of coming back into one’s own culture and religion with fresh insights.

Anglican interfaith initiatives are blossoming around the world. Former Nigerian archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, who helped draft a recent Lambeth call on interfaith relations, has called Canada a “mission field” in terms of interfaith relations because of its position as a destination for people from various backgrounds and beliefs.

The mission field description is apt for other reasons. The sad reality is that many of us remain unaware of the beliefs held by the growing number of our neighbours who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or members of other faith groups. I must confess that only a few years ago did I learn that Muslims also love Jesus and believe him to be a prophet of God.

What could interfaith dialogue actually look like, and how could it be lived out? How can people of other faiths enrich our understanding and experience of God?

In my community of Peterborough, a notable example is the Abraham Festival, a gathering of the spiritual descendants of Abraham – Jews, Christians and Muslims – who meet in a spirit of celebration and awe to know one another. It had its roots in the desire of three women – a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian – to celebrate a shared heritage through our common ancestor Abraham. The group strives to demystify “the other” by celebrating similarities and encouraging acceptance of differences. It embraces people of faith along with all who care about peace, equality and social justice.

The Abraham Festival network builds bridges and relationships between community members by promoting peace and dispelling stereotypes. Members embrace diversity and call for peace and social justice, principles that are common to all three faiths. Activities include discussions, the annual festival, shared meals and worship, and refugee sponsorships.

Other examples of interfaith cooperation stretch beyond education. For more than 30 years, an Ontario-wide anti-poverty organization called the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) has mobilized people of faith to work towards an end to poverty. The group recently held a forum at Queen’s Park involving 60 people from southern Ontario to hear from MPPs of all parties and learn from a rabbi about the call to ensure dignity for all, and to explore action proposals to counter poverty and homelessness.

These are encouraging developments; yet much more can be done, especially to reach Anglicans in the pews. For example, why couldn’t each parish resolve to at least once a year have a leader of another faith tradition, such as an imam or a rabbi, give a reflection about their faith in lieu of a sermon?

French writer Victor Hugo noted that “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Interreligious dialogue is an idea whose time has come. Paul McKenna, an expert on interfaith dialogue and creator of the Golden Rule interfaith poster found in schools and churches across Canada, says, “Never in history have we seen such levels of cooperation among the world’s religions. We are all invited to partake of this multifaith commonwealth.”


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