For the past few months - especially since attending the World Religions Summit in Winnipeg in June - I've been thinking a lot about the place of faith in our private and public lives. I've thought about my own journey of faith - hardly a linear or predictable path and certainly one which I suspect is yet very much incomplete - and I've also been thinking (somewhat obsessively!) about the complexities of work, travel or study across cultures and across spiritual borders.
I remember coming back from my first short trip to Kenya in December of 2004 and thinking that, as much as I'd appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to see a land and a people that are so very different from me and my home, I would NEVER completely understand the history and culture and people of the place. I felt a stranger - an alien - out of place and out of sync. It was unsettling.
And in my various journeys since then, I have continued to wrestle with this feeling that ALL of our communication - ALL of our efforts to walk with our partners - ALL of our good intentions - are somehow just a little out of sync. It's like a movie where the audio track doesn't quite line up with the video track. And just when we think we've got it right - when we are speaking the same language, both practically and proverbially - there it is again. A subtle disconnect where we're reminded - again - that we don't really get it at all. We are relating through a fog of deeply embedded cultural habits and practices. Even our common conviction that we are united through belief in one God, one faith, one baptism, doesn't protect us from the idiosyncrasies of culture.
And then there are the intentional inter-faith dialogues, where we acknowledge our diversity and our fundamental differences. Some might assume that inter-faith dialogue - by its very definition - necessitates compromise. That listening to the ideas and concerns of those from OTHER faith traditions is somehow a dangerous first step down a slippery slope of indecisiveness and concession. I confess that what I find most disturbing about interfaith dialogue is any tendency to want to bleach out our differences. While it might be helpful to remind ourselves that ALL of our faith traditions are concerned with justice, and at our best we foster attitudes and actions that demonstrate compassion and generosity and peace, these values do not make us the same. So how do we work together around these things while at the same time celebrating and practicing those things which set us apart? How do people of Christian and Jewish and Muslim and Bahai and Hindu and all the rest - including even people of no particular faith - work together to have a positive impact on the social and political and economic and even environmental fabric of our world?
Maybe this is overly simplistic, but I'm thinking that what is most helpful and also most pleasing to God, is for each of us to practice our faith with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength - to pour ourselves into the life of our faith, working with others wherever we can, respecting their spiritual commitments and convictions, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices who serve a purpose and agenda not our own. I think that when we are secure in our faith we can enter into conversation and even relationship with people of other faiths and be enriched in the process. As we learn about other faiths we will understand the things that we have in common and also the things which set us apart. And we will need to pay attention to both.
There is a movement of sorts around a Charter for Compassion which is founded on the idea that "the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves." Sound familiar? I like the Charter in that it calls us to live together in peace, but I'm just a bit uncomfortable in that it MAY have the tendency to reduce our faith to a social prescription for getting along with one another. I would argue that when we live out our faith fully - with passion as well as compassion and with humility as well as determination and conviction - that we will be offering a full expression of our humanity and not one which has been subtly muted for the sake of appearances. When I live up to my potential as a Christian and encounter someone who is living up to his or her potential as a Buddhist or Muslim, etc. I will have nothing to fear and much to learn.
If you're interested in thinking about these things a bit further, I see that the 6th Annual Munk Debate - to be held at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, Canada on November 26 at 7pm is on the resolution: "be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world...". Speaking in favor of the resolution will be Tony Blair. Christopher Hitchens will speak against the resolution. For more information see http://www.munkdebates.com/home.aspx.