My father was originally a Congregational Church minister, so I was raised as a Protestant. I learned a little bit about the Christian religion in childhood Sunday School classes, and I even attended a few Bible Study classes in my very early teens. After that, however, I was keen to embrace the secular life, and leave all thoughts of religion behind me. It was not until my middle-age years, that I started to look more closely at the religion with which I had grown up, and to embark upon a journey of discovery into other religions and other spiritual ideas.
About 10 years ago, I undertook a Religion Studies course, which taught the basics about the major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and also a little about indigenous religions like that of the Australian Aborigines and Native Americans.
After reading Tomorrow’s God, by Neale Donald Walsch, about five years ago, I started a New Spirituality Study Group, in which we learn from books, religions, and each other, about all different forms of spiritual expression. We have learned about Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah, Catholicism, Mormonism, and a number of new age ideas and practices.
Now, I am commencing a new wave of learning within a course of study at the American Institute of Holistic Theology. Having just about completed my first subject, Chaplaincy, I learned even more about a number of religions, particularly Islam, which I have chosen for my course project.
What I have learned from all of this study, and my experiences, is that we are quick to judge other people and entire other religions according to very little information about them. It is all very well to learn about the beliefs and practices of a religion from books and even from sacred texts, but until we have walked a mile in the shoes of those who live as a follower of a particular religion, we can never really understand it and appreciate all that it offers.
Up until recent years, study of other religions has been done from the outside looking in. Whilst this is a good beginning, it can never really allow us to understand the real benefits of any religion, which is a connection with the divine.
The problem has been that, until recently, most people have been hesitant to talk of their own experience within a religion. Social etiquette told us that one never discussed politics or religion, for fear of offending someone. What I have discovered is that, unless we are prepared to share our inner experiences with others, they are unlikely to share their inner experiences with us.
Whilst inter-religious dialogue is good, if we engage in any such dialogue from a position of ‘our religion is right and yours is wrong’, we are not likely to gain any benefit from the conversation. Yet converse, we must, if we are to gain the insights which other religions, and even our own religion, can offer us.
You see, the other important lesson I have learned is that, even though the sacred texts, doctrines, and even the practices of religions may give a clear picture of a religion, it is only the experience of these which provides the true understanding of any religion. Whereas we may not be in a position to, or even want to experience all of these aspects ourselves, true understanding can be gained by true inter-religious dialogue.
- True inter-religious dialogue can only take place if we:
- 1. Set aside any judgements about the religion and its followers
2. Become vulnerable ourselves and share our own inner experiences
3. Listen with an open mind and an open heart
4. Be open to sharing some of their experiences.
- 1. Set aside any judgements about the religion and its followers
- There is more important work to be done following the dialogue. We must then take what we have learned and look at our own religion with fresh eyes and a new understanding. This will allow us to discern the similarities and differences between our beliefs and those of the other religion, and to decide if there are any aspects of that religion we wish to embrace and any aspects of our own religion we wish to reject.
- No two people experience any religion in the same way. In my recent study of books about Islam, I have found different experiences of Islam in each book I have read.
- There was the Muslim lady who lived in New York, and didn’t want to join a Muslim community, usually so much a part of the practice of Islam, until she could find one which would embrace the gender equality which she considered a fundamental teaching of the Qur’an .
- There were the Sufi masters who teach meditation in order to find God in the silence. There is a quote in the book, The Thoughtful Guide to Sufism, which sounds like it could have been written by a new age spiritual teacher:
“When people are aware of themselves and they are aware of creation and are aware that they themselves and all creatures exist in God, they experience union with God.”
- (Qushayri: Risalah 3)
- There was the book about Islam in Australia, with a picture on its cover of young teenage Muslim girls playing football – not the usual image one creates when asked to imagine Muslim girls.
- Even though we live in a country where the majority of people are Christians, there are many different forms of this religion followed, and there would be much that we could learn from each other, if we took the time, and humbled ourselves sufficiently to be open to learning.
- I believe, like Beverly Lanzetta, who wrote Emerging Heart – Global Spirituality and the Sacred, that interfaith dialogue is essential for us to move into a global spirituality, which will allow us to unite with all of creation on the Earth, and thus with the Creator.
- This global spirituality can only be reached through the heart, not the mind. You can’t think your way there, you can only feel your way there. This is why it is so important to learn about religions from an experiential point of view.
- I read a quote recently by Hans Küng:
There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions.
- Whether we consider ourselves to be a follower of a religion or not, we can help the world religions, and the world, to move towards that peace by becoming involved in interfaith dialogue, a catalyst for peace.
- It is not easy to go against years of society’s conditioning, and start sharing our beliefs and our spiritual experiences, but if we focus love on the issue, and take baby steps, we can overcome.
- And if we believe in God and/or the angels, we can always ask for their help.
- (The Faith Club, by Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner)
(The Thoughtful Guide to Sufism, by Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri)
(Islam in Australia, by Abdullah Saeed)
- Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net