Saturday, July 07, 2007

Faith and freedom, step 2

The other day I wrote about freedom of choice and how valuable that is when it comes to religion. So the next question becomes how do we handle that freedom when confronted with people who believe differently?

Most of us come for a religion with explicit commands to spread the word and bring others to the fold. That must be balanced with a respect for those who believe differently. After all, if God doesn't force us to love him, who are we to force others into our faith?

This Christian-Muslim relations class I've been taking has examined this very issue of interreligious dialogue and how to approach it with charity and without compromising your own religious integrity. Here are some of the guidelines we discussed, some of which come from the book "Meeting Other Believers" by Cardinal Francis Arinze:

* Belief in freedom of choice so that people may practice faith according to their own conscience.

* Be knowledgeable about your own faith. Nearly all of the arguments against religious dialogue (that it would cause people to question their beliefs or lead to relativism or syncretism) can be refuted if those participating in dialogue are strong and knowledgeable about their own belief.

* Maintain a clear religious identity. Sometimes the temptation might be to downplay those elements of religion that set you apart from those you're talking to. But be firm and proud of what you believe - anyone who wants to learn about your religion would expect that. Arinze puts it well: "Christians who... would like to hide their Christian identity or at least to de-emphasize it, seem to be saying, without words, that Christ is an obstacle or embarrassment to dialogue."

* At the same time, be prepared to look at your own faith critically. I don't mean to attack your beliefs, but acknowledge those teachings that might seem difficult or contradictory to those who do not share your faith. Also realize where your tradition as an institution has failed. As a Catholic, I have to admit that the Virgin birth of Jesus is hard to grasp and that the Inquisition was probably not the finest moment in church history. But we can talk about those things constructively.

* Knowledge of the other religion. It's impossible to have truly constructive dialogue without knowing something of the other religion. If you're unclear on the basics, look them up or make that known and ask the person you're talking to before jumping to conclusions.

* Finally, perhaps most importantly, bring with you an attitude of love and respect. My job has led me to conversations with all kinds of folks who believe differently than I do, and going into those conversations with a genuine respect and curiosity has made up for all kinds of stupid questions and unintentional, but possibly insulting, remarks.

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