A Journey toward Understanding

Years ago, long after I had lost my faith, I read about the Crusades in detail for the first time. I was horrified by the brutality employed by the Church and sickened by the political corruption that had infected the Church. My reading helped reinforce my belief that God did not exist. It wasn’t so long ago that Catholic and Protestant Christians were killing each other in Ireland. For a long time, religious intolerance was, for me, a stumbling block to God. It seemed that people of faith were more prone to hate than love, more prone to violence than peace. I made a rather fundamental mistake: I viewed religious fundamentalists as if they possessed the real truth of whatever religion to which they belonged. Today, many people see phony televangelists, and bad priests and reach the conclusion that Christianity is full of hot air and empty promises. Likewise, even more people, especially in the West, see Islamic terrorists flying planes into buildings in America and becoming suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel and they believe all Muslims are dangerous and Islam is an inferior religion. In these tumultuous and terrifying times in which terrorism, war, genocide and chronic, debilitating poverty engulf the entire globe, religion seems incapable of creating a community of peace, a climate of brotherhood.

Like many people, the barbaric events of September 11th distorted my view of Islam. A faith whose followers were willing to strap bombs to themselves and kill or maim innocent people, including precious, little children, throughout the Middle East seemed to have very little to say to me. As a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, I knew how important interfaith dialogue is. Yet, the word Islam triggered negative feelings and thoughts within me.

Interfaith dialogue was virtually born when a poor, humble, mendicant friar named Francis decided to visit and talk with the Sultan Sultan Malek el Kamil. The two spiritual leaders, one a pious Christian, the other a pious Muslim, saw in one another, the face of God. What made their encounter so unprecedented and amazing was that it occurred during the height of the Crusades when religious intolerance and savage brutality were commonplace and people of differing faiths killed each other in the name of God. Eight centuries after the Sultan and the Saint inaugurated interfaith dialogue, the ideal of a true community of all people, excluding no one, is still, a long, long way from being realized. The blueprint which Francis discovered in his time in the Gospel and which the Sultan found in the Koran is there for us to discover. Our survival depends upon it. We need to talk to each other, listen to each other, learn from each other…and grow in love and compassion together. The world’s faiths speak in uniquely different tongues of a transcendent reality common to them all. Perhaps people of differing faiths can each grow closer to God buy drawing closer to each other. The path of peace is dialogue. Dialogue transforms a stranger into a friend. Friends can unite in the struggle against poverty and evil.

Interfaith dialogue requires that people of differing faiths avoid dogmatic assertions when speaking with each other. Theological arrogance and rigidity stifles any authentic exchange. Nor will dialogue succeed if our aim is selling our theological perspective. True dialogue requires an honest mutual exploration of our respective theologies and felt experiences of God; it is a journey toward understanding, not convincing. It is easy for us to become attached to our Truth. This attachment, mystics of all faiths point out, often manifests itself as a kind of knowing – a secure certainty – that blocks the way of true knowing. It is born from the grasping need for spiritual security. I read somewhere that religious fundamentalism is nothing but attachment dressed in sacred garb. Islamic religious ideologues have been more successful in recruiting followers than those Muslim leaders advocating moderation, tolerance and better interfaith dialogue. Terrorists operating in the name of Islam certainly do not represent true Islam or the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims. Yet the Islamic extremists seem to be gaining ground.

Fundamentalism and extremism exist in all religions. No matter the tradition, extremism and fanaticism tear people away from the Divine, away from true enlightenment; they distract from love, compassion, and kindness. The authentic spiritual life is about the inner light, not the external fire or violent passion, which typically take their fuel from hate. We are all called to wage a jihad…but not against the world or infidels, but in one’s own heart. It is in our own hearts that the real battle takes place in the form of an inner struggle with one’s own attachments, vices, ignorance, and fears.

True religious faith always includes a keen sense of humility. The religion espoused by extremists in support of terrorism shows no sense of humility before a higher power. Their religion is a religion of manipulation, fueling people’s desire for order in the chaos of life. Violence in the name of religion is in fact violence against religion. Extremism, whether it be Christian or Islamic, needs to be tempered from within the specific faith.

There is an innate tension within all religions, a tension that echoes the innate tension within each individual person. We each want to be our own unique person, different in some special way than everyone else. We want to be independent. We are no different than snowflakes, no two of us are alike. Each of us grows into our own uniqueness, standing out in some special way. And who we uniquely are is our gift to the world. But as we strive for our own individuality, we are also drawn by another internal impulse: the deep yearning for a sense of connection. We hunger for intimacy and community, for solidarity with others. And therein rests the tension. We want to be at once separate and connected. We want to stand out and fit in. We are individuals who desire to be part of a family. And what is internally true for us as individuals is also true of our different religions. Thomas Merton suggested that the true sign of maturity is the desire to disappear into humanity, melt into the body and soul of this earth, and dissolve into a bigger oneness that makes up the family of humanity and (in Christian theology) the Body of Christ. The truth is we are all one…all of humanity is a single person.


1 Response to “A Journey toward Understanding”

  1. 1 krebsjoan January 3, 2016 at 12:55 am

    “,,, religion seems incapable of creating a community of peace, a climate of brotherhood.” “… all of humanity is one person.”

    Join those with your theme of “journey” and you’ve hooked me. Although I knew where you come from as I read “… seems incapable” I still shouted that religion IS incapable of these things. Religion and faith are not identical, the same, equals by any means. Please note Francis of Assisi’s dialogue with the Sultan was interfaith (a sharing of hearts) and not interreligious (that, more often, is negotiation rather than dialogue). Joan Chittister has a book written about her titled, if I remember correctly, “From Religion to Faith” a journey similar to the one you offer us.

    I’m glad the connective thread in this blog is “journey” because that thread is still not completed with “… all of humanity is one person.” It will be when we’re able to say – with conviction – “all creation (including humanity) is one.” if that were the case then a milieu like Haiti would be globally deemed to be wrong. We desperately need a faith dialogue on this issue. Francis of Rome began that interfaith diajogue in “Laudato Si” and “urgently” presses this conversation on us (Par. 14 I think) Here I think he means the same thing as you do with the metaphor of journey. Thanks, Gerry

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