Last week I spoke at an inter-faith gathering hosted by the Oakville chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement. A few times of year, this group arranges events like this one. They ask representatives of various religions to offer perspectives on issues such as the topic for last Thursday evening, which was “Is God Relevant in today’s world?” This is the second time I have attended one of these evenings. Each time I have been aware of two things that seem important to share.
The first is the genuine warmth, and the heart-felt spirit of welcome in the room. The organizers, and the attenders bring an openness and willingness to be with people of different backgrounds that I do not think can be feigned.
The second is that those who speak, regardless of their faith background, tend to approach the questions in a positive, life-affirming, down-to-earth way. Very often, the essence of the views offered are very similar, regardless of whether they are rooted in the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian traditions.
How is this possible? It would be overly-simplistic, and would not do justice to the various faith traditions to suggest that at heart, all religions say the same thing. I don’t think that’s true. What I do see is that a spiritually based way of living can lead to surprisingly similar reflections, when members of the various traditions are asked to talk about a question that is relevant to them all.
The people I have met at these gatherings are not specialists in inter-faith dialogue, tasked with the onerous responsibility of rationalizing or justifying their theologies in light of the other traditions. They are just ordinary people of faith, who are interested in moving beyond the fear, suspicion, and narrow-mindedness that too often takes the place of religious discourse in our world.
It is important, I think, to recognize that too much broadcast air-time, and ink in the print media, is given over to the views of religious fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong, that heroic and prolific scholar of religion says in her book “The Case for God”:
“In all its forms, fundamentalism is fiercely reductive faith. In their anxiety and fear, fundamentalists often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. They can, for example, be highly selective in their reading of scripture. Christian fundamentalists quote extensively from the book of Revelation and are inspired by its violent end-time vision but rarely refer to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and not to judge others. Jewish fundamentalists rely heavily on the Deuteronomist sections of the Bible and seem to pass over the rabbis’ injunction that exegesis should lead to charity. Muslim fundamentalists ignore the pluralism of the Qu’ran, and extremists quote its more aggressive verses to justify violence, pointedly disregarding its far more numerous calls for peace, tolerance, and forgiveness.”
Armstrong goes on to offer this comment on fundamentalism in all its forms:
“Fundamentalists are convinced that they are fighting for God, but in fact this type of religiosity represents a retreat from God. To make purely human, historical phenomena – such as “family values,” “the Holy Land” or “Islam”- sacred and absolute is idolatry, and, as always, their idol forces them to try to destroy its opponents.”
I will remember this the next time I read something in my e-mail inbox about the “evils” of Islam.