25 February 2012

‘Believing and Belonging’ (3): Interfaith Dialogue

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road, Dublin ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin:
Saturday 24 February 2012 (11.10 a.m. to 12.40 p.m.)

Speaking at a conference in Blanchardstown, Co Dublin, earlier this month, Archbishop Michael Jackson said the various faiths witnessed in Ireland today form one community of affection and understanding, and said we are all on a journey together.

The archbishop was speaking on “Opening the Doors of tomorrow’s Ireland today.” ’He said “we are all on a journey together” and said it was important to build on the community of tomorrow. He used the word “community” in the singular because, he said, “I am convinced that we are all one community together. We often speak of ‘the various ‘communities’ in Ireland, but we are of one community and it is a community of affection and understanding.”

Dr Jackson said it was important to have a dialogue of ideas among those with different scriptures so that people of different faiths could learn from each other and understand each other. But he added that there was also the “dialogue of life” in which people go about their day to day lives together and women, children and men get to know each other.

What does this mean in terms of lived daily life and experience in our parishes and in this diocese?

The Lenten series of Sunday morning speakers in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin, starting tomorrow, is seeking to look at Jewish, Christian and Islamic perspectives on the Psalms over the six Sundays in Lent.

The visiting speakers have been invited to share their thoughts on some of the best-loved verses in the Hebrew Bible, and they include prominent Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars, among them Dr Zuleika Rodgers, lecturer in Jewish Studies at TCD, who speaks on Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion); and Dr Roja Fazaeli, lecturer in Islamic Studies, speaking on Psalm 139 (O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away).

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in a former synagogue in Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’ … there has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Earlier this month, the Irish Council Of churches (ICC) and the Office for Integration of Dublin City Council launched the Dublin City Interfaith Forum at the Civic Offices here beside us in Wood Quay. The forum draws members from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Acknowledging that Dublin’s religious landscape had profoundly changed in the last decade, bringing new challenges and opportunities, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Andrew Montague, said: “I welcome initiatives, such as this Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which encourage discussion, help build relationships, promote integration, nurture harmony and deepen understanding and respect.”

But when I was growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, the only significant non-Christian faith minority in Ireland was the Jewish community. There has been a Jewish presence in Ireland for centuries, although the present community is by-and-large the outgrowth of immigrants and refugees who arrived in Ireland from the former Tsarist empire – the present day Baltic states, Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – in the late 19th century.

So, the presence of religious minorities in Ireland has an intimate link with the arrival of immigrants and refugees on this island.

Many generations of Dubliners knew the area of redbrick side-streets off Clanbrassil Street as ‘Little Jerusalem,’ and for them it was a matter of pride that this was part of the mosaic that made Irish identity.

Leopold Bloom was born at 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, in the heart of Dublin’s “Little Jerusalem” and two doors down from the Comerford home mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a terrace of houses on the east side of Upper Clanbrassil Street, between Leonard’s Corner and Harold’s Cross Bridge, there is a house with a plaque claiming that this was the birthplace of Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It is a tribute to the early integration, without assimilation, of such a wonderful religious minority that Joyce should have bequeathed to modern literature a Jew, baptised into the Church of Ireland and married to a Roman Catholic, as the archetypal Irishman.

The first Jewish senator in this state was the Countess of Desart, who lived in Co Kilkenny. Since then, all the major political parties have had Jewish TDs: the Briscoes in Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter in Fine Gael, and Mervyn Taylor in the Labour Party.

The Jewish community has made many other important cultural and political contributions to Irish life: think of artists like Harry Kernoff from Dublin, film-makers like Louis Lentin from Limerick, writers like David Marcus from Cork, who died three years ago, writer and academic Ronit Lentin, politicians such as Chaim Herzog, the Chief Rabbi’s son from Dublin who became President of Israel, or the late Professor Jacob Weingreen, who as Professor of Hebrew in TCD played a role in educating many clergy in the Church of Ireland and has given his name to the Weingreen Museum in TCD.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the Muslim presence in Dublin was becoming more visible too – indeed, there had been Muslims in Ireland since at least the 18th century, if not earlier, but they only became identifiable as a community in the late 1960s or early 1970s.

More visible at that time, perhaps because they were more exotic too – were groups like the “Hare Krishnas” – although, at the time, we were never quite sure whether they were accepted by other Hindus.

With a group of visiting Buddhist monks from Japan at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin in October 1980 (Photograph: Tom Lawlor/The Irish Times)

This may even have been so by the early 1980s. I remember at the time a group of Buddhist monks from Japan visiting Ireland on a peace pilgrimage. As I put them on a bus to Donegal, where they were going to protest against plans for uranium mining, dressed in their flowing saffron robes and banging their dharma drums, a passer-by called out: “Hey Harry, Hey Harry.”

Anyone religious in exotic robes still had to be a “Hare Krishna”!

But things have moved apace since then. Apart from Jews and Muslims, the non-Christian faith communities in Ireland include Sikhs, Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus and many other groups.

But we cannot have a one-approach-suits-all attitude to interfaith dialogue. I would not like to be trapped into suggesting that the alternative is a hierarchy of faiths with which we have dialogue. But there is a need for different approaches to monotheistic faiths of the Abrahamic tradition, other monotheistic faiths, and non-monotheistic faiths.

Monotheistic dialogue:

The dialogue between Christians and our dialogue with other faith traditions is different in expectations, and therefore in approach.

Dialogue between Christians assumes we share the same Gospel, and some basic understandings about membership of the Body of Christ. We seek common ground on shared Scriptures, and from an Anglican perspective we hope that unity around the Word of God and the sacraments of ordained by Christ will lead to some form of visible inter-communion and unity of fellowship in the future.

We are not seeking unity with Judaism or Islam. Jews, generally speaking, do not want us to become Jews. Muslims, on the other hand, are open about Islam being a missionary religion, and generally see dialogue as a means towards conversion.

What do you think is the purpose of dialogue with non-monotheistic faiths and traditions?

Jewish-Christian dialogue:

For Christians, there must be an open, generous and humble approach to our dialogue with the Jewish community.

The following pointers are important as examples:

● There is no difference between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God” – this is the heresy of Marcion. The God Jesus worshipped in the Temple and in the synagogues is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

● In dialogue we must avoid terms such as “Old Testament” and “New Testament” – the Hebrew Scriptures remain Holy Scriptures for Jews, and are neither old nor new. They interpret them in their own way, and we must not treat them as a mere prelude or prologue to the New Testament.

● We must be comfortable yet respectful in visiting synagogues. If Jesus prayed in synagogues, then so too can I.

● The whole of Europe, and not just Germany, must share the responsibility for the Holocaust. Louis Lentin has made a television film on how Ireland turned away thousands of German Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

● We must not allow criticism of Israel’s current policies to cast a shadow over Jewish-Christian dialogue. Many Jews – including many in Ireland and Israel – are critical of the policies of the present Israeli government. But friends offer the best criticism; bigots never listen or expect to be listened to.

Visit a synagogue, not as a spectator, but respectfully, prayerfully, with a humble and learning attitude. True theological dialogue always begins with real human dialogue.

There is a great variety in expressions of Judaism, just as there are of Christianity. Don’t imagine that all Jews are Orthodox, or Liberal or Progressive, or secular …

Muslim-Christian dialogue:

al-Faitah, the opening Surah of the Quran

Although Muslims in Ireland do not form one single ethnic minority, Islam has already become the third largest faith grouping in our society, with the number of Muslims equal to – if not greater than – the combined figures for our Methodist and Presbyterian neighbours.

Today, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Muslims in Ireland. The majority of Muslim women and children in Ireland are Irish-born, as are many of the men. Many of the other Muslims in Ireland are European by birth – from Britain, France, Turkey, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, France and Germany.

Some Muslims in Ireland come from Arabic-speaking countries, including Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Palestine, Iraq and Morocco. But many are not Arabs, and the other countries of origin among members of the Muslim community in Ireland include Pakistan, India, Iran, Malaysia, China and Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world.

The depth and scope of anti-Islamic feeling since the 9/11 attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 is so strong in many places that it is akin to racism and is now known generally as “Islamaphobia.”

Many of our Muslim neighbours wonder how they can be the victims of such hatred from people who call themselves Christian, and they point to the many similarities between Christianity and Islam, including belief in one God, belief in his prophets, among whom they count Jesus Christ, and belief in God’s revelation through Scripture, including the Torah the first five books of the Bible), the Psalms and the Gospels.

The crescent and the minaret at the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin … the largest centre of Muslim worship in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But we need to be careful and thoughtful in our approaches to dialogue with Muslims. Consider these questions:

● Do Christians and Muslims worship the same one God?

● How ought you respond to an invitation to pray when you visit a mosque?

● Is it appropriate to invite Muslims to pray or take part in a reading at an ecumenical church service, or, for example, at a funeral or wedding?

● How ought I read the Quran?

● Are there lessons we can learn from the faith practices of Muslims?

● Is a marriage between a Muslim and a Christian possible? What are the difficulties.

Dialogue with other monotheistic faiths

Both Sikhs and Bahais say that they too worship the same God as the God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Many Sikhs in Ireland tell me that because of their turbans they have been confused with Muslims, so that they too have been the victims of “Islamaphobia.”

● Can I eat the meal offered to me when I visit a Sikh temple?

● Are Sikhs and Bahais part of the Abrahamic family of faiths?

Dialogue with non-monotheistic faiths

The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace

Non-monotheistic faiths are not necessarily polytheistic faiths. And it is very difficult to be specific when it comes to dialogue in this field.

When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he said he thought it would be a good idea. When he was asked why he had never become a Christian, it is said he replied that he had never met one.

I know that some Hindus says they are monotheists, many have a deep love of Jesus Christ, and some may even be happy to consider receiving Holy Communion in church.

Nor are all members of non-monotheistic faith communities necessarily polytheists. For example some Buddhists describe themselves as atheists. One Buddhist monk told me that in our efforts to define God in Christian theological terms we were in danger of creating idols in our own image and likeness. And he challenged me to consider that the “no-God” he spoke of may be the same as God in the apophatic tradition in Orthodox theology or in the Via Negativa of theologians such as Saint John of the Cross.

Ask yourself these questions:

● Can you eat in a “Hare Krishna” restaurant?

● What honour or respect should be given to a religious leader such as the Dalai Lama?

● Can a Hindu who says she/he loves Christ take part in a Christian service?

● Can a Christian practice Zen mediation?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This paper is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 25 February 2012.

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