Ecumenism

It seems strange to me that two very different stories should appear in a single issue of the Edmonton Journal.

The first, appearing in the October 28th issue, concerned the publicly announced intention of the Rev. Terry Jones—an evangelical pastor who has aroused great resentment in Muslim circles by deliberately and publicly burning a copy of the Koran—to run for President of the United States.

The second was of a remarkable and possibly revolutionary conference of religious leaders convened by Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics and Christians of other denominations, joined religious leaders of many faiths from all over the world—including Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a Baha’i, a Zoroastrian, Taoists, Confucians and traditional religions from Africa and America—to dialogue for several days at Assisi, Italy. Aiming to identify some common ground among all these diverse beliefs, the Pope condemned “fanaticism carried out in the name of religion”. He pleaded for “no more violence, no more war, no more terrorism! Never again! In the name of God that, every religion bring justice and peace, forgiveness and life and love to the world”.

What are the implications of such a position? First, surely, that Jesus’s words “No one comes to the Father but me” (John 14:6) are not to be interpreted that all who do not sign on some Christian dotted line are condemned to ‘hell fire’. Rather, that religious paths inclining their followers towards love, forgiveness and non-violence for the sake of the Creator, have already brought some believers of other faiths “not far from the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 12.34). Not that we cannot all go further. Not that Christians do not have apologies to make for the insensitive and triumphal approach they have often shown in the past (and often still do in the present) towards other faiths, but that other sincere faiths need not be dismissed as worthless and their values and practices disparaged.

In truth, human conduct as we observe it and indulge in it in this world, divides very simply into three parts. One is to sacrifice others for the good of oneself. Another is to sacrifice oneself for the good of others, as Jesus did, and asks us to do. Religions (counting materialism and many “isms” as forms of religion) can go either way. A third, common to many religions, combines the two, so that sacrifices are made, but only in favour of one’s fellow religionists—the Pharisee approach. The great advance made by Jesus, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is that this sacrificial behaviour can extend beyond one’s family, friends and acquaintances to all of God’s creatures in need. (Luke 10:25-37). Not all religions have reached this point, and many secular “isms” certainly have not.

It is very easy, viewing the state of the church and ‘our unhappy divisions’, to think that people not of our denomination, or at least not of Christian belief, are lost in heathenism. What we ignore is that when it comes to Christ-like behaviour, there are other religions both in Canada and the world, which also acknowledge the supremacy of a Creator, by whatever name known, and a moral obligation to help and live in peace with one’s fellow humans. For many of these, the seriousness with which they address their religion, including such practices as regular worship, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and service to their community, is as devoted as in the typical Anglican congregation, and possibly more so. Often the “glorious liberty of the Children of God” is missing from many such—but I suspect it is missing from the lives of many so-called Christians also. It is good for our humility to recognize that others not of our faith subscribe, at least in part, to values we would recognize as Christian. We are all pilgrims on the road to the Heavenly City, and most of us still have quite a distance still to go.

Congratulations then to Pope Benedict for having had the courage to open up a dialogue on a very important subject. One hopes it will be more fruitful than the approach of Pastor Jones!

– Anglican Messenger, December 2011
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