KBOO 10 March, 1988
I read two items this past week which on the surface, and I fear beneath the surface, were contradictory.
The first was the announcement in ‘The Oregonian’ of the award of the Templeton Prize for |Progress in Religion to a Muslim leader, Inamullah Khan, who is a founder and secretary-general of the World Muslim Congress.
The Templeton, a sort of Nobel prize in the field of religion, has been awarded over the years to 13 Christians, one Hindu and one Buddhist. Inamullah Khan was cited for his ‘Tireless work as co-ordinator for peace between Muslims, Christians and Jews.’
The second item was a paragraph in the latest issue of ‘US News and World Report’ about the annual prayer breakfast in Washington DC last month. Apparently, at the breakfast Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, was one of the speakers and quoted from the Koran. A leader of the National Association of Evangelicals is reported as saying, ‘The inside word is that this will not happen again. The focus of the National Prayer Breakfast has always been on the Bible reflecting America’s historic background. That is the way it should be.’
The unnamed leader quoting the unnamed insider is entitled to his or her opinion but I doubt very much if it represents the spirit of those who organize those breakfasts. It does, however, underline the need for both vision and caution in the matter of relations between religions. These relations are supremely important as the future of the world may depend on the way in which the people of faith stand together. Indeed, Inamullah Khan, welcoming the Pope to Karachi, said, ‘Between us Muslims and Christians we represent nearly 50% of the world’s population. Given genuine goodwill and understanding, our two communities can be a source of real peace on the basis of justice the world over.’
We have a lot to learn about the Muslim faith - and unlearn. One scholar has pointed out that until 1955 95% of the books published on Islam in the West were written by Western orientalists. Imagine how we would feel if we discovered that 95% of the books about Christianity had been written by Muslim scholars! It might make those of us who claim to be Christian a little less strident if we applied to ourselves the perspective of a great Buddhist scholar I heard once speak to an American audience. ‘Do you know why I am a Buddhist?’ he asked. We waited for the learned answer. ‘I am a Buddhist because I was born in Sri Lanka.’ It is probably good for those of us who are Episcopalians to realize, too that we are outnumbered in the United States by Muslims, who now have 600 mosques.
Christians and Muslims probably have more that unites them than divides them, We believe in one God, we have a common source of morality beginning in the Ten Commandments, a common dependence on God’s grace and pardon, a common belief in a day of judgement, and underlying it all a common foundation of surrender to God’s will.
My experience in many parts of the world leads me to the conclusion that in countries where other faiths are predominant they do not basically object to Christians who live their faith, what has more often alienated them is Christians who don’t, or countries who claim to be Christian and whose policies seem to contradict that faith.
The leader of my church, Dr. Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a remarkable lecture after a visit to India. He came back with the conviction that our world desperately needed a new and larger vision of unity which transcends our differences. He said that we needed both courage and humility to recognize the work of the spirit among us in other faiths and to acknowledge religious diversity as a rich spiritual resource. ‘It take humility and sincerity,’ he went on ‘to concede that there is a certain incompleteness in each of our traditions,’
The life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would, for Christians, he said, always remain the primary source of knowledge and truth about God. The central message of the Christian gospel was not negotiable. ‘Nonetheless, Christians recognize,’ he said ‘that other faiths reveal other aspects of God which may enrich and enlarge our Christian understanding.’
We had to move beyond monologue to dialogue. ‘Interfaith dialogue can help to remove barriers between us by creating conditions for greater community and fellowship,’ said Dr. Runcie. ‘This will mean that some claims about the exclusiveness of the Church have to be renounced, but also that past and present prejudices about other religions have to be overcome, and ignorance and contempt actively resisted,’
True dialogue, he said, ‘can help us recognize that other faiths than our own are genuine mansions of the Spirit with many rooms to be discovered, rather than solitary fortresses to be attacked.’
In that spirit we can welcome awards to non-Christians for progress in religion and learn from their faith – even over breakfast.