Interfaith Dialogue – An Imperative for our Time

On the 20th October, the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative hosted the second annual Father John Oliver Memorial Lecture. The lecture was presented by Fr. Christopher Clohessy, the Catholic Priest of St. Barnard and St. Ignatious Parishes, and lecturer at the Pontifical Institute in Rome for Arabic- Islamic Studies. Fr. Clohessy holds a PhD in Shi’ite Islam. Read the full lecture from the evenings event here.

20 October 086


So there’s this Ethiopian, traveling along the road in his carriage, reading (this story is found in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles). The road he’s on is the one that runs down from Jerusalem to Gaza and the Ethiopian, well, he’s no ordinary Ethiopian: for one thing, the word ‘Ethiopian’ was often used for anyone who had as much as a suntan, anyone who had a dark skin, those others, the exotic ones from Africa, so that he might well be Sudanese. For another, this dark-skinned one is a high-powered, high-salaried member of the royal house. He’s also a eunuch. He’s also a religious man – he can never find a full home the Jewish family, especially because of that eunuch problem, but he has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him, and speaks strongly enough for him to pick up and read the Old Testament. So there he is, trying to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a desert road in a small vehicle, when suddenly, a face appears at the window of his carriage, running alongside him. The face belongs to a man named Phillip, who happens to be one of some new sect called Christians: Phillip is a Christian apostle and a deacon. Perhaps as he looks at the man, Phillip would have remembered a prophecy in the Old Testament, something about Ethiopia reaching out her hands to God. But he’s not looking at the man: instead, he’s looking down at the scroll the man is holding, and he says to him: Do you understand what you are reading? Our Ethiopian friend replies: I can’t. I need someone to explain it? The passage he is reading is Isaiah 53.

Some people regard this text as a missionary one: Phillip, the new Christian, busy making converts. I don’t read it in that way at all. Instead, I understand it as a text about an interreligious encounter: Phillip the Christian, an Ethiopian eunuch with his own, ancient, religious tradition from Africa. And a bit of Isaiah on a scroll. And as it turns out, both Philip and our Ethiopian friend are travelling on the same road and in the same direction. They just haven’t realized that yet.

Because each human heart is a place where God is expressed and experienced. It’s just that God shows up in so many different shapes and sizes, colours and flavours, that we don’t often or easily recognize the Divine presence. For me, understanding just that, trying to live just that, is the whole art of loving God and loving neighbour. Any religion will tell you the same. Jesus, in his parables and his commandment to love tells us. So does Rumi, in his whirling dervishes and mystic poems.  And Jews dancing with the Torah. Hindus, playing in the streets at Diwali, covered with coloured powders. Elderly men washing in the sacred Ganges. Muslims on their pilgrimage to Mecca. Christians holding candles at Midnight Mass. They all speak of God. To fully understand our own faith, we need one another, and we need the stranger, the other. To fully understand our own faith, we need to sit in life’s carriage with people substantially different from us and journey together through the wilderness, unsure of either the destination or what we are looking for, but curious about what God is up to beyond the bounds of our own church or synagogue or mosque or temple, beyond our own insular ideas of where and how God is at work. Religious people are always fighting: but we should be fighting for one thing only – front row seats in each other’s lives to catch a glimpse of the divine at work in every single human.

In one way, our tradition of interreligious encounter gives us those front row seats: the authors of the first three Christian gospels tell us a number of stories of Jesus encountering outsiders, those who were ‘the others’: a Roman centurion, a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Samaritan leper. In each case he declares the presence of faith of these others, these non-Jewish, non-Christian, in some cases pagan, outsiders. So what is the faith Jesus sees in them? It is their fundamental goodness as human beings. God lives in, works in, uses whoever he likes, however he likes, whenever he likes. He’s not bound by our rules and prejudices. We are invited to live and work without bias alongside all those whose lives and beliefs and practices are redemptive, healing, liberating.

Moses, of course, learned this lesson, albeit in a different form, as he tiptoed hesitantly around a burning bush. He learned that God doesn’t finally need shrines or temples or demarcated holy places. He is everywhere. All the time. He can and does speak to people anywhere, everywhere. I once heard someone say: our world is full of the fingerprints of God. No. It’s the other way around. The world is God’s. The fingerprints are ours! The ground we stand on is always holy, and that alone invites us to stand reverently before the mystery of God burning in each human life: in fact, invites us to approach that mystery as Moses did the bush: on tiptoes, and with great hesitancy.

So too, we have to keep reminding ourselves that interreligious encounter and dialogue takes place between people, not between religious systems. It doesn’t begin primarily with theologies and proposals but with experience and relationships – it’s what theologian Diana Eck once called ‘a theology with people in it’. Nor does dialogue not only mean verbal exchange: it includes many kinds of human interaction. There are, as each of us knows well enough by now, various levels of dialogue: the dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an cooperative and neighbourly spirit, sharing their humanity, the dialogue of action, in which people of faith work together for the integral development and liberation of people, the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritage, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values and the dialogue of religious experience, where persons rooted in their own religious traditions share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.

At whatever level, this dialogue is now an imperative. An imperative, because of our growing consciousness of the global village – suddenly, all kinds of people are experiencing religion first hand, knowingly or unknowingly drinking in spiritual nourishment from other people’s wells, realizing more keenly that there are many paths of salvation, many ways of naming and worshiping the same ultimate reality, numerous languages and rituals by which people respond to the Divine outreach.

An imperative, because we are increasingly recognizing authentic holiness in people whose lives are lived in and enriched by faiths other than our own – dialogue offers us those front row seats in each other’s lives to catch a glimpse of the divine at work in every single human, not just learning about the other but encountering the sacred embodied within the other, as it is lived. We soon discover that it is not only those of our own faith who are nourished and challenged by their spirituality into working to make the world more the sort of world God intended. The lives and example of some of those individuals are burnt into our consciousness: it is hard to think about our own faith without hearing their voices, so that it makes sense to give them space within our own theological thinking. This is, after all, what characterizes the encounter – that we are strong enough not to be dwarfed by the other, together with a respect for the other as a religious person loved by God, not an unsophisticated individual to whom must dispense our wisdom. The purpose of the encounter is always understanding. That comes first. But it’s not purely a cerebral understanding – it has an implication for our lives, so that it’s not just our theories but also our living that is transformed.

An imperative, because it animates an appreciation of the giftedness of the others, the giftedness of other religious – like Phillip and the Ethiopian, sitting side by side, outrageously different but travelling on the same road and in the same direction.

An imperative, because there appears to be not so much a rise in unbelief/disbelief (remembering that atheism is a belief system and worth encountering and dialoging with) as much as a rise in religious ennui is, with people living their faith with substantially less passion. This could in part result from a weariness with the predominance of dogma in an hour when many people, as one contemporary theologian notes, ‘are more ready to see God in their neighbour’s eyes, as well as their own’.

An imperative, because as Pope St John Paul II noted in the early 1980s, either we learn to repair the bridges of trust and understanding, and walk across them in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others. Dialogue is not simply about common courtesy or being diplomatic to the stranger. More than ever, we are aware of how easily religions can be used as tools for ideologies, for oppression and violence: dialogue helps to establish a solid bulwark against such a menace. In reality, the differences that lead to conflict almost never appear on the agenda in interreligious encounter, because the differences that cause conflict are not religious but are found at the points where religion and politics converge. Nonetheless, it has rarely been more important to be in conversation with each other, in a conversation which destroys stereotypes and prejudices and what someone termed ‘pre-mature absolutes’. Pope Francis reminds us that it is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. Hence it is important to intensify dialogue among the various religions. Dialogue, he said, ‘should help to build bridges connecting all people, in such a way that everyone can see in the other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother or sister’. Welcoming the other will always be an antidote to the rising tide of hostility.

An imperative, because in all truth, the world can do almost everything as well as or often better than religion can – feeding the hungry, running clinics and hospitals, building houses, healing the sick. You don’t have to be a religious to do these things well. In America every year, Forbes magazine publishes the names of the world’s hundred richest people. There is no magazine that publishes the names of the world’s hundred poorest people, because nobody really cares or wants to know. You see, there are some things the world doesn’t do well. One of those is what, for lack of a better term, we called call grace. For grace, people look to religious faith. Grace is our best gift to others, because it is stronger than vengeance, stronger than prejudice, stronger than animosity, stronger than indifference. It is able to make of religious faith an interruption in the narrative of despair, a haven that intersects and transforms a landscape scarred by violence and revenge. Grace keeps reiterating important lessons – that no matter what our own religious or faith traditions may have taught us, some things are weightier than others.  Feeding people is more important than ceremony.  Relationships are more important than ritual. To become a community moulded by compassion is more important that to be a community moulded by religious purity.

Can’t we all just love one and respect each other, as religious people, believing people, faithful people? No, we can’t! It’s never that simple. It would be a great if everyone could put aside prejudice, fear and suspicion. But interreligious encounter and dialogue, which is at one level the call to set aside that litany for a different one (impartiality, gentleness, trust) is a difficult, lifelong work. In parts the Americas there’s a type of cactus which only blossoms one night a year. If you want to see it in all its glory you have care enough to persevere. It’s the same with the difficult work of interreligious encounter. The beauty is not quickly or easily seen. There’s a marvellous moment when Moses asks God: Let me see you. Give me a glimpse of your glory. God tells him: There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back. Some rabbis translate the word ‘my back’ as ‘where I have been’. Where God has been. That’s where God allows people to see him. There are still places we might find some glimpses into glory, places God has been, if we are willing to look hard enough. It wants of us what theologian Karl Rahner called ‘a holy optimism’. But it’s hard work, labour intensive, this readiness to listen to what one author terms ‘the loves of others’. There are, as Tony Blair notes, no short term fixes to building relations between different faith groups and nor should we be seeking them. We want to build deep, meaningful, long term relationships and this takes time. The texts or rituals or traditions of the others may challenge us, even disorientate us: people may feel a certain insecurity as they are challenged to examine the roots of what they have believed and professed all their lives – but our hearts also should be challenged, not just our intellects – as theologians Thomas Green notes, ‘learning to hear and appreciate with the inner ears what the other holds dear is an encounter of commitments’.

Dialogue is an imperative, because priorities have changed. A major portion of theological thinking in the first decade of the 21ST century was concerned with creation: for many, the fight against pollution, saving the environment and recycling became religious issues. If the whole of creation is understood as living and all of it as good, if creation is an outpouring of God, is God’s heart, soul, and mind made visible, then to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, is to love far beyond friends, family, neighbours. Oceans and trees and are within this love, as is the air I breathe, the ozone layer, rivers and waterways, species struggling to find habitat in the world, losing ground fast as the polar cap melts or forests are decimated, coastlines littered with refuse, some of it ragged, starving humans, refugees from brutal economies and vicious politics – these are the neighbours Jesus over and again holds up for us to be included in our love. So, here’s how I know if something is love of God, love of neighbour or not: does it promote the flourishing of all of creation? If not, it may be convenient and satisfying, but it’s not love. Not of God, not of neighbour.

But more recently the interfaith movement is pushing us re-evaluate our relationship with one another. On whatever level this dialogue occurs, we owe each other a frank and serene hearing, convinced that there are always fresh ideas to unpack: it should never be nothing more than doing everything possible to avoid conflict, going over the same safe ground over and over, creating unanimity if it doesn’t occur naturally. At the same time, it should never be a bland relativism in which everyone has to agree on an insipid version of something or some cheap novelty. Nobody has to set aside deeply held convictions or put themselves at odds with religious authority, be that the Bible or a Magisterium.

Each person’s religious tradition needs its boundaries. But these boundaries are not a prison wall: they should be porous, allowing us to enter the differences of the other, with all the opportunity that movement holds for new possibilities and new angles on the truth, and sometimes even a holy envy – when our experience in the faith traditions of the other are so profound, that we wish such traditions were present in our own faith practices too. So, there is no a watering down of anybody’s faith, nor any emulsifying of beliefs. In a context of mutual respect, people are finding that they can understand, develop and articulate their own faith with the help of light from other traditions (like Phillip and our Ethiopian friend).

Father John Oliver understood this: with his quiet determination and singular vision, he in many ways pioneered the interreligious encounter in this city: done so with loving care for the tradition in which he was rooted and profound respect for the God who routinely shook that ground beneath him, ever finding glimmers of truth in the company of others on that hazardous wilderness road that leads us to the truth that frees us. I hope that he will continue to be the face at the window of the carriage of interreligious encounter as it wends its way through this city.


The Cape Town Interfaith Initiative would like to thank all those who attended and supported this event, VOXI for their musical contribution to the evening, as well as to Fr. Christopher Clohessy for his powerful words and insight. Read more of Fr. Clohessy’s work on his blog: