“There is something essentially risky for anyone who participates in an interreligious panel or discussion,” Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill said.
The risk is that you will be challenged on your most closely held beliefs.
But Paskind and other panelists took up the challenge last night at Graymoor, where the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement sponsored a program on the state of interreligious understanding in the Lower Hudson Valley. The program was timed to mark the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip today to the Holy Land — when interreligious relations can be affected by anything the pope says or does.
I moderated the panel and we got a good turnout. The panelists were consistently insightful on a subject that can, at times, draw a lot of cliches.
I asked the panelists what interrreligious understanding looks or sounds like. How do you know when you’ve succeeded?
“We all start out with fear, which leads to hatred and suspicion,” said the Rev. Anthony Falsarella of the Greek Orthodox St. Basil Academy in Garrison. “We choose to be in fear. Tolerance means we’re coming to recognize the other. Respect is an outgrowth of learning about them.”
Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan of the American Muslim Women’s Association, a plastic surgeon at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center, said what she has learned from meeting patients from all faiths: “When you talk to them, calm them down, you realize we are human, all worried, all with our fears, financial-wise, you name it.”
Father Jim Gardiner of Graymoor, who called the program together, said that “tolerance” of others is not enough. “We have to get past that and look for a closeness with one another that allows us to ask questions that we otherwise wouldn’t ask,” he said.
Gardiner continued: “The fences and borders are real. They’re theological. They’re historical. They may sometimes seem to be insurmountable. But they’re ours. We made them. We have to see what God is doing on the other side of the fence.”
Everyone agreed that contact is real important. When people get to know one another, things change fast.
“We have to model that behavior,” Paskind said.
“We need to manufacture excuses to get together,” Gardiner said.
“People have to go out and talk,” Hassan said. “We spend too much time inside our own houses of worship.”
Paskind suggested that one way to further the dialogue would be to talk about one another’s religious texts.
“We all have texts that are problematic for other faith groups,” he said. “We can say ‘What texts of mine hurt you?’ ”
It occured to me when I was driving home that the panel did not address one sensitive matter that happens to be of particular concern to Benedict XVI: How do we promote interreligious understanding and pluralism without allowing it to morph into religious relativism — the idea that all religions are equally valid.
Now, many people do believe that there are numerous paths to God and that their own is not the only way.
But the pope and other traditional religious leaders bristle at this suggestion. So, how can communities further interreligious understanding without giving pause to those who worry about relativism?
A question for another night.