Hans Küng, the noted Swiss Catholic theologian, once said, 'Until there is peace between religions there can be no peace in the world.'
In our current world, where religious tensions seem so fraught, I have sought, as a Christian, to reflect on what Christ's demand to 'love my neighbour ' means in this context. Certainly, for me, loving my neighbour must encompass understanding, respecting and seeking the good of the other. I would hope that others would seek to properly understand my faith and, therefore, I need to offer others the same courtesy and respect.
We hear so much of each other's faiths in the media, but I know, as discussed in my article on spiritual pathology, how easy it is for the doctrines and teachings of religion to be distorted to fit both personal and collective (particularly political) agendas. History is full of religiously disguised and justified forms of individual and societal anger, hatred and intolerance, and Christianity has suffered its fair share of this. And, as history has also shown, it is so easy for us as individuals or collective groups and countries to project our shadow onto the unknown other.
Pope Francis' recent image of the Christian imperative to 'build bridges not walls' seems crucial. To this end I've just been on a 3 day intensive 'Understanding Islam' course at Ammerdown Retreat Centre which I found deeply informative and helpful. Dr Chris Hewer (once adviser to the Bishop of Birmingham on interfaith relations) has, as a Christian, studied Islam for over 30 years. He is deeply respected both in the Christian community, but also in the Muslim world, for his knowledge. Indeed, he is often asked to speak at Muslim conferences. His website www.chrishewer.org contains much useful information, including a link to a video series on Islam he did for an Islamic TV station and information for RE teachers who are studying Islam as the second faith for the governments new requirement of 2 faiths taught at GCSE level.
One of the questions I have heard voiced in Christian circles is why there has not been a public condemnation by the Muslim world of terrorist acts of violence done in the name of Islam. Apart from now understanding that there is no such central 'voice' for Islam, I was gladdened to find out from Dr Chris Hewer that Islamic scholars from all over the world have out-rightly condemned such terrorism in the Amman Message of 2008. Further, in September 2013 the open the Letter to Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS), signed by hundreds of Islamic scholars from over 44 countries, gives a point-by-point refutation of the actions and ideology of ISIS based on the Qur'an and other classical Muslim texts. In January of 2016 The Marrakesh Declaration has also been signed by hundreds of Muslim scholars from over 126 countries on the rights of religious minorities in Muslim lands.
As I reflect in my earlier article 'Awakening Love', the ancient monastic Rule of St Benedict requires us to receive each 'guest' as Christ, for each person we meet in life carries the image of Christ within. As Buber, the Jewish philosopher, also understands, in each THOU we meet we have the possibility of encountering the eternal THOU. Engaging with 'the other' (whoever that may be for you in terms of ethnicity, religion, social system, culture etc) as THOU, rather than 'it', open us up to such creative possibilities and hope. It is fear that diminishes hope and causes the building of walls between us and 'the other', and the most repeated phrase in the Christian bible is 'Do not fear!'
Indeed, you could argue that the central theme of the biblical revelation is to call people to encounters with otherness: the alien, the sinner; the Samaritan, the Gentile, the hidden and denied self, angels unaware. We need practice in moving outside of our comfort zones, for without encountering the other we are trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews - whether that is the other somehow outside of my social
system or the Absolute Other who gives me a reference point that relativises all of my own.
As Rumi the 13th century Sufi poet exalts us “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it... Love is the bridge between you and everything.''