Sharing our stories and importance of dialogue (Part 2)

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Different stories underline some of the conflicts and policy differences within the Church. Stories of some saints often stress strong devotional elements and contemplative prayer. Eucharistic Adoration is seen as the height of Catholic spirituality and obeying church law is one of the criteria for being a good Catholic. On the other hand, stories of saints who go into the barrios and serve the poorest of the poor in practical ways are also popular, as are stories that stress Catholic Social Teaching. Within the church there is plenty of room for both types of stories, though we may not act like it at times.

If you have ever studied comparative religion you will find that many of the stories across different religious traditions are very similar. For example, Judaism and Assyrian religion have Noah stories that are almost identical. Scholars suggest that the Jewish version of the story is derived from the Assyrian Noah story.

However, some of the stories may simply reflect parallels between the two religious traditions. For example, a major element of Christian faith is the Kingdom of God. This describes a time when God rules overall. There is justice and mercy throughout the world. Implements of war will be turned into agricultural tools and the lion and the lamb will sit together in peace. Christ speaks of this glorious time frequently and often does so by using other stories as metaphors for the kingdom of God. The story of the Last Judgement (Matt. 25) conflates somewhat with the Kingdom of God stories, in describing the acts of mercy and compassion that are the keys to the Kingdom.

Islam has stories of the Last Judgment and the events leading up to the Last Judgment that are very similar to the images and events described in the New Testament Book of Revelation. One enters heaven when one’s book of life records a preponderance of good actions, similar to those described in Matthew 25. Is the Islamic vision derived from the Christian vision that predated it? Is it an independent development? I would not hazard a guess in this reflection but one strong parallel between the two stories is the importance of mercy, compassion and good acts toward others as the key to the Kingdom of God. This parallel shows us important similarities in the stories of these two religious traditions.

In the classic work of literature, _Gulliver’s Travels_, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver encountered a race of people called Lilliputians on his famous travels, as recorded by Jonathan Swift. The Lilliputians were in the midst of a great war when he was shipwrecked on their home island. The war grew from a philosophical rift over whether one opened one’s morning egg from the narrow side or the broader side. They had gone well past diplomacy as neither side was willing to admit that their custom for eating their morning eggs was in anyway inferior to that of their neighbors. Gulliver decided that he would intervene and force both sides to sit down and talk their differences through. Since he was much bigger than the Lilliputians, he thought he could get away with it. Needless to say, his plan of forced negotiation did not work.

As Christians, who seek to promote peace and justice in the world, it is important to understand the worldview and experience of our neighbors. We need to be able to see the world through the perspective of their stories, aspirations and values. Misunderstanding maintains walls of fear and prejudice, as well as blinds us to our many common concerns.

These barriers are dismantled through dialogue. A very real problem is that it is easy to think of dialogue in such terms as did Lemuel Gulliver. Just sit them down and make them agree on which side is up! Failing that, convert the poor benighted fools to your more enlightened way of thinking! This is exactly what dialogue is not. Even when we don’t think we are that bad in the attitudes we bring to the dialogue table, we are easily blinded by our own prejudices.

For example, a Moslem entering a Catholic Church might be scandalized by the statues of the saints and think of Catholics as idol worshipers, failing to see the symbolic role the statues play. A Catholic might enter a Moslem prayer service and be struck by the strangeness of the postures and the use of Arabic. We cannot define another’s faith in terms of our own culture, language and prejudice. We must really listen to the representatives of the other community. Share one another stories and experiences. We must come to know and appreciate the stories which are shared in dialogue. They are sharing who they are, their history and deepest values with us and we do the same with them.

Such dialogue allows each community see and feel what the other sees and feels. Each partner must come to grasp the similarities and differences that exist between them and how they came to be. The goal is not an indifferent, lazy tolerance, in which sincerity takes the place of truth. Nor is the goal relativism, in which truth is forgotten and anything goes. Neither is the goal syncretism, in which a bit of belief from one partner is mixed with a bit of belief from another in order to whip up an ecumenical cake.

What is needed is continuing dialogue and working together where possible. Prayer together is also most appropriate, along with respect for the differences in discipline, tradition, culture and religious sensitivities. While there is much that divides us there is even more that unites us. We must build upon our common ground, while respecting our differences. We must be open to the common ground that exists between Christians and our Islamic brothers and sisters.

In dialogue we bring who we are to the table, not to compromise it, but to let the others know who we are while we come to a clearer understanding of who they are. In such honesty and openness we can more easily find common ground.

We must see past the stories, find overlap, understand differences, dialog, allow the stories to be a way of bringing us together rather than tearing us apart.

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