An Interview with Professor Ovey N. Mohammed, S.J.
As a result of immigration patterns in the past two or three decades, this country is becoming a mosaic of many faiths: Today, for example, there are more Sikhs than Presbyterians in Canada. What is the significance of these many non-Christian faiths for Christian mission? To shed light on this important question, we spoke to Professor Ovey N. Mohammed, a Jesuit who teaches Systematic Theology at Regis College in the Toronto School of Theology. His specialty is interfaith dialogue. Paul McKenna conducted the interview for Scarboro Missions.
Scarboro Missions: How did you become interested in interfaith dialogue?
Prof. Ovey Mohammed, S.J.
Professor Mohammed: I was born of a Hindu mother and a Muslim father and was fortunate enough to have lived in different parts of the world. These experiences combined with graduate studies in world religions have made me multicultural and multireligious and explains my interest as a- Jesuit in interfaith dialogue.
Scarboro Missions: First of all what is the difference between ecumenism and interfaith dialogue?
Professor Mohammed: Ecumenism refers to dialogue among persons who are Christians, as between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Interfaith dialogue refers to dialogue between Christians and non-Christians, or between one non-Christian faith and another, as between Jews and Muslims. Christians have a common faith in Christ. Both Christians and non-Christians, with the exception of some Buddhists, have a common faith in God.
Scarboro Missions: What do you see is the significance for Christians of the growing presence of other religious faiths in Canada?
Professor Mohammed: Christians have to find answers to a host of questions. To name a few: How should their own faith relate to other faiths in a society that is religiously pluralistic? Should they take a stance of rivalry or cooperation with respect to non Christian religions? What are the challenges to Christian conviction in a multifaith society? When different ways of life are followed in the same city, and in the same nation, how do Christians decide what adjustments to make to their own beliefs, and what are they to insist upon as essential for the satisfactory life of the whole community? What sort of religious education should be given in schools when from now on students are going to live with people of other faiths?
Scarboro Missions: Further along these lines, people such as priests and ministers involved directly in 'Christian' ministry, won't they have to face many new issues?
Professor Mohammed: Yes; the pastoral issues are many. As a Christian minister, how would you deal with the following: A young couple is coming for an interview about their upcoming marriage but one of the partners is a Muslim! On the day of the wedding, would you do a reading from the Qur'an? You are approached by the head of a Hindu group who would like to use the church basement for a prayer meeting. What would be your answer? A 23-year-old woman has just been killed in an accident, but she has been deeply influenced by Buddhism. Her parents are devout Christians, and you have to speak at her funeral when many of her Buddhist friends would be there. How, would you console her parents? How would you speak of the young woman's conversion to Buddhism in the presence of her Buddhist friends? In a hospital situation, do you know how to minister to non-Christians? - Practitioners of eastern religions are very interested in prayer. Do you know how to give a retreat to a Hindu? Pastoral issues can be multiplied over and over, and the challenges are increasing.
"WE MUST EXPLORE MODELS FOR DEALING WITH THE UNITY OF GLOBAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND SPIRITUAL LIFE."
A Hindu wedding ceremony, Georgetown, Guyana
Scarboro Missions: Is there any biblical basis for interfaith dialogue?
Professor Mohammed: Yes. There is in the Old Testament the exclusive covenant with Abraham, but it is not the only one. For God's inclusive covenant with Noah embraces all humankind and is a covenant which will never end. Moreover, this Noachic - covenant reverberates through the Psalms and the prophets. In the New Testament, Peter says that non-Christians, like Christians, receive the Holy Spirit and Paul declares that what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Paul also says that there is glory and honour and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek, for God shows no partiality, For Paul it would seem that salvation is not based on a special revelation, since in speaking of .the salvation of the Gentiles, he says that it, is not the hearers of the law who are righteous. before God, but the doers who are justified, and this is possible because what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness. When we look at the gospels, it is significant that Jesus praised the faith of the Roman centurion, the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the faith of the Canaanite woman, that is to say, the faith of non-Christians.
Scarboro Missions: Why is interfaith dialogue a difficult issue for Christians?
Professor Mohammed: Because in the past Christians have regarded themselves as the carriers of the truth. Now they have to learn how to be equal partners in dialogue. This exposure to dialogue is threatening. What happens, for instance, when they realize, and not grudgingly but willingly so, the truth, grace and spiritual power of other faiths? How does such a recognition affect their understanding of their own Christian faith? Should they be willing to risk the conversion of themselves to an alternative faith? They have to ask themselves if there is-an inherent tension, even contradiction; between the mission of the Church and the loving respect owed by Christians to all religions and cultures of the world. Christians are aware that though -Christianity is a world religion; Christian theology and culture are Western; in fact, that Christianity has resisted learning from non-Western cultures. They know that non-Christians consider Christianity a Western religion. They are aware that Christianity and the expansion of the West went hand in hand. Now that the age of Western colonialism is over, in dialogue they have to face a barrage of accusations from non-Christians disadvantaged by them: accusations of arrogance, oppression, exploitation and even of brutalization. As representatives of a religion that has regarded itself as the apogee of moral; social, organizational and technological progress, the accusation that their so-called Christian .faith was in actuality an instrument of Northern Hemispheric dominance is very disturbing.
"GROWTH THROUGH DIALOGUE IS, THEREFORE, THE RESPONSE TO THE CALL TO A FULL HUMANITY, THE CALL TO WHOLENESS, AND SO TO HOLINESS; THE CALL TO PARTICIPATE IN GODS MISSION TO MEN AND WOMEN EVERYWHERE."
Scarboro Missions: How will Christianity be affected by interreligious dialogue?
Professor Mohammed: As we approach the 21st century, we are entering a new phase of Christian theology in which the relation of the Church to other faiths will be new. Any statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purpose in the world, some doctrine of other religions which is respectable, theologically convincing, spiritually satisfying and emotionally acceptable to all partners in dialogue. We must come to grips with the network of contemporary problems associated with world development. We must find the sacred not only in our own faith, but beyond it. We must explore models for dealing with the unity of global consciousness and spiritual life. We must seek to integrate into the total life of our communities new international perspectives and multicultural experiences. The perspectives of theologians of other religions are also significant. They are significant because the reality and validity of their viewpoints in many cultural contexts would help to make Christian theology, and hence all Christians, less ethnocentric and naively Western.
We must understand the major features of other traditions and try to appreciate the world views and ways of life of their participants. We must compare the different religions and see what is similar and what is different. We must develop understanding of significant religious alternatives to Christianity that challenge traditional and contemporary judgements of truth and value.
Non-Christians are studying Christianity and we Christians must study and be aware of non-Christian-faiths.
Scarboro Missions: What is the relationship between being a Christian missionary and interfaith dialogue?
Professor Mohammed: Vatican II affirmed that the Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound to any race or nation, nor to any particular way of life. Vatican II recognized that if the Church is to become a universally intelligible sign of salvation for all humankind, it must make itself completely at home in the different cultures of the world. In this view or model, the missionary task of the Church is one of making Christ his gospel and grace present among peoples in their own specific histories and cultures.
It is for this reason that Pope Paul VI established the Secretariat for Non-Christians in addition to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. For Pope Paul the Council's call for dialogue with other religions and the missionary task of the Church were complementary. For him real evangelization cannot take place without entering into communion with the various cultures and religions.
The Secretariat for Non-Christians reaffirmed this view in a 1984 document when it asserted that mission without dialogue goes against the demands of a true humanity and against the teaching of the gospel.
In other works since Vatican II, missionaries are called upon to leave behind the Western expression of Christianity when they enter the non-Western world. They are called upon to speak the good news of Christ through different religious symbols in vastly diverse cultural contexts. Indeed, if missionaries are to be successful today, they must encourage culturally different expressions and celebrations, of the faith.
"...THE MISSIONARY TASK OF THE CHURCH IS ONE OF MAKING CHRIST, HIS GOSPEL AND GRACE PRESENT AMONG PEOPLES IN THEIR OWN SPECIFIC HISTORIES AND CULTURES."
Scarboro Missions: In a pluralistic culture such as ours, can we also define secularism, humanism, materialism, and so on, as faiths? If so, what is the significance for Christian ministry of dialogue with these faiths?
Professor Mohammed: The short answer to the first question is yes. As for the second question, it is ironic but true that many Christians also subscribe to these faiths. Many would say that this phenomenon is an expression of Christianity come of age, while others would explain it as the kind of impoverished Christianity that we have in Canada. Reginald Bibby (Fragmented Gods), for example, would take this latter view. If Bibby is right that Canadian Christians are both Christian and humanist, or whatever, then the significance of this may well be an urgent call for the Church to reflect on what it is doing in its ministries. By merely projecting these faiths onto others, saying that we should dialogue with these others, rather than call those who call themselves Christian to the authenticity of their faith, Christian ministers would merely be denying that they share some responsibility for the situation.
Scarboro Missions: Can interfaith dialogue make a contribution to the issues of peace, social justice and the building of a world community?
Professor Mohammed: Yes, for all the world religions affirm that concern for the poor and dispossessed is central to salvation. In Hinduism, according to Bhagavad Gita, when action is performed in view of the welfare of humanity based on a pure love of God, action and the love of God are one. In contemporary Buddhism, even Theravada monks do not isolate themselves from society. Their practice includes social action in such international and domestic issues as war and peace, ecology, human rights, and economic redistribution of the world's wealth and resources. In Judaism, much of the legislation of the Torah is directed against inhumanity and injustice. Moreover, the great Jewish prophets understood the will of God and obedience to God in ethical terms. In Islam, active response to human suffering is part of the definition of religion. In fact, the giving of alms is one of the five pillars of Islam. And in Christianity, it is not those who say "Lord, Lord" who will be saved. The saved are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.
In short, within the struggle for peace, social justice and the establishment of a world community, the salvation theories of the world religions all suggest an openness to interreligious sharing and praxis.
“NOT ONLY CAN PEOPLE FROM DIFFERENT RELIGIONS PRAY TOGETHER, THEY CAN ALSO TEACH EACH OTHER HOW TO PRAY BETTER.”
Scarboro Missions: Do you feel it is important for Christians to work closely with people of other faiths?
Professor Mohammed: The Canadian commitment to a pluralistic society is unquestionable, yet Muslims, Hindus and others are a minority who experience discrimination. At very least they feel isolated and vulnerable. Christians, in contrast, being the majority, are at home and therefore able to play the part of host. The task of the host is to make guests feel comfortable, not to challenge their lifestyle and religious orientation. Moreover, if Christians fail to make serious efforts to ensure that the same freedom they enjoy is extended to others they cannot hope that it will long be extended to themselves. Freedom is indivisible, and belief in the future will always be held in the context of a mixed society.
Scarboro Missions: Can people from different religions pray together?
Professor Mohammed: It is quite common for Christians, Hindus and Buddhists to pray together and for Catholics and Muslims to take part in devotions to Mary. The practice of common prayer is increasing between Christians and Jews. In fact in Toronto itself many non-Christians attend Christian services at Easter and Christmas. Not only can people from different religions pray together, they can also teach each other how to pray better. It was a Hindu who taught John Main (a Benedictine who founded a Christian meditation centre in Montreal) how to pray, and a Hindu who directed Thomas Merton to his vocation.
Scarboro Missions: Can you comment on the joys, rewards, benefits for Christians who choose to struggle with the interfaith issue?
Professor Mohammed: Interfaith dialogue is an opportunity for Christians to discover in an authentic way what Christianity really is. When they have outgrown their alarm, they shall find it exhilarating, though genuinely challenging. Through dialogue they would begin to experience their sense of connectedness with human diversity. In an attempt to connect with other belief systems, they would come to the realization that all people are God's children. Through dialogue they would get a totally new consciousness of themselves. They would realize that all people are part of a global community. They would come to know that "we" and "they" are one. Growth through dialogue is, therefore, the response to the call to a full humanity, the call to wholeness, and so to holiness; the call to participate in God's mission to men and women everywhere.