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Abraham Lecture 2005

UNcommon values, UNcommon aspirations

"Contact [between religions] is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. The king desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines ofother religions" - King Ashoka of India, 200 BCE

The star of the recent 4th International Inter-religious Abraham Conference was the keynote speaker, Fr Francis V. Tiso, Catholic priest, expert in Buddhism in South Asia, Tibet and the Far East, Christian theologian and ecumenist. Fr Tiso spoke regretfully of the decreasing importance of ethical and cultural teachings - from all the great traditions - in the lives of people, and suggests what institutional religion might do to stop the trend.

Two thousand three hundred years ago, the great king, Ashoka united most of the Indian subcontinent through inheritance and pitiless warfare. Looking over the battlefields and ruined cities, his heart was pierced with remorse, and he underwent a deep conversion. He decided to embrace the ethics of Buddha Shakyamuni in order to pacify both himself and his empire. Ashoka left his decrees of Peace and Justice in the form of inscriptions in granite slabs all over the empire that have survived to the present day. In one of them he wrote: "The king honors both the ascetics and the householders of all religions and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds. But the King does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this: that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one's own religion or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. …Therefore contact [between religions] is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. The king desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions."

This extraordinary decree was unprecedented and, to my knowledge, was never fully emulated by any other monarch in history. Even in India, after Ashoka, these policies were not consistently followed, although tolerance was the usual rule. Not until the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century did anyone approach the breadth and depth of Ashoka's ideal. We must also be honest in saying that most Christian and Muslims societies have unfortunately failed to approximate the moral level of these ancient monarchs. In many places, religious differences have been seized upon by the unscrupulous to motivate riots and warfare. Sadly, such misguided aggression has retarded human progress while bringing into disrepute the good spiritual teachings of the prophets whom God has sent into the world. Worse yet, anti-religious wars and persecutions have broken out in many parts of the world, motivated by materialistic and nationalistic passions. For millions of human beings alive in the world today, the great religions of the world no longer provide ethical and cultural teachings that impact the way they make choices and live their lives. In part this is because of the failure of religions to implement the teachings on moral restraint, justice, compassion, and inter-community harmony. In part, this is because people are taught that religions are a poor source of guidance and serve as a fuel for aggression. The warnings of King Ashoka have not been heeded.

In spite of these unfavorable conditions even in our contemporary situation, small groups of people around the world have been gathering to overcome the cumulative effects of past errors. Through interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, they have sought to understand one another's beliefs. They have gone farther yet: to seek forgiveness for past wrongs. And farther yet: to seek new and previously unimagined ways to cooperate for the good of humanity. Some are even going farther by seeking ways to make spiritual and material reparation for the violence of the past. And in all these undertakings, listening to divine guidance, they have found a common voice in all the traditions. We have in fact begun to recognize a common- or rather Uncommon - understanding of our human condition, UNcommon values, and UNcommon aspirations. Even in the aftermath of shock and fear in America after the attacks of 9/11/01, another voice began to be heard. It is a voice that had hardly ever appeared on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It is a voice that still somewhat unwelcome on the evening news flurry of sound bites. Though it was a voice empowered by faith, it was a strange voice even to many people of faith. It is the voice of cooperation, the voice of understanding, the voice of reason, the voice of interreligious dialogue. Today we give thanks for the truth of that voice, the resonance of that voice, the effectiveness of that voice. Today we thank God for having graced this land, and this world, with that at times unwelcome voice, with which men and women imbued with deep faith convictions speak to one another, reach out to one another, walk in solidarity with one another. It is a voice of peace. Or better: a voice that makes peace by speaking the truth in love. It is a voice a long time in coming. And we need it now more than ever.

I can recall a recent conversation with theology students and professors at Marmora Islamic seminary in Istanbul. After we had discussed and examined many of the classic questions of fundamental theology, I had tears in my eyes. I realized that had Muslims and Catholics been having such conversations over the past 800 years, we might have accelerated the moral progress of the human race in a manner consistent with the technological progress of the same period. Think of it! The same civilizations that now look 15 billion light years into the past through radio telescopes might also be looking into the unfathomable depths of moral reasoning and sanctification. We might be seeing clearly into the light of the human soul. Instead, we are taping explosives to our bodies and blowing up buses full of children and elders! Instead we are planting mines in the fields of the world! Instead we wound the bodies and souls of future generations still in the loins of our youth. Instead we still believe that the manufacture and sale of weaponry is somehow an advantage, for someone! Instead we continue to despoil the fragile ecology of our planet, oblivious to the consequences that we can see even now in cancer wards on every side! Like the evil vine tenders in the parable of Jesus, we mock, insult, and even kill the prophetic messengers whose compassion compels them to speak the truth. How many nuns need to be murdered in Brazil before we realize that there has to be a way to rescue the priceless jungle patrimony of our planet?

And yet, in spite of the dark clouds, dialogue goes on. I think of the many who gathered in Long Island soon after 9/11 to pray, to remember, to chasten, to draw close in that time of loss ungraspable to our souls. I think of the interfaith groups around the country who took the side of Arab Americans and others who were suddenly labeled "terrorists" and "enemies" in the atavistic aftermath of the attacks. I think of the geometric increase of dialogue groups, study groups, action coalitions, that sprung up out of the good soil of human hearts- beyond American shores - rising up on these South Pacific shores as well. People are finding that diversity is not an obstacle to peaceful cooperation and deep respect. The flood of immigration in the world today provides new opportunities for a rebirth of what is best in the human spirit. In Rochester, New York, the people and their leaders have signed a great Agreement printed gorgeously in Celtic uncials, affirming the need to implement both ideals and policies, education and action, bringing together Muslims and Christians as peacemakers in a time of war. Today we give thanks to the Lord God of Peace who moves in human hearts in this way. In the way of peace, the way we know, for it draws us to itself like love draws all to its fountain of delight.

We have, I would guess by looking out at this assembly, a consensus on the need for dialogue and cooperation. Now the question is, what are the practical dynamics of that cooperation? We certainly look to the four "forms of dialogue" that are given in the document of the PCID "Dialogue and Proclamation": (1) Dialogue of life; (2) Dialogue of Social Collaboration; (3) Dialogue of theological experts; (4) Dialogue of shared Religious Experience. With the situation of multiculturalism in the great cities of this new millennium, it is clear that the "dialogue of life" is no longer restricted to small intentional communities; now entire neighborhoods share a daily, shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow dialogue of life that invites us to understand one another for the simple fact that we live door to door, send our children to the same schools, shop in the same streets, and elect officials to a common government. Parishes, congregations, and masjids are compelled by the demographics of their situation to come together and to seek deeper understanding and appreciation of the values and beliefs that give meaning to our lives. This is by no means an easy task, and I know that many community leaders do not feel up to carrying it out.

In the US, the USCCB works with the network of diocesan ecumenical officers to provide training for leadership on the regional and local levels. We have an annual Institute on Islam for our bishops, run along retreat/seminar lines. Every three years, we have an Institute for Interreligious Leadership for those starting out in inter-faith work on the diocesan level. A considerable amount of cooperation goes on with other Christian groups such as the NCC and the Episcopal Church. Broad based groups such as Religions for Peace USA (and World) are part of this network of collaboration and training. Of course, the training is only the beginning, to overcome inertia, so to speak. Vibrant regional programs of dialogue are now in place, sponsored by the USCCB. Three are with Muslim coalitions of communities; one is with Zen and Ch'an Buddhist communities; one is with Vaishnava Hindu communities. Innumerable local programs have sprung up based in universities, monasteries (MID especially), and neighborhoods rich with the presence of immigrant communities. Of course, dialogue is not enough. Its first and best result is trust and friendship. At the very least, it is now possible to say that in many metropolitan areas and small towns, should a crisis occur, diverse communities of faith now know one another well enough to stand together in the service of all.

But we would like to see more than this. I have been encouraging a common study of values and virtues in our dialogues. It has been possible to bring in experts on the problems of our immigrant communities to address the dialogue fora. For example, Don Kerwin, a lawyer and head of Catholic Legal Immigration Network for the USCCB, addressed our West Coast Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims last January on how to work with the current situation that prevails with the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and immigration legislation. I have also made an effort to make available significant documentation to our dialogue partners in a timely manner and hope eventually to start an immigration newsletter. Our Secretariat does not have a social policy mandate, but we cooperate with and advise International Peace and Justice and other relevant secretariats of the Conference. Similarly, our regional dialogues are meant to catalyze the cooperative efforts of Catholic and Muslim partners in their home towns.

The active presence of well-informed bishops as co-chairs of these dialogues gives their deliberations authority throughout the region. The regional groups have produced significant documents on spirituality, marriage, and revelation that are in various stages of publication. The key to all these efforts is: to be at the service of our communities. In that spirit, considerable effort has been expended to insure that our dialogues not retreat into theological relativism. By which I mean that the dialogue partners, though free to express personal views, also accept the responsibility to represent their respective traditions authentically and critically.

On that foundation, may I suggest some approaches that our dialogue may take in future months and years?
- Could we not together examine those areas of disagreement based on past crimes and acts of violence with a new willingness to ask for forgiveness for our own errors and to forgive those who have harmed our communities in the past?
- Could we not restrain ourselves from forms of coercion in seeking to invite others to share our faith?
- Could we not pledge to study all faiths more deeply, including our own, to seek the wellsprings of the gifts that all human generations have received and may still be able to share?
- Could we commit ourselves to teaching our respective traditions in schools and universities with objectivity and justice? Could we not perhaps develop a "healthy allergy" to mythic depictions of the past in "black and white" so that we can now be honest about both our achievements and our failings?
- Could we agree to make a positive contribution to the peace of the world, a peace based on justice, so that no one need fear loss of property, life, or security because of abuses of power for any reason whatsoever?
- When it is within our power, could we work to restore property that has been unjustly expropriated? Are we able to make restitution for harm done in the past? Can our testimony to peacemaking through forgiveness be shared with communities of faith around the world?
- Shouldn't we do penance together in spiritual reparation for acts of violence and sins of the past?
- Couldn't we be more humble, more ready to listen, more eager to learn, more eager to show respect to one another under all circumstances? Is it not time to imitate King Ashoka's own moment of conversion in our own time, in our own lives?

Apart from the question of whether we as people of faith will ever regain the trust of the world at large by such deeds, at least we who undertake them will be a blessing for this wounded world. And the fruition of a blessing is always, as we know, in the hands of God, who did not design this world as a place of desolation and combat, but as a place where life is shared, where beauty and the tranquility of order inspire our prayers. And if we can look out from this beautiful city on the coast of Australia, can we not open ourselves to the call of the Lord that we become SEERS, men and women who see and speak the truth in God. Borrowing an insight from Pope Benedict XVI, we are not those who narrow the world to a limited vision, but rather we are those who find our own souls enlarged to embrace in a single ray of light the vast cosmos in which we dwell as gifted ones, and as gift.

Canon Francis V Tiso PhD, is an ordained Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Isernia-Venafro. Currently on assignment to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, he also serves as Parochial Vicar and University Chaplain (SF State and U Cal. Medical School). Dr Tiso was a guest of the Affinity Cultural Foundation, sponsor of the 2005 International Inter-religious Abraham Conference at the University of Sydney.

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