For St. Jean Baptiste Parish, New York, NY, the interfaith dialogue on religion and culture was a first. As Rabbi Jonathan Stein (Congregation Shaaray Tefila) pointed out, it is unusual to have Islamic representation in interfaith dialogue. This dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims showed that the three largest faiths in the world have many common values and perspectives for cultural enrichment and spiritual inspiration. As senior associate at St. Jean’s, I presented the Catholic/Christian perspective with special stress on the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s teaching on interfaith collaboration (Nostra Aetate), and religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). Sahar Al-Sahlani represented the Islamic community. She is a member of the Religious Leaders Council of the City of New York and works with the New York Council on American Islamic Relations Office on interfaith outreach. Fr. John Kamas, pastor at St. Jean’s, moderated the discussion; Barbara O’Dwyer Lopez was in charge of local arrangements.
An appreciative and informed audience came in good numbers and participated in the discussion which followed the presentations by the speakers. “A friendly conversation” was promised and delivered. It showed the intimate connection between culture and religion, especially in the unique culture of the United States and its provision of religious liberty in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
The tension between liberal and conservative religious groups, even within organized religions and denominations, was discussed. Rabbi Stein explained that Reformed Judaism, which is his tradition, has an affinity for many of the values in the American foundational documents (Constitution, etc.) At the same time, all Judaism is conservative in the sense that any reform (or prophetic role) is a return to the past. “It was better at the beginning” characterizes this point of view. The prophets were not revolutionaries. They preached conversion and a return to God’s call, covenant and commandments which are fundamental to Judaism.
Sahar Al-Salahni pointed out some of the misrepresentations and characterizations of Islam that prevail, especially since 9/11. For instance jihad means “striving”, the inner struggle of each individual to be faithful to the teachings of the Qur’an, in particular the need for seeking justice and holiness. Peace and justice for all is taught clearly in the Qur’an. The “way” (Sharia) also needs to be clearly understood. Islamic law does not seek to subjugate women. The teachings of the Qur’an are meant to protect women, and assure their rights in cases of divorce and other misfortunes.
I stressed Vatican II’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person, “We are not robots.” This issue is the cornerstone of the documents on religious freedom and the role of the Church in the Modern World. In part two of this document (Gaudium et Spes),the entire second chapter is devoted to the subject of religion and culture, including issues of faith and culture, the right to cultural development, etc.
The Future of Religion
The audience asked about relativism and the statement “I am spiritual but not religious.” The panelists responded underscoring the nature of human beings as interdependent. We are not rugged individualists. We are born in a family and need society; we share culture, laws and responsibilities. Every culture sees religion as one of the basic values which contribute to the common good and equality under the law. Some people consider religion a private matter or superstition; religious leaders and people of faith recognize its lasting value for the development of peoples and for full human life for all. It was a good dialogue, and a first that needs to be repeated many times again.