More openness needed in dialogue with other faiths

Published February 1, 2000

DECEMBER’S PARLIAMENT of the World’s Religions in Cape Town brought together some 7,000 people representing over 100 religions. The main reason for the meeting was to find common grounds of action among the religions, such as keeping government focused on people and the environment. It also provided a forum for people of different backgrounds to talk to one other.

In the wake of this, Cape Town’s Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane and South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris voiced criticism that witches were present at the meeting.

Witch is a loaded word in the world of religion. In this case, the concern was understandable but likely misplaced.

It was no doubt naive of the American organizers not to consider the implications of witches in Africa. In that continent, the word can describe anyone from a person who attempts to heal people of illnesses (with varying degrees of success) to potentially dangerous spellbinders whose psychological hold over people can be fatal.

The witches seen at the parliament were none of these. In fact, the church could learn a great deal from observing the ones who were there.

These witches were adherents of Wicca, a modern religion that draws heavily on 19th and 20th century romantic reinventions of various pre-Christian religions, especially the Druids.

They cast no spells – except on the unchurched who appear to find more meaning in neo-pagan religions like Wicca than in Christianity. The church should seriously wonder why this is.

Like many other popular belief systems today, from New Age to various aboriginal spiritualities, Wicca is essentially pantheistic: Wiccans believe God is in everything, from trees overhead to the carpet underneath, one of their speakers explained at a parliament seminar.

It’s crude theology, but is this not a way of expressing that the whole world is holy?

Greek philosophers, pondering long before Christ how God is in the world, came to the conclusion that pantheism is an inadequate explanation. And, from a theological point of view, Christianity has a profound view to offer: all creation is good, made by a good God, and will be returned to God at the end of time without being annihilated.

Given the frequent criticism of Christianity, it’s apparently a message the church has not communicated well for some time.

One reason neo-pagan, New Age and Native North American spiritual systems may be so popular is that people can relate to what they teach more easily than they can to Christianity, which often seems unduly complex and cluttered.

These non-Christian religions offer symbols and rites that are simple and accessible. And Christians trying to bring such practices into the church have raised more than a few hackles.

It’s right to be alert for incompatible teachings – Christians are not pantheists, for instance. But it’s also important to remember Christianity has long adapted and absorbed non-Christian practices into itself, some Easter and Christmas traditions being well known examples.

Besides that, even Saint Paul taught that new believers need milk before solid food.

That means that in talking to people of another or no religion, Christians may have to use terms that would not be an adequate final statement of their faith, but are useful for beginning a discussion.

For instance, Christians certainly believe God is present everywhere in the world. That doesn’t mean Christians should say or believe that God is in the carpet, but it does mean that they can easily affirm that all creation is holy when engaging with people of other faith.

Or what is the difference between using sweetgrass and incense, except that one is grass and one is tree sap?

One church that had a labyrinth walk recently drew more new people into the building for what was clearly a spiritual time, an encounter with God, than all previous, more traditional efforts at evangelism.

There are limits, of course. Controversy has erupted in Scotland where a priest has changed the words of baptism so much to avoid any masculine language that they are theologically incomprehensible.

It’s not that certain formulas shouldn’t be thought about, but one person can’t change fundamentals alone. Perhaps the doctrine of the Trinity can be expressed differently, but it cannot end up on the cutting room floor as a bit of this and that which no one understands.

Christians need to engage contemporary society by affirming the quest for spirituality, not criticizing it.

Christianity has long taught that life is a pilgrimage. Where one joins the straggling band hardly matters. What does matter is that the pilgrim is welcomed as a fellow traveller.

Spiritual food and water must be provided to the pilgrims, and the church has an enormous storehouse filled with forgotten riches. But when the new pilgrim is changing diet from another kind of spirituality, does it not make sense to offer familiar food before introducing heartier fare – the meat Saint Paul speaks about?

Better for the cook to be flexible with the recipe at the beginning than create indigestion causing the pilgrim to join another band.

The way may be narrow, but judging by the empty pews, there’s plenty of room. Maybe we should welcome some witches.


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