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Ecumenism & Interfaith Relations

By Tom Ryan, CSP

Tom Ryan, CSP

A global village requires understanding, inclusivity

I’m just back from co-leading 25 people from nine states and Ontario on a 20-day interfaith and intercultural study tour in India and Nepal. It was, to say the least, an extraordinary experience.

We visited various cultural sites such as the Taj Mahal, royal palaces and art museums, as well as the worship sites of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh and Christian faith communities. The architecture is colourful and impressive, and the artistry within them breathtaking.

Each visit to a temple or mosque provided the occasion for deeper learning about another faith tradition’s spirituality and practice. When a group of tourists from the western world stands before the tower of a Hindu temple covered with the denizens of the triple world of God and demi-gods, of human beings, birds and animals, and of nagas and nympths, the habitual response is to identify this as idol worship.

But what it really wants to say is that God is a hidden God whose divinity lies obscured by the veils of mundane existence only to burst forth on occasion in all splendour and power. In short, the power of Divinity pervades all that exists, so anything is eligible to be a manifestation of the Divine.

The Divinity is intimately close to us, and yet is an utterly transcendent and Absolute Other. The Divinity is the One who descends as a personal friend. The Divinity is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, benevolent, blissful, imperishable, self-revelatory and self-illuminating, greater than what is predicted of it, without attributes, without form, without limitations.

A Hindu temple tower covered with colourful sculptures of different beings can serve as a microcosm of Hinduism, a religion which has no founder and is, in a certain sense, inaccessible. It is a complex mass of religious systems, a mosaic of probably all known forms of religion, philosophies, social structures, rich traditions and myths of peoples from various epochs.

What do Hindus believe anyway? A Hindu is a pilgrim in search of the Absolute Truth. His/her essential characteristic is the discovery of the internal world. The ultimate aim is to experience total union with the Absolute. There is no one uniform way to reach this ideal; each one is encouraged to tread one’s own path and discover one’s own way. In the final analysis, one is not expected to adhere to any dogmatic beliefs. God is supra-personal, ineffable.

Other aspects of our travel that left deep impressions were the environmental and economic aspects of life in India. The poverty is very disturbing. Three hundred million Indians — roughly the population of the United States and about eight times the population of Canada — have no access to electricity. Can you imagine either population in North America living without access to electricity?

And then there is the air pollution. A 2014 World Health Organization report concluded that of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, India has 13 of them, with New Delhi topping the list of the 20. The unregulated use of some of the dirtiest energy sources on the planet — coal, diesel oil and burning garbage — to sustain economic growth and an exploding population is creating a national health emergency.

A New York Times editorial entitled Cutting Through India’s Smog which appeared just a few days after our return noted that the country has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases which kill 1.5 million Indians every year. The Times was addressing the question from the perspective that this is not just a problem for India’s 1.25 billion people, but it’s everybody’s problem.

The unregulated use of these energy resources add copious emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for the warming of the earth’s atmosphere. And the emissions reduction targets being discussed by world leaders in preparation for the global summit in Paris in December are not being welcomed in India.

The new Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected last fall on a promise to encourage foreign investment, create new jobs and lift millions of Indians out of poverty, observed the Times, and emissions targets are seen as thwarting these goals. India has increased its coal power capacity by 73 per cent in the last five years.

Given that 300 million Indians have no electricity and millions more live with electrical shortages, the need for power is obviously great. Even so, said the Times, “the current path — a continued heavy investment in coal is self-destructive, killing India’s people, taxing its health care system and making the environment so inhospitable that foreign investors could be scared away.”

Like it or not, we are living in a global village, and the issues of religious pluralism, economics and the environment touch us all. In each case, our framework of reference needs to be inclusive.

Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.