Can we pray together?

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When I was a minister in Colombo many Hindu groups would invite me during the Christmas and Easter seasons to bring a message to hundreds who gathered for their weekly worship events. My talk would normally come in the middle of the bhajan, the singing together of devotional songs. On such occasions I would begin with a story form Hindu mythology or with some scriptural references or sayings from Hinduism to create the ambience, and not to be too discontinous with what was going on. I would then talk about the significance of Christmas and Easter for Christians, also indicating the universal significance we attach to these events. Even though I always “preached the gospel”, they continued to invite me, also to speak on other occasions.

I have always admired the courage ans strength of the Hindu worshipping community in this openness to receiving the Christians message. Hinduism is indeed a tolerant and hospitable religion. But, as a minister, I could not return such hospitality to Hindu groups in Colombo and ask their leader to come and give a message of Deepavali, Sivarathiri or Krishna Jeyanthi at a Christian worship service. I might ask the Hindu Swami or the Buddhist monk to speak in the church hall on “national reconciliation” or “world peace”. But if I were to ask them to speak on the teaching of Sri Ramakrishna or the Lord Buddha, it would provoke strong protests in the congregation. I was aware that some members of the congregation were not too happy that “their minister” was “present at Hindu worship”, even if it was to give an Easter message. They would rather it was done in the market square! In such a context, a Christian worshipping or even praying with a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim would be considered by many Christians as a “betrayal” of faith.


Why such hesitation?

Why are most Chrsitians hesitant about participating in the worship or an act of prayer that originates from another faith tradition? Five areas can be lifted upanisad as reasons at the root of much of the objection. I would charaterise these these as theological, biblical, liurgical, cultural and psychological.

1) Theological Reasons

The theological reasons for the Christian’s reluctance to engage in worship with a person of another faith stem from a negative evaluation of other religious traditions as human attempts to find God. They are not based on God’s self-revelation, and are therefore expressions of human sind and self-centredness. When approached from this theological perspective, the prayer life of these religions, according to some Christians, is “not valid”, “not directed to the true God”, “superstitious”, and their prayers are “not appropriate for us, because they are not directed through Jesus Christ”.

Such a blanket negative evaluation of other faiths creates many problems for our understanding of God, the nature of God and God’s providence, and for our belief in the Holy Spirit as the “give of life”.

Moreover, such an evaluation of other faiths directly questions one of the streams within the Bible that unambiguously affirms the universal communion between God and all of God’s creation. The negative attitude, however, is deeprooted, and I have noticed that Christians develop ad hoc theological asides to deal with the issue.

Some Christians, though deeply committed to monotheism, live with a “functional polytheism”, assuming that the Hindu and the Muslim are praying to “other gods”. Others insist that while their prayers may be sincere, a “proper understanding of God” is necessary in order for the prayer to be effective, which of course thay do not find in other traditions. At the extreme end there are those who even today would claim that prayers not directed through Christ are “misguided” and are “of the devil”. To pray with others is, for them, the ultimate theological compromise that destroys all the rationale for the Christian faith, its witness and mission.

2) Biblical Reasons

While theology remains the bedrock, the most vocalised objections are, however, biblical. Here again the arguments are all too familiar. The injunction “you shall have no other Gods before me” is written into the very frist commandment, with the warning “you shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” (Ex. 20:4ff). in responding to the Hindu-Buddhist context, this prohibition is reinforced by the many passages that prohibit the worship of idols and give explicit instructions to tear them down. As part of the process of settling down in the land of the Canaanites, the Israelites were asked to “destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places” (Num. 33:52).

Few Christians take the trouble (because of the theological reasons) to understand the meaning and significance of images in Hinduism and Buddhism. Nor do they pay attention to the use of images within the Roman Catholic tradition or to the use of icons in the Orthodox churches as “windows into God”. For them the very presence of any image constitutes a turning away form the Lord God to the golden calf. This would be confirmed for them in the New Testament in such statements of Paul as “What fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:14-16).

Moreover, that fact that there are other passages and themes also found in the same Bible which might help us to have more openness on this issue are completely ignored. The biblical reasons, however, also run at a deeper level ans relate ro such concepts as covenant, election, people of God, revelation, the one mediator, no other name and so on. The “missionary mandate’ is seen as the decisive pointer to the gulf between Christians and others in such matters. It is not difficult to collect a body of biblical passages and concepts that would militate against any thought of engaging in worship with peoples of other faith traditions.

3) Liturgical Reasons

The liturgical is perhaps the most immediate problem that a person who want to participate in worship across religious traditions begins to experience. The word “liurgical” is used here in a special sense to denote the symbol system, rites, rituals, gestures and the structure, shape and from of worship that each religious community has evolved in the course of stranslating its faith into a sustained worship life, epecially in community. Forms of worship in various religious traditions are very different and are not easily understood or entered into by those outside. Even the very concept of worship and the elements that go into it differ widely among religions.

4) Cultural Reasons

The cultural reasons are very similar to the liturgical reasons. I know Christian friends from the West who would enter a Hindu temple at the height of the puja, when all the devotees are in a state of total rapture, and find the whole affair completely “chaotic”; some cannot imagine “worship” when the devotees are not seated in rows of pews listening to a preacher. Similarly there are Hindus who attend Christian services and find them no more than public lectures interspersed with prayers and hymns. Every time I entered a mosque at prayer time, even in Sri Lanka or India where I share with Muslims the general culture of the land, I had felt myself a “tranger” to the place. There is an “attitude of prayer” that is unique to the Islamic community and cannot be duplicated elsewhere or shared by those outside the fold.

The cultural dimension of a religion functions as a culture within a culture. Therefore, not only friens from the West but also Indian Christians have a hard time entering into the spirit of Hindu worship in India. This is not peculiar to the interfaith situation. I know Protestant friends who have, during ecumenical visits, attended Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox liturgical services and come out of them totally bewildered and even confused by their very richness.

5) Psychological Reasons

For most Christians in the third world there is also a psychological block about participating in worship with other religious communities.

First, it has to do with the fact that many of these religious traditions are what they themselves or their ancestors had “lelf behind” to follow the “true faith” that was presented by the missionary or Christian evangelist. If they had believed that God listened to the prayer of the Hindu they might not have converted to Christianity.

Second, one of the fears drilled into Christians, especially in the context of the predominance of other faiths, is the fear of compromise, of syncretism and the dilution of the Christian faith. Interfaith worship appears as a classic example of such compromise.

And last, one faces the problem of identity. While Hindus, Muslims and Christians look alike and act in much the same way in their day-to-day life in society, their places of worship and the worship life itself give them particular identities as individuals and communities.

There is something distinctive about the way ach religious tradition has evolved in its worship life; its adherents see worship as one of the secure sources of identity, one they would like to retain and cherish.


Not Without My Neighbour: Issues in Interfaith Relations

Wesley Ariarajah

DIALOGUE ?, Resource manual for CATHOLICS IN ASIA, 2001, p.166-168.

Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Federation of Asian bishop’s conferences

Editor Edmund Chia, FSC