In one of Rumi’s writings, a scholar in grammar asks a boatman for a ride on his boat. Once settled aboard, he asks the boatman: “Do you know the science of grammar?” The boatman replies; “no, I don’t.” The grammarian announces, “You wasted half of your life.” An hour later, a tempest flips the boat over and the two passengers get thrown in the water. “Do you know the science of swimming?” The boatman asks his companion. The grammarian cries out: “No!” The boatman says, “Then you wasted your whole life.”
If the science of grammar is represented in all the religious knowledge we have acquired from learning and experience, then the science of swimming is the knowledge of theology. I have borrowed this analogy from John Renard who wrote Islam and Christianity: Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective. Without theology, one can risk losing life altogether.
As believers, each one of us is deeply rooted in our faith traditions, beliefs, dogmas, and practices. These pivots hold us firmly within our religious foundations. Sometimes we go beyond these foundations and reach out to others in what we call interfaith. We form faith book clubs, interfaith discussion groups, or interreligious dialog panels. At the end of the day, we go back to our bubbles and comfort zones, just like hermit crabs. But we feel good about what we accomplished outside our bubbles; we built bridges. Or don’t we?
In a pluralistic society like the one we live in, building bridges is no longer enough. It is not enough that I show up once every while at a synagogue, for example, and participate in interfaith dialog to cast out my Muslim voice. Honestly, after many years of interfaith participation, I feel at home when I visit a synagogue or a church as I see us all members of the one Abrahamic family. It’s a different story when I visit a Buddhist or Hindu temple. And this is the test of religious pluralism whose only chance of success is theology.
Theology is the study of religious faith, practice, experience; it is the study of God and God’s relation to the world; it is the study of how people understand God. We take things for granted in our own faith traditions: we get so acquainted with our belief systems that sometimes religious practices lose their symbolism and original purpose because they become automatically performed rituals. As a Muslim, I am constantly fighting my conscience during the ritual prayers to bring it back into focus; my mind wanders away from the holiness of the moment if I don’t pull it back in submission into the divine presence. I start thinking about the thesis I am writing, about my daughter’s college tour, and even about my cat that went out two months ago and never came back. But it’s the constant fighting of the self to bring it back into harmony with the holiness of the moment that truly achieves the objective of the prayer: keeping remembrance and connection with God.
Hence, our own rituals become automated at some point in our religious lives and we must keep ourselves in check. The same happens with our interfaith endeavors. After a while, interfaith dialog becomes stagnant and barren: nothing comes out of it as we don’t produce anything new. We say our goodbyes after our meetings and then when we watch the evening news we are shocked to find out that elsewhere on earth people are fighting over religion and are actually killing one another. “Why on earth would they kill,” we ask ourselves. Murder is a vicious crime, but it is as old as humanity. Why did the son of Adam kill his brother? Why do extremist fundamentalist Buddhists kill Burmese Muslims? Why do Muslim militant fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria kill other Muslims, not to mention non-Muslims? Why do Israelis kill Palestinians in Gaza and why do Hamas militants fire rockets to kill Israeli neighbors?
Whoever is involved in interfaith and watches the news nowadays is surely going through a lot of agony. Life doesn’t look as rosy as we have wanted it to be. But this is reality. So how does theology change that? It doesn’t change the fact that thousands of humans are killed every day because of their religious identities. As a matter of fact, it won’t stop the killing right away. But theology answers the “why” question and hopefully leads to a solution, the “now what”?
Interfaith dialog is not enough; I must repeat. We have to achieve social harmony now that we have built the bridges. This means we have to become the bridges in our community. We have to learn the scriptures of our interfaith interlocutors, learn how they relate to God, and learn their religious history. Even if this means that sensitive issues will come up in discussions, we still must do it. If those Islamic militant fundamentalists knew anything about the spirituality and theology of Christians they would have not kicked them out of their homes in Mosul, Iraq. The tragedy is that those extremists are so mind folded and theologically corrupted that they can’t tolerate other Muslims either. The same goes for Israelis, Palestinians, Buddhists, etc…
Theology is a life saver. When I look at non-Muslims, no matter how different their beliefs and practices may sound to me, I see their human souls that are searching for the divine, for salvation, for enlightenment, for truth, and for peace. And these things can never be enough of a reason for me to hate the other. On the contrary, these are the reasons why I love the other when I see the face of God through them.