Religion: Catalyst for Violence or Peace?

On Tuesday 23 June, The Broken Bay Institute, in partnership with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference presented its 11th National eConference - 'Religion: Catalyst for Violence or Peace? Probing the Abrahamic Traditions for Answers'. The eConfernece was attended by local participants viewing - and contributing online with questions - at the Monsignor Peter Jeffery Parish Centre, St Brendans Church, Shepparton.

As this eConference sought to delve into the Abrahamic Religions we offer an explanation from the first presenter, Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat of The University of Newcastle. Prof. Lovat explains the academic use of the term "Abrahamic Religions":

The use of the term 'Abrahamic Religions' suggests that Judaism, Christianity and Islam derive from a common spiritual source in the ancestral figure of Abraham and that the three religions constitute a close family of religious traditions. There are certainly other commonalities in the three religions that derive from this symbolic common origin in Abraham. For instance, all three have overlapping geographical, ethnic, cultural and historical backgrounds in the Near East; each has spilled out from its Eastern centre of origin and developed into a world religion; each has made notable inroads into the Western world.

Session 1

Session 1 was led by Emeritus Professor Terry Lovat of The University of Newcastle. Prof. Lovat's topic was 'Reconciling the Abrahamic Traditions: Lessons from Convivencia'.

Once again, we look to Prof. Lovat to explain a term used in this eConference, "Convivencia":

Late Medieval Mediterranean (particularly Spanish) history shows that, prior to the fifteenth century at least, it was possible for some historical communities to accept a non-historical and inclusive approach to sacred Story (the story of Abraham/Ibrahim, Isaac/Ishaq and Ishmael/Ishma'il - this story is common in different forms in the three religions that form the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam). People could live in harmony with the 'Other' who had a different form of a sacred Story. Furthermore, some people were capable of changing their own sacred Story and adapting it to new circumstances. This harmony always required a delicate balance, and co-existence needed to be shored up by political and religious authority and protected by economic stability, as will be explained. This is all part of what has been called (in Spain at least, and among academics) Convivencia.

It is possible to work through education and community effort to instil a level of shared values that become a social glue to hold the population together. Among these values are explicitly religious ones. Combined social stability, some level of shared values, the cherry on the cake is staving off fanaticism. Because that is fuelled by religion, sharing religious studies is a potent or social view. We see this in Convivencia, where the Abrahamic faiths in the service of Knowledge are part of the social fabric that maintained stability.

Questions were then set for the discussion groups. For session 1, 'Reconciling the Abrahamic Traditions: Lessons from Convivencia', the set questions were:

  1. What are the main commonalities & differences between the three Abrahamic faiths?
  2. What are the main lessons to be learned from the period in Spanish history known as 'Convivencia'?

Session 2

Session 2 was led by Prof. Dorothy Lee, Dean of the Theological School and Frank Woods Professor of New Testament at Trinity College, University of Melbourne. Prof. Lee's topic was 'Violence or Peace? The Perspective of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount'.

Prof. Lee told, during her talk that, "Christianity shares this idea of lasting peace with its sisters Islam and Judaism. The purpose of Jesus's life and ministry, his death and resurrection, is to create that unity among people. There are many passages among the new Testament that put Christ at the centre of this peacemaking."

In her observations on the Sermon on the Mount, Prof. Lee went on to say, "Peacemaking is of course only one aspect in that authentic spirituality which involves among other things being humble of heart, merciful, being single hearted, the deep longing for God's goodness and the willingness to be persecuted for the sake of that sublime goodness. The people who are blessed in this way are godlike, those who embody the ultimate form and shape of the future kingdom, the ultimate destiny of God's creation."

Questions were then set for the discussion groups. For session 2, 'Violence or Peace? The Perspective of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount', the set questions were:

  1. What contribution does Matthew's Gospel have to make to discussions about peace?
  2. What do we do with passages that speak of Jesus bringing not peace but a sword?

Session 3

Session 3 was led by Imam Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla, Griffith University Islamic Research Unit, QLD. Professor Mohamad Abdalla's topic was 'Interconnectedness of Traditions in the Islamic Civilisation: The Abrahamic Faiths in the Service of Knowledge'.

Prof. Abdalla commenced his talk, saying, "Islam spread through India, Anatolia in the west of Asia, through western Europe. This civilisation was marked by the seeking of knowledge. At the heart of this civilisation was the co-operation of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other religions who worked together in the seeking of knowledge". This was the beginning of the translation movement, when academics worked in cooperation, side by side for over 300 years. Prof. Adbdalla gave the example of Copernicus.

Copernicus could not have arrived at his heliocentric view of the solar system without the efforts of three other Muslim astronomers. Until 1952 it was thought that he arrived at his conclusions alone. But research has recently discovered the works of three other astronomers, all of whom worked for 300 years to correct the Ptolemy’s model that have certain problems By the 13th century a group of astronomers began to find solutions to Ptolemaic equant problem. (Equant (or punctum aequans) is a mathematical concept developed by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD to account for the observed motion of the planets.) They discovered new mathematical models.
It wasn't until the Syrian astronomer in the 14th century became so close to finding this solution that Copernicus himself - Copernicus learned from these astronomers and came up with this year. It is not whether, but when and how Copernicus learned from this astronomers, who could not have that knowledge without Greek texts, teaches me and talks to me about this idea of interconnectedness.
If we fail to see this interconnectedness of human beings and civilisation, we will fail to see the interconnectedness of our history. Civilisation is do not emerge out of nothingness or a vacuum. They emerge from other civilisations.
Scholars stand on the shoulders of other scholars. I believe that our religious teachings have within them core values at a moral and ethical level. But also at a civilisation level, I believe that we can better humanity. That requires leadership at a political level, coverage from our side to recognise the good in others, and also to recognise the strength to be able to say that "My faith, my tradition does not have all the answers, and I should be able to look into the traditions of other cultures and people to be able to improve myself as a human being," otherwise we fail our teachings of our traditions that talk to us and tell us to avoid being self-centred and tell us to rise beyond being prejudiced and racist and look at the well-being and welfare of civilisation as a whole.

Questions were then set for the discussion groups. For session 3, 'Interconnectedness of Traditions in the Islamic Civilisation: The Abrahamic Faiths in the Service of Knowledge', the set questions were:

  1. What are some of the possible factors that may have led to an atmosphere of intellectual cooperation between scholars
  2. of the Abrahamic traditions during the golden age of Islam?
  3. To what extent did such a cooperation help establish the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance movement?

Session 4

Session 4 was led by Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, USA. Professor Amy-Jill Levine's topic was 'Jewish Dialogue with Christians and Muslims: Neighbours or Strangers, Reconciliation or Respect?'.

Prof. Levine gave an account of her son's bar-mitzvah where he had to read passages of the Torah to the community. He son was dismayed by the violence incited in the text and went to the Rabbi, unwilling to recite this text. The Rabbi told him, "Good, you have learned to wrestle with the text". This means that one seeks to find a meaning in the text, a meaning that may be understood by the community today. Prof Levine went on to recount several meanings discovered by her son, and how he resolved this during his bar-mitzvah ceremony. Prof Levine covered a lot of ground around Jewishness and connection to the land. Prof. Levine concluded,

How do we talk about the Middle East? A few final thoughts. Judaism has grounds for peace, but not pacifism. There are some things worth fighting for. The one who wrestles with God. To wrestle with our Scriptures, traditions, other people in our community, is what it means to be Jewish, for peace and we recognise there are other ways of getting there.
We recognise there is historical concern for recognising the land of Israel as the land of the Jewish because God gave it to Isaac, Jacob, so on.
Replacing the love of God in the covenant is not necessarily what it says. Speaking of the Jews, they are beloved for the sake of their ancestors, for their gifts and the calling of God is irrevocable.
One way is to listen carefully to the stories of others because they have different traditions and scriptures and ways of understanding. To make peace is to recognise that sometimes compromise is made. It means not to be naive, but to listen and to recognise finally that the death of anybody is tragic. Because we are all in the image and likeness of God. We are all to pursue peace because that is what the Jewish tradition teaches us. And as always, it is our responsibility to start the conversation, everyone's responsibility to continue it.

Questions were then set for the discussion groups. For session 4, 'Jewish Dialogue with Christians and Muslims: Neighbours or Strangers, Reconciliation or Respect?', the set questions were:

  1. Religions should not be reduced to lowest common denominators, and for collaborative work, we need to acknowledge our differences as well as our similarities. What are the non-negotiables in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
  2. Global politics works, generally, according to secular and political, rather than scriptural or theological dictates. Politics functions by negotiation and compromise; theology generally functions by doctrine and ideals. How then do – or should – religious interests enter the political arena? Should nations be held to theological standards? Should nations be officially ‘religious’?

Final Reflections

This was an excellent manner in which to participate in a conference which was being streamed to faith communities in all states in Australia, and on to New Zealand, and there were even participants from the Philippines and Ireland! The participants on the day were ready to contribute and discuss the issues raised both by the presentations and in the interactive mode, where comments, observations and questions could be presented to the conference. Much insight and maturity was shared, and we were appraised of the backgrounds of all the presenters. Interfaith activity and dialogue, and the seeking of understanding inevitably enlarges our knowledge, understanding and perceptions of others.

The Convivencia, the Sermon on the Mount on peacekeeping, the translation movement and also the questions raised by Jewishness, relationship to land and seeking conversations with those of other faiths brought many different perspectives to the conversation and discussions. We all leave such events with wider understanding and tolerance for others, and perhaps, a greater penchant for peacemaking with our neighbours.



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