Four religious leaders affirmed and underscored that the fullness of life, dignity of creation, forgiveness, and reconciliation form the essence of the values and ethos of all four major Asian religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In a special session focused on ‘Reconciliation, Renewal, and Restoration of the Creation: Interfaith Perspectives’ on the second day of the Congress of Asian Theologians (CATS) – IX, the four panellists representing Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious traditions shared insights from each religious perspective on the main theme of the CATS-IX.
The Venerable Dr Phramaha Boonchuay, Director of the Buddhist Institute in Thailand, grounded his presentation on the three basic principles in Buddhism: the Buddhist principle of dependent origination based on the first sermon of Buddha, the Law of Karma, and the three characteristics of existence.
Dr Boonchuay spoke of renewal as ‘changing for a better life’, restoration as the ‘equality of and in all’, and reconciliation as ‘a return to amicability’; all of which require ethical conduct, mental discipline and wisdom in re-establishing trust and acceptable boundaries.
His Grace Venerable Mahamuni Sritha Mahagatha, the current Mahadhibu of the Dakshina-marga Samayachara Rudra Sampradaya with its seat in Nepal, expounded on reconciliation from the Hindu perspective and affirmed that, “to reconcile means to exist in harmony, and to form a pleasing and consistent whole”. Discord, according to him, arose due to the ‘differences in the subjective interpretation rooted in personal contexts’, and had to be addressed and not brushed aside in order for peace to prevail.
Peace, Mahamuni Sritha explained in the context of the Upanishads, was the favourable disposition from oneself, from the reality one is occupied with, and from all factors beyond one’s perceived reality or control. The Hindu understanding of renewal is based on Hindu eschatology that views life as cyclical, and not linear. Therefore, what is born must undergo decay and must find life again. He said, “Nothing is permanent; birth and decay represent life in its totality together.” The Hindu view of restoration arises from the understanding that everything is ‘wholly perfect’; and birth, death, and decay exist within this perfection.
Prof. Dr Katimin, the dean of the Islamic Theology faculty at the Islamic State University in North Sumatra, spoke from the Islamic perspective. He focussed on religious harmony in the context of Indonesia. Harmony, according to Islam, entailed harmony with the creator, harmony with fellow beings, and harmony with other creatures.
Highlighting that Islam embraces diversity, he asserted that the state ideology of Pancasila in Indonesia offered a foundation for all Indonesian people to live in harmony while maintaining their sovereignty. Pancasila is also in line with the cultural roots of Indonesian society. However, he claimed that the Pancasila had come under serious threat in recent times from those with low tolerance for diversity.
Dr. Katimin uplifted three ways to maintain religious harmony- ‘strengthening of the state ideology of Pancasila; practicing religious moderation; and preserving local wisdom’. Religious moderation displays courteousness while practicing one’s religion in social settings and being balanced in meeting material needs, in the relationship between god and humans, fellow humans and humans with nature. Indonesia is rich in local wisdom that provide tools for conflict resolution and act as glue for social cohesion, as they contain fundamental values such as tolerance, mutual cooperation, togetherness, brotherhood, unity, and compassion.
Declaring that theology is an autobiography, and warning that the Christianity she would present at the interfaith panel would be non-normative Christianity, Isabella Novsima, a young Christian theological educator, structured her presentation on Christianity rooted in her bodily experiences: as a woman, an Asian, a young person, non-ordained, and a poet who lives with mental disability.
As a woman dismantling patriarchy, Isabella rooted the emergence of Asian feminist theology not as a personal theological inquiry about God, but a deep collective critical reflection as women who are living in the Asian context, and in response to the invisibility of women in ecumenical organisations at that time, including the CCA.
As a young person dismantling ageism, she affirmed that young people are creative thinkers capable of doing reconciliation, renewal, and restoration of the creation in the church. As a non-ordained person dismantling clericalism, she pointed out the hierarchical nature of clericalism that is further exacerbated by patriarchy; implying that male pastors are still preferred over female pastors despite their growing numbers. As a poet living with mental disability, Isabella called for a radical shift from seeing theology as ‘faith seeking understanding’ to the idea of ‘faith seeking beauty’.
Ms Isabella called for Christianity that has been familiar with truth and good to now embrace beauty in the nonverbal language, the non-human language, the wounded language, the silence, the darkness, and the absence of the word. She challenged normative theology to ‘listen to the unspoken voice’ which is a way of ‘living the Word without a word’. She affirmed that only by embracing ‘Beauty’, could we embody reconciliation, renewal, and restoration of the creation.
The General Secretary of the CCA Dr Mathews George Chunakara who moderated the session, summarised that the panel had brought out interesting parallels of similar concerns but defined them differently. Buddhism saw renewal as ‘changing for the better’, restoration as ‘upholding the value of dignity’, and reconciliation as a ‘return to amicability’. Hinduism affirmed the fullness of life, dignity of human beings and creation, and saw creation and evolution as complementary. Islam, applied in secular context, affirmed Pancasila principles; and Christianity’s view focussed on the dignity for all and the consideration of Beauty.
Questions from the floor of the congress by Rev. Oinike Natalia Harefa from Indonesia provided clarification that the concept of beauty Isabella highlighted was a ‘critique of the consumerist media-defined normative idea of pseudo-beauty’, and raised the relevance of aesthetic theology that ‘sees sacredness and beauty in everything, even in the process of decaying and aging’.
Rev. Dr Pervaiz Sultan from Pakistan raised the issue of radicalism in every religion although none of the religions advocated it, and called for an analysis on what may be the root cause of such problem that may be missed by theologians as adherents to religion.
Answering a question by Fr Jerin John from India on whether the creation had moved away from the creator, Mahamuni Sritha Mahagatha affirmed that creator and created were a total and could not be separated at any point of time.
Rev. Dr Betsan Martin from New Zealand requested responses of the religions to climate change, to which panellists highlighted certain eco-friendly teachings in each religion.
Venerable Mahamuni Sritha Mahagatha congratulated the CCA for this unique panel which in itself embodied the true spirit of wider ecumenism that the CATS-IX wished to portray.