[German Translation published in Missio korrespondenz 2(2010),9-10]
1. Introduction The forthcoming Second Ecumenical Kirchentag in Munich next month (May 2010) adds to the growing list of occasions when people of different religious traditions and denominations meet to reflect on the meaning of their faith. It will be, first of all, an ecumenical event that will bring Christ’s followers in Germany together to ponder on what it means to be Christians working towards unity through reconciliation, mutual understanding and living the communion which they share in faith. Secondly, it will be a special moment to consider what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic world. It is not lost to the organisers that interreligious dialogue in today’s world is not an “optional extra” in life. Thirdly, it will be a meeting to seek answers to existential questions through lively debates, open encounter and praying together. Thanks to the technological advancements of today, it has become possible to bridge the divide between peoples of different religions, cultures, languages and even geographical areas, making the challenges and the difficulties faced in one part of the world a concern of all. There are so many topics that attract our attention: family, children, justice and peace, security, adequate food and shelter for every person; in addition, such issues as environment and its vegetation and water, eradication of poverty and ignorance, preservation of the universe, etc. It is likely that the participants in the Kirchentag will discuss how different faith communities respond to these challenges and difficulties of life. This “festival of faith” will offer a special opportunity to pray together.
2. Praying together Thinking of this large gathering in Munich praying for the needs of our world, I cannot help but remember several occasions when believers in other parts of the world have come together to express in unity, as human beings, their dependence on the Creator and the Sustainer. The most memorable of these, at the global level, was the Assisi Day of Prayer for Peace in the World in 1986 and its sequel in 2000. In an ecumenical meeting, there is usually little or no difficulty in praying together. But in an interreligious context (that is involving not only Christians but people of other religions), there are sometimes questions: how far can the participants enter into a common prayer without jeopardizing their own faith? In endeavouring to pray together, do they leave themselves open to a kind of relativism and syncretism? Is it even possible for people of different religions to pray together? The Second Vatican Council Declaration Nostra aetate urges Christians to seek common ground for working together. It affirms the esteem which the Church has for the Jews because of the common “spiritual patrimony” and for Muslims who worship “one, subsistent, merciful and almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to man” (nos 3 & 4). In reaffirming Gaudium et spes (nos. 10,15 and 22), Pope John Paul II, in Redemptoris Missio (n.28) emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring “authentic prayers” beyond the visible confines of the Church and in offering everyone the possibility of sharing in the Paschal Mystery in the manner known to God. Those who do not encourage interreligious prayer (that is, praying together with people of different religions using a common formula) point to the following difficulties (Cf. Pro Dialogo 98): 1) It is not possible to borrow the formulations of other faiths because, to some extent, prayer is a confession of faith, an explicit “doxology”. Moreover, doctrinal agreement should be reached first before celebrating together. 2) It is not easy to reduce prayer to common denominator in order to accommodate every faith expression. This takes away the rich variety and the uniqueness of different religions. 3) Finally, there is the ambiguity of language and symbols used in the prayers of people of different religions which must be recognised. There is another way of being together in an interreligious environment: “multireligious prayer”. This means being in the presence of the other believers while praying, respectfully sharing in the spirit but not praying together. It is an exercise that must always to be conducted with prudence, being mindful of the human and spiritual maturity of the participants.
3. African Experience In many parts of Africa, people of different religions do pray together. It is noteworthy that dialogue among adherents of the three major religions in Africa (African Traditional Religion, Islam and Christianity) is something unique and, perhaps, not found in the rest of the world. This uniqueness is clearly seen with reference to the religions involved, the dialogue partners and the nature of interaction among them. African Traditional Religion (ATR), a coinage by African scholars, describes a religion which has been practised in Africa from time immemorial and which has a body of beliefs, moral code and way of adoration. So much has been written on the religion that it seems superfluous to describe it here. However, there are some key points relevant to our topic. For Africans, religion is a way of life, way of being, way of doing; it is not something one adheres to at a particular time and abandons at another moment. Like most other religions, ATR provides the basic religious affirmations of the existence of a Supreme Being, Spirits, etc. and how these interact with human beings. It explains the interconnectedness between the spiritual and physical worlds. It shapes the fundamental worldview of most Africans and provides “categories of thought” for interpreting the experiences of life. It deals with existential concerns: success, good health, children, etc. Why sickness? Why natural disasters? What are human beings expected to do if certain events occur in life? ATR explains these and offers solutions. Nothing happens by accident and, for every event, there is spiritual explanation and connection. The religion permeates every aspect of life and serves as a resource where answers to the problems of life can be found. It is this underpinning of ATR that makes it attractive even after the conversion of its adherents to other religions. Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, to a large extent, did not come as a conquering religion. In many parts of the region its introduction came in a friendly atmosphere of commerce and peaceful cohabitation between followers of ATR and Muslim visitors, one which lasted for decades. This long period of exchange between followers of ATR and Muslims made an alteration in the way Islam came to be practised in sub-Saharan Africa. It became an “inculturated” Islam, assuming some ATR practices. The alteration was so significant that it was said that the first Jihad of Othman dan Fodio in West Africa after his pilgrimage to Mecca was not directed against non-Muslims but indeed against fellow Muslims who practised “adulterated” Islam in Africa. In Mecca he discovered “pure” Islam different from what was then practised in Africa. Other factors that helped to “domesticate” Islam in Africa include collaboration among different Brotherhoods, mix of provenience of different Muslim groups and the depth of interaction between the Muslim visitors and the indigenous peoples they encountered. The result is that Africans have their own brand of Islam (tolerant, sometimes patronizing), in spite of the influence of the people of the Middle East. The Christianity that came to sub-Saharan Africa was already in its divided form. Africans south of the Sahara did not participate in most of the major theological debates that led to the division into churches and denominations as we have them today. Missionaries from different denominations in Europe came with ready-made “versions” of Christianity and they were competing to win converts. The approach to evangelization by different groups was not always the same. We find today that those that give hope and help to find solutions to the “existential” problems of the people attract more converts from ATR. Thus preachers of the “gospel of prosperity”, those that conduct healing services, pray for childless couples, for success in business and in politics, etc., have many followers. The more “intellectual” Church denominations have members who in the face of everyday difficulties are tempted to, and do sometimes, actually return (even if temporarily) to ATR. Drawing from the remarks above, it is to be noted that most of the partners in interreligious dialogue in Africa have common religious root. The terms and concepts, the divine appellations, the worldview that shapes the fundamental beliefs of most of these partners are all, to a large extent, influenced by ATR. This common heritage makes interreligious dialogue in Africa much easier than elsewhere. It provides the basic religious language and expressions for dialogue, including some forms of interreligious prayers.
4. Praying together in Africa People of different religions in Africa pray together quite often. There are many occasions for interreligious prayer: ritual of “breaking kolanut”; traditional naming ceremony of a new baby; traditional marriage; town celebrations; national events; funerals; and even before playing international soccer in far away countries! On such occasions of prayer, they invoke God’s name without specifically making reference to the Christian Triune God or Islamic Allah. Instead they take, sometimes unconsciously, the common understanding of the Supreme Being already furnished by ATR. It must be admitted that the danger of losing the specificity of each religion and the possibility of syncretism is always present. African theologians continue to work hard in the field of inculturation. The list of their publications is always growing longer.