Traversing my local waters

​Interreligious dialogue is often perceived as the art of ”bridging gaps”. Metaphorically put, religions are like firm but isolated continents with pious populations. And though every continent belongs to the same planet, ocean deeps naturally separate the dry lands. Interreligious dialogue can be seen as the attempt to cross the unknown in search for meaningful interaction with people from ”afar”.

Bridging gaps is, indeed, what dialogue is all about. Yet, the idea of religions as solid and tight continents is a simplification. More often than not, the continents, in fact, are like island groups. A cluster of communities with a sense of unity, and yet there are internal waters to be traversed.

I recently spent a few weeks in Ethiopia. ”The land of the burned faces” on the East African coast offers much more than the famine and poverty that is regularly ascribed to the populous nation. Anyone travelling around the bumpy roads will be surprised by the extent of culture and history.

Bale is a mountainous province in the south-eastern part of the country. A beautiful region with fertile soil and rich animal life. Moreover, the area is home to a rural population that is predominantly Muslim (79%) though also quite a number of Christians lives here (20%). Not surprisingly, history proves cross-religious relations in Bale to be mixed, ranging from cordial to hostile.

Yet, I was surprised to witness the challenges present inside the religious confines. Intra-religious matters are a sensitive issue with serious implications on a personal level.

Solomon is 22 years old and takes care of the kitchen garden on the compound where I stayed. The young, talented horticulturist considers his work place as his new “home”, as his parents no longer welcome him. According to them, Solomon shamed them and the Orthodox Church when he decided to attend an evangelical congregation two years ago. A drastic consequence. What image of the Protestant Church informs a decision to cut family ties? To be fair, this problematic image – in a vice versa version of course – is held among many Protestants, too.

I’m sure that those frictions are not primarily a matter of dogmatic difference. The problematic images are interwoven into the Bale-society’s texture, because that’s actually the fundamental thing at stake here: different religious navigation systems holding different views on the past and the present.

Islam in Bale is no different in this regard. Islam was introduced in the province in the 12th century, and eventually the local Oromo population embraced it. Yet, the Oromos incorporated their own values and practices to the world religion. This merger with local tradition is highly challenged today as Islamists object to this “syncretism” and try to enforce a more formal Islam. Needless to say, this complicates relations among Muslims in Bale.

The religious continents are not solid. Bridging the shallow seas that separate me from those who are confessionally closest to me is highly needed. It would be easy to think that one would have to create “order in one’s home” before going outside. However, I don’t think that having resolved internal relations are a prerequisite for interreligious interaction. Rather, it may work the other way around. By learning from people of other faiths, I may see my own cluster of islands in a new light and learn how to traverse my local waters.

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