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Different paths on journey

‘This is the story of my faith journey into dialogue and close friendship with people of other faiths and with atheists. My journey was full of serendipity and of the unexpected that happened to me.’  

By Dr Paul Tonson

The Bible has played a major part in my journey into dialogue. From infancy, I heard the Bible read by my Dad every night after dinner.

In my 20s I took up serious bible study at a theological college. My fascination with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) led eventually to completing a doctorate about stories in Genesis.

A powerful element of the Genesis stories about Abraham is the place of the Other around him, whether it is his wife Sarah, or Hagar or Lot or the Pharaoh or Abimelech of the Philistines. Abraham does not always come off very well.

Any scholar of the Hebrew Bible inevitably engages with Jews. Melbourne has a long established Council of Christians and Jews and regular educational and social events. I served for some time on the Executive.

After 9/11, Jews and Christians reached out to Muslims. I joined with Rabbi Keren Black of East Kew and with Muslim contacts to form Jews, Christians and Muslims in Australia (JCMA).

For some years, a panel of the three Abrahamic faiths made presentations to Year 10 student groups and answered questions. The demonstration of mutual respect and personal conviction made a powerful impact.

Around 2010, the mistreatment of Indian students in the northern suburbs led to a surprising development. The State Government asked JCMA to include Indian religions in its school presentation, but this was not to be.

However, under the auspices of the Victorian Council of Churches, I was engaged through a grant to initiate a similar school presentation including other faiths. Sikhs and Hindus joined in the program that ran for three years.

A bigger surprise occurred in the third year when a teacher in a state school at Caroline Springs welcomed the interfaith program offer but asked: “Could you include an atheist?” This request was a watershed moment.

By this time out of curiosity and a commitment to dialogue, I had been attending and addressing meetings of the Humanists, the Rationalists, the Existentialists and the Atheists.

These connections enabled me to gather a coalition of 10 people, representing five faith and five secular organisations, that became the management team of a program named ‘PathWays for Diversity Education Inc’. This program was the birth of a new phenomenon known as ‘interbelief’ cooperation, which ran for five years.

A most challenging thing occurred when an atheist friend of mine advised me that his group were taking up the cause of Bangladeshi bloggers, asylum seekers locked away in Broadmeadows Detention Centre.

Back home, colleagues of these bloggers who challenged the government were being killed by lawless thugs.

The action of these atheists immediately brought to mind the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew 25, where those who visited the imprisoned had no idea they were doing it as if for the Lord. Interbelief dialogue has illustrated the truth of the parable, that ethical living, altruism and justice are values not limited to religious worldviews.

Meanwhile, secular-minded people with a concern for the pastoral care of non-religious people in hospitals began to organise and seek recognition of their bona fides. Equally challenging were concerns about religious instruction in state schools and about public money supporting religious institutions.

It was gratifying to find that key secular leaders believe all school children should learn about the major religions and their place in Australian history and culture, alongside studies of the Enlightenment and evolutionary theory.

This story is not so much about me as about how we may respond to others in a society that is increasingly secular. It is an illustration of the theme of the next Uniting Church Assembly:

“We are called by God to weave Christ’s love into the world by building bridges and fostering communities that transcend social and cultural divides.”

Out of the privilege and enrichment of interbelief dialogue, and mindful of some of the issues that still hinder mutual understanding, I am sharing this story with a sense of responsibility to encourage broad dialogue and cooperation.

For this reason, the idea of staging a national interbelief symposium for dialogue is being explored.

This symposium will not be a formal organisational dialogue nor feature big-name speakers. It will be a time for mutual listening and exploring avenues for collaboration, much like some of us experienced in ecumenical conferences some decades ago.

The challenge of this enterprise, taken up by Jesus in his ministry, was set out centuries ago in Leviticus 19, with strong divine authority: v.18 – Love your neighbour as you love yourself: I am the Lord; as well as in v.34 – Love the stranger as you love yourself: I am the Lord.

This challenge is just as lively for us today. It is both more pressing and more possible.

Dr Paul Tonson is a former Uniting Church Minister within the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

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