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"Love one another as I have loved you": the place of friendship in interfaith dialogue.


Fifty years ago, the Catholic hierarchy gathered in an ecumenical council to reflect pastorally on how and where God is inviting the Catholic Church, as the world continues to reflect the religiously pluralistic realities brought about by migration and globalization. Unfortunately, the wind of change that blew over the Catholic Church globally during Vatican II has not always been reflected in the concrete encounters between the Catholic Church and other religions. The current religious tensions and negative polemics that have shaped interreligious relations in Nigeria have become a source of great scandal to all people of faith. An unhealthy desire to eradicate other religions through violence, intimidation, and aggressive apologetics has clouded the religious consciousness of many religious leaders in Nigeria. It is urgent to foster dialogue and to critique unfounded myths that deny religious freedom to those who are different.


The growing tensions among peoples of different religions that seem to have engulfed current civilization makes it an urgent project for all religions to begin to articulate ways of engagement that are not only faithful to their own religious traditions but that also recognize the legitimacy of other religions as gifts from God to the human family. The Nigerian situation is particularly telling, because the religious tensions between moderate Muslims and Christians on one hand and the radical Islamic sect, Boko Haram, on the other urgent calls for dialogical models that restore trust among the members of the different religions. Without denying the fact that these religious tensions may have more complex reasons behind them, the fact remains that authentic engagement can sometimes lead to fruitful results.

This essay results from the study of the dynamics operative among the people of Ihievbe in Edo State in Nigeria. The town of Ihievbe has approximately 9,000 residents, a significant majority of them Muslim.' The town is surrounded by predominantly Muslim communities in the Owan East Local Government Area. However, the history of the introduction of both Islam and Roman Catholicism to the town reflects the conscious effort of the residents to create an environment of respect, appreciation, and affirmation of each other's religions.

I. Highlights of Interreligious Living among the Ihievbe People of Nigeria

In May, 2011, the author administered a survey questionnaires to 100 persons each from the three religions (Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Ihievbe Traditional Religion) present in Ihievbe and also interviewed fifteen persons each from the same three religions, with the aim of trying to understand why in this part of the country there has never been any tension related to religious differences, while most other parts of the country that are religiously pluralistic constantly experience tensions and violence. (2) A noticeable majority of those surveyed and interviewed demonstrated a very mature sense of interreligious appreciation and affirmation of the different religions. Though very few respondents among the Muslims and Catholics reflected an exclusivist attitude in their responses, all 100 persons surveyed and the fifteen interviewed among the members of the Ihievbe Traditional Religion had very open minds and appreciation for the other religions in their community. Furthermore, certain cultural and pragmatic elements that foster healthy interreligious living were noted by the participants.

The policies adopted by early Muslim and Roman Catholic evangelizers in this part of the country created a sense of an inferiority complex in matters relating to the cultural and religious affiliations of the people. From the surveys and interviews conducted, one can see a rejection of this colonial narrative and an affirmation of their cultural and religious pasts. This healthy collective self-affirmation by the people has played a role in their attempt to restructure the religious space that accepts the relevance of the different religions without legitimizing negative apologetics that often lead to religious violence. This attitude of openness toward the religious other is fundamental in shaping and fostering harmony among people. Religious violence does not occur abruptly most often; rather, it originates from long- held religious animosity flamed by negative apologetics by religions against each other, thus leading to the denial of the authentic spiritual faithfulness and relevance of each religion and its members. For the Ihievbe people, by refusing a place for such negative apologetics to nurture hatred, the acceptance of different religions has become possible. As some of the participants in the interviews rightly stated, when one begins to describe the religious other as illegitimate, the consequences of such hatred can be unimaginable. The legitimacy of one's own religion is not affirmed by the denial of the legitimacy of another religion. At the heart of every religion is the human attempt to respond to God's inexhaustible revelatory encounter with human beings in their given epochal and cultural contexts. Such awareness must not be allowed to lead to false attitudes of definitiveness of the knowledge of God's relational encounter with humanity in general. Such an approach smacks of religious pride that cannot proceed from God but originates from the human ego that attempts to be a false image of God.

The greatest contradiction in the practice of religion is to deny the sacredness of human life even when there is a legitimate place for martyrdom. Unfortunately, many religious fanatics today promote the destruction of human life as a way of fulfilling their religion-political agenda. There can be no justification for such an approach. Those who promote negative religious apologetics at the expense of the religious other are as guilty as those who carry out acts of violence against members of other religions in their places of worship. In the Nigerian context, many Christian and Muslim leaders have embraced a belligerent attitude in their preaching, instigating hatred and violence against members of other religions. The need to stress harmony and respect for human life is of utmost importance today. Studying the responses of those interviewed among the Ihievbe people, the sense of sacredness of life and the need to preserve it holds sway. The members of the different religions stressed this point both from the perspective of the culture and from their different religions. To take human life is the highest form of sacrilege among the people, which has grave collective and individual consequences. For them, religious differences can never justify the need to see another person as less worthy of living. Religious differences are seen as a sign justifying the complex nature of God who defies human epistemological finality.

Ignorance of the religious other breeds contempt and justifies unfounded negative myths of the other's religious practices and beliefs. Unfortunately, neither Christians nor Muslims in Nigeria have a healthy knowledge of the respective religious practices and traditions of their religious neighbors. When there is the absence of fact, falsehood becomes truth. Perhaps in the Nigerian context the Ihievbe practice of engaging in interreligious meetings on a regular basis can help dispel such false claims against each other by Muslims and Christians. The average Ihievbe person has a healthy knowledge of the different religious claims and practices of their neighbors. Through their regular meetings, they have come to appreciate and affirm the legitimacy of each other's religion.

A final point worth stressing is the role of celebrating the faith traditions of the different religions in the community within the ritual worship of each religion. Without denying that there has been a great achievement in fostering respect among the different world religions--and even the practice of the Catholic Church in sending friendly greetings to different world religions during the celebration of their respective feasts---one can agree that much still needs to be done. What is needed is a concrete gesture of love and friendship among religions, as well as the recognition of the fact that all religions have at their heart the human aspiration to respond adequately to divine love and care for humanity. Also, there must be a place for recognition of the religious other in the worship of each religion. This practice will legitimize and concretize the intellectual gesture of openness to the other religions. Unfortunately, in Catholic eucharistic worship, the mention of the religious other is always aimed at their conversion and their acceptance of the messianic and salvific mission of Jesus Christ. This is epitomized in the intercessory prayers of the Good Friday liturgical celebration, wherein non-Catholics, non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics are prayed for with the aim that they may embrace the religious beliefs of the Catholic Church. (3) Such a liturgical attitude cannot be reconciled with the current dialogical engagement with other religions and other Christian churches.

In the Nigerian context, the different religions and Christian denominations should celebrate their religious neighbors who inhabit the same city, town, village, and neighborhood with them. This concrete act will help to eradicate all forms of religious bigotry and hatred that have held the nation captive. What I am advocating for here has great implications. First, it affirms the belief that collective humanity's religiosity is a gift from God and denies any legitimacy to unhealthy proselytizing. This practice will help the different religious communities to engage in mutual education and interactions to help dispel unfounded myths about each other and refocus the desire to proselytize the other. This does not deny a place for legitimate evangelization done with respect and appreciation of the legitimacy of the other religions, but it will reject the idea that evangelization of the religious other requires that her or his religion must be presented in negative terms. This approach will make conversion originate from the individual's rational and spiritual reflection on the present context in relation to her or his current religious affiliation and the other religion(s) involved.

Second, by affirming the presence of other religious traditions in the same community ministered to by one religion, there will be no justification for violence toward or hatred of the religious other.

Third, it makes interreligious dialogue part of every religion, and the fruits of such dialogues are celebrated as gifts from God who calls humanity to a union of relationship. Today, what seems to be the case is a dichotomy between dialogue and interreligious living. Though the different religions engage each other on both formal and informal levels, at the heart of each religion--its worship rituals-- is a noticeable absence of the fruits of such dialogues and interactions. Many Christian churches and Muslim communities in Nigeria worship as though they are the only legitimate religious tradition in the context that they inhabit. When the fruits of interreligious dialogue are not allowed to permeate all aspects of a religion, dialogue itself becomes futile and inauthentic.

Fourth, this recommendation warrants the need for all religions to reexamine their theological traditions, especially when those traditions have promoted a false sense of exclusivism or exclusivist inclusivism. Many religions, while recognizing the legitimacy of other religions, are not willing to recognize their claim to legitimacy except through their own theological speculations that grant legitimacy to the religious other only when the religious other does not differ from their own religious truths. This seems to be the weakness of the Catholic Church as epitomized in the direction followed by the curial document Dominus lesus, which refuses to accept the possibility that God can relate with humanity outside of the trinitarian economy as understood by the Catholic magisterial tradition. (4)

Ihievbe Traditional Religion recognizes religious pluralism as part of the many ways that God relates with humanity. As observed during my interactions with the people of this town, they do not find it contradictory to their own particular religious tradition to celebrate with their neighbors during their religious worship. Catholics participate in prayers organized by Muslims and Traditionalists. The same goes with the other religions. As one of those I interviewed rightly stated, by celebrating with his neighbors during their religious service, he is living fully the life of love that all religions teach their members to embrace. This is very correct, especially if one reflects deeply on the relationship Jesus had with Judaism during his earthly ministry. Even though he came to reveal another way of relating with God, he never at any point in his ministry annulled the legitimate claim of Judaism as a way of relating with God. He practiced Judaism faithfully to the end of his life. For Catholics and Christians in Nigeria, there must be an acceptance of the argument that belief in Christ does not negate the affirmation of the multiple and legitimate ways God has engaged and continues to engage humanity through other religions. A great sense of humility will be needed for Christians in general if this truth is to be embraced.

The word for friendship in the Ihievbe language is "Omomena," which also refers to an internal openness of the self toward the other and a sense of trust brought about by the process of establishing friendship among the persons involved. Furthermore, the word for a particular friend in the Ihievbe language is "Omomeiru." Though this word can be translated to mean "You are my friend," its meaning includes a sense of public declaration of the bond that exists between two persons or groups. (5) In the religious context, a concrete way of showing the constant love that exists among the different religions is to have an anamnetic awareness and appreciation of the other religions within the worship rituals of one's own religion.

Again, the word for friendship in Ihievbe entails a reciprocal, intimate knowledge of one another and a sense of trust shared by those involved in the bond of friendship. While friendship is interpersonal, the fruits of friendship can be shared by those related to the persons involved in the bond. Among the Ihievbe people, there is a sense of covenantal bond that is created when two persons become friends, so Omomeiru refers not only to the immediate persons who share the bond of friendship but also to those who are close to them. (6) In other words, friendship is not limited to two individuals but has a communal aspect as well. One cannot be an enemy of those close to one's friends. This point is vital if one is to understand the implications of establishing bonds of friendship as a tool for enacting interreligious dialogue. To establish a bond of friendship among peoples of different religions entails an extension of that bond to those each one regards as close to oneself.

II. Understanding the Dynamics of Interreligious Friendship Needed for Nigeria

In the Nigerian context, one can argue that the spirit of the Second Vatican Council has not yet taken root in the collective approach toward other religions by many members of the Catholic hierarchy in Nigeria. Many Catholic dioceses still have laws preventing marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics. This is still the practice among the dioceses under the Metropolitan See of the Archdiocese of Onitsha. In 1995, while working in a parish within this archdiocese, I tried unsuccessfully to address this issue when a woman was barred from communion due to the archdiocesan policy, because she and her husband allowed their daughter to be married to an Anglican.

While many Muslim and Christian leaders in Nigeria continue to advocate for an exclusive society reflecting only their own religions traditions, the ordinary people are faced with the realities of coexisting with members of other religions. This proximity of the religious other has led to concrete ways of engagement in these religiously pluralistic communities. Friendships among the followers of the different religions have developed and have been sustained by the openness of heart of the friends toward one another.

To appreciate the type of dialogical engagement needed today in Nigeria, Martin Buber's reflections on authentic relationality are worth exploring. Though he was neither a Christian nor a Muslim, his writings on relationality and the need for authenticity can serve as God's prophetic voice to both Muslims and Christians, who are challenged to take seriously divine freedom and the will of God to engage created humanity as God so chooses. Buber's exposition on relationality through his work I and Thou reminds his readers of the conditions for authentic relationality, in which the encounter transcends the biases perpetuated by consciousness; hence, in this type of relational encounter, everything is transformed. Memory is transformed and becomes an anamnetic witness to the dynamic engagement of God with created humanity. (7)

Buber revived Aristotle's discourse on mutual goodness as the ground for engaging in transformative friendship. For Aristotle, the goodness of friends was preserved in their constant intention to be open to one another and to demonstrate their love for one another, both in intentions and in concrete acts. (8) Buber agreed with this view and advocated for mutual authenticity and openness to one another as the possibility for engaging in transformative friendship. (9) Mutuality as a necessary condition for transformative friendship checkmates all attempts to present the self as the supreme partner in a relationship. The other is not the silent being made present by the self and robbed of her or his voice by the intriguing self who must manipulate the content of the encounter. Rather, the other always transcends any hermeneutic finality and is always full of possibilities.

In the religious context, the other is the face and voice of God present in different religious traditions that invite religious women and men to transformative encounters. The other is the prophetic voice that reveals new possibilities and gives us new insights as we engage our respective religious traditions. The other is also the transcending and yet immanent face of God that can never be summarized or synthesized into a systematic theological proposition. In fact, the clear sign of the end of the usefulness of a religious tradition or a theological school of thought is when that tradition or school begins to attempt to replace the divine with the image of its collective biases. In other words, when we stop encountering the divine as an invitation to new encounters and reflections on our religious traditions, such religious traditions stop being a manifest source of relational encounter with the divine. The divine ends up being replaced by the idol of the collective self.

Many indigenous religions in Nigeria show the possibility for transformative encounters. Among the Ihievbe people of Nigeria, ancestors are not simply custodians of traditions but serve as examples of how to live and construct relationships that affirm otherness. Divine alterity is an alterity of encounters. The entire existential realities of the people and cultures that have different forms of indigenous religions in Nigeria are saturated with the presence of the divine, who is both transcendental and immanent. Ancestors serve as concrete examples of what it means to be relational. Their propensity for goodness and faithfulness to the preservation of the cosmic order through ritual acts is a manifestation and reminder to the different communities on how to be relational. The communities' link to their respective ancestors reflects the concrete response to the invitation to live lives of engagement and authenticity. Thus, for example, an Ihievbe person cannot pretend to engage in transformative relational encounters when her or his actions distort the cosmic harmony. To treat the other with fairness and love is to preserve the cosmic harmony. Disharmony becomes a sign of broken relationships that must be ordered correctly through rituals and engagement with the divine.

If transformative dialogue is to be established among members of different religions, they need to make a determined effort to engage each other in the context of truthfulness and openness. Buber's contribution to relationality buttresses this point by arguing that relationality is not only an essential condition in human beings but also includes a conscious decision to engage with an attitudinal openness to the possibilities of the encounter. (10)

Buber reminds people of faith to take seriously the distinction between passive love for the other and the engaging love of the other within the context of dialogue. He wrote: "Dialogue is not to be identified with love. But love without dialogue, without real outgoing to the other, reaching to the other, and companying with the other, the love remaining with itself--this is called Lucifer" (11) This approach to dialogue is reminiscent of the Christian Scripture's call to take seriously the love of neighbor through concrete acts rather than an intellectual expression of love for the other (1 Jn. 4:17-18). This call to concretize one's love for the other shapes the philosophical description of what Buber calls "the basic movement of the life of dialogue." This basic movement involves the "turning toward the other." This is not simply a bodily movement but an "essential movement" that involves the entire beings of the persons involved in the encounter. (12)

Though notable and significant attempts have been made by many Christian churches to engage other religions in dialogue, the claim to ecclesial privilege in defining and interpreting the content of salvation and revelation in other religions and Christian churches by the Roman Catholic Church contradicts every aspect of dialogue. Without denying the role of the magisterium within the Catholic Church to define the meaning of salvation for its members, it is an overstepping and a failure to take seriously the freedom of God in determining how people of faith can engage the God of relationality. As stated above, the primal engagement with God by Israel and the constant urge in humans to engage the divine demonstrate the sense of the freedom of God in shaping and defining how God chooses to engage created humanity.

Furthermore, belief in a monotheistic God does not necessarily mean a limitation on the part of God. The focus is on God, who initiates the relational engagement and who calls humans to enter into bonds of friendship with God and with their fellow humans. Entering into this relational engagement involves total commitment and an essential openness, on both on the institutional and the interpersonal level. (13) To understand the path the Catholic Church should take in living faithfully to the teachings of Christ, a critical review of the ministry and identity of Christ is worth exploring. In other words, to understand how the Catholic Church and other Christian churches can essentially engage in transformative dialogical friendship with other religions, a broader hermeneutics on the ministry and identity of Christ will be explored.

III. Friendship and Christology

The entire ministry and mission of Jesus can be summarized as a call to and actual practice of friendship. (14) This claim is hinged on the account of the farewell discourse between Jesus and his disciples in John's Gospel. The salvific element in Christ's ministry as understood within Christian salvation history is not distorted by this hermeneutic approach to Christology; rather, the place of friendship in Christ's ministry helps to highlight divine love and care for fallen humanity. (15) Using Edward Schillebeeckx's argument, to understand the ministry and mission of Jesus, one must focus on the encounter and experience of Jesus by his first followers and the expression of their belief in his life, ministry, and message. (16)

If this propositional claim is correct, then the place of divine friendship as a legitimate description of Jesus' ministry is secured. The early followers of Jesus understood their experiences of the encounter with Jesus as an encounter with a savior who came to reorder their strained relationship with God. In other words, if Jesus is to be seen as God, his divinity is expressed as one of relational engagement. (17) This is an important point in John's Gospel; its literary structure seems to demonstrate this point. (18) John begins by professing the divinity of Jesus through a timeless faith history in which Jesus is put at the heart of the creating venture of the world by God. By doing this, John intends to demonstrate the point that Jesus' divinity is rooted in the divine act of God in the creation of the world, but the Gospel narrator does not stop there. The author intends to show the messianic identity of Jesus. The messiah will be the one who will right the dis-ordered relation between God and God's people. The prophetic witness of John the Baptist is employed to justify this identity of Jesus that the narrator is presenting to his audience. The author presents the whole ministry of John the Baptist as a prophetic witness to Jesus' identity and ministry. Just as in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets in Israel played a fundamental role in calling Israel to engage God through ordered relationships, especially when Israel was found wanting in living out the conditions of the covenant at Sinai. John the Baptist is presented in the Christian Scriptures as the new prophet who calls his listeners to embrace Jesus, who is God.

A. Jesus' Ministry as an Invitation to Love

John's Gospel begins by showing how God's love for Jesus is demonstrative of both Jesus' love for his followers and God's universal love for created humanity.

Because God loves Jesus, God has given him all that he has (Jn. 3:35). This understanding of love of the son by the father and the concretization of this love through the handing over of divinity to Jesus and the mission of the father, which is a mission of love, will be an enduring theme in the Gospel. By setting the stage for the plot of the events narrated here, Jesus' entire ministry can be said to be an expression of this divine love that exists between the father and the son. In turn, such love will be extended to Jesus' followers, serving as the basis for interpersonal and communal relationships among the early followers of Jesus. In faithful discipleship to Jesus, they gave each other all that they had and had received in their attempt to form and live in communities of love (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). In the Johannine tradition, by hanging communal love on divine love, the centrality of love is both the corrective measure to tensions in the community and is a concrete expression of true discipleship (1Jn. 3:11-24, 4:7-21).

Divine love for humanity, in the Johannine Gospel, can also be understood as divine care for humanity or divine hospitality. The author attempts to present divine love as a concretized expression of divine care, which, in turn, ought to be the type of care for the other that should exist among the followers of Jesus. (19) This point is not alien to the entire biblical tradition of God's relationship with Israel and people of faith. God's love for God's people is an expression of divine care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the slaves, the widows, and the voiceless. God engages those without power and becomes their power, their voice, their friend, and their protector.

The discourse with the Samaritan woman shows not only the grounds for believing in Jesus as the expected messiah but also a concretization of God's extending love to those considered to be at the margins of society (Jn. 4:3-42). The woman's identity is demonstrative of many negative perceptions that Jesus wants his audience to see as no longer relevant. She is both a woman and a Samaritan. Furthermore, she is considered to be of loose moral reputation. The time of the day in which she is at the well is typical of the time when the outcasts of society came to communal places to get the necessities of life. The loathing toward Samaria and its inhabitants by Israel goes back to the repopulation of the place by the king of Assyria during the post-exilic era (2 Kgs. 17:24). The repopulation of the place by non-Jews and the eventual intermarrying between the Jews and these foreign people who had been brought to Samaria by the king of Assyria is considered a stain to both the national and the religious purity of the Jews. Thus, a growing hatred of religious Samaritans by the so-called "pure" Jewish people who consider the Samaritans to be impure is the norm (2 Kgs. 17:32-41).

This historical mutual hatred is alluded to in the pericope on the Samaritan woman by the author of the Gospel. For a righteous Jew, there is to be no association with an idolatrous gentile or, worst of all, with an idolatrous person of Jewish heritage (Sir. 50:25-26). Jesus decides to transcend these negative labels and engage the woman in dialogue. The author of the Gospel intends to show that the ministry of Jesus and his style of engagement transcend traditional boundaries and biases. A new dawn is coming for the followers of Jesus, one that calls for total engagement with all people without regard for their previous identities. If these people whom Jewish tradition has presented as idolatrous are found worthy to be engaged by Jesus, then the path Jesus invites his followers to follow is definitely novel and goes against the Judaic theological and historical understanding of what it means to be faithful in the ways of the Lord their God.

B. Jesus' Ministry as Ministry in Friendship

In Jn. 15:12-17, Jesus engages his disciples and gives them his commandment, one that he has constantly told them to live out as a reflection of their relationship with him. Here, he instructs them to love one another. Without making love an abstract concept, he enjoins them to love just as he has loved them. His love for them is patterned on the revealed love that exists between his father and himself. If they say they are his followers, they must love just as he has loved. To understand how he has loved, they are to reflect on the way he has lived out his ministry.

Again, in Jn. 15:12-17, the narrator presents a radical approach to the God- human relationship. Jesus now calls his followers "friends" because of the openness in the relationship he has with them. All he has been given by his father he has revealed to his followers. There is no secrecy in his relationship with them, and there is no hierarchically based type of relationship between Jesus and them. This is a radical approach to the orthodox understanding of the divine-human relationship by the religious people of his time. Israel has always understood its relationship with God as intimate but never based on equality. God was understood as the creator, provider, sustainer, and protector of the chosen people. This hierarchical relationship was sealed on Sinai; an attempt to present a counter-understanding of this relationship was outside the boundaries of recognized orthodoxy.

In this context, one can begin to understand the radicalism in the statement of Jesus. To elevate his followers to the level of friends constitutes a fundamental approach his followers are to follow in their dealings with God, with each other, and with those outside their group. Furthermore, lest they misunderstand this as an effort on their part, Jesus reminds them that this elevation is possible because he has chosen them to be his friends. That Jesus chose them to be his friends does not equate to Christians' being called to an elevated status in relation to non- Christians; rather, it reveals the style of God's relational engagement with humanity. The focus should be on Jesus, not on his followers. That God in Christ has chosen his followers to be his friends and has instructed them to love others and themselves just as he has loved them reveals a new way of engaging God and a new way of understanding how God engages humanity. This understanding was to be the basis for structuring the eucharistic community among the early Christians, and, whenever this understanding was distorted by other ideologies, the followers of Jesus were reminded by his first followers of the teaching and practices of Jesus. In order words, Christian life was to be shaped and conditioned by the concrete examples of Jesus' earthly life.

Unfortunately, theologians and Christian leaders fall into the temptation of understanding the ministry and identity of Jesus not in itself but as an ancillary tool for justifying the relevance of their ecclesial agenda. Though Christology always originates from a faith community, the content of Christology itself transcends any particular faith community or church. This pericope (Jn. 15:11-17), when read with a bias for ecclesial significance, becomes a basis for a bias for missio ad extra, forgetting that the point is a reminder of the nature and significance of the ministry and identity of God in Christ. Understanding that Christ is the one who has called and chosen his followers to be his friends reflects a sense of divine freedom in deciding whom he engages. In Christian theology, the recognition of Jesus as the primal actor in divine engagement with humanity has not always been consistent. Ecclesial magisterium, especially within the Catholic Church, has not always been able to balance divine freedom in matters relating to salvation and the relevance of the Catholic Church. Both the structures of authority in the Catholic Church and the content of faith in Jesus Christ have been put on parity as necessary conditions for salvation, thus limiting the freedom of God to decide who is chosen as the friend of God.

A cultural bias for synthesis and order both in mental reasoning and in lived experiences has often led Christian theologians to deemphasize the possibility of complexities as a legitimate way of engaging the divine. This pericope legitimizes the possibility of God's being free to choose those worthy of divine friendship. The condition for such election is to love just as God has loved. The question then is how God has loved. God in Christ loves unconditionally, being open to ridicule by engaging those outside the community of the chosen: prostitutes, idolaters, the sick, the oppressed, and those whom convention has defined as abnormal. By engaging these people, Jesus shows that his followers should take his message seriously. They must love unconditionally, trusting that God who has called them to love that way is the one in charge of determining who is holy, who is sinful, and who belongs or does not belong.

IV. The Nature of Dialogue in Friendship in Islam

The emphasis on God's unity in Islam does not eradicate the viability of a tangible discourse on divine engagement with created humanity; rather, relationality finds meaning and expression in the engaging and yet transcending unity in God. Relationality among humans is conditioned by God's oneness. (20) Hence, division among humans or mistreatment of the other is a negative response to a life modeled on God. Furthermore, human relationality is not something external to human nature; rather, it is constitutive of the essence of every human person who bears in his or her nature the spark of the divine. In other words, to be made in the likeness of God is to live a life of relational engagement (Qur'an 2:152 and 186; 50:15).

To understand the relevance of relational engagement in Islam, one must understand the nature of the relationship between the self and the absolute otherness of God. Islam does not glorify the self as though it is a self-sufficient being; rather, the self is always to be understood as an engaging self that bears within oneself the mark of relationality. The self shares this uniqueness with other persons who set the boundaries of identity within the context of engagement. (21) Thus, the very notion of self derives its meaning from relationality. In other words, without the presence of God in the self, the self will be isolated. The possibility for engagement is a gift that proceeds from God's creative power and intention. There is a strong emphasis on God's role in shaping the collective and individual destinies of humans, which plays itself out in relationality.

Islam affirms both the inability to exhaust knowledge of the divine and of the alterity of the other in the encounter by the self through submission to the will of God and the journey with the other in the desire to live out God's will. (22) Knowledge of the other is always limited and never static. Even the knowledge of the self is conditioned by the relational engagement and is open to continuous revelation and surprises.

Relationality and justice are intricately linked, since all engagement with the other, however different the other may be, points and leads to the unity of God. Being conscious of this unity in God, one is obligated to treat the other with fairness and justice; not to do so is to deny the sacredness of God found in the entire created order (Qur'an 2:115). Even in the context of religious diversities, such diversities find their meaning and expressions in the unity of God. As noted by Rusmir Mahmut6ehaji4, in Islam "[d]ifference is from God." (23) Difference is the necessary condition for relational engagement. By affirming difference, a devout Muslim attests to God's transcendental nature. However, though God is different, God engages creation through God's revealed names. These names invite creation to engage God by engaging all that is within the created order.

All differences in the created order are reconciled in God's transcendental unity. By proclaiming this fact, the Qur'an reveals to Muslims God's divine privilege to be the sole judge of all creation (Qur'an 10:109). This is the ground for tolerance in Islam. Though the other may be different, the morality of his or her actions will be affirmed or condemned by the all-knowing God, who has reserved the power to make holy the actions of all humanity. Though revelation of how to submit to God has been given to humanity through the Prophet Muhammad, the final arbiter of deciding faithfulness to divine will is the prerogative of God alone (Qur'an 16:125).

In the context of religious pluralism, part of the Sufi theological approach is to affirm the uniqueness of God's revelation. (24) Revelation is never predictable, nor is it reserved only to one religion. The life of submission to God's will is a revelation found in many religions. The only conditions for judging the validity of a religion are the religion's affirmation of the transcendental nature of God and the inability on the part of humans to exhaust the content of God's revelation. This approach to religious pluralism and a pragmatic approach to engaging people of different religions seem to have shaped the Muslim sense of tolerance in the history of their engagement with Christians, Jews, and other religions in societies under Islamic rule during the Middle Ages.

It is possible to engage in interreligious friendship, and there are concrete examples of such healthy friendships in the history of Islam. Extensive research has been done among the different religious traditions inhabiting Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus, and the statistics show a vibrant interreligious engagement between Christians and Muslims that is rooted in friendship. As noted by Chad Emmett, these interreligious friendships transcend religious affiliations or biases. (25) By engaging in friendship, Muslims and Christians in Nazareth have been able to have a healthy perspective on each religion's historical mistakes and polemics toward one another. (26) This openness to each other, without respect for religious affiliation, is reflected also in the interreligious engagement of the people of Ihievbe, Nigeria. The desire to engage the other is a natural human desire that ought to be encouraged.

For the Muslims in Ihievbe, engaging the religious other is part of what it means to be a Muslim. During religious feasts people exchange gifts and congratulate each other. Visitors are received, and prayers are shared without regard for the religious affiliations of hosts and guests. There is a strong belief that their collective faith in God is one, despite the way it is expressed in the different religions. Emmett's description of a similar practice of interreligious engagement in Nazareth justifies the argument for the possibility of using friendship as a constructive way of engaging in dialogue among the different religions in Nigeria. If it is possible in Ihievbe, in Nazareth, in Spain during the Middle Ages--it is definitely possible anywhere in the world.

In the history of Muslim relations with non-Muslims, there have been very positive conciliatory engagements emanating from trust and respect of the creedal beliefs of the respective religions. An example is the relation that existed between the Prophet Muhammad and the Negus (king) of Ethiopia. As noted by Clinton Bennett, the Prophet saw in the ruler of Ethiopia a friend worthy of trust. He sent his Muslim followers who were fleeing persecution from Mecca to Ethiopia. The Christian ruler of Ethiopia willingly gave protection to the Muslims, whom he regarded as brothers and sisters because of their expressed Islamic faith. In response to this hospitality shown toward Muslims, Muhammad instructed his followers to respect the neutrality of Ethiopia during the Islamic conquest of lands and peoples beginning from Arabia. (27)

The treaty between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jewish community of Medina justified the basis for religious tolerance during the early beginnings of Islam. In this treaty, the Prophet recognized the right of the Jewish community to practice their faith without the implicit expectation on their part to convert to Islam. (28) Such a pragmatic approach by Muhammad continued to be employed by many of his successors, who saw the religious other as a significant partner in society. Even the practice of taxation of non-Muslims living in Muslim territories prior to the era of nation-states must not be seen simply as a way for Muslims to subjugate the religious other; rather, these were pragmatic ways of engaging religious beliefs in calling non-Muslims to submit to God. For many of the Muslim rulers, including the Ottoman rulers, the payment of such taxes demonstrated submission to God by the taxpayers. In return, the Muslim rulers recognized the rights of these non- Muslims to practice their faith undisturbed. (29) Christianity and Judaism flourished in many Muslim territories because of this pragmatic approach.

V. The Way Forward for Intterligious Dialogue in Nigeria

If Interreligious dialogue is to bear fruit in Nigeria and in other parts of the world, Christians and Muslims must be willing to engage their religious texts with an open mind, trusting in God to guide them to newer interpretations. The relevance of the word of God is based on the ability of the encountered text to lead the community to new insights that help to preserve and continue the life of the community.

Christian triumphalism is a threat to religious peace in the world in general and in Nigeria in particular. Much of the religious violence in Nigeria is motivated by the insensitive strategies employed by many Christian leaders who believe that they have a moral duty to make everyone they encounter Christians. For them, God cannot engage the non-Christian other without the intent to convert them to Christianity. Such reasoning seems to have clouded the Christian theological approach to mission and ministry. Even the Christian understanding of friendship has mostly been seen as a means of converting the non-Christian. For Augustine, Christian friendship was understood as a means to an end--a call to live out fully the Christian identity in Christ and in the Christian community. Ecclesial unity seems to be a major part of Augustine's reasoning on friendship. Even the view that the source of Christian friendship is God is understood not in the context of God's freedom to choose whom God engages but, rather, in the context of God's freedom to call all to Christian unity. (30) This approach logically ends up making the church the center of the argument. It becomes the community of Christian friends who love each other and God. Unfortunately, any engagement with non-Christians is understood as an attempt to invite them to participate in the life of the church, rather than being friends with them. God's example is that anyone can become the friend of God without necessarily becoming a Christian.

By placing the church at the center of engagement with non-Christians, it is not surprising, then, to find a theological determination to show the need to engage in mission with the aim to convert. Without denying the mission dimension of faith in Jesus Christ and by constantly reminding ourselves that the focus and emphasis is in God alone, the style of evangelization will definitely be different from how it has played itself out in the history of Christian missionary engagement.

The above christological reflection can help encourage Christians to engage in a radical interreligious encounter. Obstacles to authentic dialogue hinge on the view that dialogue must preserve the creedal truths of the Christian faith. For the Catholic Church, such claims that it has the authority to define the salvific truths, if any, that are present in other religions has no legitimate grounds if divine freedom is to be taken seriously. One does not deny the fact that the Catholic Church and non- Christian religions have the authority to define themselves, but to go beyond this and postulate the argument that one's religion has the authority to define what is true and authentic in another religion is a claim that is not realistic but simply perspectival. It is relevant for the Catholic Church's magisterium, either in national churches or universally, to take seriously how Christian history has helped to shape their theology and doctrine. Such radical claims to universality of truth and plenal relation to God can be claimed by any religion. However, for Christianity, it is important to take seriously the shift to exclusivism and triumphalism as contingent on a psychological strategy for survival amid assault either from within or from without. The doctrinal claims to exclusive election by many of the Christian churches during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era must be understood from a psychological point of view as attempts to preserve relevance and order. To forget how Christian doctrinal claims arose historically can sometimes lead to attitudes of intolerance and violence.

In friendship, as noted above in the philosophical discourse of Buber, people begin to appreciate one another not as objects of manipulation but as persons with dignity. Their religious beliefs cannot be compartmentalized without denying them the total freedom of self-expression. It is in this right to express oneself in the context of faith communities and as persons of faith that we see the need to reevaluate religious claims, especially when such claims deny the other the right to religious expression or the right to practice one's faith without fear of its content's being categorically declared substandard by another group of people belonging to a different religious tradition.

Though Islam, just as many other religions, has scriptural foundations for tolerance, respect for the religious other, and ways to engage in healthy interreligious dialogue, the historical accounts of engagement with other religions have not always reflected the ideals of Islam. Many tribes and cultures in Nigeria have not always had a positive memory relating to their encounters with Islamic evangelizers. There has not always been a reasonable attempt to disengage the religious from the political by many Muslim leaders, which has resulted in exploitation and marginalization of those who do not share the Islamic faith. If dialogue or engagement with people of other faiths is to be productive, Muslim leaders in Nigeria must demonstrate that they can be trusted. In fact, all religious leaders of every faith tradition in Nigeria must enter into dialogue with each other with the spirit of openness and trust, believing that God is the preserver of each of their faiths and commands them to engage with one another. Islamic belief in total trust in God must be reflected in how Muslims engage the religious other. It is always a dangerous venture for one to play the role of God, thinking that God needs one to make the world reflect certain values. The responsibility of all people of faith is simply to affirm, respect, and preserve divine peace, which God has given to the divine creation. A clear sign of failure on the part of people of faith is to pretend that they can engage God by ignoring the human other, (31) thereby denying the gift of creation that demonstrates God's eternal love of peace.

Islam, like any other religion, stands the risk of being regarded as illegitimate if no concrete step is taken by Muslim leaders and the general Muslim population to engage the hardcore fundamentalist members of their faith and construct a dialogical model that affirms the right to live in peace and to respect other religious traditions. The relevance of a religion is not simply in the truths proclaimed by the religion but also in the willingness of the hearers of those truths to accept the religion as a relevant part of their hermeneutics on life. Should a people decide to reject a religion, because of the harm followers of the religion have brought on them, that religion risks being irrelevant. Muslims in Nigeria must reflect deeper on the riches of their tradition and their sacred texts and reject the negative impressions being constructed on their behalf by the fundamentalist minorities in their midst.

Though the media may want to present Islamic fundamentalism as the obstacle to interreligious living in religiously pluralistic societies, Christian fundamentalism is just as dangerous. In Nigeria, Christian fundamentalism is fast becoming an obstacle to healthy interreligious engagement. The puritanistic mentality of many fundamentalist Christians threatens the fragile peace birthed by many religious women and men who are beginning to reflect deeper on the right to religious freedom and harmony. Many Western preachers who have not experienced the dynamics of living in religiously pluralistic societies are invited to Christian fundamentalist crusades in Nigeria--sometimes in the heart of Islamic societies. They come with an intolerant approach to the non-Christian other without any sense of the origins of the Christian religion and preach conversion to their style of Christianity by talking down the religious beliefs of the other. By calling attention to friendship in the context of interreligious engagement, especially when this model is rooted in the collective heritage of Christians from Christ and some of the apostolic communities of early Christianity, the possibility of a determination to live as true Christians who abhor interreligious violence and embrace peace and love for the religious other can be legitimized.

In friendship, people learn to accept the other as one who is worthy of respect and affirmation. If Christians had made a determined effort to engage other religions from a positive standpoint, the old polemics against non-Christian religions and the triumphalistic religious claims that originate from such biases would not have had the prominence they have held in recent history. It is never too late to change the tide of events. If interreligious engagement is taken seriously by Christians today, both in Nigeria and in other parts of the world, the future of Christianity and of other religions will definitely be healthy and relevant in shaping the future of the unfolding world that is fast becoming both culturally and religiously pluralistic.

The challenge to all religions in Nigeria is to engage each other with the intention of constructing societies of religious tolerance. If the religiously pluralistic people of Ihievbe are able to understand their religious identities in relation to the religious other, then the country as a whole ought to study and appropriate the dynamic engagement present in that place. Conversions to the different religions occur regularly among the people of Ihievbe, making unfounded the fear of many Christians and Muslims that interreligious engagement may lead to a lapse in religious vigor. Both Islam and Christianity affirm the role of God as the preserver and sustainer of their respective religions. Such a claim ought to be taken seriously by all religions in Nigeria. The religious duty of Muslims and Christians ought to be shaped by the responsibility to engage with other religions, believing fundamentally that such is the will and desire of God and/or their founders. For Christians, Christ's example of openness and willingness to challenge those old assumptions against the marginalized people of his era is a reminder for them to adopt a healthier approach of engagement. For Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace, and faithfulness to a God of peace means taking seriously the task of fostering peace among peoples and cultures.

In the Nigerian society, an objective approach to textual criticism by the "people of the book" is needed today to understand the validity of their religions. On the part of Christians, the recognition of the gift to them of the sacred texts in Judaism justifies a humble approach to the religious other and the need to recognize the fact that the religious other can be a valid interlocutor for the divine. For Muslims, the fact that the Qur'an criticizes certain practices of Christians and Jews must not be understood as a total negation of the valid claim to engaging the divine in their respective traditions (Qur'an 5:68). (32) That the Prophet Muhammad had to affirm and relate with Jews and Christians during his life justifies the expectation for Muslims to see religious others as legitimate friends.


All religions must be self-critical. In the words of John Azumah, "critical faithfulness involves being faithful to one's religion while at the same time being willing to evaluate and critique the shortcomings of one's religious tradition in its historical context." (33) To speak the truth to one's religion demonstrates an acknowledgement of the primary role of God as the center of the religion. In Nigeria, Muslims are reluctant to be self-critical, and any attempt to engage in a critical dialogue is frowned upon as being disrespectful of the religion. Such an approach is unhealthy. Mistakes have been made in the past; to prevent their repetition in the future, concrete steps must be taken to engage their religious history and challenge those aspects that betray the revelation given to the Prophet. Dialogue in friendship can help in this project.

God's people are not limited to one religion. All of humanity is a gift from God--a truth affirmed by many religions. This should be the basis for interreligious friendship. By engaging in friendship and dialogue, religious people in Nigeria demonstrate their sense of appreciation of one another. Even when political alliances fail, interreligious friendship ought to endure, because it is founded on the fundamental religious truths that God created all humans and has mandated all people to nurture, sustain, affirm, appreciate, and preserve the gift of peace.

When all else fails, Nigerians ought to affirm their cultural values that cherish peace and social harmony. To shed blood and to kill innocent persons because they adhere to a different religion contradict the cultural value of life in the cultures that make up the nation.

(1) As of 2011, the census information of 2006 was not yet available. See National Population Commission, "Population and Housing Tables: Edo State Priority Tables," 1991, Population and Housing Census of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

(2) Approval for this research was sought from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. The researcher sought an expedited IRB approval. As part of this request, the researcher had to take a research course and examination under the Human Subject Research Training Certification Program. The course, Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) Training Program administered by Duquesne University was completed by the researcher in March, 2011. The IRB approval was granted on May 16, 2011, valid until May 16, 2012, under 45CFR46.101 and 46.111 on an expedited basis under 45CFR46.110. The protocol number for this IRB approval is Protocol # l1-61. Letters introducing the researcher were sent to the respective heads of the religious communities present in Ihievbe on May 17, 2011. These include the pastor of the Catholic community, the chief imam of the Muslim community, and the high priest of Ihievbe Traditional Religion. In the letters, the researcher was introduced, and his intention was declared; these leaders were asked to provide the names of the adult members of their communities. The letters were approved by the IRB on May 16, 2011. The researcher chose the participants from the list randomly to preserve the anonymity of the participants. Every participant in either the surveys or the interviews was given a consent form, which was also approved by the IRB on May 16, 2011. In order to maintain the confidentiality of those interviewed, references from the forty- five persons interviewed are cited numerically below as Ihievbe Historical Source (I.H.S.).

(3) See General Intercessions, nos. V, VI, VII, and VIII of the Good Friday Liturgy in The Sacramentary (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 153-154.

(4) See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus lesus ("On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church") (August 6, 2000), no. 14', available at oc_20000806_d ominus-iesus_en.html.

(5) I.H.S. #-2.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 11

(8) Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. J. A. K. Thomson (London: Penguin Books, 1955), p. 205.

(9) Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, tr. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1965), p. 22.

(10) Ibid., p. 19.

(11) Ibid., p. 21.

(12) Buber, Between Man and Man, p. 22.

(13) See Catherine Cornille, The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (New York: Crossroad PuNishing Co., 2008), p. 3.

(14) See Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, "'Speak, "Friend," and Enter': Friendship and Theological Method," in Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, eds., God's Life m Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 35.

(15) See Sharon H. Ringe, Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), pp. 67-68.

(16) See Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, tr. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1980), p. 19.

(17) See E. D. H. (Liz) Carmichael, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love (London: T&T Clark, 2004), p. 164.

(18) See Luke Timothy Johnson, "Making Connections: The Material Expression of Friendship in the New Testament," Interpretation 58 (April, 2004): 158-171

(19) See Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 336.

(20) See Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, On the Other: A Muslim View, tr. Desmond Maurer, Abrahamic Dialogues Series (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), p. 9.

(21) See ibid., pp. 4-5.

(22) See ibid., pp. 5-6.

(23) Ibid., p. 11.

(24) See William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 103.

(25) See Chad F. Emmett, Beyond the Basilica: Christians and Muslims in Nazareth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 231.

(26) See ibid., pp. 225-283.

(27) See Clinton Bennett, Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations: Past and Present (London: Continuum, 2008), pp. 141-142.

(28) See ibid., pp. 143-144.

(29) See ibid., p. 144.

(30) See Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 208-209; Peter [Robert Lamont] Brown, The Body and Society: Men. Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 398.

(31) See Hans Kung, "Christianity and World Religions: Dialogue with Islam," in Leonard Swidler, ed., Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), p. 194.

(32) See Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Other in the Light of the One: The Universality of the Qur'an and Interfaith Dialogue (Cambridge, U.K.: The Islamic Texts Society, 2006), p. 239.

(33) John Alembillah Azumah, The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa: A Quest for Inter-Religious Dialogue (Oxford, U.K.: One World, 2001), pp. 179-180.

SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai (Roman Catholic) is currently an adjunct professor in theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, having received his Ph.D. in theology from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, in 2013. He has an MA. in Theology from St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, CA, and an undergraduate diploma from Spiritan School of Philosophy, Isienu-Nsukka, Nigeria. He was vice rector and taught junior and senior high students at the Holy Ghost Juniorate in Ihiala, Nigeria, 1997-98; and was a teaching assistant at Duquesne University, 2008-09. He also was a chaplain, pastoral associate, and theologian-in-residence for a Catholic medical center and parishes in California during 2004-07. He has published articles in the International Journal of African Catholicism, J.E.S. (2010), and Black Catholic Theological Symposium Journal, as well as in forthcoming edited books. He has presented papers and/or chaired a panel at meetings of the American Academy of Religion (2008- 09), the African Studies Association (2008, 2010-11), the College Theology Society (2009-13), the Catholic Theological Society of America (2012-13), the Society of Christian Ethics (2012); and at the Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa, in Kenya, August, 2013. He has participated in Muslim-Christian-Traditional Religion Dialogue in Nigeria since 2008, and has been a member of the Administrative Team of the Black Catholic Theological Consultation at the CTSA since 2010. In 2013, he was named an associate editor of the International Journal of African Catholicism.
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Author:Aihiokhai, SimonMary Asese
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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