Religion, like money and politics, is a topic that some believe should never be discussed in mixed company. People’s feelings about and commitment toward their own faith traditions – and possibly negative feelings toward people of other faiths – can lead to heated, divisive discussions. 

But for those whose life’s work is to explore what others believe, learning about a different religion can actually strengthen their own faith, as Bishop Richard J. Sklba can attest. 

“Well, one of the principles of interreligious or ecumenical dialogue is, ‘The more we understand clearly the convictions of other people, the more we understand our own faith,’” he said in an interview with MyFaith. “… Understanding differences can enhance my own convictions.”

Whether Hindu, Jewish, Catholic or Mormon, these seemingly different religions have a common thread that unites humanity. In fact, as Catholics, it’s our responsibility to examine this, according to Bishop Sklba. 

“In terms of Christianity – ecumenism – well, it is the obligation of every single Catholic, as noted in the Vatican II document on ecumenism, to work for the reconciliation of our churches, and there are about six or seven different areas in which we are all obliged to work on,” he explained about the various sects of Christianity such as Lutheranism and Evangelicalism. “How important? It’s a part of our faith. We were baptized into a church wounded by division; I was ordained into a church wounded by division. It is very important because the Lord said in John 17, that ‘all may be one, as the Father and I are one.’”

One way in which we can explore these ecumenical religions is to attend a gathering at a church of a religion other than our own to see how and why they worship as they do. (This is not in lieu of fulfilling our obligation to attend Sunday Mass, but in addition to it.) Afterward, try to strike up a conversation with the minister about certain aspects of their faith, and try to compare it with your Catholic faith.

Bishop Sklba described a similar experience he had in the 1990s when he met with Lutheran Bishop Peter Rogness of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

“‘It seems to me that in the Lutheran tradition, the community – parish congregation – coming together is an occasion for God’s grace. That’s the Lutheran tradition, and for the Catholic tradition, coming together – the congregation, the parish – is the instrument of God’s coming together, of God’s dealing with us with grace,’” Bishop Sklba said, repeating what he told Bishop Rogness as they ate a quiet breakfast together.

“(Bishop Rogness) looked at me and he said, ‘I think you’re right,’ which helped to reinforce our own convictions as to how God works and the role of the community,” he further explained. “Good dialogue that’s honest and respectful and careful to clarify differences or similarities helps us understand our own faith.”

Interreligions work ‘for the common good’ of the community

“In terms of the other religions, well, number one, the more we know correctly about each other, the more we can find how to work together for the common good of the communities in which we live,” Bishop Sklba explained about inter-religions such as Islam and Judaism. “So, it’s for common understanding to serve the larger community out of our religious convictions.”

While one might have a hard time relating to a person of a different faith, Dr. Irfan A. Omar, an associate professor of theology at Marquette University specializing in Islamic thought with a special focus on inter-religious connections between Islam and other religions, said there is much more that connects people than separates them.

“Certainly there is a lot that they can talk about, they can share, they can learn from each other,” Omar explained. “Prayer, fasting, penance for God, divine, sacred moments of history or even sacred people. There are so many commonalities even between Roman Catholics and Islamic traditions, so I think it’s not a question of differences. The scary part is how similar they are, as some scholars of Islam and Christianity point out.”

The teachings of the Quran and Hadith – the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad – revolve around two Arabic words: Emaan (faith) and Amaal (acts). Emaan is similar to the roots of a tree and Amaal are the stems or leaves. Just as without the roots, the tree cannot survive, similarly, without faith, the acts are useless. The teachings of the Quran emphasize the beliefs and provide an overview of the acts, whereas the Hadith explains both beliefs and acts in detail, according to information found on the Islamic Society of Milwaukee Web site.

The six articles of faith are the main doctrines of Islam. More than 1.5 billion Muslims share beliefs in God, angels, Scriptures, prophets, resurrection and the divine creed. While they do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, they hold him to high esteem as one of the many prophets God sent to teach them.

Same goals, different ways to achieve them

Bishop Sklba explained that although religions have common goals, they also have vastly different ways of attaining those goals. For example, what constitutes true happiness and holiness on earth is a question all religions attempt to answer.

“In Buddhism, any Buddhist finds ultimate happiness and holiness by denying all desires. Buddhism says the source of unhappiness is desire, so if you eliminate desire you will be happy and you will be holy,” the bishop explained. “Islam, because the very meaning of the word is submission, says you’re happy and holy if you are absolutely submitted to the will of God in everything. It is submission.

“Judaism and Christianity say it is about relationships: covenant and baptismal covenant with God and each other, so you are fundamentally and totally happy and holy when you are in good relationships. Those are very different rationales for all kinds of things, and they cast their own light on everything,” Bishop Sklba added.

Many of the world’s religions have similar practices, but do them for vastly different reasons, Bishop Sklba explained.

“As Christians or as Catholics, we fast out of solidarity with the poor, in order to experience what it means not to have food, or to liberate some of (our) own resources to give it to those in need,” he said.

“This is Ramadan,” he noted about the Islamic period that took place around the world Aug. 11 through Sept. 12. “Every religious tradition has exercised fasting. The Islamic community fasts from sunrise to sunset; no water, no food. Even professional basketball players, if they are devout, (take) no water, no food, until sunset. Well, what does that mean in Islam? What does that fasting mean?”

Judaism is oldest surviving religion

Judaism, which has nearly 13 million followers, is one of the oldest monotheistic religions, and the oldest to survive.

The central belief of Judaism is that there is only one God. According to the Islamic religious section published by the BBC in 2009, monotheism was uncommon at the time Judaism began, but according to Jewish tradition, God himself revealed it to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people. Beginning with Abraham, God has always taken special care of the Hebrews (who would later become known as the Jews). After rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses, and many more religious and ethical guidelines in the Torah, also known as “the Law.”

According to Dr. Richard Taylor, a professor of philosophy at Marquette University who specializes in religious studies, there are many religious practices that people can implement in their daily faith lives.

“One thing in Islam is daily prayers five times, and that’s not prescribed to Christians in the same way, but in Islam that is what they call the Five Pillars – or foundations – for Muslim life,” he explained. “That’s why we have to set aside places for Muslim workers, students and others, to have an opportunity to pray.

“Islam prescribes that it’s supposed to be five times a day, and that would be good if all Christians, Muslims and Jews could pray five times a day. It would give them a great deal of time to reflect on the nature of peace and find forgiveness, that sort of thing.”

There are many religious practices that people can learn to help their own faith life. Studying the Buddhist practice of meditation can help a person become more focused on prayer, or learning the Hindu practice of yoga to practice stretching and breathing – while meditating on the life of Jesus Christ, or that of the many saints – can help you become more in tune with your Catholic faith.

“What I learned from my teachers is that you follow one, and respect all,” Omar said about religions of the world. “You don’t have to agree with all religions or all religious peoples’ perspectives. Of course, that would be artificial; that’s not possible. But, it’s not about believing what they believe; it’s about respecting other people for their beliefs.

“As I’ve said, there are tons of numerous aspects that are shared between Christians and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists, so once you look at that treasure you realize that there is a commonality, but that also there is a difference in how people approach those disciplines,” he added. “So, the best formula is follow one – your own religion – but respect all.”