Pilgrimage in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Faiths

Last night I participated in a panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas sponsored by the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning and the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center on the subject Pilgrimage: What Might Jews, Christians, and Muslims Learn From and With Each Other? I (as you might guess) spoke on the Christian perspective and my co-panelists were Rabbi Norman Cohen and Sheikh Odeh Muhawesh.

The evening was not only enjoyable, but I learned a great deal from my co-panelists. I was moved particularly by Sheikh Muhawesh’s descriptions of his Hadj experiences and by Rabbi Cohen’s discussion of the celebrations of Pesach, Shavout and Sukkot as metaphysical pilgrimages.

One of the questions we were asked to address was whether interfaith pilgrimages were appropriate and something to be encouraged.

As a general matter, I think we learn much, not only about each other, but about our own faith tradition when we engage in interfaith experiences with other persons. So I think there is value in all encounters with other religions. I also think that there is a particular value to interfaith pilgrimages.

I think we (perhaps instinctively) recognize a holy place when we see it, much as we recognize holiness in individuals when we see it – without regard to what religion it is. (I think in this context of the reaction of non-Buddhists to the Dalia Lama and non-Catholics to Pope John Paul II.) I was still a Buddhist the first time I walked in the steps of St. Francis outside Assisi – when I knelt at the place he slept and where he often meditated. I could feel the specialness of that place. I suspect I would feel the same at a holy place of other religions as well. I don’t remember the circumstance, but I was once with a group in NY that was invited by the rabbi to come up to the ark of a synagogue (Aron Kodesh) – the holy spot in the synagogue where the Torah is stored. Standing there was profoundly moving for me – even more so when the rabbi removed the Torah and opened it out on the table from which it is read.

I believe that if all people of different faiths do is talk to each other about their beliefs, it is all too easy to say “my idea is better than your idea.” And “my idea is better than yours” leads all to easily to a sense of “you are not me” and therefore are less worthy of my regard.

But if I kneel together with someone of another faith on ground that is holy to them and experience the holiness of that place with them, I can more easily see the person as brother or sister. When I touch that spot and recognize with them that this is holy ground, we become united in a way words alone do not unite us. That doesn’t negate the differences between my religion and the other’s. But those differences don’t separate us quite so much when we are united in a shared experience of the holy.

When I raised this point with my friend Joshua the night before last, his reaction was that interfaith pilgrimages might be worthwhile, but should not be a substitute for pilgrimages where the worship and shared reflection does not require the editing and self-censorship that interfaith activities often seem to demand.

I agree they should not be a substitute. But I do think sharing at the level of our prayer experience and more generally our experience of the holy, accomplishes something that talking about theological doctrine doesn’t do. And that what it potentially can do is very important.

It is also my intuition that the kind of sharing that would take place during an inter-faith pilgrimage, precisely because of our shared experience of the holy, might require less editing and self-censorship than interfaith activities otherwise might.