Keeping Pace With Identity
01 October 1990

Human history has consisted of a series of migrations; every culture is the result of confrontations between peoples. So cultural identity is something which is in need of constant enrichment.

In our world, no country, no people, no ethnic group can any longer live turned in on itself. Besides the increase in international links, most nations now contain within themselves multicultural and multiracial populations. Especially in the rich countries of the north, this is creating fears, conflicts, and a recurring racism.

I believe that these fears arise primarily from our false understanding of group identities. We think we have to hold on to what has always been ours - as if our identity were fixed and immobile, rather than in permanent evolution. But human history has consisted of a series of migrations; every culture is the result of confrontations between peoples. So cultural identity is something which is in need of constant enrichment.

Secondly, we have a false understanding of our individual identities. We believe that we have only one identity. But all of us have various origins: I am a human being, I am a man, I am French, I am Christian, I am Catholic. And all of us give priority to different aspects: I would say that I am Christian before I am French, I am a human being before I am a man and so on.

I am also limited. I cannot contain the whole human condition within myself. Even Christ did not do that. He was a man and not a woman: he was half of the human reality. So if we want to be fully human, we have to accept that we need to enrich ourselves through others; and in that perspective much mistrust and many fears can fall away.

The encounter between cultures inevitably perturbs us. Each of our societies has created a system for explaining the world which allows us to know who we are as individuals and what is the meaning of our existence. But not all societies conceive of the beginnings of the world or perceive God - when they do perceive God - in the same way. Different cultures have different understandings of the individual and of the collective. So when these communities and thought-systems meet, we become confused and afraid because we are in danger of losing our certainties.

Today most societies are in this situation. If you can be a human not only by being white and Catholic, but also by being black and Muslim, then what does it mean to be a human? If God spoke to the prophet Mohammed, as he spoke to the prophets in the Bible and as he was incarnated in Jesus, then who is God? Why all these different descriptions and different perceptions?

The only way to avoid being destroyed by this confrontation is to accept that I do not possess all the truth. That does not mean giving up what I believe to be the best; it does mean listening to what the other person can offer and letting it enrich my own perceptions.

Upsetting but enriching
In my view, the future of the world depends largely on the inter-faith dialogue. In all religions at the moment there is a rise in fundamentalism - in all branches of Christianity, in Islam, in Judaism, even in Hinduism and in Buddhism in certain countries. These fundamentalisms pour oil on the flames, because they appeal to the emotional and the transcendent and allow us to say that our `God' is on our side. But if the different religions enter into dialogue, instead of pouring oil on the flames they can pour balm on wounds. The inter-faith encounter is upsetting but enriching.

The richness of the Christian view of God, to my mind, is the understanding of the humanity of the God who lived as one of us, lost in the midst of our poverty and difficulties. As I have worked with young North Africans, the encounter with Islam has helped me to rediscover the immensity, absoluteness and 'otherness' of God, a sense which the Jews of old also had.

Meeting Tibetans I have found even more uncomfortable, as in theory Buddhism does not recognize a creator God. But in Tibetan monks I saw the perfect joy which inhabits a man of God. Their belief, however, is in the quality of compassion. So this encounter has helped me realize that the belief in compassion is common to all religions. And if you look at history, you see that Buddhism has rarely given rise to religious wars, whereas Christianity, sadly, has often done so.

Hinduism renews the understanding of rituals. I have been struck by the number of Europeans who have exchanged a loose attachment to Christianity for the religions of the East. And many who were unwilling to go to church once a week now join in daily rites before statues of Buddha. So I have at last understood that this awareness of the Oriental religions may perhaps help us Christians to find again the sense of the symbolic expression of faith.

The encounter of cultures, like all human encounters, does not happen without pain. A man and a woman become a permanent pair by making constant concessions. I believe that by making concessions, as well as by accepting that we will not always understand each other, our varied cultures and peoples can together make a better world.

Father Delorme, from France, is an organizer of CIMADE, an ecumenical humanitarian group.

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