Fr. Stefano Penna
EDMONTON – Religion, rather than being a stumbling block to community building, is actually one of its essential foundations.
The Christianity and World Religions class explores these great traditions, with respect and reverence and accurate study of the phenomenon of religions.
This will be Father Stefano Penna's third time teaching the course at Newman Theological College. The weekly course is every Monday evening, from Jan. 9 until April 9, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
While students in the course will delve into the theology, history and rituals of major world religions, that is not the main focus. It is primarily an exploration of Christianity's encounter historically with the other religions of the world.
"The central issue in inter-religious dialogue for us is that we don't know our own faith," said Penna, vice president of college development and advancement at Newman. "Therefore, no true dialogue is really possible with other religions if we do not bring our own deep conviction of the truth."
Penna will bring in representatives of other world religions as guest speakers for the course. The course will explore Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, New Age religions and secularism.
"There's always an issue in getting to the truth of any situation, especially when you have to filter it through the various media," he said. "In this class, we will be respectful enough to allow each religion to tell us its story."
For more than two years Penna has been working with the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association, Catholic school boards and various schools in piloting the new World Religions curriculum.
His support of the program comes from the fact that when Catholic students hit Grade 12, they are sent out into the world as witnesses of the Lord. Since it's a world of many religions, Penna said it's appropriate for their spiritual formation to be equipped with an understanding of their own faith that allows them to interact with people of other faith traditions.
A myth in secular society is the notion that all religions are essentially the same.
"It does a disservice to what religious people of various faiths actually believe. G.K. Chesterton said that people assume all beliefs are essentially the same and it's only the rituals that are different, when in fact it is the beliefs that are profoundly different and the rituals that are basically the same," said Penna.
A second myth is the idea that religion is a private matter best left in the individual sphere and should be kept out of the community.
"That makes as much sense as telling someone in a neighbourhood organization that the big problems in communities are our families and inter-family dynamics," said Penna. "So when you come to the neighbourhood association, never talk about your families and don't act as though you belong to a family.
"It makes no sense at all, but that's what people tend to do."
There are increasing numbers of inter-religious marriages, and the parents must deal with tough questions from their children. Likely their children go to school with children of other faiths. Teachers must instruct students of various faiths.
Lack of information is a fundamental flaw in inter-religious dialogue. Inane conversations ensue when people latch onto trite similarities in religions and then assume that all religions are the same or, conversely, they are so different there must be an oppositional violence between the two.
"The key to meeting with people of other faiths is honest dialogue. For honest dialogue, you don't sit down with someone and start the conversation with, 'Who would you like me to be?'
"That's no basis for a real conversation. You have to know who you are, and who we are has been told to us by Christ."
With 1.7 billion Christians and 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, there will be no peace in the world unless there is peace between Muslims and Christians, said Penna.
"I tend to agree with Pope Benedict that what one is looking for is to develop a world religious ethic.
"Beliefs are always going to be incommensurable at times. Islam and Christianity are never going to agree on whom Jesus Christ truly is. But we do share a common respect for his ethical teachings - and that's a place where we begin."