Beyond tolerance: Faiths in coexistence

October-November is an important time for faiths. On October 15th Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, commemorating the willingness of Abraham/Ibrahim to obey God’s will even to sacrifice his son Isaac/Ismail. Today (November 3rd) Hindus commence the 5-day Diwali feast, celebrating the victory of light over darkness and the return of Lord Rama from 14 years exile. And Christians have just completed the triduum of All Saints/All Souls, beginning at Halloween (October 31st), the latter also a holy day for neo-pagan communities.  In this universe of faiths, can we find common ground?

A closer examination of this reveals not only common themes across religions but also considerable borrowing from each other.

Take, for example, the Christian feast we have just celebrated. Between October 31 and November 2nd we remember our beloved dead, our ancestors in faith – those recognised as saints by the Church (All Saints) and all who have gone before us (All Souls). Why we celebrate them at this time is rooted in the ancient past.

Pre-Christian religions of northern Europe celebrated October 31st as Samhain (pronounced: sah-whin), to mark the end of harvest and the onset of [northern] winter and to remember the dead. It was a time, they believed, when the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead lifted. It was a time to honour the dead, to welcome friendly spirits and ward off evil.  They did this through bonfires, leaving food on the roadside and wearing masks to confuse evil spirits.

With Europe’s conversion, the Church simply borrowed many of the practises and in effect baptised them. It became a time to remember the saints and honour the dead. A medieval practice – begging for food as ‘payment’ for praying for one’s departed – lifted from paganism their food offerings to the spirits and Christianised it. The modern Halloween practice of ‘trick or treating’ – children going around neighbourhoods asking for sweets – is a secularisation of this.

More recently, the resurgent new Pagan religions have re-appropriated Halloween in particular, restoring its pre-Christian origin in honouring their dead ancestors. Indeed for many neo-pagans Halloween is their highest holy day.

Borrowing, we can see from this, is a common feature of religion. What is also noticeable is how faiths share common themes. Eid in Islam is about faithfulness to God, the triumph of faith over self-will. Diwali celebrates light over darkness, goodness over evil. The Christian Halloween-All Saints/All Souls expresses faith in a similar triumph: that evil is vanquished by sanctity of life and that all who struggle for holiness many enjoy union with God.  Similarly it celebrates our closeness to our dearly departed, whether they are officially saints or not.

The idea that the veil between the worlds is thin and, at times, disappears should come as no surprise to Christians – or indeed to Muslims, Hindus and other faiths. Properly speaking we should see ourselves as Christians, who live in the communion of saints, as always celebrating Halloween. For health reasons, however, we should perhaps pass on daily ‘trick or treating’!

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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