22 February 2017 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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Ignatian Conversations: Fr Herman Roborgh


The Parliament of the World's Religions will bring religious people from around the globe to Melbourne from 3 - 9 December.


Australian Jesuit Fr Herman Roborgh lived in Pakistan for eight years, before completing a PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University in India. Now living in Sydney, he has recently conducted retreats bringing together Christians and Muslims, as well as retreats encouraging Christians to delve more deeply into the Koran.


Province Express editor Michael McVeigh spoke with Fr Roborgh ahead of the Parliament.


Q: You'll be there in Melbourne as a participant at the Parliament of World's Religions, and you've been involved in various interfaith activities in Australia and in your time in Pakistan. When people from different religions come together for interfaith dialogue, what are some of the questions that are raised and issues that are discussed?


It depends on what religions you are talking about, because religions are very different. For example the question of God wouldn't be terribly interesting to Buddhists. They wouldn't discuss that, but for us it would be the main question. With Muslims, of course, immediately you could have these sorts of discussions and you would get into areas that we both share.


I think though, with all religions, the modern issues facing the planet will be something that we can talk about. For example, the ecology, environment, pollution, care for the planet, climate change. Then there'll be questions of social justice, care for refugees and asylum seekers, migrants and people on the margins - how do religions relate to these people, what can religions offer these people. I think they will be things that will bring us together rather immediately and easily.


But as for theological issues, I think it really differs from religion to religion.


Q: You will be meeting with a number of Islamic scholars at the Parliament. What are the sorts of things you'll be talking about?


First of all, it's not immediately easy to get into deep discussions with people you don't know very well. So I think there'll be some kind of ice-breaking, or some way of getting into a relationship with people, winning their trust and getting to know them. I suppose that's a big challenge in a short time.


Part of the time is taken up asking various questions and seeing how people respond to the questions, which would indicate if we can go further. So much of what we call dialogue is really just exchanging information, or even worse, it's just telling the other person something about your faith but not really asking the other person about theirs, not really learning from the other person.


So I think the challenge is really to create an environment, or situation, where we can really be listening and wanting to learn something from the other person. Not to be reaffirmed in our own established opinions and assumptions, but to have them re-evaluated.


Q: You're talking about getting to that deeper level of conversation, where you're listening to others and seeing how their ideas inform your own faith. You've recently been running retreats involving Christians and Muslims coming together in reflection. How do you go about creating a space for people of different religions to go into that deeper level of dialogue?


In retreats it's a different environment. Outside that special environment, you need to make frequent visits and sit with people and have tea with them and just relate with them on a human level. That's how you can find or recognise opportunities where people can go deeper. You've got to visit people in their houses, that's what I do. Go to their places, their centres, places where they have talks and so forth.


In a retreat situation, we sit and we do awareness exercises for some time - becoming aware of ourselves, becoming aware of the environment, becoming aware of the people sitting around us. Just sitting in silence for some time, trying to be aware of one another. That has created an atmosphere where people can be more listening, and perhaps more trusting.


Q: So what advice would you have for people going into the Parliament of the World's Religions to get into that sort of dialogue?


To go with an open mind, to go trying to learn something. To really listen, and listen again, and then to ask questions about points that are not clear. Not to go in with big questions that have been prepared beforehand, but to let the questions emerge as one listens to another person. To become aware of little questions that one has, and to have the courage to ask them, even if they may seem insignificant.


I think also one needs to have respect for other religions, for the way people express themselves religiously, for the symbols and the language and the postures that people use to express religious sentiments. I think we need great respect for that. We don't necessarily need to be able to participate in everything, but to just have respect and to recognize that people do things very differently to us sometimes. And that they can have just as profound a religious experience as we can.


Q: Could you tell us some more about the different retreats you have been running through the Centres of Ignatian Spirituality?


There's one kind where there are both Muslims and Christians participating. We usually have an equal number of Muslims and Christians in one group. That creates a certain dynamic, where you can hear directly from the way Muslims are responding to our Bible, and Muslims can hear directly how Christians are responding to Koranic verses, which we meditate on or pray about beforehand. So there's a directness of response, and a freshness of response which we can hear from persons of the other religions. Which is remarkable, surprising and very encouraging.


The other kind is the retreats where there are only Christians, or people of a Christian background. There we still have the Koranic verses, and we look for links between the Koranic verses and the Bible verses. It's amazing what people come up with, and what people do find, and how Christians can enlarge their understanding of the Bible and New Testament by reading the Koran. Because the Koran can bring out certain aspects of a Bible theme in a new way for Christians. I've experience that in these retreats. Christians see their own scriptures in a new light, and have been encouraged and affirmed and have a fresh approach to their own Scriptures.


Q: What are some of the insights that people have received in reading the Koran?


One would be the majesty and the ever-presence of God. The all-present God and the all-sustaining God come across so strongly in the Koran. People discover that this is also the way that Jesus tried to talk about God. He may have used different language, different images... and therefore it remains a different experience... but enriching, I think. If you read the experience of God that comes through from the Koran, it enriches our understanding of God as we read the New Testament.


Another insight would be the whole question of forgiveness and reconciliation, which is very strong in the Bible. But also when we read the Koran we find a very similar theme there, and put quite clearly. Another one would be the idea of being servants of one another. Being servants of one another comes through very strongly in our Scriptures, but it's remarkable how that is also strong in the Koran. Not only being servants of God, but being servants of one another.


Q: How did you come up with the idea of bringing people from Christian and Muslim communities together to pray?


I suppose I was just trying to find out what Muslims would say about our Bible, in a prayerful environment. You hear so much rejection of certain aspects of the Bible, as if there would be constant arguments and constant differences between the Bible and the Koran. I wanted to create an environment where we could reaffirm one another based on our Scriptures. I wanted to see if Muslims really could read our Bible and be affirmed in their faith, whether we as Christians could be affirmed from the Muslim side, whether we could affirm one another, rather than debate or argue with one another. I suppose that's the genesis of it.


Also, I think, another aspect would be the desire to go deeper. There's so much interfaith activity going on which is on the level of information, and purely instruction on a rather superficial level. I wanted to go deeper, looking for ways to go beneath the surface, and opening up the real experience of our faith. Rather than just some doctrinal points.


I think there's so much more to be done in this area. We're only just beginning, really.


I hope that we could begin to ask the more difficult questions in a retreat atmosphere. We need to go into those areas which are more difficult - areas we have avoided because we find some serious differences of belief. Can we pray about these differences in a retreat environment and try to explain them to one another in new ways? Can we just allow these differences to be part of our communication? That's the challenge that lies ahead of us.


So far I've kept to sharing in areas where we have a lot of commonalities, and so that's been reaffirming and enriching and so forth, but I think also we need to look at certain verses in the Koran, verses which are difficult for Christians. In the same way, can I get Muslims to listen to verses from the Bible which for them would be quite difficult? I'm looking forward to doing that in the future.


For more about the Parliament of the World's Religions go to www.parliamentofreligions.org.



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Existing Comments

Sam Roborgh


I really enjoyed the interveiw. It left me with a feeling of wanting more. I would like to hear more about what is being discussed at the deeper level. Fantastic interview.

Ali Janbozorgi


Tt is so good that i could see Prof.Dr.Herman's opinion about religions and hope discus with him face to face and benefit of his ideas.

Talib Khan


I spent a whole lot of time with Herman at Aligarh and he is one of the most kind and smartest person I've ever come across. Everything he says makes sense without causing offence. World needs more people like him. Miss you friend.