All posts by Tony Reese

Wishing You Seasonal Greetings, the Joy of Christmas and a Peaceful New Year

Marcus Braybrooke posts

To you all,

The turmoil, uncertainty, racism and violence of the world make the angels’ message of peace and goodwill more urgent than ever. We found this verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn ‘Here on the threshold of a new beginning’ had a message for us.

May we, your children, feel with Christ's compassion

an earth disordered, hungry and in pain;

then, at your calling, find the will to fashion

new ways where freedom, truth and justice reign;

where wars are ended, ancient wrongs are righted,

and nations value human life and worth;

where in the darkness lamps of hope are lighted

and Christ is honoured over all the earth.

 

. We also hope that you will have a wonderful Christmas and start the New Year with

‘Faith strong to welcome all that lies before us,

Our unknown future, knowing God is there.’

Thank you for your support for WCF.  It has been an encouraging year, with excellent programmes to mark WCF's eightieth year

With our love

Mary and Marcus

Spiritual Awareness and Interfaith Relations

Pre-publication version of an article accepted for publication in:
Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol.7 No.1 (Spring 2017)
Thanks to the British Association for the Study of Spirituality   for permission to reproduce it here.
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/yjss20

Spiritual Awareness and Interfaith Relations

JENNY KARTUPELIS
World Congress of Faiths, London, UK
This article is based on presentations and discussion that took place at a Symposium entitled Promoting Spiritual Life: An Interfaith Perspective, held at Sarum College, Salisbury, UK, on 4 February 2016. The event was organised by the World Congress of Faiths to launch the celebrations of its 80th Anniversary. The concept and importance of spirituality in an apparently more secular society are explored, and the holistic nature of personal spiritual experience is argued on the basis of accounts collected and analysed. The debate then moves on to a consideration of these observations in the context of interfaith encounters being required to reject false dichotomies; and the engagement of religions in civic space, of which interfaith dialogue and activity is a vital part. It concludes that the potential for spiritual connection can play a powerful role in challenging traditional blocks to relationships between faiths.
KEYWORDS dualism, encounter, human connection, holistic, interfaith, society, spirituality
Background
The modern origins of interfaith dialogue lie in the late 19th century: numerous commentators make reference to the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-93, as a landmark event in this regard.
This impetus was further developed in the mid-20th century when people such as Sir Francis Younghusband, founder of the World Congress of Faiths, were motivated both by personal spiritual experience and world events to promote the harmony of religions (and later the harmony of the universe as a single entity). There were many reasons why people of different faiths felt motivated to come together in this way, including the common experience of profound spirituality perceived in different traditions; and awareness of philosophies of a universalist spirit in both Eastern and Western traditions.
However, external events and political policies since the 1990s have stimulated another view of interfaith relations, predicated on a perceived need to promote community cohesion and to address the divisions that are seen as counterproductive to social wellbeing and, at worst, as creating an environment for
radicalisation. This view has been called ‘The multi-faith paradigm’ by Professor Adam Dinham (2012) in a paper of the same name in which he analyses an early 21st century socio-political model whereby hopes, activity and funding have been invested in supporting faith communities to work together on social projects and community development.
There is, in principle, no reason why the two approaches should be mutually exclusive and, indeed, each may encourage the other: when people of various religions engage in dialogue this may develop into joint activity and, similarly, joint activity may build trust that encourages dialogue. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable tendency to set objectives for, and to attempt to measure, multi-faith activity once it becomes the subject of public investment. Meanwhile, the spiritual nature of interfaith encounter can get lost in a flurry of plans and proposals, and the individual interaction can become subservient to the organisational partnership controlled by structure and objectives.
The World Congress of Faiths (WCF) was established in 1936 by Sir Francis Younghusband, an explorer and mystic, as a ‘fellowship of faiths’, with the prime aim of nurturing personal encounter. Its membership remains that of individuals drawn together by a wish to talk and learn. To launch its 80th Anniversary Year, WCF organised a symposium at Sarum College (Salisbury, UK) in February 2016 to bring together theologians, psychologists, philosophers, policy-makers and interfaith practitioners from a variety of faith traditions to explore the spiritual nature of interfaith relations, and what this factor may have to offer in healing divisions.
What constitutes spirituality?
Such exploration is full of challenges, the first being a workable definition (or definitions) of spirituality for the purposes of this particular conversation. Opening the symposium, Canon Dr James Woodward asked: ‘Do we need a consensus on what constitutes spirituality?’1 He suggested that our apprehension of the nature of spirituality changes with our own social circumstances and personal feelings. On the one hand, there is a growing literature in this area based on the assumption that spiritual needs can be identified, measured and met, and on the other there is a lack of universality, of intellectual cohesiveness and clarity in the debate, which taken together make it unbalanced or disconnected.
A secularised society, which questions the value of religion in helping people to be more compassionate, loving or responsive, does not necessarily imply that there has been any diminution of spirituality. As Woodward suggested: ‘I think people still have a spiritual pulse and … [an] awareness of who we are and what we are yearning for’. He argued that people are seeking what David Tacey has called ‘the sacredness within’2, and it seems that both public and private institutions are becoming much more aware of the spiritual dimension of life. To move forward, we need an intelligent, mature and emotionally nuanced view of how we locate religion in today’s post-modern culture, accepting that its patriarchal and oppressive forms are, or should be, finished because those forms cannot meet our yearning for the spiritual.
1 Italic is used throughout to denote verbatim quotations from the symposium.
2 ‘Religion had taught me to find God in Heaven. Aboriginality had shown me to find the sacred on earth. Now I wanted psychology to reveal to me the possibility of finding the sacredness within.’ (Tacey 2004:7).
However, that does not mean we should abandon two thousand years of theological reflection and attempts to understand the human condition. Referring to work by Sandra Schneiders (Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley) who proposes that the lived spiritual experience entails a conscious involvement in life towards integration and self-transcendence, which may be aided by the clarity and wisdom of a rooted theology, Woodward concluded that: ‘We need to learn to break open sacred scripture and read it imaginatively, because therein is … the human experience of the search for God. We need to learn to let go of our task-orientated freneticism, be quiet and focus on the divine.’
Taking a definition-driven approach contributes to the debate, but are there other ways to access and understand the spiritual for the purposes of interfaith dialogue? Participants in the symposium spoke variously of an ‘intuitive awareness’, ‘creative energy’, ‘experiential knowing’, and ‘shared evolutionary knowledge’: all seemed to be reflecting ways of being rather than ways of articulating, and were raising awareness of making connections other than through language and reason.
The nature of personal spiritual experience
The second keynote speaker, Marianne Rankin of the Alister Hardy Institute, helped the debate move further into this territory, exploring the nature of personal spiritual experience, whether as a sense of a constant presence or as illumination at an unexpected moment; whether achieved through religious practice or apparently unsought. She noted that Sir Alister Hardy, a Darwinian biologist (1896-1985) and the first person to start a consistent line of research into spiritual experience, spoke of ‘A deep awareness of a benevolent, non-physical power which appears to be partly or wholly beyond and far greater than the individual self.’ (Hardy 1979/2006:1)
Hardy believed that spirituality was a natural part of consciousness, selected for, and then reproduced in the evolutionary process, and he began to collect data concerning the spiritual experiences of ordinary people. His advertisements in secular newspapers elicited more than three thousand accounts of all kinds of spiritual experience. The Institute established in his name now has over six thousand accounts referring variously to a sense of presence, visions, hearing voices, speaking in tongues, synchronicity, spiritual healing, and experiences around death and the end of life.
One of the main themes revealed by these collected accounts is a sense of one-ness with the universe and increased compassion for it. Hardy’s theory of spirituality as an essential human trait is potentially complementary to this finding: that humans are naturally spiritual creatures, and that, as such, their experiences enable them to feel part of humanity as a whole, and of its joys and suffering. Hardy's own work was UK-focussed but the Institute has since explored experiences in China, Turkey and India in order to make comparisons. Marianne Rankin reported that in China the percentage of people admitting to spiritual experience was the same as in the UK; a study in Turkey produced similar results; and another in Tamil Nadu, India, resulted in a higher percentage of accounts of spiritual experience than in the UK.
While the great world religions are directly related to the spiritual experiences of their founders, translated into patterns of exemplary behaviour and structures of worship, belonging to a religious institution is not a necessary concomitant of the spiritual; Rankin cited the ‘astonishing figures’ that in 1987, 48% of people reported some kind of spiritual experience, yet by the year 2000, although the numbers of those
attending church had dropped by 20%, the reporting of spiritual experiences had risen to 76%. Despite it being assumed that religion in the twentieth century was a remnant of humanity’s immature past and would therefore die out, that has not happened. Rankin explained that research by David Hay (2011:266-267) for the Alister Hardy Institute indicated that a secular society could liberate people from having to interpret their experiences in ‘official’ religious language, with the result that reporting of experiences rose.
The accounts collected by the Institute showed that when people of different faith traditions (and also humanists or secularists) were asked to contemplate the nature of the spiritual or the divine, many used phrases about formation of the individual, growth, transformation, transcendence and breaking new ground, both in relation to their own experience and to their perceptions of the prophetic or divine within their tradition). There was also some consensus that the practice of religions tended towards a movement away from a more holistic spiritual apprehension and towards a rules-based structure, away from growth and development and towards ossification, away from human connectedness and towards dualistic thinking (Hay 2011).
In discussion, symposium participants talked about the importance of moving away from the ‘everyday self’ that is occupied with structured thinking and planning, and towards being in the immediate environment and time. One said: ‘Something about the moment of becoming other than your everyday self that’s precisely about coming back into your body … for me, it’s about finding the moments of the day where you’re present [because that] is now for me where the spiritual home resides.’
The dualism of mind (or soul, or spirit) and body - the concept of the spiritual and the physical being two separate entities - was strongly challenged by many participants, as was the idea that all spiritual experiences were ‘peak’ or ‘joyful’. There was recognition that they could also be ‘horrible’ or ‘intolerable’, and yet somehow are accepted as part of the process of being fully alive. The awareness of being alive is one that relies on physical connection with the world, and spirituality must therefore be embodied. As one participant said, we should consider ‘the material as being part of God’s creation and his gift to us… spiritual experiences can occur very much through our physical material selves, and God is very much intertwined with that.’
One of the questions raised by this approach is the nature of the relationship between the spiritual and religious, in particular, the tendency of some faith traditions, at some points in their development, to see the demands of the body as inimical to the freedom or full realisation of the soul; while at the same time being motivated to provide charitable services designed to ease physical suffering or to attend to physical need.
From the interfaith viewpoint, though, the crucial question is whether an embodied approach to the spiritual, manifested through the experience of being connected into a ‘whole’ universe’ and being more whole oneself, is a key to relating to people of other faiths? Does it in any way strip back the layers of religious practice expressed through ritual and artefact and allow us to meet soul to soul, human to human; recognising the divine in another as indicated in the Sanskrit greeting of ‘Namaste’?3 And is there a ‘danger’ that religious truths and distinctiveness may be lost in that process of stripping back?
3 This can be ‘translated’ in many ways, for example: ‘I bow to the divine in you’ or ‘I honour the sacredness in us all’. It is used here in the sense of ‘My spirit bows to your spirit’ (i.e. we share a spiritual life).
Interfaith dialogue
There is often a desire amongst those engaged in interfaith dialogue to be clear that behaving as though all faiths were equal is not to imply that they are all the same. Care is needed to distinguish between the concept of the spiritual in each human being acting as a point of contact between individuals and faiths, and a vague idea of ‘spirituality’ divorced from practice or meaningful expression. Different faiths and cultural contexts exist (and arguably make society richer), and it is not the job of interfaith dialogue to sweep them away.
These questions were all raised at the WCF symposium, and considered by participants and speakers alike to be crucial to improved relationships. Desmond Biddulph, speaking from the Buddhist tradition, and as a psychiatrist, asked: ‘Now the critical questions for participants to discuss [are whether spirituality] can in fact provide sufficient consensus, or does it paper over the cracks?’ He noted that many of his professional colleagues saw religions as ‘nothing but trouble’, while he believed ‘religions offer a pathway to spirituality’, and a way of addressing the essential tragedy of human isolation: ‘that isolation is what causes a sense of alienation, anxiety, fear, narrowness, and wornness.’
However, he balanced this observation with an acknowledgment that ‘When religion is interpreted in a dualistic way, it becomes a matter of, you must do this, or you mustn’t do that, right and wrong … which is not really what the whole thing is about. It’s about unity, that absolute oneness with everything.’
Iain McGilchrist,4 a neuroscientist and philosopher, addresses some of the issues underlying these questions through his theories on the roles of the left and right brain hemispheres: theories that, although developed to cast light on the making of the modern world, also have a particular relevance to interfaith practice. To summarise (overly) simply: He posits that holistic thinking and empathetic tendencies are supported by the right hemisphere of the brain, and ‘The fact that empathy with others grounds our experience not just of them, but of ourselves and the world, has been borne out by research in psychology’ (2009:144). Thus, the link between ourselves and others is a ‘natural’ one, and the practice of empathy depends on being an embodied individual in the world.
Conversely, the left hemisphere is occupied with marshalling ‘facts’ and seeking differentiation in a way that could perhaps be summarised as a focus on either/or paradigms and exclusion of any apparent uncertainty. In the early 20th century the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl perceptively noted that there was a danger of over-occupation with ‘facts’ inculcating blindness to the transcendental, or as McGilchrist calls it ‘a sort of mad rationalism’ (ibid.:144). If this way of relating to the world dominates, there is likely to be a lack of spiritual maturity; a suggestion developed in relation to interfaith practice by Larry Culliford (2015) writing from a Christian viewpoint on the spiritual development of the individual. He proposes that because ’the nature of God is love’, and ‘love breeds …acceptance …rather than conflict’, it so follows that ‘partisan theologies and ideologies are…a mark of spiritual immaturity’ (ibid.:99).
4 Ian McGilchrist delivered the Annual Younghusband Lecture of the World Congress of Faiths on 9 November 2016: ‘The Riddle of the One and the Many’. He is author of The Master and his Emissary (2009).
As a number of symposium participants stressed, interfaith relations do demand and foster spiritual maturity, and a holistic approach that accepts the possibility of distinctiveness and common ground, of dialogue and of joint action, rejecting false dichotomies.
Marianne Rankin’s exposition of individual spiritual experiences raised the question as to whether these are personal phenomena, or to what extent it is essential that they should involve connectedness with others, given that many such experiences are associated with a feeling of ‘one-ness’. Is there such a thing as a common spiritual life of a nation or the world?
Spiritual life and action in the world
The concluding speaker, Dr Jonathan Rowson, former director of the Social Brain Centre and author of the RSA report Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Rowson 2014), proposed that ‘this idea that the spiritual connects very directly with practical effects in the world is not niche, is not optional, it’s absolutely fundamental.’
Rowson noted that the production of the Spiritualise report had involved some 300 people over two years, with four private and six public events. Its intention was to explore the nature of spirituality, consider the necessary place of relationships in spiritual development, the awakening this involves, and its place in the world today. He referred to ‘the notion that we sleep walk through our lives, and that spirituality is to some extent about coming out of that stupor; it is now quite well documented [that] something like 90% of the time we’re more or less unaware of what we’re doing.’ He raised the question of what is fundamental to all the faiths, and pointed out that his exploration suggested that ‘four things cut across most faith and non-faith traditions, and much of the new spirituality…. is about searching for different understandings of these four co-ordinates or reference points’ which he delineated as love, death, self and soul.
Crucial global issues such as climate change and inequality demand that we move out of our comfort zone and take up these challenges rather than just become satisfied with a vague concept of universal harmony. Rowson argued that: ‘the notion that spirituality is a purely individualistic pursuit is an unfortunate piece of marketing’ and it is only by ‘putting yourself in an uncomfortable position, that I think we become spiritually alive.’ Proposing that our spiritual contribution to the world is about the extent to which we are engaged in our civic space, Rowson concluded that interfaith practice as civic engagement can contribute to the rediscovery, through action, of the power and connectedness of the spiritual life.
The subsequent plenary discussion generated and validated the idea that religion can provide the means to channel and integrate the otherwise potentially overwhelming power of the spiritual. As Desmond Biddulph noted: ‘Religious practices are there to guard the person against these incredible powers … The ritual, the ceremony, the music, the art, it all channels the psychological forces and gentles them, and puts them in perspective and makes sense of them.’
Conclusion
Having participated in this symposium, I believe that a valid conclusion of the expertise shared is that the role of interfaith relations should not be to discard or denigrate religious practice, nor to propose that all religions are the same. Rather, it exists to challenge blocks to human connections and to break down the barriers that prevent the enjoyment of life in its abundance. In this respect, the potential for spiritual connection is powerful indeed, and one that WCF intends to continue exploring in its anniversary year and beyond. You are warmly invited to participate in its further debates and contribute to its work.
References
Culliford, Larry (2015) Much Ado about Something. SPCK: London.
Dinham, Adam (2012). ‘The Multi-faith Paradigm in Policy and Practice: Problems, Challenges, Direction’s. Social Policy and Society, 11, pp 577-587 doi:10.1017/S1474746412000255
Hardy, Alister (2006) The Spiritual Nature of Man, A Study of Contemporary Religious Experience. Religious Experience Research Centre, Lampeter. (First published 1979: OUP
Hay, David (2011) God’s Biologist, A Life of Alister Hardy'. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
McGilchrist, Iain (2009) The Master and his Emissary. Yale University Press
Rowson, Jonathan (2014) Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges. London: RSA Action and Research Centre.
Tacey, David (2004) The Spirituality Revolution: The emergence of contemporary spirituality. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
Notes on contributor
Jenny Kartupelis MBE MPhil is the Strategy and Development Officer of the World Congress of Faiths and a Director of Faith in Society Ltd., a social enterprise established to bring together faith, public and charitable sectors. She started her career in public relations, achieving a number of awards and pioneering a national quality standard. She is a Fellow of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Correspondence to: Jenny Kartupelis. Email: jenny@cambcatalyst.co.uk

Identity, Interfaith and Interspirituality

A Comment on the Reith Lecture
by Marcus Braybrooke

The question of identity which is the subject of this year’s Reith lectures(1) by Kwame Anthony Appiah is very relevant to those engaged in interfaith work. In his first lecture on Creed, he warned of distorting “the nature of religious identity by a fixation on faith.”
Taking the Jews who lived in Alexandria in the first century BCE as an example, Appiah says what distinguished them from their neighbours was “their hair and their beards, the clothes they wore; the foods they ate, the way they prayed, the scriptures they held holy. But,” he continued, “of the things that set them apart, which were matters of custom and which were matters of creed?”
Today also what often distinguishes people of different faith communities is their dress, their diet, or the festivals that they observe. The usual justification for these varying life-styles is that they are based on the scriptures (or the particular interpretation of them) that members of that community reverence. Appiah rightly warns of “scriptural determinism.” It is, he says, as if one could from scripture decant the unchanging nature of a religion, “like decanting wine from a pitcher.” In any case, as Cantwell Smith pointed out, the argument for the authority of scripture is circular. The community which regards texts as sacred is the very same community that gives them that authority by claiming they are revealed by God.(2) (One of my hesitations about ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ is the emphasis it puts on scripture!)
Appiah says that there are three dimensions of religion. First there is what you do – practice; secondly, who you do it with – community; and thirdly the beliefs – to which in his view we give too much attention. (Ninian Smart identified seven dimensions: Ritual; Experiential; Myth; Doctrinal; Ethical; Social and Material)
The significance for interfaith work is to identify the levels at which we are meeting. For some groups getting to know another community is sufficient as it enhances good-neighbourliness and social cohesion and may lead to shared action on social problems, as well as a sharing of food.
One way of getting to know members of another faith is to visit their places of worship and maybe to observe the worship which takes place there.
This can be followed up by learning about other peoples’ beliefs and maybe by reading some of their scriptures.
If however, we think of faith not so much in terms of identity – as the current phrase ‘faith community’ suggests – but think of it in terms of personal belief, as Francis Younghusband did when he founded the World Congress of Faiths, then ‘dialogue’ is not just learning about other religions but becomes an enrichment of one’s own spiritual life. Often besides my daily reading from the Bible, I read form other Holy Scriptures – at present the Guru Granth Sahib – with the same expectancy as I read the Bible, hoping to be inspired by them. One Muslim friend described the Qur’an as “Love letters from God” – a term I like to apply to all scriptures. In the same way, as we attend prayers or mediations with people of another tradition, we become not just observers but participants, rather as with my limited French, I gradually joined in the conversation, when I stayed with a French family.
The Quaker Douglas Steer spoke of “mutual irradiation”;(3) a group in India, which included Abishiktanada and Bede Griffiths, spoke of meeting “in the cave of the heart”(4) , in the USA, talk of “interspirituality” is becoming quite common.(5)
Our particular creedal identities – often a hybrid – can enrich each other rather than cause division.

Marcus Braybrooke

1. Available on the BBC website
2. W.Cantwell Smith, What is Scripture? Fortress Press, 1994
3. Douglas Steer, Mutual Irradiation, A Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 1977
4. See my Pilgrimage of Hope, SCM Press, 1992, p. 236
5. See Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, New World Library, Novato CA 94949 or Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord, The Coming Interspiritual Age Namaste Publishing, Vancouver 2012.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg: a personal tribute

From Marcus Braybrooke
Mary and I first met Sir Sigmund and Lady Hazel Sternberg soon after I had become Director of the Council of Christians and Jews in 1984. It was at Gatwick Airport. We were on the way to the International Council of Christians and Jews. When Sigi saw us he came down the elevator which was going up. I realised at once that here was a man who would not let difficulties stand in his way.
At the time Sigi was Hon. Treasurer of the Council of Christians and Jews. Early on when I was worrying about finances, he said, ‘There’s no point having an appeal until we have a good sized deficit’ - which I soon supplied him with. Sigi was also then President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which he had done much to re-establish.
At that time, both ICCJ and CCJ were beginning to invite Muslims to share in their programmes and both Sigi and I thought that in time both would organisations would broaden their remit. I was also already active in the World Congress of Faiths (WCF), of which Sigi soon became a Vice-President.We both attended the first modern Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) in Chicago in 1993.
In the mid 1990s, CCJ made clear that its focus was specifically on Christian-Jewish relations, with its unfinished agenda. WCF and CPWR included all faiths. Sheik Zaki Badawi -a leading Muslim who was Head of the Muslim College in Ealing - and Sir Sigmund were aware that a piece in the interfaith jigsaw was missing. There was a need for a place where members of the Abrahamic religions could meet. Sigi rang me up and told me about this and I said it was a good idea. A few days later, I discovered that I was a Co-Founder.
There are times when you want the whole family together, other times when you want to be alone with your spouse or occasions when you may want to talk to one child by herself or himself. In the same way, each dialogue has its own dynamic – rivalry between interfaith organisations in a world where so much needs to be done is a disgrace.
Despite my surprise, I am very grateful for playing a part in the astonishing growth of the Three Faiths Forum. Mary and I were soon being introduced to Monarchs, Ambassadors, Cardinals, Rabbis, Imams and numerous Rotarians, as well as lots of enthusiastic young people. More important, with the growing importance of the Muslim community, the festering wounds in Israel/Palestine and the growth of extremism, Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue has a special importance, although 3FF rightly welcomes people of all religions or none to take part in its programmes.
Sigi took an interest in everyone he met. He and Hazel have been wonderful friends to Mary and me, as they have been to so many other people in many parts of the world. Indeed, interfaith is really about making friends – and friendship knows no barriers.
May their example inspire us, like those who kept faith in the dark days of the Shoah, to be united in opposition to violence and religious extremism and work together and pray for the healing of the world.
Marcus Braybrooke

Sir Sigmund Sternberg

The World Congress of Faiths mourns Sir Sigmund Sternberg who died on Sunday 16 October 2016 aged 95. He was born in Budapest, Hungary. He emigrated to Britain in 1939 and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1947.

His contribution to the Interfaith world was immeasurable. Amongst many other achievements, he was responsible for the relocation of a Roman Catholic convent at Auschwitz, organising the first papal visit to a synagogue in 1986, negotiating the Vatican's recognition of the state of Israel and organising the erection of statues around the globe to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews from the Nazis but who perished , probably executed by the Soviets, some years after the Second World War.

He served as vice-president of the World Congress of Faiths for many years. He loved to attend our meetings and was generous in his support of our endeavours. Along with two other World Congress members, the Rev Marcus Braybrook and Sheikh Zaki Badawi, he was co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum. He was also the sole Patron of the International Council of Christians and Jews and attended their meetings in many different countries, always supporting the work of reconciliation and dialogue.

He was knighted in 1976, appointed a Papal Knight in 1985, and awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1998 for his interfaith work worldwide. His work for understanding between faiths took him to every continent and has brought him recognition from nineteen countries as well as the Vatican winning him many medals that he treasured.

He was a prominent member of the Movement for Reform Judaism, serving as its Life President.

May his memory be a blessing to us all.

Seeking a common spirit in dialogue: World Congress of Faiths 80th anniversary Conference

Seeking a common spirit in dialogue: World Congress of Faiths 80th anniversary Conference
This post first appeared on www.ekklesia.co.uk
By Jill Segger October 10, 2016
picture-389    

A fruitful gathering of minds may be measured by the questions it raises rather than by the answers it provides. The 80th anniversary conference of the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) which took place in Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 23 September 2016, gathering academics, clerics and what might perhaps be described as religious professionals, met that metric.

Though fitting into none of the above categories, I did not feel out of place. A Quaker is something of a tabula rasa at such an event. Being without creeds, members of the Religious Society of Friends are largely free of the temptation to evaluate the faith stances of others in relation to a perceived standard of orthodoxy. 'Rooted in Christianity but open to new light', we are comfortable with paradox and are generally fluent in ambiguity – qualities which I hoped to find at this conference. I was not disappointed.

The theme of the day was 'Religious Pluralism and Interfaith: learning for the future'. The speakers and moderators came from the Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh traditions. Some spoke from a feminist perspective, others from a social stance while some considered the relationship of faith bodies to civil society. All, in different ways, addressed the difficulties, failures and obstacles which religions may both experience and present to others while offering fresh thinking and a sense of purpose for the future. They may, perhaps, have been in danger of preaching to the choir, but the potential – and indeed the necessity – of finding a means of understanding the commonality of faith as an integral component of human progress was powerfully made. In a society which tends towards religious illiteracy, yet is divided by faith and frequently hostile to it, that interfaith choir must step out from the shelter of what could easily become a theoretical and slightly self-satisfied space. It has to find a means of transcending evangelism, partisan interest and intellectual comfort if it is take its music out into a world to whom thinking in abstractions and conference-speak do not come easily. I do not claim to know how this is to be done but there were sufficient glimmers of light within the contributions to inspire the hope of a continuing evolution.

This is not a piece of straight reportage and will not therefore present a précis of each speaker's thesis. I will rather concentrate on the two contributions which spoke to my condition and which seem to me to stimulate reflection on present difficulties, hopes and future paths. The omissions do not represent a slight nor should they be read as indicative of a lack of interest.

The first speaker was Dr Alan Race, Chair of the WCF. He spoke of the passing of colonialism and empire. He reminded us that just as we now have post-colonial politics, we must engage with post-colonial religion – perhaps a particular area of difficulty for some strands of Christianity which, even if no longer adhering to the 'Christendom' model, may find it difficult to step out from its shadow. However, he suggested this is something of which we are learning to let go, enabling the discovery of the “pull to celebrate and not lament our differences” rather than seeking to make others in our own image – or, I might add – expect privileges for that template.

It is not everywhere so. He touched on Islamic State and the Hindutva movement, both of which align “the empire of the mind” with territorial claims. It must be acknowledged that there are groupings within Europe who do likewise in respect to Christianity.

Dr Race took four features from the inaugural WCF Conference in 1936 for our consideration and as a challenge to the present day:

An awareness that the world was undergoing the unprecedented birth-pangs of a sense of there being ‘one world’, of real differentiation but with a unity yet to be forged.

The fellowship to which world-conscious human beings were called was in some sense a natural outcome of the processes of history, needing to be met and recognised as such.

Recognition that any emerging ‘world-consciousness’ had considerable obstacles to overcome, not least the imminence of war (this was Europe in 1936)), the deep antagonisms between religions from the past, and the social conditions of many peoples in poorer parts of the world. These are of course, conditions obtaining just as strongly in our own time.

A sense of aspiration:

- towards universal brother(sister)hood

- towards some sense of rapprochement in religious understanding and cooperation

- towards assuming that spiritual vision is a step up in terms of models for ‘world-consciousness’ based on purely economic or political or philosophical reason alone

- towards thinking that differences need not be a hindrance to a fellowship of faiths and might even be an incentive

- towards trusting that individuals and traditions might share in a life of ‘spirit’.

I believe this last clause challenges us to reflect not on outward forms, but on experience – something which probably speaks to more 'seekers' in 2016 than would have been the case in the more formal culture of 80 years ago.

Dr Race's own book Christians and Religious Pluralism posits the idea that we all fall into one of three camps: exclusivist, inclusivist or pluralist. He emphasised that such a framing may be contested and the importance of people of all religions getting to know each other on a deep level before attempting much comment on each other's theologies. He cited a question once asked of an Anglican Archbishop: “ I want to know what you think of my religion” – an essential question which faces us with ongoing challenges of true respect rather than of working compromises or a pretence of more agreement than may actually exist.

The contribution of Reform Rabbi Tony Bayfield, Professor of Jewish Theology and Thought at Leo Baeck College, was entitled 'Observations from the cutting edge: challenges for the next generation'. Centring round that need to know each other, here exemplified in the dialogue of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), he presented four main challenges: 'de-idolising sacred texts', 'the scourge of absolutism', 'the values of the post-modern western world' and 'the role of religion in modern western democratic states'.

Quoting the Californian philosopher Sam Harris, he points up a problem which lies at the heart of popular perception of religion as a source of conflict and violence: “A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books”. Although objecting to the inherent crudity of this approach, Rabbi Bayfield acknowledged it as a major obstacle – one which the CCJ has learned to approach by asking “What’s the nature and authority of the sacred text in our many respective traditions? For me, for you.”

He describes the giving of Torah in this way: “It was an event witnessed for a few moments or minutes by a group of people without any frame of reference to comprehend or express what was happening. They talked about this unimagined and unimaginable event to each other, discussed it, compared notes, doubted it... told their children who told their children and eventually, in the fullness of time, redactors – acting in good faith and with integrity – committed the oral traditions to writing.” But it is not the process from oral to written which he sees as key, rather it is the fact that such a process of revelation is in itself an act of interpretation. “Is the text ‘from God’? Does it point to what is true? Is it ‘authentic’? Yes. But the text itself is still interpretation. Such a ‘post-modern’ view is, for me, both liberating and terrifying, totally characteristic of humanity’s relationship with the Divine. Many of us accept that interpretation is key to our tradition but can we accept that what we are interpreting is in itself interpretation? Have we any other option?”

These are questions from which fundamentalists shrink. When false certainty takes root because of fear of that gracious and loving interaction which respects and nourishes the limitations of the temporal and finite, we not only turn away from the truth, we make its pursuit a stumbling block for a culture which recognises and resents the presumption.

This is at the root of Tony Bayfield's second theme of absolutism and is a call to humility in the face of the Divine: "Isn’t it sheer hubris to suppose that any human being or group could grasp the whole of God’s Truth? Isn’t it absurd to suppose that God would entrust to any one group of people at any one time more than a fragment of the knowledge and experience of the One who cannot be captured and owned and who never ceases to surprise us?i That challenge isn’t just thrown down to the fanatics and deranged ‘out there’; it’s thrown down to all of us.” Indeed it is and we must rise to the challenge if we are to engage with the spiritual nature of humankind.

Among the values of the 'post-modern world' is that of a particular type of materialism which goes beyond consumerism but which obviously feeds that vice. Tony Bayfield describes it as the dominance of our public discourse by economics “to the extent that it’s well-nigh impossible to argue – in a way that will be perceived as grounded and plausible – that there are some situations where values other than those of economics need to take precedence”. He continued “I wonder the extent to which the theory and practice of our own faith institutions has been influenced by the dominance of economic thinking – let alone the extent to which our members are aware that we might offer a critique?” It is a question which disturbs and challenges. Failure to address it can only feed the alienation of those at present outside faith communities who may be less afraid of radical simplicity.

Considering the relationship between religion, society and government as the fourth of his themes, Rabbi Bayfield draws us back to the post-Christendom challenges presented in Alan Race's contribution. “Britain is a country the calendar of which, the rhythm, the landscape, our most important institutions – schools, universities, hospitals – have been deeply and profoundly influenced by Christianity. In that sense this is a Christian country and long may it remain so.” But, he says, despite the continuing appearance of Establishment, “it has been largely disempowered, a difficult, drawn-out and challenging experience the consequences of which are still very much felt and from which Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have much to learn in working out our relationship to ‘power and powerlessness’in modern, democratic secular states.”

Presenting these challenges to the next generation, he reminded us that “authentic religion can only emerge from a deeper relationship with and greater sensitivity to the other. We have to consider what humility demands and recognise the hubris still riveted to our doctrines and souls.” His conclusion? “We have to think deeply about how we work unempowered by the State amongst the disempowered within the State and, at the same time, how we exercise an authentic influence on society. All of which we can do with far more insight and far better judgement as a result of dialogue.”

Dialogue. Not syncretism nor 'cafeteria religion' – both epithets thrown at interfaith by some still wedded to a smaller vision. If we are so bound within our individual packaging that we cannot find a spirit in common, a cross-fertilisation of wisdoms and insights without fearing faithlessness or heresy, faith communities will have a diminishing role in the evolution of our societies. It is in such a failure that we will truly find ourselves faithless.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Faiths Together for a Better World

Marcus Braybrooke sent this report of our meeting in Eastbourne on 17 May 2016

Faiths together for a better world.

Eastbourne May 17 2016

Faiths Together for a Better World was the optimistic theme for a crowded meeting at Eastbourne to mark the 80th anniversary of the founding of the World Congress of Faiths by Sir Francis Younghusband, an explorer and mystic.

None of the speakers had any illusions about the dangerous world situation today, where violence is often fuelled by religious hatred. As Rabbi Jackie Tabick, Joint-President of the World Congress of Faiths said, ‘In this so small world of ours, hatred between religious groups keeps erupting: Buddhist monks attacking Muslims in Myanmar; Christians, Yazidis and unrecognised Muslim groups slaughtered by the members of ISIS; the unfortunately seemingly never ending strife between Israelis and the Palestinians and the growth in Europe of Islamaphobia with the influx of the migrants and refugees from so many war torn countries'.

She also warned of the dangers of rising anti-semitism. ‘As a Jew, I am so concerned with the growth of anti-semitism, which is the hatred of Jews, and anti-Zionism, which aims to destroy the state of Israel, and legitimate criticism of the acts of the government of Israel.’

Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, also a Joint-President of the World Congress of Faiths, pointed out that the situation in 1936 was also grim. ‘Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was becoming ever more deadly; in March, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland. In May 1936, Mussolini captured the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and the authority of the League of Nations, which did nothing, was fatally undermined.’ The Congress, he continued was not and never has been an academic or spiritual gathering for the elite, but an attempt to bring together people of all faiths to work for peace and for a better world. That is still its agenda. Even during the war, leaders of WCF and others, issued a ‘Three Faiths Declaration’, - incorporated by reference in the UN Charter, which described the new world order they hoped for when the war ended . We need something of that vision today - of a world where no one goes hungry, of a world where no one’s life is cut short by bombs or massacres, of a world where the beauty of nature is treasured. A world which puts into practice the Golden Rule, - found in all religion - that we should do to others what we would like them to do to us.

Sheik Dr Ramzy of the Muslim Council emphasised that the Qur’an teaches respect for people of other faiths. God says in the Quran, ‘O human race, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Almighty God is Knowing and Aware.’ God clearly says in another verse.

If God desired to enforced His will, He would have made you all one nation,

but He wishes to test you by what He has given you.’ Sheik Ramzy also pointed out that when the Prophet Muhammad entered Medina he insisted that all the wealth, property and lives of the people who lived there should live together in peace and build a good life and help each other. They were to regard each others’ different traditions and religions as sacred.

Hinduism too, as Vijay Mehta said, sees ‘The world as one family.’ Hinduism teaches that the root causes of violence is lack of inner peace.

Despite the gravity of the situation today, all the speakers had a message of hope. Rabbi Jackie Tabick said, ‘The World Congress seeks to bridge the almost unbridgeable, to make bonds of friendship based on knowledge and understanding, to celebrate the differences between different religions and at the same time, affirm that there are differences of flavour, of culture, that we must affirm and support in each of the faith groups represented at our gatherings. We are not seeking to unite all religions, but to bring together those who are adherents of their own faiths who wish to learn from others in a non judgmental and supportive fashion and so hopefully, end the destructive enmity that has and does so tragically dog the relationships between people of faith'.

Marcus Braybrooke said ‘The good news is that increasingly people of faith at a national and international level are trying to make this vision a reality. At last year’s Parliament of the World Religions in Salt Lake City, the emphasis was on what people of faith can do together to redress the dangers of Climate Change, the Widening Wealth Gap, the spread of Hate Speech, Violence, War and the continuing oppression of women, as well as engaging young people in this task.

Sheik Ramzy said 'I tell you, there would be no need for nuclear bombs, weapons of mass destruction, arms and armies.

We would not need to invest any more to produce killing machines to kill ourselves.

Dear friends, instead the billions and billions of dollars, pounds, euros which are invested every year to kill each other, it could be spent in investing on health for all, education all, for food for all, safety for all and more. With this money we could cure any type of disease, cancer, Malaria, Ebola, Aids etc. We could stop the global warming and repair the Ozone layer. With this type of money, we could clean all the rivers and the seas of toxic poisons. We could spend it to clear the air of pollution. We could rectify the toxic soil that we cultivate. We could look for a good solution to get rid of the billions of tons of waste that we produce as result of our greed. Dear brothers and sisters imagine if we were united in faith in God and in brotherhood, we could make the world not only a better place that all human race to live together in peace, but make it ideal living place for this generation and generations to come.

Dear friends you can clearly see the result of being together in peace.

Now the question is, how we can get together and stay in peace and build?

Are we be able to do this? I say yes, we have seen it done before but on a smaller scale'.

VijayMehta said ‘Interfaith meetings like today and around the world increase understanding and cooperation with other faiths for social justice and the common good of the humanity. On a positive note, religions of the world have been sources of major social, economic, political changes and advancement. The concept of nonviolence, enhanced capacity for empathy, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion has its roots in religions of the world such as respect of other faiths. Religion is an instrument which refines one's mind, for inner development for building a peaceful society. Throughout ages faiths have been the very bases of our understanding. The very origins of nonviolence is brought to us by religion, not to hurt any creature, even the humblest as we are all interconnected.

Michael Harris writes – Unity Not Division our next event in Eastbourne

UNITY NOT DIVISION

an 80th ANNIVERSARY Event

This month we in Eastbourne are being honoured by the World Congress of Faiths who will be holding a major event at the Congress Suite (adjoining the Winter Garden) on Tuesday 17th May from 6pm to celebrate the 80th anniversary. The foreword is ‘Bringing faiths together throughout the world’ and who can doubt the value of this when we witness the chaos surrounding us today?

Four eminent speakers from different backgrounds will be attending. A question/answer forum will take place and The International Voice Orchestra (Choir) will provide a musical interlude. Entrance is free with complimentary tea, coffee or juice being available. Pre-registration is strongly recommended by emailing names and contact details to either Michael Harris or Marcus Braybrooke or use our contact page.

Interfaith activities have been prevalent in Eastbourne and numerous other towns in East and West Sussex for a considerable number of years and invitations to this event have been extended to over 100 bodies throughout these areas. Over the centuries the cause of many world problems has frequently been pointed to the activities of one religion or another. Though this may have been true, such conclusion always required a major caveat, in that these actions have generally been those of a fanatical minority and in no way represented the beliefs of the majority who were true believers. They were as opposed to the heinous crimes and atrocities being committed as the rest of the world.

The moment we see others as being different from ourselves is the trigger point when fear is established with violence and hate being the by-products. Nelson Mandela said '….if people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.' And so the importance of interfaith work becomes both evident and necessary. I would also suggest that attention to ‘Intra-faith’ matters is equally as vital as a result of our living within splintered communities.

Should we have the strong desire to create a safe future world where peace and happiness may exist for all, then it is unity not division that is required.

Richard Boeke was inspired by the Conference on Saturday

At Croydon Unitarian Church last Saturday, we were blessed by awesome music - Kol Nidrei and 'The Lark Ascending' and also some wonderful words as to how peak experiences can change our lives. These words from among the jewels given us by Marcus Braybrooke - 'I am aware how much I have to learn about inner peace – how to voice opposition without anger.'
I come back to Wilfred Cantwell Smith. In churches the response. 'Lord have mercy upon us' is often said by the congregation. Cantwell Smith asks 'who do we mean by us?' His answer is thaboeke blossomt if we mean anything less than all humanity – our God is too small. Do we have it in our hearts to pray for the terrorist as well as the victim?
The Charter of Compassion calls on us ‘to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings'

Shy about the soul?

From Jemma Jacobs:

I don’t want to be shy about the idea of a soul. This idea of a soul is in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindusim and many more. I love seeing how un-shy children and teens are to think about and discuss the idea. But the truth is that there is so much that I’m not okay about. I’m not okay about hearing about teenagers in my extended family with anxiety, insecurities, suicidal thoughts. I’m not okay with the research that shows how happiness levels decline in teenage years. My background and experience in secondary teaching, and also in leading a national peer education project for a youth charity, has shown me there is so much positive work being done to support children and young people. At the same time, I am aware of a deep sense that children and young people are not taught how to connect with their breath, their awareness, their hearts and their bodies, and those of others with respect and honouring, slowness and presence. And so, I am founding an interfaith organisation called FancyAChange:Peace to offer children and young people experiences of internal peacefulness, greater self worth and honouring for themselves and others.

I hope that if religion was developed for anything, it was developed to be helpful for people! Or at least, that is my interest in religion. How can it make life more beautiful? How can it be helpful and in service to people - to their hearts, to their happiness, to their sense of peacefulness. I know there is a lot of helpful and poetic information in all religions that can be supportive for people.

When facilitating meditation and awareness sessions for young people, one of my favourite activities is to ask them to notice whether they keep the same thoughts in their head, as they ruffle a zig zag shape through their hair. The truth is that once any of us get deep into a felt experience, the words come later. For many of us on a religious and/or spiritual path, we learn through experience which methods and pathways have given us an experience of peacefulness and know because of that experience that there is such thing as peacefulness and it is possible for us to feel it. I’d like to give as many children and young people as possible a way to find more choiceful awareness about their relationship with their minds and thinking, with their hearts and to tune in and care for their bodies, with a range of take home and memorable methods that work for them. The importance of time for quiet reflection and connection with oneself needs championing. In addition, an experience of this peace is a resource that can be recalled and practised as life continues, and the experience of peace in a community setting is invaluable.

At WCF’s symposium on spirituality, the striking points for me were that a consistent 30% of people across faiths and of none have had spiritual experiences (but often embarrassed to discuss them), that religion can help anchor a spiritual experience and that spirituality is often brought in and valued more at the coal face of life, eg in hospice care or psychiatry, where the focus is on finding what is helpful for people. We know that young people also need help, and that spirituality and meditation can be helpful.

The classroom can become an experimental lab to explore peacefulness. Through a non-dogmatic interfaith lens and accessible and fun activities, pupils can explore ways to experience peacefulness and self-reflection and to discuss their own responses to comforting and beautiful teachings from world religions on the Soul and on peace.

For the benefit of the wider community, bringing the teaching of meditation and self-awareness into the interfaith arena is a beautiful and invaluable opportunity to role model people of faith standing together in peacefulness and kindness in front of young people in their formative years.

So are you shy? Or do you want to talk about the soul with me and how we can offer these experiences to young people.

Blog by Jemma Jacobs
April 2016
Contact email: fancyachangepeace@gmail.com

Jemma Jacobs enjoys teaching meditation in schools and also to adults, worked for ten years on a range of exciting national projects at Girlguiding, including peer education, and is a qualified secondary school teacher. In her spare time she can be found walking her doggie and making homemade sweets.