All posts by Tony Reese

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.

Students, Astronauts and Interfaith Work

Marcus Braybrooke recently attended a first student interfaith gathering at Manchester Universities’ Chaplaincy Centre. It  was well attended and enthusiastic. He was one of the speakers and emphasised that the starting point should our oneness not our differences. This inspires us to work together for a better world. A young leader from the Three Faiths Forum and a local rabbi also spoke.

Here is a summary of what he said

One of my secret ambitions when I was younger was to be an astronaut. I suppose by the time you are my age, Richard Branson’s successors will be offering holidays at Costa Lunar. I was particularly interested this morning that there was an interview with Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton in space. One of best things, she said, was the view. Everyone who has been in space speaks of the beauty and fragility of our planet. The ill-fated Columbia space-craft had an interfaith crew – a Hindu, Christians of various denominations a Unitarian and a Jew who brought with him a Torah scroll that had been used at a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in a concentration camp. Kalpana Chawla, a Hindu, said, "The first view of the Earth is magical. In such a small planet, with such a small ribbon of life, so much goes on. It is as if the whole place is sacred. You get the feeling that I need to work extraordinarily hard along with other human beings to respect that." The picture of Planet Earth from space has been called a symbol for our age. It shows the beauty and fragility of Earth, but it does not show the differences of nationality, colour, gender or race.

The mystics who have explored inner space say the same. They affirm the Oneness of all life. Teilhard de Chardin, a Paleontologist and a priest said "Personal Love and Cosmic power are present in every part of the universe." From this perspective not only should humanity not be divided, history also should not be compartmentalised – we are inheritors of all that has gone before – from the most primitive amoeba. In the same way we are heirs of the riches of all religions. I picture the spiritual history of humankind as a great river, with various springs, sources, and tributaries – sometimes dividing, maybe with backwaters, but enriching the present with what is carried forward from the past and opening up new vistas for the future.

Religions are pathways leading us to the Divine. I myself am a follower of Jesus and it is good to have a path to follow but the nearer we come to the Holy One, the less our differences matter. "The religion of love is the message of all religions" said the mystic Rumi and in the vision of the holy city at the end of the Bible, we are told there is no temple and presumably no gurdwara, or synagogue or church, because the Lord God Almighty is the temple. When you arrive you don’t need a map or a satnav. So much interfaith work today starts from the other end; not from our oneness but – from our all too obvious differences – and is intended to create social cohesion. This, of course, is important. But the pioneers of the interfaith movement, who have inspired me, started from a vision of oneness, which includes the oneness of all people and the sacredness of all life. And that of course impels us to seek fullness of life for them all. Seventeen years before Thomas Merton - a popular guru of the seventies and campaigner against the Vietnam war, - who became a monk, was shopping in the centre of Louisville. "I was," he said, "suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people: that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers... There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun...'i Thomas Merton, went on, "There are no strangers... If only we could see each other (as we really are) all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed." I read this when I was on the underground and I have to say I saw the other passengers in a new light.

But if you have experienced that love even in a small measure, you heart goes out in compassion. After university, I studied in India for a year. Some of the students helped at a Leprosy clinic, but I think we were more helped by the courage of those who had the illness and the joyfulness of the children. On one occasion, I went there with a Roman Catholic student from Stri Lanka and a Muslim from near Hyderabad. The doctor was a Hindu, wearing a traditional dhoti. It was for me a model of how people of faith and good will should work together for a better world.

That has been the motivation for my interfaith work: but it is not easy.

First it is urgent to challenge the ignorance, prejudice and hatred that has and sometime still does exist between rival believers. One example is how the centuries of anti-Jewish teaching has contributed to the sufferings of the Jews and contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust. There is the same danger now of Islamaphobia – but one thinks too of how slow churches were to oppose slavery or to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. There is a continuing need to encourage people to have a better understanding of their own and each other’s faith.

But this is not just a theological task. Faith is closely related identity – what you should wear or what you should eat – and people tend to be suspicious of difference. So one of the best ways of overcoming such hostility, is encouraging people of different traditions to meet each other.

Beyond this, there has been the continuing hope that people of faith would work together for a better world. There are a whole range of interfaith initiatives – for example a recently formed interfaith alliance to combat slavery and sex-trafficking in the modern world. Another Wash is a joint effort to provide clean water and sanitation to some of the millions of people who do not have it.

Helen Sharman said that as a child she would never have dreamed that anyone would reach the moon. We may doubt that a new world order is possible but I share the confidence of the environmentalist Jane Goodall has said, ‘We are moving toward the ultimate destiny of our species – a state of compassion and love.’ Nobel Prize Winner, Mairead Maguire, has said, ‘Dream the impossible, then so live that the dream comes true.’ – but perhaps an Indian school boy put it even better, ‘Dream and sweat.’ That’s what the interfaith movement is about high hopes and hard work.

i Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp.140-42

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jenny Kartupleis writes:

For whom the bell tolls

This is a short version of a presentation given by Jenny Kartupelis on 2 February at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, organised by Suffolk Inter Faith Resource.

John Donne wrote in his the Meditation number 17 of 1624:
‘No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.’

Yet in his divine sonnets we also find the despair of a soul feeling itself alone, and Donne captures in his body of work some of the most vexed questions of the human condition: to what extent are we essentially alone and to what extent are we all interconnected in our hopes and suffering?

What binds us and what separates us? Religion comes in for a bad press in this respect, accused of making people more likely to turn inwards, and supposedly responsible for parallel lives that never intersect, but occasionally come into conflict. This, in fact, was the main conclusion of The Cantle Report, published in 2001 after the riots in northern English cities.

Since that time, religion has been in the dock more often than ever, the criminal in respect of hatred, war and terrorism. This is a largely unjust accusation that takes little account of issues such as culture, territorialism, conflicted resources and uncontrolled egomaniacs, all of which generate the conditions for violence.

The secular and public policy reaction to the perceived threats and benefits of religion and faith has been variable, shifting between fear and calls for restraint on the one hand, or praise and overblown expectations on the other.

Much of the current debate is couched in terms of ‘values’: British values, faith values, common values, human values. Yet the more one attempts to define what these values actually are, the more elusive they appear.

Take the example of British values, which since 2013 schools have had a statutory duty to teach. In the handbook of teaching standards they are defined as: ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

Many other countries would claim these as their values. Are they important to us because they are unique, or because they should be universal?

What does ‘tolerance of different faiths’ mean? Does tolerance happen in a country that is basically Christian? Or in a multi faith society? Or in a secular state? Secularity need not equate to a decline in religious practice, it may be about the dissociation of religion and public institutions, or it can be taken to mean a variety of worldviews and beliefs existing together where religion is just one option.
Some value systems appear to be created as narratives that give meaning to our common shared life, or draw on mythical pasts. These pasts are often invoked, but not so often rigorously examined for authenticity, and may sometimes be the constructs of authors who in fact were using them to draw contrasts with the brutal realities of their own era.

Values cannot be imposed, they have to be generated from within a group, internalised and normalised. AsTariq Modood has argued, we need to strike a balance between telling a national story, and being involved in writing and re-writing that story, because it is always evolving.

This observation also emerged from the Commission on Religion and Belief report of 2015, ‘Living with Difference’, which called for a ‘national conversation’ including faith leaders to ‘create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life.’

Values are, therefore, a difficult subject. Invoking them is easy, defining them is hard, yet no-one wants to live in a value-less society. There are so many people searching for ‘something’, described by 59% in terms of something spiritual, to give meaning to life.

Faith values in the context of diversity raise further problems. Reduction to the most basic tenets such as the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated means acknowledging that these tenets are also espoused by many people who have no faith.

Even if there are basic faith values, seeking to define them runs a risk, that it inadvertently suggests that faiths are ‘all the same really’ and are just a lifestyle choice. This is a convenient construct of secular society, simplifying faith and making it less challenging. We have to be careful not to buy into this secular construct, because coming together with a common voice on particular issues does not mean agreeing that we are ‘all the same’.

Which raises two of the most important questions - how can faiths connect together while recognising their differences? And why should they?
Taking the second question first, that of ‘why?’ Human nature, as Donne observed, pulls us in two directions. On the one hand towards people with whom we share a group identity and commonality, and on the other hand towards making connections with the stranger in whom we see our own humanity, needs and hopes reflected.

Of course groups of commonality can be very positive and nurturing: the family, the place of worship, the school. But group membership can have a darker side, a ‘them and us’ mentality that leads to building walls. Society creates many types of belonging, some where people are held together by internal bonds of love, some with chains of fear.

Tugging us in the other direction is our innate recognition of humanity in others, the recognition of your spirit by my spirit, which is what the greeting ‘Namaste’ means. Following our instincts for empathy and curiosity leads to interfaith dialogue.

The tension created between the conflicting human instincts to turn inwards and to look outwards is writ large in the response to the current refugee crisis. We observe the ebb and flow of opposing feelings, depending on the dominant narrative of the day. One moment this narrative focuses on millions of anonymous people at our borders, creating generalised fear; the next moment a photo of a small dead child on a beach, who could be our own son or grandson, evokes unbearable sorrow and sympathy.

This spiritual pull towards others is the motivation that enables bridging between internally bonded groups, and answers the ‘why’ of interfaith.

What about the ‘how’ of interfaith? How can this innate empathy be harnessed to promote connectedness between religions and beliefs?

The relationships formed in ‘real life’ are not generally ones of conscious pastoral care, of one person giving and another receiving, but of day-to-day, two way interactions that happen naturally in families and other small communities. Interfaith understanding needs to learn from this, and go beyond reciprocity, religious literacy or the Golden Rule if it is to be effective in enhancing individual lives and improving society. It needs to be based on personal relationships of trust and listening that provide the links and incentives to bring together different faith communities and places of worship.

The need for religious literacy is often taken to mean, a requirement to teach what I would call the ‘mechanics’: the dates and practices of festivals, artefacts, famous names and incidents. Such teaching may include an encounter with a person of the faith being studied, but this can be fleeting – an hour or two.

The real need is not just to be informed, it is to relate to the lived experience of different faiths, and this can only happen through individual relationships that are created over time in our neighbourhoods, schools, community centres and places of work. Everyday places, rather than constructed environments, where relationships can evolve and trust can be established, such that the ‘other’ remains different but no longer separate or threatening. These individual encounters create bonds, which the people concerned can then build into bridges between their parallel communities.

The individual benefits of encounter are learning and friendship, the social benefits are a foundation of understanding that prevents or mitigates conflict and promotes working together to tackle community problems.

The full extract from the meditation by Donne reads:
‘No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

Jill Segger writes about recognising our humanity in the suffering of others

It is when we are brought face to face with suffering that we most recognise our oneness. In that instinctive response, we are gifted with the truthful moment. And because humankind cannot bear very much reality, the acquired protections may quickly kick in. Most of these begin with 'but...' as we erect our defences of conditionality, of confirmation bias, of prejudice and exclusivity.

If one image above all others brought the terrible reality of the refugee crisis into our comfort zones, it was the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, face down in the sea on a Turkish beach. Of course, the normal adult response to the death of a defenceless child is one of horror and pain. But there was something else operating here. In his red shirt and blue shorts, Aylan was the toddler next door, dressed from the Boden catalogue. The protection of 'otherness' had been stripped away: we were enabled to acknowledge that this was Everychild and that his death had most horribly diminished us all.

How are we to use these openings which are given us when we encounter vulnerability – our own or that of others? It is not easy. The tendency to partisanship runs deep and we are perhaps more
ready to be disturbed or made timid by difference than we are to recognise the essence.

I am a Quaker. So, as most of us will, I turn to the experiences of my own tradition when reaching for understanding. Here are some words from the Epistle of the recent Friends World Committee for Consultation during which Friends from many different countries and strands of Quakerism came together in Peru: “Through listening deeply and tenderly to each other and to God, we reached a place where we can hear and sense where the words come from even when we may not understand the tongue they are spoken in.”

I feel therefore led to try harder to adopt and take for my guide the meaning of Namaste: 'my spirit recognises your spirit.' It is in this radical acknowledgement and in the practice of attention and humility which it surely mandates, that I believe we may learn to look beyond the outward forms which divide us and deep into the true commons of our species. That commonality is the Divine spark which war, selfishness, the machinations of politicians and the lure of short-term gratification can never quite extinguish.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told us that the pure in spirit will see God.

Jill Segger

What do we mean by Interfaith?

Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths
What do we mean by interfaith? We cannot even agree how to spell it – as one word, two words or, the Anglican compromise, with a hyphen? The word has only recently got into dictionaries. More importantly, what do we mean by interfaith work today?
Even the word ‘faith’ is ambiguous. Over the years ‘faith’ has changed its meaning. When Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths in 1936 he meant by faith an individual’s guiding conviction or belief. This is why WCF has continued to be based on individual membership.
Today in Britain ‘faith’ is often seen as a badge of identity. Your faith community tells you what you should wear, what you should not eat, whom you should not marry – even if you do not practise your religion.
As I said in my last blog, there is so much that religions need to do, and can do in a suffering world that we are drawn to working together. But at the same time we need to face the challenge of genuine difference while questioning traditional teaching that claims uniqueness and denigrates other religions. Unless we do go deeper, our relationships will remain superficial and fragile.
First we need to reduce ignorance about each other’s beliefs and practices. For example, many Christians now recognise that castigating Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous fails to acknowledge the Hindu sense of the Divine Spirit pervading all life. Even now people still do not know that God and Allah are different names for the Holy One, even though as long ago as 1076 Pope Gregory VII wrote to the Muslim Prince al-Nasir, ‘There is a respect which we owe to each other … because we recognise one sole God, although in different ways.’
But more difficult than ignorance is prejudice – for example anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. Still, fifty years on from Nostra Aetate, many people still do not know that Churches now make clear that Jesus was a faithful Jew and was put to death by the Roman authorities. People are still surprised when they are told that the Qur’an speaks of Jesus (Isa) as a messenger of God.
I know my own faith has been widened and deepened by sharing my beliefs and learning from others. Going on pilgrimage with Sikh friends to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where they bowed down in front of the Guru Granth Sahib, taught me a new respect for the Bible.
It is sometimes said that those who study comparative religion end up ‘comparatively religious.’ But, in fact, learning about what others believe has not, in my experience, diluted my faith in Jesus; but has deepened it.
When I first went to India, I remember being told that the exterior dialogue should be accompanied by an inner dialogue, in which you reflect on what you have heard or read in the presence of the Lord.
There are different defining insights and emphases in each faith rather in the way that when a mother dies, the children recall their memories. She was special to each of them but in different ways.
Each religion has a message for us all. The Qur’an itself says it is a ‘mercy for the world’ not just for Muslims and the angels good tidings when Jesus was born was ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
The interfaith discovery is that we can be loyal to our group but see other groups as enriching our faith rather than threatening it. The Native American leader Black Elk said that in a vision he saw ‘the hoop of my people and it was holy’. ‘Then’, he added, ‘I saw the hoop of many religions and I saw that they were holy too.’
The interfaith movement is a constant challenge to all parochialism and undue preoccupation with dogmas and ritual.
Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke

Larry Culliford writes following our Spirituality Conference

ALL WE NEED IS LOVE!

THE WORLD CONGRESS OF FAITHS AND SARUM COLLEGE
PROMOTING SPIRITUAL LIFE: an interfaith perspective

4 February 2016

FEEDBACK
Larry Culliford

The day felt something like déjà vu or time travel. The issues raised and discussed at the symposium were similar to those confronting the executive committee of the ‘Spirituality and Psychiatry’ special interest group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists after its inception in the late 1990’s, beginning with the question, ‘What is spirituality?’ In circumstances where colleagues, patients and their families came from many different world religions and none, we sought to develop a language of spirituality acceptable to all. Rather than worry about Humpty Dumpty’s highly egocentric perspective, the idea of poet Aline Kilmer (quoted in ‘The Week’ on 6th Feb) seems more useful: “Many excellent words are ruined by too definite knowledge of their meaning”.

The SIG Committee’s response led to the publication in 2002 of the original RCP leaflet ‘Spirituality and Mental Health’ – with sections on ‘What is spirituality?, ‘How is spirituality different from religion?’, ‘What is spiritual health care?’, ‘What difference can spirituality make?’, ‘Religious/spiritual assessment’, ‘Spiritual practices’, ‘Spiritual values and skills’, ‘The place of chaplaincy/pastoral care’, ‘Education and research’, ‘About the special interest group’, ’How to start…?’, Further reading, websites and references. (The latest version of the leaflet can be obtained free from the College and is available to download at: www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/treatmentswellbeing/spirituality.aspx)

James Woodward, in his opening address, referred to spirituality as ‘an unreliable concept’, to which I respond immediately that it may be better thought of as an aspect of experience (right brain), rather than the product of cognitive function (left brain). This gives rise to ineffability, a problem of description – the right brain not being directly connected to the speech and language centre, which resides in the left brain. However, spiritual experience, far from unreliable, affords trustworthy guidance and is often transformative. A useful phrase to mark this kind of spiritual effect on a person is simply, ‘Something happens’.

Whenever ‘something happens’ in this way, the deeply personal aspect of the individual is communicating (however briefly or imperfectly) with a universal realm or reality, improving awareness of a seamless and sacred connection to the divine, to nature, and to everyone else, to the entirety of humanity – living, deceased or to come.

There are two sets of ideas which I have developed to assist my own clarity of thinking around the topic of spirituality. The first concerns five seamlessly inter-linked dimensions of human experience: physical (matter and energy), biological (life), psychological (thought, emotions, sensations, impulses to speech and action), social (interpersonal relations, group dynamics) and spiritual (an originating principle, creating, linking, shaping the other four – the miracles of existence, life, consciousness and love). All are important. However, religions, for example, have important social as well as spiritual aspects, while personal spirituality is more concerned with the psychological dimension.

The second big set of ideas involves seeing ‘life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help you to learn, develop and mature’ (quoting from the RCP leaflet). In my books and the free access paper, ‘The Meaning of Life Diagram’, in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (See: www.maneyonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1179/2044024314Z.00000000019) I have comprehensively developed James Fowler’s 1981 ‘Six Stages of Faith’ renaming them Egocentric, Conditioning, Conformist, Individual, Integration and Universal. There are different attitudes and priorities at each stage, which explains more about why disagreements arise (both between and within different faith groups) than do theological or cultural distinctions.

A preoccupation with consensus and uniformity, for example, derives from dualist stage three conformist, ‘Either/Or’, ‘Right/Wrong’, ‘Us/Them’ type thinking. Preference for a more personal level of involvement is consistent with the stage four individual approach, requiring people to take responsibility, thinking and acting for themselves. This is a prerequisite for further spiritual development towards the quieter, homecoming waters of integration stage five and universal stage six wherein kinship with others is no longer a decision but more in the nature of an inner imperative based upon a recognizably shared reality, demanding expression of an innate disposition for compassion. This is where holistic or unitary, inclusive, ‘Both/And’ thinking and experience hold sway, the basis of true wisdom: thought, word and action (also, of course, silence and inaction) for the benefit of all, without discrimination.

People do not like to be thought of as immature, naturally; but the idea does speak of human potential for growth and ripening under fruitful conditions. The most fruitful conditions for spiritual development involve feeling secure, worthy and, especially, loved. There are many pathways to maturity, some enshrined in religious practice, others less well defined. The Royal College leaflet suggests that, ‘a three-part daily routine can be helpful: i) a regular quiet time (for prayer, reflection or meditation); ii) study of religious and/or spiritual material; iii) making supportive friendships with others with similar spiritual and/or religious aims and aspirations’. Seeking out a sympathetic and mature guide, guru or mentor may also be helpful (but caution: Beware of false prophets, spiritual materialism, etc.).

This is where inter-faith dialogue, communication and fraternization can also be of such remarkable benefit. Take, for example, the meetings over three days in 1968 of the Cistercian monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Merton later wrote, “I felt we had become very good friends… There is a real spiritual bond between us”. His Holiness reciprocated, speaking later of the “profound spirituality and love” in Merton’s eyes.

Love is a key concept in spirituality, breaking down barriers, building bridges of faith, understanding and acceptance. As I see it, spirituality knows no boundaries. Whereas terms like ‘Christian spirituality’, ‘Muslim spirituality’, even ‘Humanist spirituality’, do have meaning, they hark back to stage three, conformist (left brain) thinking, very helpful, but only as a platform for integration into something greater, something universal, something recognizable through intuition, even if beyond the reach of mere words.

This is where – individually and collectively – humanity is headed, according to De Chardin, through personal and social evolution towards the Omega Point. The World Congress of Faiths and Sarum College are undoubtedly playing their part. Faith, hope, patience and perseverance are required; and the continued promotion of spiritual over material values in all corners of society. Words, shared discussion and dialogue, can be important, but so too are silence, stillness, contemplation and prayer. Being and doing; Mary and Martha: both are of value. Clock time (chronos) is less significant in the search for wisdom than God’s time (kairos). As the Book of Proverbs has it: “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Ch 9: v 6). Alternatively, as the Beatles once advised: “All we need is love”.

Larry Culliford is a retired psychiatrist and author of ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ (O Books, 2007), ‘The Psychology of Spirituality: an introduction’ (JKP 2011) and ‘Much Ado about Something: a vision of Christian maturity’ (SPCK, 2015). See: www.LDC52.co.uk. Email: larry@LDC52.co.uk.

Living With Difference

Living with Difference, Rabbi Norman Solomon
The population of Great Britain has increased in half a century from 45 million to almost 65 million and its religious make-up has changed dramatically. 50 years ago 95% of UK citizens would have described themselves as Christians of some sort; in the 2011 census only 59% in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, while 25% said they had no religion; of those who claimed a religious affiliation Muslims were the largest group, followed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and others. However you look at it, this is a large number of people to fit on a small group of islands, with plenty of opportunity for majorities to oppress minorities or for minorities to annoy one another or for individuals to be lost or squeezed out. How do you get all of them, whether they like it or not, to live happily together as one great society working from the common benefit?
That is the problem addressed by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, set up by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, under the chairmanship of Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The 18 Commissioners, of whom I was one, included experts in law, theology and education and were drawn from across the religious and humanist spectrum of the UK; the results of two year’s work, including consultations with groups and individuals throughout the UK, were published in December 2015 in a Report under the title “Living with difference : community, diversity and the common good” (www.woolf.cam.ac.uk/news/detail.asp?ItemID=1004 ).
We addressed both the national problem and the needs of minorities and came up with a number of recommendations, several of them aiming to promote mutual understanding and acceptance. One of the most sensible and practical calls was for teaching, in faith schools as well as others, about the variety of religions to be met with in our society – training of suitable teachers is vital. This is complemented with measures to encourage the acceptance of a minimum of pupils of other cultures or religions in faith schools, to ensure that the young actually confront and learn to accept difference.
The Commission rightly drew attention to the risk that faith schools can be socially divisive and lead to greater tension - witness the consequences of segregated education in Northern Ireland. However, we stopped short of calling for the abolition of faith schools, preferring to recognize the benefits of the current system while calling for modifications to bring it in line with current social realities. How well are we preparing our children for the realities of the society in which they must find their place when they leave school? They should of course be taught about cultures and religions other than their own, but it is perhaps more important that they should actually meet with others on a regular basis, in the classroom and on sports field, learning to accept difference as a normal component of society.
Can the law help us to live with our differences? The law, the Report reminds us, “cannot change people’s hearts and minds. It can, however, restrain the heartless and can encourage the mindless to have due regard for matters they might otherwise neglect”. The Human Rights Act 1998 introduces a positive right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief equally with discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender, race and sexual orientation.
Should the law go still further and insist on compliance with human rights legislation by religious courts, including Batei Din (rabbinic courts) as well as Muslim Sharia courts and others? The London Bet Din already acts within the framework of law as a Court of Arbitration in civil disputes; on the other hand, it could not, as a rabbinic court, agree to end gender discrimination in such matters as divorce law, to the extent to which it can operate in that sphere. It is not easy to determine the circumstances in which the practice and teaching of religion should be treated as exceptional under human rights legislation; clearly it would improper to invoke equality law to insist, for instance, on the right of women or of homosexuals to be appointed as rabbis or imams.
Issues of Church and State were discussed, noting that the Church of England is no longer the dominant force it was when the present constitution came into being; Prince Charles, as we know, has expressed a wish to be ‘defender of faiths’ rather than ‘defender of the faith’. Is it still appropriate for the second chamber to consist of Lords Spiritual, drawn from the CofE, together with Lords Temporal? The Report recommends that representatives of religions other than the Church of England be appointed to the House of Lords, as indeed were the previous two Chief Rabbis. I was not happy with this, partly because I can see no way of deciding who should represent each community or even what communities should be represented, but principally because I take the view that if there is to be a second chamber – a question not within our remit – its members should be appointed or elected ad personam, not on the basis of ecclesiastical or other office.
I was occasionally bemused to hear fellow-Commissioners bewail the “religious illiteracy” of the media, in the professions generally and in government; how many times have I heard in gatherings that journalists (the favourite target) are “scientifically illiterate,” or “artistically illiterate,” or “economically illiterate,” or lacking in understanding of whatever it is the group specializes in! There are many calls in the Report for better religious education of journalists, teachers and administrators; this is certainly desirable, but I do not know how it is to be accomplished.
Publication of the Report in December attracted a lot of media attention, much of it welcoming, some of it predictably off target – we were accused, for instance, of calling for the abolition of Christian teaching in schools, when what we actually recommended was the dropping of the statutory requirement stemming from the 1944 Act that the school day should start with a compulsory act of Christian worship – a provision already largely ignored in practice. The real test will be how much of our recommendations find their way into legislation and common practice. People of all religions and none stand to benefit from the acceptance of difference, and from the outlawing of discrimination. At the same time we are all challenged. We expect others to be more understanding and accepting of us; are we – in the different religious communities - ready to take on board, especially in our school system, the measures that would lead our children to understanding and acceptance of others, and to a sense of identity with British society as a whole?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon, Oxford.
January 2016