Implications of Artificial Intelligence

Our member Pejman Khojasteh will be speaking at the Ian Ramsey Centre Summer Conference entitled Religion, Society and the Science of Life  on the subject of  the developments in artificial intelligence based on biotechnology and the implications with regard to religion and society.

Details of the Conference in Oxford are at www.ianramseycentre.info/conferences/2017-religion-society-science-life.html.

The abstract of Pejman's lecture is here

 

Arabic calligraphy inspiring global themes – Swadeka Ahsun

Meretz UK hosts award-winning international artist and campaigner, Swadeka Ahsun, on Saturday 20 May. WCF member Swadeka will display and also discuss her creations, whiarabic lettering_edited-1ch are inspired by Arabic calligraphy, Islamic culture, Western art history and natural scenes.

Contributions £7; refreshments served

Islamic artwork

Born in Mauritius, Swadeka lives in Belsize Square, NW3, and has exhibited throughout the UK, Europe, Middle East and the Gulf. Among numerous honours she has won the Muslim News Award 2016 and the Alhamra Award. She is a member of the Royal Society of Art and the Arab Jewish Forum. Swadeka currently supports EU projects as a partner in Creative Europe; she also serves as an outreach artist for the Queen’s Gurkha Logistic Regiment at Aldershot, Hampshire.

 

http://www.meretz.org.uk/event/arabic-calligraphy-inspiring-global-themes-swadeka-ahsun/

The Qur’an in a Cathedral

Marcus Braybrooke writes:

It is sad that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been overshadowed by criticism of the reading of a passage of the Qur’an in St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow. The more so because Abbḗ Paul Couturier, the founder of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity grew up in Algeria, where he had many contacts with Muslims.

During the Epiphany service at the Cathedral a Muslim law student was invited to read the Qur’anic account of the birth of Jesus, which also says, as Muslims believe, that Jesus was a prophet but not divine. The Provost of the Cathedral, who has since had many abusive online messages, said that the event reflected ‘’deepening friendship locally which had led to greater awareness of the things we hold in common and to dialogue about the ways in which we differ.”

Strong criticism of the event was voiced by Revd Dr Ashenden, a Chaplain to the Queen (although he has subsequently resigned the position) in a letter to the Times, to which I wrote this reply, which was published.

Sir,

It is well known that the Qur'an rejects the divinity of Jesus, but it needs to be better known that the Qur'an gives many honourable titles to Jesus. He is regarded with reverence by many Muslims, who add 'May God bless Him' whenever they mention his name. Professor S Vahiduddin, a former head of the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi, wrote, "Christ reflects in every act God's beauty: He is the embodiment of that tender aspect of the divine which Qur'an calls 'Mercy.'"

In making friends with people of other faiths, I have found it more helpful, while respecting our differences, to start with what we share. I was glad two years ago to be invited to a Muslim celebration of Christmas.

Persecution of Christians has been condemned by a large number of Muslim leaders. In 2015, for example, more than 500 Muslim students, who belong to the NGO Bargad, held a protest march and have taken positive steps to protect Christians from abuse.

When I lectured at the Muslim College in Ealing, I asked if I might give the students copies of the Bible. The suggestion was warmly welcomed and the College offered to pay for them.

--
Marcus
Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, 17 Courtiers Green, Clifton Hampden, Abingdon, OX14 3EN 01865 407566 www.marcusbraybrooke.com

‘All I have is a voice…’

Marcus Braybrooke writes:

The courage of Lamiya Hajj Bashar and the cruelty she suffered was vividly described by Ian Birrell in The Mail on Sunday (8.1.17). It prompted me to write to the Mail, which published my letter, urging people of all faiths to defend the rights of minorities.

Lamiya is a member of the Yazidi faith, who grew up in a Yazidi village near Kocho in northern Iraq. When IS took over the village, residents were told to convert or die. All the men and boys were slaughtered in the streets. Unmarried women and teenagers were forced to become sex slaves – their sufferings were horrific. The older women were shot dead.

Lamiya made repeated efforts to escape. Brought before a sharia court, she was told by the judge that either they had to kill her or cut off a foot to stop her escaping. Lamiya replied: ‘If you cut off one foot, then I will escape on the other.’

Eventually she did escape, although she was injured by an explosion.

Other minorities are endangered. Open Doors recent World Watch estimates that last year 1,207 Christians were killed for their faith and Christians are at risk in 38 countries – more than ever before. (Church Times 13.1.17).

People of faith should speak out in defence of all persecuted minorities, not just members of their own religion.

It is easy to feel helpless. “All I have is a voice,” as the poet W.H Auden wrote at the beginning of World War II. We should use it, like him, to affirm that ‘We must love one another or die.” His poem ends with these words

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Reflections on the 80th Anniversary Year

Jenny Kartupelis writes:

2016, the year of our 80th anniversary, has drawn to a close and as we move into 2017 it seems a good time to reflect briefly on the gifts of the year. Members of the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) have been joined at a variety of events by guests and new friends, who have in turn enriched the discussion and brought new viewpoints.

Planning in 2015 for the forthcoming anniversary, the Trustees reviewed the role of WCF in the light of wide ranging conversations with academe, practitioners and potential partners and in the context of other interfaith activity in the UK and beyond. They decided that there was a need for greater understanding of the interaction between spiritual life and interfaith relationships, and also that WCF could be well placed to facilitate exploring and promoting the potential of such interaction as a bridge between perspectives.

The year therefore started with a symposium at Sarum College, which brought together members, academics, and practitioners from fields ranging from local interfaith groups to professional psychiatry.

The resulting conversations, reflected in four articles by participants in the ‘Creative Encounters’ section of Interreligious Insight (June 2016) confirmed the importance of WCF as a facilitator and mediator of ideas into the public realm. In the editorial to this issue, Revd Dr Alan Race commented: ‘What was fascinating about the symposium was the emergence of a kaleidoscopic nature… of spirituality: it was an inherent quality in being human, connected as much with our bodies as our minds; it was transformative in character for individuals and society or it was nothing at all; it remains a vehicle for expressing human needs, sufferings, hopes and desires irrespective of the cultural shape those expressions take’ (p 5). A full report of the symposium will shortly be published in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality.

A full day conference in September 2016, held at Emmanuel College Cambridge, provided the perfect arena to take forward these conversations; the agenda covered both the history and future prospects for interfaith activity from a variety of perspectives. The theme of the morning was ‘The Growth of Religious Pluralism’, to which speakers Rev Dr Alan Race, Professor Ursula King, and Dr Ankur Barua gave (respectively) theological, feminist and Dharmic responses. In the afternoon the theme was ‘Religion in Society’, with Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield speaking on ‘Observations from the Cutting Edge: What are the Challenges for the Next Generation?’ and Professor Chris Baker on ‘Religion and Public life: beliefs, hopes and fears’.

To ensure a variety of contribution, each presentation was moderated by someone of a different faith and gender from the speaker, inviting discussion from the floor. The day concluded with ‘Reflections for the future’ from Dr Edward Kessler and Dr Riaz Ravat. Those attending rated the day very highly, with comments including ‘Good variety… with coherent theme running through the day’ and ‘Fantastic range and very high level engagement’; the Trustees therefore felt the event took forward the aim of WCF to ‘make interfaith activity in the UK more effective, by contributing through innovative dialogue to the improvement of understanding’ through a continual renewal and synthesis of relevant knowledge, garnered by members and partners, and mediated into the public realm.

The annual Younghusband Lecture in November was chosen to continue this trajectory by enabling the author of the groundbreaking study The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World to apply his theory for the first time in public specifically to questions of spirituality and religion. Dr Iain McGilchrist is a qualified doctor, scientist and philosopher, whose work is rooted in a detailed understanding and analysis of how the brain works, and the relationship between the right and left hemispheres. His thesis is that the modern world is facing a major problem, in that we are losing a holistic understanding of reality in favour of a more fragmented view based on a limited dualism, which is about being judgmental as opposed to judicious; this clearly throws an important light on how relationships between faiths are conducted. His presentation is summarised in our previous blog The Riddle of the One and the Many: the 2016 Younghusband Lecture, and further reflections appear in the article THE RIDDLE OF THE ONE AND THE MANY: the insight of Dr Iain McGilchrist and its relevance to practice in Interreligious Insight (January 2017) (pp 84-88).

While members and Trustees take seriously their aim to ensure that WCF plays a useful role in interfaith practice and spiritual life, they enjoy a party as much as anyone, and were delighted to hold a summer garden party for friends and supporters in the lovely setting of the Royal Foundation of St Katherine in London’s dockland area. The 80th anniversary was celebrated in style, with music provided by the Berakah Choir, and an endorsement in person of WCF’s work by Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society. The guest speaker was Harmander Singh, who is not only a tireless worker for interfaith, but also trains older Sikhs to run marathons. His presentation can be read in the blog Running is like a religion to me.

WCF is now looking forward with hope and excitement to welcoming members and friends to its 2017 events, trusting that these will prove stimulating, and provide more food for thought and action.

Huston Smith

Richard Boeke writes:

Huston Smith
Huston Smith

Friday, two days before the New Year,
My teacher and friend, Huston Smith died on the day my wife and I were flying back from Dulles Airport, USA to Heathrow, England. Huston's books and TV appearances influenced millions.
I was at his last class at U.C. Berkeley and joined 200 students in giving him a standing ovation. He adapted not just the texts but the rhythms of religions and while remaining a Methodist, could say,        "I never met a religion I didn't like."
I gave Huston's THE ILLUSTRATED WORLD RELIGIONS to William Swing, Episcopal Bishop of California. Swing phoned Huston and invited him to visit. In a few years Bishop Swing and his wife were mortgaging their house to help create United Religions Initiative (URI). Perhaps the World's most effective interfaith organization in reaching young people.
I was honoured to host Huston and his wife Kendra on a number of occasions including a World Congress of Faiths programme at Fintry House in South England and an International Association for Religious Freedom Conference at Palm Springs, California. He also shared with us at a programme at Harris Manchester College. Huston taught us there are many ways to experience "the ONENESS OF THE HOLY."

Yuletide Reflections

Kevin Commons writes:

Yule Tide Reflections

On 21 December the Turning Wheel Buddhist Temple was packed for the annual celebration of the winter solstice. We reflected on the regular pattern of movement through the seasons of the year, which reminded us of the omnipresent and perpetual nature of change. I was, however, aware of the beginnings of a sore throat which turned out to be quite a bad a cold. By Saturday 24th I had decided that I needed to rest and allow the cold to run its course. I was pretty washed out by 25th and so not able to go on the bike ride I had planned, although I was able to visit my elder daughter and her family for Christmas lunch.

I used the morning to listen, on the BBC I Player, to Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets from the previous Thursday’s “In our time”. I was astounded by the mystical content of Eliot’s writing though I have to confess to being pretty ignorant about poetry. However, I was disappointed that the discussion only went into the mystical aspect of the poems at the end and then only referred to Dame Julian of Norwich, who is quoted in one of the poems discussed. The literary experts seemed to miss many opportunities of making the obvious connections with eastern religion though, when they were talking about war, there was a reference to Arjuna1. There were no links made with either Taoism or Buddhism. It seems to me that Eliot through his Anglo-Catholicism had had experience of the ‘beyond words’ nature of reality (or Just Being) that is central to Zen.

This reminded me of my own background in Anglo-Catholicism and one of my favourite hymns (Corde Natus Ex Parentis) that was regularly used for the procession at the Christmas midnight Mass. Although I have been a Zen Buddhist for over twenty five years the opening two verses still have particular resonance for me:

Of the Father’s Heart begotten

Ere the world from chaos rose

He is Alpha from that Fountain

All that is and hath been flows

He is Omega of all things

Yet to come the mystic close

Evermore and evermore

By his word was all created

He commanded and ‘twas done

Earth and sky and boundless ocean

Universe of three in one

All that sees the moon’s soft radiance

All that breathes beneath the sun

Evermore and evermore

They point to the Oneness of All things or as we might say “All is One and All is different”. This point is underpinned by the notion of “End and Beginning” being essentially connected, which is apparently a major theme in much of Eliot’s work.

These ideas of the continuous flow of life reminded me of the Sandokai2, as is illustrated by the following extracts. First, the opening line:

From west to east, unseen, flowed out the Mind of India's greatest Sage

And to the source kept true as an unsullied stream is clear.

And later on:

And yet, in each related thing, - as leaves grow from the roots,

End and beginning here return to the source - and "high" and "low" are used respectively.

The scripture then points out that Zen practice is not about the victory of light over darkness, but rather states:

Within all light is darkness

But explained it cannot be by darkness that one-sided is alone.

In darkness there is light

But, here again, by light one-sided it is not explained.

Light goes with darkness

As the sequence does of steps in walking;

All things herein have inherent, great potentiality,

Both function, rest, reside within.

The next five verses of Corde Natus Ex Parentis are essentially a description of Christian theology but the final two verses revert to a more Universal theme:

Now let old and young uniting

Chant to thee harmonious lays

Maid and matron hymn thy glory,

Infant lips their anthem raise,

Boys and girls together singing

With pure heart their song of praise,

Evermore and evermore

Let the storm and summer sunshine

Gliding stream and sounding shore

Sea and forest, frost and zephyr

Day and night their lord adore

Let creation join to laud thee

Through the ages evermore

Evermore and evermore

It seems to me that this kind of reflection has the potential for a deeper form of inter-faith dialogue than often occurs. There are many different ways, or modes, in which people can engage in interfaith activities. Some examples are summarised in the following table:

Modes of Interfaith Engagement

Mode

Mode description

Mode Title

1

Simple friendliness and acceptance of the culture of others

“Tea and samosas”

2

Interest in and finding out more about the beliefs of others

“The pursuit of knowledge”

3

Joint celebrations to commemorate local or national events.

“Shared celebrations”

4

Joint action on individual issues of common concern as they arise that are for the benefit of others

“The joint compassionate response”

5

Systematic joint social and political action with others which promotes Kohlberg’s notion of the “Just Community3

“Universal justice and democracy”

6

Exploration of the deepest Truth by individual practitioners within their own religious tradition and willingness to share personal insights with others

“Faith Beyond Belief”

7

Realisation of the deepest Truth that is hidden behind the doctrines and dogmas of all the main world faiths and willingness to share personal understanding with others.

“Universalising Faith”

Unfortunately much of the formal interfaith activity seems to focus on mode 2 but usually it does not go beyond this, although there are some examples of interfaith activities that fit into mode 3 and 4, often on an informal basis. Quakers and members of the Bahá’í community worldwide are clearly concerned with issues located at mode 5 but there is little evidence of joint activity in this regard. Interfaith activity that focuses on modes 6 and 7, if it exists, does not seem to be very high profile. However, I am certain that there are practitioners in all religious traditions that are already looking more deeply into the meaning of their faith beyond the formal prescriptions of dogma and doctrine. Unfortunately, they do not seem to come together to share their insights, or if they do the fruits of their discussion is not widely published within the individual faith communities.

Maybe writing, like that of T.S. Eliot and other forms of poetry, including a few well chosen hymns, could be a fairly tradition-neutral catalyst for discussion in the ‘Faith Beyond Belief4’ and ‘Universalising Faith5’ modes of interfaith engagement6.

Footnotes

1. Arjuna is the central figure in the Bhagavad Gita.

2. Sandokai is a scripture recited in Zen ceremonies c.f. Kennett P.T.N.H (1990) “The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity” Shasta Abbey Press

3. See McDonough G.P. “Moral maturity and autonomy; appreciating the significance of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Just Community”, Journal of Moral Education, Volume 34, Issue 2, (2005)

4. Commons K. (2015) “Faith Beyond Belief; A Theoretical Background”, an e-book from: Leicester University Chaplaincy: www2.le.ac.uk/chaplaincy/world-faiths

5. Fowler, James W. (1981) “Stages of Faith”, Harper & Row

6. Since penning these reflections I visited the World Congress of Faiths’s web-site, which included dipping into the 2012 edition of its journal “Insight”, where I was fascinated to read Alan Race’s obituary for John Hick and John Barnett’s article “Is mystical experience beneficial to interreligious relations?” Their work suggests that dialogue at the deeper end of the spiritual journey between people of different faiths is not only possible but is probably happening, at least in written form, more than I am aware.

Appendix “Interfaith Celebrations”

That people of different religions can observe their own festivals etc is a necessary part of a healthy pluralistic society. However, there is a place for joint celebration as well but this is more difficult. I have long held the opinion that the only spiritual activity that people of any faith (or none) can engage in wholeheartedly, without compromising their beliefs, is silent meditation/contemplation. On the other hand sitting together in silence does not have the feel of celebration. In practice joint celebrations are not really joint activities but rather events managed by one religion with people from other religions invited and joining in as best they can.

Singing together is a good form of celebration, which is regularly done in a variety of contexts both religious and secular. I could not help wondering whether there might be some mileage in developing religious songs that have a universal applicability. Consequently, I have taken the first two and last two verses of Corde Natus Ex Parentis and tweaked the wording in an attempt to produce a faith neutral hymn that might have meaning for people of any religion or none. The following is the result:

Of the Heart of All begotten

Ere the world from chaos rose

It is Alpha from that Fountain

All that is and has been flows

It is Omega of all things

Yet to come as life on-goes

Evermore and evermore

By Its word was all created

It commanded and ‘twas done

Earth and sky and boundless ocean

Universe of three in one

All that sees the moon’s soft radiance

All that breathes beneath the sun

Evermore and evermore

Now let old and young uniting

Chant aloud harmonious lays

Maid and matron hymn Its glory,

Infant lips their anthem raise,

Boys and girls together singing

With pure heart their song of praise,

Evermore and evermore

Let the storm and summer sunshine

Gliding stream and sounding shore

Sea and forest, frost and zephyr

Day and night the Source adore.

Let creation join in contemplation

From the first and yet to come

Evermore and evermore