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

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.

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.


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.

Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, 17 Courtiers Green, Clifton Hampden, Abingdon, OX14 3EN 01865 407566

‘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 description

Mode Title


Simple friendliness and acceptance of the culture of others

“Tea and samosas”


Interest in and finding out more about the beliefs of others

“The pursuit of knowledge”


Joint celebrations to commemorate local or national events.

“Shared celebrations”


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

“The joint compassionate response”


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

“Universal justice and democracy”


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

“Faith Beyond Belief”


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.


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:

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

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.

Spiritual Awareness and Interfaith Relations

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
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.’
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.
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: