The question of identity which is the subject of this year’s Reith lectures(1) by Kwame Anthony Appiah is very relevant to those engaged in interfaith work. In his first lecture on Creed, he warned of distorting “the nature of religious identity by a fixation on faith.”
Taking the Jews who lived in Alexandria in the first century BCE as an example, Appiah says what distinguished them from their neighbours was “their hair and their beards, the clothes they wore; the foods they ate, the way they prayed, the scriptures they held holy. But,” he continued, “of the things that set them apart, which were matters of custom and which were matters of creed?”
Today also what often distinguishes people of different faith communities is their dress, their diet, or the festivals that they observe. The usual justification for these varying life-styles is that they are based on the scriptures (or the particular interpretation of them) that members of that community reverence. Appiah rightly warns of “scriptural determinism.” It is, he says, as if one could from scripture decant the unchanging nature of a religion, “like decanting wine from a pitcher.” In any case, as Cantwell Smith pointed out, the argument for the authority of scripture is circular. The community which regards texts as sacred is the very same community that gives them that authority by claiming they are revealed by God.(2) (One of my hesitations about ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ is the emphasis it puts on scripture!)
Appiah says that there are three dimensions of religion. First there is what you do – practice; secondly, who you do it with – community; and thirdly the beliefs – to which in his view we give too much attention. (Ninian Smart identified seven dimensions: Ritual; Experiential; Myth; Doctrinal; Ethical; Social and Material)
The significance for interfaith work is to identify the levels at which we are meeting. For some groups getting to know another community is sufficient as it enhances good-neighbourliness and social cohesion and may lead to shared action on social problems, as well as a sharing of food.
One way of getting to know members of another faith is to visit their places of worship and maybe to observe the worship which takes place there.
This can be followed up by learning about other peoples’ beliefs and maybe by reading some of their scriptures.
If however, we think of faith not so much in terms of identity – as the current phrase ‘faith community’ suggests – but think of it in terms of personal belief, as Francis Younghusband did when he founded the World Congress of Faiths, then ‘dialogue’ is not just learning about other religions but becomes an enrichment of one’s own spiritual life. Often besides my daily reading from the Bible, I read form other Holy Scriptures – at present the Guru Granth Sahib – with the same expectancy as I read the Bible, hoping to be inspired by them. One Muslim friend described the Qur’an as “Love letters from God” – a term I like to apply to all scriptures. In the same way, as we attend prayers or mediations with people of another tradition, we become not just observers but participants, rather as with my limited French, I gradually joined in the conversation, when I stayed with a French family.
The Quaker Douglas Steer spoke of “mutual irradiation”;(3) a group in India, which included Abishiktanada and Bede Griffiths, spoke of meeting “in the cave of the heart”(4) , in the USA, talk of “interspirituality” is becoming quite common.(5)
Our particular creedal identities – often a hybrid – can enrich each other rather than cause division.
1. Available on the BBC website
2. W.Cantwell Smith, What is Scripture? Fortress Press, 1994
3. Douglas Steer, Mutual Irradiation, A Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 1977
4. See my Pilgrimage of Hope, SCM Press, 1992, p. 236
5. See Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, New World Library, Novato CA 94949 or Kurt Johnson and David Robert Ord, The Coming Interspiritual Age Namaste Publishing, Vancouver 2012.
From Marcus Braybrooke
Mary and I first met Sir Sigmund and Lady Hazel Sternberg soon after I had become Director of the Council of Christians and Jews in 1984. It was at Gatwick Airport. We were on the way to the International Council of Christians and Jews. When Sigi saw us he came down the elevator which was going up. I realised at once that here was a man who would not let difficulties stand in his way.
At the time Sigi was Hon. Treasurer of the Council of Christians and Jews. Early on when I was worrying about finances, he said, ‘There’s no point having an appeal until we have a good sized deficit’ - which I soon supplied him with. Sigi was also then President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which he had done much to re-establish.
At that time, both ICCJ and CCJ were beginning to invite Muslims to share in their programmes and both Sigi and I thought that in time both would organisations would broaden their remit. I was also already active in the World Congress of Faiths (WCF), of which Sigi soon became a Vice-President.We both attended the first modern Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) in Chicago in 1993.
In the mid 1990s, CCJ made clear that its focus was specifically on Christian-Jewish relations, with its unfinished agenda. WCF and CPWR included all faiths. Sheik Zaki Badawi -a leading Muslim who was Head of the Muslim College in Ealing - and Sir Sigmund were aware that a piece in the interfaith jigsaw was missing. There was a need for a place where members of the Abrahamic religions could meet. Sigi rang me up and told me about this and I said it was a good idea. A few days later, I discovered that I was a Co-Founder.
There are times when you want the whole family together, other times when you want to be alone with your spouse or occasions when you may want to talk to one child by herself or himself. In the same way, each dialogue has its own dynamic – rivalry between interfaith organisations in a world where so much needs to be done is a disgrace.
Despite my surprise, I am very grateful for playing a part in the astonishing growth of the Three Faiths Forum. Mary and I were soon being introduced to Monarchs, Ambassadors, Cardinals, Rabbis, Imams and numerous Rotarians, as well as lots of enthusiastic young people. More important, with the growing importance of the Muslim community, the festering wounds in Israel/Palestine and the growth of extremism, Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue has a special importance, although 3FF rightly welcomes people of all religions or none to take part in its programmes.
Sigi took an interest in everyone he met. He and Hazel have been wonderful friends to Mary and me, as they have been to so many other people in many parts of the world. Indeed, interfaith is really about making friends – and friendship knows no barriers.
May their example inspire us, like those who kept faith in the dark days of the Shoah, to be united in opposition to violence and religious extremism and work together and pray for the healing of the world.
The World Congress of Faiths mourns Sir Sigmund Sternberg who died on Sunday 16 October 2016 aged 95. He was born in Budapest, Hungary. He emigrated to Britain in 1939 and was naturalised as a British citizen in 1947.
His contribution to the Interfaith world was immeasurable. Amongst many other achievements, he was responsible for the relocation of a Roman Catholic convent at Auschwitz, organising the first papal visit to a synagogue in 1986, negotiating the Vatican's recognition of the state of Israel and organising the erection of statues around the globe to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews from the Nazis but who perished , probably executed by the Soviets, some years after the Second World War.
He served as vice-president of the World Congress of Faiths for many years. He loved to attend our meetings and was generous in his support of our endeavours. Along with two other World Congress members, the Rev Marcus Braybrook and Sheikh Zaki Badawi, he was co-founder of the Three Faiths Forum. He was also the sole Patron of the International Council of Christians and Jews and attended their meetings in many different countries, always supporting the work of reconciliation and dialogue.
He was knighted in 1976, appointed a Papal Knight in 1985, and awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1998 for his interfaith work worldwide. His work for understanding between faiths took him to every continent and has brought him recognition from nineteen countries as well as the Vatican winning him many medals that he treasured.
He was a prominent member of the Movement for Reform Judaism, serving as its Life President.
Seeking a common spirit in dialogue: World Congress of Faiths 80th anniversary Conference
This post first appeared on www.ekklesia.co.uk
By Jill Segger October 10, 2016
A fruitful gathering of minds may be measured by the questions it raises rather than by the answers it provides. The 80th anniversary conference of the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) which took place in Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 23 September 2016, gathering academics, clerics and what might perhaps be described as religious professionals, met that metric.
Though fitting into none of the above categories, I did not feel out of place. A Quaker is something of a tabula rasa at such an event. Being without creeds, members of the Religious Society of Friends are largely free of the temptation to evaluate the faith stances of others in relation to a perceived standard of orthodoxy. 'Rooted in Christianity but open to new light', we are comfortable with paradox and are generally fluent in ambiguity – qualities which I hoped to find at this conference. I was not disappointed.
The theme of the day was 'Religious Pluralism and Interfaith: learning for the future'. The speakers and moderators came from the Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh traditions. Some spoke from a feminist perspective, others from a social stance while some considered the relationship of faith bodies to civil society. All, in different ways, addressed the difficulties, failures and obstacles which religions may both experience and present to others while offering fresh thinking and a sense of purpose for the future. They may, perhaps, have been in danger of preaching to the choir, but the potential – and indeed the necessity – of finding a means of understanding the commonality of faith as an integral component of human progress was powerfully made. In a society which tends towards religious illiteracy, yet is divided by faith and frequently hostile to it, that interfaith choir must step out from the shelter of what could easily become a theoretical and slightly self-satisfied space. It has to find a means of transcending evangelism, partisan interest and intellectual comfort if it is take its music out into a world to whom thinking in abstractions and conference-speak do not come easily. I do not claim to know how this is to be done but there were sufficient glimmers of light within the contributions to inspire the hope of a continuing evolution.
This is not a piece of straight reportage and will not therefore present a précis of each speaker's thesis. I will rather concentrate on the two contributions which spoke to my condition and which seem to me to stimulate reflection on present difficulties, hopes and future paths. The omissions do not represent a slight nor should they be read as indicative of a lack of interest.
The first speaker was Dr Alan Race, Chair of the WCF. He spoke of the passing of colonialism and empire. He reminded us that just as we now have post-colonial politics, we must engage with post-colonial religion – perhaps a particular area of difficulty for some strands of Christianity which, even if no longer adhering to the 'Christendom' model, may find it difficult to step out from its shadow. However, he suggested this is something of which we are learning to let go, enabling the discovery of the “pull to celebrate and not lament our differences” rather than seeking to make others in our own image – or, I might add – expect privileges for that template.
It is not everywhere so. He touched on Islamic State and the Hindutva movement, both of which align “the empire of the mind” with territorial claims. It must be acknowledged that there are groupings within Europe who do likewise in respect to Christianity.
Dr Race took four features from the inaugural WCF Conference in 1936 for our consideration and as a challenge to the present day:
An awareness that the world was undergoing the unprecedented birth-pangs of a sense of there being ‘one world’, of real differentiation but with a unity yet to be forged.
The fellowship to which world-conscious human beings were called was in some sense a natural outcome of the processes of history, needing to be met and recognised as such.
Recognition that any emerging ‘world-consciousness’ had considerable obstacles to overcome, not least the imminence of war (this was Europe in 1936)), the deep antagonisms between religions from the past, and the social conditions of many peoples in poorer parts of the world. These are of course, conditions obtaining just as strongly in our own time.
A sense of aspiration:
- towards universal brother(sister)hood
- towards some sense of rapprochement in religious understanding and cooperation
- towards assuming that spiritual vision is a step up in terms of models for ‘world-consciousness’ based on purely economic or political or philosophical reason alone
- towards thinking that differences need not be a hindrance to a fellowship of faiths and might even be an incentive
- towards trusting that individuals and traditions might share in a life of ‘spirit’.
I believe this last clause challenges us to reflect not on outward forms, but on experience – something which probably speaks to more 'seekers' in 2016 than would have been the case in the more formal culture of 80 years ago.
Dr Race's own book Christians and Religious Pluralism posits the idea that we all fall into one of three camps: exclusivist, inclusivist or pluralist. He emphasised that such a framing may be contested and the importance of people of all religions getting to know each other on a deep level before attempting much comment on each other's theologies. He cited a question once asked of an Anglican Archbishop: “ I want to know what you think of my religion” – an essential question which faces us with ongoing challenges of true respect rather than of working compromises or a pretence of more agreement than may actually exist.
The contribution of Reform Rabbi Tony Bayfield, Professor of Jewish Theology and Thought at Leo Baeck College, was entitled 'Observations from the cutting edge: challenges for the next generation'. Centring round that need to know each other, here exemplified in the dialogue of the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), he presented four main challenges: 'de-idolising sacred texts', 'the scourge of absolutism', 'the values of the post-modern western world' and 'the role of religion in modern western democratic states'.
Quoting the Californian philosopher Sam Harris, he points up a problem which lies at the heart of popular perception of religion as a source of conflict and violence: “A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion. It seems that if our species ever eradicates itself through war, it will not be because it was written in the stars but because it was written in our books”. Although objecting to the inherent crudity of this approach, Rabbi Bayfield acknowledged it as a major obstacle – one which the CCJ has learned to approach by asking “What’s the nature and authority of the sacred text in our many respective traditions? For me, for you.”
He describes the giving of Torah in this way: “It was an event witnessed for a few moments or minutes by a group of people without any frame of reference to comprehend or express what was happening. They talked about this unimagined and unimaginable event to each other, discussed it, compared notes, doubted it... told their children who told their children and eventually, in the fullness of time, redactors – acting in good faith and with integrity – committed the oral traditions to writing.” But it is not the process from oral to written which he sees as key, rather it is the fact that such a process of revelation is in itself an act of interpretation. “Is the text ‘from God’? Does it point to what is true? Is it ‘authentic’? Yes. But the text itself is still interpretation. Such a ‘post-modern’ view is, for me, both liberating and terrifying, totally characteristic of humanity’s relationship with the Divine. Many of us accept that interpretation is key to our tradition but can we accept that what we are interpreting is in itself interpretation? Have we any other option?”
These are questions from which fundamentalists shrink. When false certainty takes root because of fear of that gracious and loving interaction which respects and nourishes the limitations of the temporal and finite, we not only turn away from the truth, we make its pursuit a stumbling block for a culture which recognises and resents the presumption.
This is at the root of Tony Bayfield's second theme of absolutism and is a call to humility in the face of the Divine: "Isn’t it sheer hubris to suppose that any human being or group could grasp the whole of God’s Truth? Isn’t it absurd to suppose that God would entrust to any one group of people at any one time more than a fragment of the knowledge and experience of the One who cannot be captured and owned and who never ceases to surprise us?i That challenge isn’t just thrown down to the fanatics and deranged ‘out there’; it’s thrown down to all of us.” Indeed it is and we must rise to the challenge if we are to engage with the spiritual nature of humankind.
Among the values of the 'post-modern world' is that of a particular type of materialism which goes beyond consumerism but which obviously feeds that vice. Tony Bayfield describes it as the dominance of our public discourse by economics “to the extent that it’s well-nigh impossible to argue – in a way that will be perceived as grounded and plausible – that there are some situations where values other than those of economics need to take precedence”. He continued “I wonder the extent to which the theory and practice of our own faith institutions has been influenced by the dominance of economic thinking – let alone the extent to which our members are aware that we might offer a critique?” It is a question which disturbs and challenges. Failure to address it can only feed the alienation of those at present outside faith communities who may be less afraid of radical simplicity.
Considering the relationship between religion, society and government as the fourth of his themes, Rabbi Bayfield draws us back to the post-Christendom challenges presented in Alan Race's contribution. “Britain is a country the calendar of which, the rhythm, the landscape, our most important institutions – schools, universities, hospitals – have been deeply and profoundly influenced by Christianity. In that sense this is a Christian country and long may it remain so.” But, he says, despite the continuing appearance of Establishment, “it has been largely disempowered, a difficult, drawn-out and challenging experience the consequences of which are still very much felt and from which Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have much to learn in working out our relationship to ‘power and powerlessness’in modern, democratic secular states.”
Presenting these challenges to the next generation, he reminded us that “authentic religion can only emerge from a deeper relationship with and greater sensitivity to the other. We have to consider what humility demands and recognise the hubris still riveted to our doctrines and souls.” His conclusion? “We have to think deeply about how we work unempowered by the State amongst the disempowered within the State and, at the same time, how we exercise an authentic influence on society. All of which we can do with far more insight and far better judgement as a result of dialogue.”
Dialogue. Not syncretism nor 'cafeteria religion' – both epithets thrown at interfaith by some still wedded to a smaller vision. If we are so bound within our individual packaging that we cannot find a spirit in common, a cross-fertilisation of wisdoms and insights without fearing faithlessness or heresy, faith communities will have a diminishing role in the evolution of our societies. It is in such a failure that we will truly find ourselves faithless.
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.
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.
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 that 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'
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.
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.
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
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.’