We are delighted to announce that our 2017 Essay Award is now open for entries.
Details are available here.
Please pass this on to any undergraduate or postgraduate student who might be interested.
Entries will be accepted until 31st July
We are delighted to announce that our 2017 Essay Award is now open for entries.
Details are available here.
Please pass this on to any undergraduate or postgraduate student who might be interested.
Entries will be accepted until 31st July
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 www.marcusbraybrooke.com
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.
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.
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).
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: email@example.com
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.
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.
From Jemma Jacobs:
I don’t want to be shy about the idea of a soul. This idea of a soul is in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindusim and many more. I love seeing how un-shy children and teens are to think about and discuss the idea. But the truth is that there is so much that I’m not okay about. I’m not okay about hearing about teenagers in my extended family with anxiety, insecurities, suicidal thoughts. I’m not okay with the research that shows how happiness levels decline in teenage years. My background and experience in secondary teaching, and also in leading a national peer education project for a youth charity, has shown me there is so much positive work being done to support children and young people. At the same time, I am aware of a deep sense that children and young people are not taught how to connect with their breath, their awareness, their hearts and their bodies, and those of others with respect and honouring, slowness and presence. And so, I am founding an interfaith organisation called FancyAChange:Peace to offer children and young people experiences of internal peacefulness, greater self worth and honouring for themselves and others.
I hope that if religion was developed for anything, it was developed to be helpful for people! Or at least, that is my interest in religion. How can it make life more beautiful? How can it be helpful and in service to people - to their hearts, to their happiness, to their sense of peacefulness. I know there is a lot of helpful and poetic information in all religions that can be supportive for people.
When facilitating meditation and awareness sessions for young people, one of my favourite activities is to ask them to notice whether they keep the same thoughts in their head, as they ruffle a zig zag shape through their hair. The truth is that once any of us get deep into a felt experience, the words come later. For many of us on a religious and/or spiritual path, we learn through experience which methods and pathways have given us an experience of peacefulness and know because of that experience that there is such thing as peacefulness and it is possible for us to feel it. I’d like to give as many children and young people as possible a way to find more choiceful awareness about their relationship with their minds and thinking, with their hearts and to tune in and care for their bodies, with a range of take home and memorable methods that work for them. The importance of time for quiet reflection and connection with oneself needs championing. In addition, an experience of this peace is a resource that can be recalled and practised as life continues, and the experience of peace in a community setting is invaluable.
At WCF’s symposium on spirituality, the striking points for me were that a consistent 30% of people across faiths and of none have had spiritual experiences (but often embarrassed to discuss them), that religion can help anchor a spiritual experience and that spirituality is often brought in and valued more at the coal face of life, eg in hospice care or psychiatry, where the focus is on finding what is helpful for people. We know that young people also need help, and that spirituality and meditation can be helpful.
The classroom can become an experimental lab to explore peacefulness. Through a non-dogmatic interfaith lens and accessible and fun activities, pupils can explore ways to experience peacefulness and self-reflection and to discuss their own responses to comforting and beautiful teachings from world religions on the Soul and on peace.
For the benefit of the wider community, bringing the teaching of meditation and self-awareness into the interfaith arena is a beautiful and invaluable opportunity to role model people of faith standing together in peacefulness and kindness in front of young people in their formative years.
So are you shy? Or do you want to talk about the soul with me and how we can offer these experiences to young people.
Blog by Jemma Jacobs
Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Jenny Kartupleis writes:
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.’
Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths
What do we mean by interfaith? We cannot even agree how to spell it – as one word, two words or, the Anglican compromise, with a hyphen? The word has only recently got into dictionaries. More importantly, what do we mean by interfaith work today?
Even the word ‘faith’ is ambiguous. Over the years ‘faith’ has changed its meaning. When Sir Francis Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths in 1936 he meant by faith an individual’s guiding conviction or belief. This is why WCF has continued to be based on individual membership.
Today in Britain ‘faith’ is often seen as a badge of identity. Your faith community tells you what you should wear, what you should not eat, whom you should not marry – even if you do not practise your religion.
As I said in my last blog, there is so much that religions need to do, and can do in a suffering world that we are drawn to working together. But at the same time we need to face the challenge of genuine difference while questioning traditional teaching that claims uniqueness and denigrates other religions. Unless we do go deeper, our relationships will remain superficial and fragile.
First we need to reduce ignorance about each other’s beliefs and practices. For example, many Christians now recognise that castigating Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous fails to acknowledge the Hindu sense of the Divine Spirit pervading all life. Even now people still do not know that God and Allah are different names for the Holy One, even though as long ago as 1076 Pope Gregory VII wrote to the Muslim Prince al-Nasir, ‘There is a respect which we owe to each other … because we recognise one sole God, although in different ways.’
But more difficult than ignorance is prejudice – for example anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. Still, fifty years on from Nostra Aetate, many people still do not know that Churches now make clear that Jesus was a faithful Jew and was put to death by the Roman authorities. People are still surprised when they are told that the Qur’an speaks of Jesus (Isa) as a messenger of God.
I know my own faith has been widened and deepened by sharing my beliefs and learning from others. Going on pilgrimage with Sikh friends to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where they bowed down in front of the Guru Granth Sahib, taught me a new respect for the Bible.
It is sometimes said that those who study comparative religion end up ‘comparatively religious.’ But, in fact, learning about what others believe has not, in my experience, diluted my faith in Jesus; but has deepened it.
When I first went to India, I remember being told that the exterior dialogue should be accompanied by an inner dialogue, in which you reflect on what you have heard or read in the presence of the Lord.
There are different defining insights and emphases in each faith rather in the way that when a mother dies, the children recall their memories. She was special to each of them but in different ways.
Each religion has a message for us all. The Qur’an itself says it is a ‘mercy for the world’ not just for Muslims and the angels good tidings when Jesus was born was ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
The interfaith discovery is that we can be loyal to our group but see other groups as enriching our faith rather than threatening it. The Native American leader Black Elk said that in a vision he saw ‘the hoop of my people and it was holy’. ‘Then’, he added, ‘I saw the hoop of many religions and I saw that they were holy too.’
The interfaith movement is a constant challenge to all parochialism and undue preoccupation with dogmas and ritual.
Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke