For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jenny Kartupleis writes:

For whom the bell tolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The World Congress of Faiths
Collaboration House, 77-79 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 4PW UK.
Charity  No. 244096

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