A Comment on the Reith Lecture
by Marcus Braybrooke
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.