Seeking a common spirit in dialogue: World Congress of Faiths 80th anniversary Conference

Seeking a common spirit in dialogue: World Congress of Faiths 80th anniversary Conference
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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.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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