Spiritual Awareness and Interfaith Relations

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.

Spiritual Awareness and Interfaith Relations

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).
Interfaith dialogue
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: jenny@cambcatalyst.co.uk

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