Students, Astronauts and Interfaith Work

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


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