Interfaith Dialogue

Sharing Scripture – a Bahai and a Christian encounter the Gospel of John

A Guest Blog by Allan Forsyth

If you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding
between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair.
Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated
by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the
past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from
a different faith background to explore this.

Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got
to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our
friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It
became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of
and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued
me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there
was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel
of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so
and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on
Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to
move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).

The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very
powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that
was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates
substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more
extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3
verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute
comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we
have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.

So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is
direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature
;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points
towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is
John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be
lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a
pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I
would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during
the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or
three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we
were doing.

My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the
Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual
rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us
reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong
friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to
gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into
“agreeing to continue to explore”.

Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and
invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next
to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It
has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However
rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a
Muslim or Sikh to study it with.

In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound
and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required
if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity
cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that
can be woven together in common purpose.

Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

arrupe-at-prayer_origThis week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

Lockdown on Holy Isle

A Guest Blog by Niamh Margaret Dillon. Niamh is a parishioner of St Augustine’s Church, Milton, and has spent lockdown on Holy Isle during her gap year. Niamh will soon go to study law at Edinburgh University.

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Volunteers on a pilgrimage to St Molaise’ cave in celebration of his feast day. Photo courtesy of Kevin Curtis. www.kevintjcurtis.com

The Holy Isle lies across from Arran, spanning only two miles in length but 1000 ft high, and is, at certain times of the year, almost totally obscured by the mist and rain typical to this climate. Unassuming as it may sound, the small island is home to something very big: a vibrant spiritual community, with a remarkably rich history that marks it as having long been a sacred space, and a place where people – irrespective of background or faith – gather together on retreat, or to work in service of the land.

When I first arrived here in early March, expecting to stay for just three weeks, talk of coronavirus was barely on the radar. My thoughts were more directed on how I was feeling to be embarking on this new and wholly unfamiliar adventure. Yet not for a moment did I expect to love and be moved by it quite so much in the way I have, nor to still be living here two months on.

Upon reflection, as someone who had only known city life till this point, it was a much bigger transition than I even realised at the time- but an apt and welcome one. The island is populated more by animals – goats, soay sheep, and Eriskay ponies – than by people and, during March, the winter retreat was ongoing; meaning, for the most part, the centre and its inhabitants were in silence. So stirring was trying to process a completely new perspective on living, it’s easy to miss how this environment gradually moulds you over just a short space of time.

There’s a concept in Buddhism of ‘voidness’- the closest English translation from the original Tibetan phrase- fully explained to me by 80-year-old Yeshe Sid, long-time resident, as well as my only fellow Glaswegian on the island.

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80-year-old Yeshe Sid, originally from Glasgow, in the mandala flower garden

The best mediation is awareness,” he says. “[The principle of] voidness is recognising the empty space that exists within everything. The space that fills us is the same as the space that is in nature.

This relates to why many choose to spend their time on Holy Isle in silence.

By choosing not to speak, you become more mindful of your words and what you’re filling the empty space with. By not putting energy into filling this space, you allow yourself to direct your energy to your mind.

It allows you to look within, and is rooted in mindfulness in all you do- reflecting on the question of ‘Is it meaningful?‘ It’s easy to practice this when in meditation or prayer, but exercising these principles in everyday life is the real task for all of us. I feel, without even being fully aware of this development as it was happening, I’ve gained more clarity; a heightened awareness of my own habits and thought processes.

That sense of meaningfulness is palpable in all aspects of life here. One realises the gravity of even the smallest tasks when rooted in the value of service, and carried out in honour of the island. It’s been a real lesson observing the mindfulness and heart that volunteers apply to duties such as preparing meals, cleaning, and harvesting – to name a few. It’s a special way of making everyone feel involved and part of the holistic body of the land, showing us how powerful what we do and say can be; an expression of working together towards similar, yet simple, outcomes.

I’ve delighted so much in learning from the wonderful residents of the island, exploring with them skills that are as fulfilling as they are practical, but that seem to be dying out in modern-day life. There’s something spiritually significant and rewarding about relearning trades that would have been commonplace for our ancestors. Being able to source a material back to its origins in the earth – a hat made from gathering wool the sheep begin to shed at this time of year, or planting something you know will eventually end up on your plate – is a gratifying, significant process. It is fruit of the hard work and devotion of the Holy Islanders, and now, an important aspect of living I had never before considered. Lockdown aside, so greatly was I revelling in exploring all these new practices, and in the joy of the company, I had already begun thinking about extending my stay.

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“May peace prevail on earth.”

The coronavirus has brought the world to a halt. It’s further exposed the fragilities and unsustainability of an already-ailing system, and brought into focus what we really value. In amongst the inevitable fear and confusion have arisen heartening stories that speak to the resilience of communities. There’s a special synchronicity apparent to me here – both on Holy Isle and ‘the outside world’, communities were the thing that came to the forefront. Whilst it seemed like everything else our society knows was crumbling, community was the thing that demonstrated both effectiveness in dealing with an unprecedented challenge, and the staying power to match. It’s been uplifting hearing stories from my own area of Glasgow, about the generosity among neighbours, and to see the endless dedication of our local food initiative and similar projects in ensuring no one falls through the cracks during lockdown.

Many people have commented how glad I must be I didn’t opt to spend my gap year in Thailand, or some similar quintessential destination, and they’re right. However, this isn’t just because of the uncanny timing in relation to the pandemic. How fortunate we on Holy Isle are to be some of the only people in Europe who can be close to one another, share meals together, and be in nature as we please is not lost on me for a moment. But, moreover, because connecting with the communities and cultures on my doorstep, in my own country, has been infinitely more fulfilling and fruitful than travelling to a far-flung destination ever could have been. Sitting so close to home just off the west coast of Ayrshire, to me this enchanting island is an exciting hub of interfaith work in Scotland. Both an accumulation and inspiring vision of all our nation can be and has to offer, epitomised in the warmth of the community – devised of residents, notably, from all walks of life and parts of the world-, the enigmatic energies that have been recurrently and inexplicably drawn to it throughout the ages, and the story of St Molaise himself – the son of Scottish and Irish royalty – who spent ten years here in solitude.

Until 1992, Holy Isle was in possession of a devoted Catholic woman who, following visions from the Virgin Mary, handed it over to the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. These origins are, in themselves, magical. The co-operation and unspoken understanding between two different faiths has led to the development of a project as wonderfully blessed, healing, and steadfast as this one.

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Volunteers working in Lama Yeshe’s garden

I have been so impacted by this little island. I think often of how loud life will seem when I step off the train at Glasgow Central Station- whenever that day may come- into a changed post-coronavirus world that I have been so removed from. Yet I’m assured in the knowledge that the lessons and stillness of this precious time on Holy Isle during lockdown is something I’ll carry with me always.

Dialogue in Edinburgh

Fr Jock Dalrymple is the parish priest of the the sister Catholic parishes of St John the Evangelist, Portobello and St Mary Magdalene, Bingham, both in Edinburgh. In our guest blog he reflects on recent events in his busy life…

One thing leads to another…on Thursday 28 November, two and a half weeks after ‘First Spring’, the Moslem cultural celebration in the Carmichael Hall in Giffnock in Glasgow, I was also invited to speak at the first ever reception for Islamophobia Awareness Month, held in one of the committee rooms in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

The co-ordinator of the event was the Muslim Council of Scotland along with the Cross Party Group on Islamophobia: among those present and speaking were Anas Sarwar MSP and Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary, as well as representatives of different civic organizations and bodies such as Police Scotland. Edinburgh East’s Westminster MP Tommy Shepherd was one of those who popped in to listen.

The statistic that has remained with me from others’ presentations was that while Moslems in 2011 (the most recent census) are only 1.4% of the Scottish population, 38% of Scots think they make up over 20% of the population.

When it came to my turn to speak, I repeated much of what I had said at the Carmichael Hall, stressing the value of encounters such as our two evenings with Imam Hassan Rabbani in Portobello, since bigotry is effectively countered when we meet together to listen with respect and learn from and about each other. I also referred again to the recent meetings of Pope Francis with one of the great figures of the Moslem world, the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and how in February 2019 in the United Arab Emirates – the first time a Pope had visited the Arabian Peninsula, site of Islam’s holiest shrines  –  they had (another first) co-signed a document ‘On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’.

I concluded by describing what Pope Francis called the golden thread of his vision, namely encounter and dialogue, in his native Spanish,  ‘caminar juntos’ – walking together; and how such dialogue was only possible if three basic elements were present and interlinked, namely ‘the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others’; ‘the courage to accept differences’;and ‘sincerity of intentions.’

The response was gracious – and the event highlighted for me and I think for all of us present the need to continue to work together to fight against the further fragmentation of society on lines of hate and division, and more positively, to benefit from the fruitfulness of encounters with open minds and hearts between people of  different faiths and cultures.

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Click here to see and listen to Fr Dalrymple’s conversation with Imam Hassan Rabbani.

Click here for Fr Dalrymple’s blog reflecting on his dialogue encounters.

 

Celebrating 20 Years of Interfaith Scotland

Taken from the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – www.interfaithjourneys.net

Interfaith Scotland is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It began life as the Scottish Interfaith Council. It was accepted as a Scottish charity by OSCR, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, on 10th October – the date chosen for the 20th anniversary celebrations. But as you might expect this was not the launch of the Council but rather the end point of many years of discussion and dialogue which had grown in importance after Scotland had voted to have its own Parliament.

It was on 1st July 1999 that the Scottish Parliament was opened by the Queen. It was, in the words of Ian Crichton Smith “the beginning of a new song for Scotland”. It was a day of rejoicing, redolent with possibilities and hope. There was a new sense of what it meant to be Scottish and a desire to make the Parliament work. There was a desire on the part of the new government to be inclusive of all faiths and none, indicated by the fact that the chair of the newly formed Council was present in Holyrood that day and took part in the joyful procession up the Royal Mile past the Queen and beaming new First Minister Donald Dewar.

Discussions about a national interfaith body had been taking place since 1992, encouraged by Brian Pearce of the UK Interfaith Network who probably foresaw the implications of devolution for interfaith relations in Scotland in a way that those of us engaged in interfaith at the time didn’t. The Interfaith Network had been launched in 1987 and as part of its work had occasionally held networking meetings of local interfaith groups in Scotland, of which at the time there were only four – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

In 1994 I undertook to explore the idea a Scottish Network. I met with whole range of people from faith communities as well as a number of interfaith practitioners the length and breadth of the country.  There was a lot of interest in this but a certain hesitancy because of a concern that a new structure might divert time and energy away from existing interfaith initiatives and faith community commitments, some of whom were setting up new initiatives to interact with the Parliament. It was about this time that the Churches Parliamentary Office, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the Muslim Council of Scotland were established.

What emerged as a result of this research was a Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group located within the framework of the UK Network and formed by representatives of bodies that had membership in Scotland and were already affiliated to the Network. This was expanded to make sure there was a fair representation of all the major faiths in Scotland.  Conversations tended to focus on the kind of Scotland we wanted to live in and what the new Parliament would mean for faith communities. One meeting I particularly remember showed that, apart from the Christians,  religious freedom was a real concern among people of the other faiths  – something that had never entered the head of the majority faith.

It was these discussions and the recognition that others were planning some kind of relationship with the Parliament that led in the end to a more formal organisation – called the Scottish Interfaith Council with representative membership from the major faiths and the established interfaith groups.  Although it was formally recognised as a Scottish charity on 10th October 1999 it had actually been launched weeks before that in St Mungo’s Museum by Patricia Ferguson the deputy Presiding Officer of the Parliament. The link with Government was important and its support helped establish us. As happens so often things happen by chance. It was an encounter with Jack McConnell MSP and his wife Bridget, Head of Glasgow Museums, at a Royal Garden Party that  we got the promise of a senior politician to launch the Council and  a desk at St Mungo’s Museum from which to work.  In the beginning we had to learn how to work together and how to develop this burgeoning organisation.  Almost immediately problems of membership and identity arose – something that we in our naiveté had not foreseen.

Immediately after the launch of the Council we received a letter from the First Minister’s office saying that he would like to meet with the Council on an annual basis – an extension of the traditional meeting that the Secretary of State for Scotland had had with Church leaders. It was at the second of these meetings that the then First Minister, Henry McLeish, offered us funding which allowed us to employ a secretary and development worker. This meeting with the First Minister continues until today.  Another significant moment was the request from the Moderator, the Cardinal and Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh to organise a gathering of religious leaders as a response to the attacks of 9/11 2001. It took place in Scottish Churches House, Dunblane, and included a reflection on the values on the Scottish Mace: wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion as values that united us in our common concern for the future of Scotland.  This meeting also continues until today.

There never was a master plan for the Scottish Interfaith Council – it grew gradually, eventually changing its name to Interfaith Scotland. But it has continued to flourish thanks to the involvement and commitment of so many people who participated in its development and continue to work for it today.  It has made a significant contribution to interfaith relations in Scotland and to the well – being of our country. Long may it flourish!

The Home We Build Together

From Sr Isabel Smyth SND – Interfaith Journeys

The school summer holidays are over in Scotland and there’s a sense of purpose and industry around. After a quiet few months our interfaith committee has become very busy. In the last week or two there has been an Eid dinner hosted by the Scottish Ahl-alBayt Society, a day with Church students, taking them to places of worship and introducing them to the work of interfaith in Scotland, a meeting with young people from three Catholic schools, working with St Mungo’s Museum to plan a programme which they will organise in their schools during interfaith week and a 24 hour colloquium on faith in public life.

This colloquium has become an annual event but this year it was special. For one thing we planned it in partnership with the Justice and Peace Commission and the Bishops’ Parliamentary Office and we had a Sunni and Shia Muslim and a Baha’i participating. This meant the majority of people attending were Christian but even this small number of people from other faiths made a tangible and significant difference. It was important to have an interfaith dimension, even if small, as we were reflecting on our common civic identity. The inspiration for the event and the title of the colloquium came from Lord Jonathan Sack’s book ‘The Home We Build Together’.  In that book Lord Sacks suggests that the image of a home could be a powerful motivation for people of all faiths and none to work together to bring about the kind of society we would all like to live in – in other words to work for the common good.

The key note speaker, who set the scene for subsequent reflections and discussions, was Lord John Mcfall, a person of faith with long experience in politics. He reflected on the relationship between faith and politics, suggesting that both have the same intention in that they are working for a better world. He had some interesting and challenging things to say. Change, he said was the only reality in life and not to be afraid of it. While we lived in a time of instability and insecurity, people were yearning for answers to the big questions of life, something religion had to offer. It could be that religion might be the only architecture to hold society together – quite a challenge!

Cardinal Newman has a famous saying ‘to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often’. But on the whole religions are conservative institutions and not often in the forefront of change. Religious founders were certainly innovators, often challenging the inflexibility of the conservatism of the faith and culture from which they sprung. But the developing tradition has a tendency to institutionalise the charisma and put its energies into maintaining the tradition. Religion, like nations, can look back with nostalgia to a golden age when all was well, stable and secure. But there was, of course, no such thing. Such thinking is a refuge from a world that is frightening in its insecurity and instablitiy. It’s this kind of thinking that has given rise, I think, to what we call identity politics, an attitude which also influences religions. There’s real evidence of a battening down the hatches in both religion and politics – a fear of the other, a sense that others are out to get us and we must look after ourselves and our own interests or ‘they’ will take over and deprive us of our livelihood and identity. In so far as this is the case, religions are in danger of setting themselves against society, rather than being the architecture that holds it together. This is only possible by embracing society, looking for the positive and good and speaking truth in love while inspiring fellow citizens to commit to accepting the human dignity of all and working for the common good.

To do this religion needs to learn a new language – the language of citizenship which Rabbi Sacks suggests should be the first language of us all, despite our second languages of ethnicity or faith. Someone at our colloquium suggested we needed to be bi-lingual. This may well be true but perhaps faith communities need to reflect on how far their language, especially in the area of morals and values, reflects the reality of today and is expressed in language that is positive and meaningful. In my own Church much of the language of faith and morals uses medieval concepts which are no longer relevant and suggest a cosmology and reality that is outdated. No wonder young people cannot take it seriously and are ahead of us in meeting some of the issues facing our planet and its future.

There was much more of course and in due time a report will be published on our website. Recently Pope Francis encouraged us to avoid unproductive discussions. In interfaith no meeting is unproductive if it establishes a  bond of friendship and understanding but it was good to have discourse over matters that are important to all of us. The intention is that this should be the start of many more productive dialogues.

Thoughts and Perspectives

A blog by Anthony MacIsaac

Events of the past few months have only highlighted how very important inter-religious dialogue is for our society, and for ourselves in the end. Not all of these events have been pleasant, some indeed have been shocking and tragic.

From my own Catholic perspective events in the institution of the Church, regarding sexual abuse and it’s cover-up, have rocked and made vulnerable trust, hope and even faith in the whole project. I have heard this from many of my friends committed to the faith, and have felt something of it myself recently. Such problems that can present themselves from within the heart of a community of faith, raise perhaps the deepest spiritual questions to us.

They also reveal how we can never truly be certain in our journey – organised religion tends to provide frameworks, and frameworks on occasion make it hard to find our way. It is my view that we can only hold fast to that which we find to be life-giving. If we believe in a living God, as I do, then this is essential. With time, certainly if we are people of hope, the community may transform and might remedy the mistakes of its members – however high ranking or low ranking they may be. We may be needed in this very task!

It is helpful to consider that similar divisions within other communities also exist. To take an example, in contemporary Islam, there is this tension between the life of faith in a secularising world and the rigid interpretations applied to the code of Shari’ah Law. The recent legalisation of stoning to death in the Sultanate of Brunei conveys precisely this contradiction, and indeed points out the problem. Reading this development, we can and should only feel outrage.

For many Muslims, this is also the prevailing feeling. Yet among my own friends who happen to be Muslim, despite these feelings, there is also a reluctance to condemn the Sultanate and certainly a reluctance to question the Law in its ideal. Is this similar to what we see among those Christians who wish to avoid the subject of child abuse? Maybe. Criticising the frameworks of one’s religion presents natural difficulties, and is a delicate matter indeed.

It might well be rare also to find Jewish people ready to condemn some of Israel’s actions. Even although it remains a state apart from the religion, the cultural connections are so strong that to many it too is part of the broader Jewish identity. They may well feel that in critiquing it, they would thus be critiquing their own faith. Yet this is still a controversy generating headlines each year, and causing untold misery on all sides. So how is cooperation between the different faiths in Israel and Palestine, without some honest discussion on the hard issues, going to be possible?

This hard dialogue – interior and exterior – is absolutely vital in my eyes. The desires in the Abrahamic faiths are noble – we each seek to lead good and Holy lives, shining with hope, love and peace. We are even after the same God. This gives all of us, who are of good will, a great starting point. For when we are of good will, we are also committed to a common Humanism. This sharing of our simple Humanity; augmented by our beliefs, and anchored in God, helps us work together.

Prhaps taking our institutions a little less seriously, and focusing instead on the spiritual bounties that they offer, would help in resolving any discomfort or even shame we feel when confronted by scandal and abuse. Of whatever stripe, in whatever community.

Should we truly desire change, and the promotion of all that is just and humane, we need to be strong and brave. Moreover, we ought not to “go it alone”. The role of the Prophet “crying out in the wilderness” is that of a hero, often beyond that of which we may be capable. It is very often also unnecessary. Indeed, finding like-minded people within our tradition is significant for helping us resolve the interior conflicts we may feel. Finding also like-minded people outwith our tradition helps in dealing with the exterior world – and once more, in not taking it all too seriously! This is where inter-religious dialogue as such comes in.

The solidarity shown by various people of faith around the world, including in Scotland, with our mosques was inspiring – after the horrifying terror attacks in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Charity breeds charity, and I know of many who were touched deeply by these gestures – however small.

We can only hope that as crises erupt throughout the religious landscape, the quiet and good willed spirit of compassion and Holiness continues to prevail in the end. Much of this starts with how we interact as individuals, with all the people we meet. To avoid the poison of “cultural war”, it is vital we have our say and make our mark in the lives of others, in a positive way. The alternative is beneath the aspirations shared among the great world religions, and one of only yet more pain. 

The Ark of Fraternity

Blog by Sister Isabel Smyth

Pope Francis made a historic visit to Abu Dhabi, the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and by all accounts the visit seems to have been a success. At the Interreligious Gathering the Pope acknowledged that he was following in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi who had met the Sultan al-Malik al Kamil 800 years ago during the Fifth Crusade, a meeting during which each recognised the other as men who knew and loved God. It’s said that for twenty days they conversed with one another about the ways of God.  Like his namesake, Pope Francis came to Abu Dhabi as a pilgrim of peace, stating “I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace”.  He called those present at the Interreligious Gathering at which he spoke to a new way of being together, “we too in the name of God, in order to safeguard peace, need to enter together as one family into an ark which can sail the stormy seas of the world: the ark of fraternity”

What a wonderful image – the ark of fraternity! So often the ark has been used as a bulwark against those who are different, protecting communities from the enemy, the only place that is secure and safe in a troubling world. Noah’s ark, to which the Pope refers, saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the rest of the population who were living a sinful life. The ark  was a place of  justice and goodness and only within it was one safe. This image was transferred to Christianity where Jesus was seen as the Ark of Salvation. Only within the confines of a relationship with Jesus could people be saved and protected from the forces of evil that raged not just in the world but in other faiths too. For the Catholic Church this ark came to be associated with the Catholic Church so that membership of that Church alone could guarantee salvation. Thank God this attitude has changed though many religions are still suspicious and fearful of religious proselytization and conversion which reflects a little of that mind-set.

Now we have the image of the ark extended and expanded to include all those who desire peace and recognise the common humanity of all.  We are quite literally in the same boat, members of the same species, interconnected with one another, facing the same hopes and joys, concerned about and vulnerable to the future of our planet and our world. As the Pope said, echoing his two predecessors, “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.”

In his speech the Pope set out a full agenda for humanity if we are to establish this ark of fraternity and truly recognise one another as brothers and sisters. This includes an appreciation of plurality and recognition of difference, a sense of our own identity, while respecting the identity of others, a protection of the rights and freedoms of others especially religious freedom. What the Pope wants for all of us is an open identity that doesn’t in any way compromise who we are or closes itself off from others but is enriched by our relationships.

Dialogue of course plays a part in all of this. Religions, the Pope says, “cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretence, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace”.   And something not often mentioned in interreligious dialogue, but mentioned by the Pope, is prayer “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!”

During his stay in Abu Dhabi the Pope signed a document with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Its title is: On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It’s easy to dismiss these kind of initiatives. Often documents and statements are assigned to the bookshelf if not history and readily forgotten but the fact that two very prominent leaders from Christianity and Islam have signed such a document is significant and it’s always on hand to be used as reference for the best intentions of the two faiths, even if we, their members, don’t always live up to the ideal. So what do we do with it? Hopefully we Christians and Muslims, with others, will dialogue about it. Hopefully, we will take it seriously and begin to think in terms of an ark of fraternity and, as the document suggests, the document itself will become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation”. Now wouldn’t that be something?

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art

 Harry Dunlop reflects on the work of St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.

Over the past year we have been quietly marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the museum in April 1993.  A lot has changed since that here in Glasgow and beyond. However when it comes to interfaith dialogue and co-operation the cultural and religious landscape has indeed changed considerably. When the museum first opened our only interfaith stakeholder and partner was the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths group – perhaps the most important multi-faith organisation in Scotland for a generation.

In April as part of our monthly Faith to Faith dialogue workshops we marked this milestone anniversary with a conversation between four key people who were deeply involved in the creation and subsequent development of the museum story: the Project Director Mark O’Neill, Dianna Wolfson of the Jewish Community, Brij Gandhi of the Hindu Community and Sister Isobel Smyth from the Christian Community.  Dianna, Brij and Isobel are all original members of Glasgow Sharing of Faiths Group and it was a real insight for those present as they shared not only what drives their personal commitment to interfaith but also what the St Mungo Museum means to them as a unique interfaith resource.

Glasgow Sharing of Faiths no longer exists and has been superseded by Interfaith Glasgow.  Our partnership working and co-operation with Interfaith Glasgow continues to grow from strength to strength – indeed our joint monthly Faith to Faith programme is an example of that mutual flourishing.  On Sunday our November event took place at Garnethill Synagogue where we listened to stories of Jewish and Sikh soldiering and how these faith communities contributed and in many cases gave their lives in both world wars and in other conflicts.  It was encouraging and moving to learn about these important but often overlooked historical narratives. Another example is the recent successful ‘Religious Dress in the Flesh’ event created with the support of another partner – the University of Glasgow.  At this event people from different faith communities shared stories about the meaning and significance of their religious and cultural dress from personal as well as historical perspectives.  Following the event an excellent film was made which is now being shared on Social Media. This is a good example of how to disseminate positive dialogue to a wider audience in a society that for many feels increasingly hostile to religious expression.

Like others, staff at the museum mark Interfaith Week. I’d like to share with you some aspects one of these projects – a joint Schools Projects organised in partnership with the Interreligious Dialogue Committee of the Bishops Conference of Scotland and pupils from Holyrood, St Roch’s and Lourdes Catholic Secondary schools in Glasgow.  Since September the group have been exploring this year’s theme ‘Connecting Generations’ by meeting people of different faiths, exploring the values faith communities cherish in common and visiting places of worship including Glasgow Central Mosque and Garnethill Synagogue.  It has been a great project and this week and next they are holding events within their own schools to celebrate and share what they learned and experienced.

Young people never cease to amaze me with their inquisitiveness and ability to articulate in a straight forward way ideas and concepts that we adults sometimes over complicate and over theorize.  As part of the project the pupils were asked why they should bother marking Scottish Interfaith Week in the first place and indeed why Interfaith is important in a modern Scotland.  For one pupil Interfaith is all about understanding the different faiths and their places of worship.  For another Interfaith is quite simply about building friendships. The pupils’ openness and eagerness to engage with people of different faiths is inspiring in contrast perhaps to other generations of religious people who are still a bit uneasy about Interfaith fearing it is about compromising what they cherish to be true and unique.

So – Interfaith is all about making new friends.

Yes – I believe it’s really is that simple. Interfaith is all about making new friends.

So – let’s hope all across Glasgow and all across Scotland  that we continue to make new friendships and renew old ones. 

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