Interfaith Dialogue

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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