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.