Comparative religion course – Concluding Essay.
Rev. Graham Louden, MA DipEd (Oxon) BA ACP PhD
The Interfaith Dynamic and what it offers.
The word ‘religion’ is considered by many commentators to be derived from the Latin verb ‘ religare’ meaning to bind and this seems highly plausible as religious groups throughout history have been bound together by shared values and beliefs as a means of safeguarding and demonstrating their particular identity and affording protection against others who subscribe to different or heterodox views. Indeed, most religions have begun the process of refining and reinterpreting the original message of their founder relatively early in their history and, generally, where no specific recommendation was offered as to the establishment of an institutional church, they have provided it themselves and bolstered it up with convoluted doctrine, elaborate ceremonial, pomp and ceremony and sanctions to be meted out to those who fail to abide by these rules. Continuously, over two thousand years, generations of church empire-builders have manipulated, embellished and refashioned the teachings of Jesus in order to serve the interests of church and state and to enable them to achieve status and dominion over their fellow men ‘in his name’ and we can see the same process within the realms of Islam, Judaism and many other religious prescriptions which has led to so much fragmentation and internecine strife and then to confrontation with others.
An ever-increasing knowledge of human nature and the transmission of scholarship have been crucial factors in promoting greater analysis of the aetiology of religions and an understanding of the interrelationship between essential teachings and the impulses which have led to the close identification of the spiritual and the secular in the interest of institutional and personal aggrandisement. Studies of power structures and hierarchies in different societies and cultures, whether secular or theocratic, suggest that there is little variation in outcomes even though the rhetoric and vocabulary is very different. Even in states that are vehemently anti-religious, a form of creed or worship of state principles, the leader, or the writings of influential contributors to the corporate ethic often reinforced by patriotic songs, intimidating imagery and ceremonial, is almost certain to emerge. An understanding of the ways in which ‘normal’ human behaviour influences our attitudes towards the organisation and manipulation of powerful ideas is therefore vital to assessing the state of religious groups and their overall impact for good or ill (or a mixture of the two) . Many great thinkers and theologians have remarked upon our ability to convert inspiring ideals into mundane, even harmful practice. Gloria Harkness has stated that,
‘The tendency to turn human judgements into divine commandments makes
religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world’
whilst Reinhold Niebuhr has opined that
‘The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values and ends is the
source of all religious fanaticism.’
Now that we are enabled to assess religion in an evolving and ever-changing context, devoid of the aura of impenetrability in which previous generations were able to cloak it, and to trace the evolution of dogma and liturgy by way of an ever greater repository of manuscripts and texts, the door has been opened to the examination of other faiths and to closer examination of our own. We live in a more informed and rational age, illuminated by the works of great scientists and thinkers that have radically altered our approach to the world in which we live and led us to challenge assumptions that once were beyond criticism or rational enquiry. In the main, until after the invention of moveable type and the flurry of vernacular translations that followed, the faithful were generally credulous and unquestioning and dissident sects and schismatics such as the Cathars, Albigensians and Lollards were relatively easy to marginalise and suppress.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that religions are wont to develop in much the same ways, regardless of their geographical origins, founders’ intentions or content, once their evolution is given over to subsequent generations of ‘custodians’ of the sacred flame who see it as their duty to flesh out what may have been a sketchy premise and to institutionalise and systematise what was perhaps a set of aspirational promptings rather than a rigorous code of conduct. Sigmund Freud suggested that all belief systems emerged to combat ‘the trauma of self-consciousness’ which evolved along with the realisation by early homo sapiens that the world about him was cruel, unforgiving and incomprehensible. This harsh backdrop to existence could be made more manageable and bearable by attributing a god or spirit to every aspect of nature and developing rituals of prostration and sacrifice in order to placate them and ward off calamitous natural events such as earthquakes and famines. The resulting animistic prescription characterised most pagan belief and worship systems, although becoming far more sophisticated as great empires were formed, and it reached its most developed form within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Much of this motivation was imported into early Christianity to accommodate the prevailing mindset and so the all-powerful omnicompetent deity was retained and subsumed into the new dispensation.
In the relatively recent past, it has been the practice to judge different religions and their characteristics in the light of their clashes, historical antagonisms and perceived irreconcilability. Much reference is made to ‘wars of religion’, crusades, sectarian strife and unbridgeable divisions even between sub-sects within the same denomination such as the corrosive tensions within the world-wide Anglican communion or the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. To an extent, this has become a convenient shorthand for the interpretation of world crises which involve religious hatred, such as Northern Ireland, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and many others where a minority (usually) of one branch of a major religious domination exerts disproportionate authority over the majority in the interests of acquiring political power and consolidating their position of pre-eminence. As the ability to compare and contrast their varying structures and dynamics becomes ever greater, however, we begin to identify the similarities between them and to conclude that the similarities vastly outweigh the differences that have been so much emphasized in order to create a ‘unique selling point’ . This applies not merely to internal sects and ‘heresies’, but as much if not more to the major faith empires where it is striking how similar they can be in terms of structure, beliefs and hierarchies.
Such replication of outline stories and beliefs occurs so frequently and faithfully that it lends great credence to the notion that there is, within the human psyche, a fundamental need to subscribe to a creed or philosophy that helps to make sense of the confusion that being human inflicts upon us. Indeed, recently scientists have suggested on the basis of extensive research that we all have a need to believe in some set of guiding principles and that this stems not from our own volition but from a neurological predisposition that is dormant within us all, perhaps similar to the ‘language acquisition device’ which Noam Chomsky proposed as the explanation for our varying ability to acquire language.
If we take a concept such as the Golden Rule, we can see this similarity factor at work. In Christianity, it is well expressed in Matthew 7:12 in the words
‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this
sums up the Law and the prophets.’
Judaism states (perhaps unsurprisingly)
‘What is hurtful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole
of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.’
The same concept, however, is found in numerous other faiths which developed apart from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, such as Buddhism
‘Hurt not others in ways you fond hurtful.’
‘This is the sum of the Dharma; do not unto others that which would cause
pain if done to you.’
And Islam (albeit rather less directly)
‘Not one of you is a believer unless he desires for his brother that which he
desires for himself.’
Similarly, if we consider the injunction to seek and value peace, we find the same correspondence of views and expression. In Christianity, Matthew 5:9
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.’
In Judaism (Psalm 34)
‘Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’
‘Happy live the peaceful, giving up victory and defeat.’
And in Islam (again in a more conditional tone)
‘And if they lean to peace, lean you also to it, and put your trust in Allah.’
Here we have just two examples of this concordance but this finding is reflected in many other belief systems such as Taoism, Baha’i, Confucianism and Sikhism.
There is remarkable similarity to be found, too, in many of the iconic stories that occur in many religions, one striking example being that of the Flood. We are all aware of the story of Noah’s Ark but this metaphor for fall and redemption seems to be evident in so many cultures that it suggests a cast of mind that is common to all mankind when attempting to explain the relationship with the divine. In Hinduism, Manu is warned by a grateful fish that he must build a boat to save himself from the coming annihilation; this he does, and is enabled to repopulate the world. In Assyrian myth, Utnapishtim is warned by a benevolent god to gather his family and a pair of every animal to avoid the wrath of the gods and the flood which is imminent. Similarly, Atrahasis, in Babylonian mythology, is urged by Ekni to build a boat and sail away with his family and breeding stock to avoid the floods. Almost identical legends are to be encountered in Sumerian, Chinese, Druidic and Zoroastrian sources as well as many African religions.
Some of the most significant features of various faiths do seem to recur throughout recorded history often with uncanny familiarity to existing beliefs. In ancient Egypt, Osiris, the Saviour-God, was called Lord of Lords, King of Kings and God of Gods, the Resurrection and the Life, The Good Shepherd. It is also said that his birth was announced by three wise men. Similarly, in ancient Greece, the birth of Dionysius, also a Saviour-God, was celebrated on December 25th. and his flesh and blood were symbolically eaten in the form of bread and wine. By the time of the Emperor Aurelian , there were so many saviour gods in the pantheon that their celebration was combined into one festival on December 25th, named the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. This date was gradually imported into Christianity, beginning with the western churches in the early fourth century despite the absence of any record of the birth date of Jesus. This pattern is rather well summed up in a Baha’i teaching stating that
‘The birth of every manifestation is the rebirth of the world. In that simple fact lies
profundity and the glory of every day that is celebrated as the coming of God’s
messenger, be it the birth of Osiris, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed or the Bab. May we all find blessing within their light.’
The concept of a miraculous or virgin birth (parthenogenesis) is also one that features in many cultures, religions and mythologies . It has been suggested latterly by liberal theologians that it was a myth added to Christianity in the late 1st century AD, triggered by a Greek mistranslation of the Book of Isaiah 7:14 to read, ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name……’Though most biblical translations use the word ‘virgin’, the Hebrew word alma traditionally translates as ‘young woman’ whereas the Hebrew ‘Beulah’ usually means ‘virgin’. It may well be, however, that the notion of a virgin birth was imported intentionally to make new believers feel more comfortable as the concept was a staple of contemporary pagan religions and beliefs.
It was certainly a notion with which those educated in the Roman tradition would have been very familiar; in Greek myth, for example, Juno conceives the God Mars without assistance from Jupiter simply by touching a sacred lily, Perseus is born of the virgin Danae, and Dionysius was born of the virgin Semele who was impregnated by Zeus with a bolt of lightning. Phoenician mythology tells that Adonis was born of the virgin Myrrh whilst, most significantly because of the contemporaneity with early Christianity, Mithra, whose cult initially rivalled Christianity, was conceived when God entered Anahita, ‘the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithra’ in the form of light. Examples of miraculous births are also to be found in religions where there is no discernible or identifiable means of transmission such as the Aztec belief system where the principal god, Huitilopochtli, was conceived when his virtuous mother was impregnated by a bundle of feather which she happened upon and placed in her bosom.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, in which he articulated his concept of the ‘monomyth’ , the archetypal hero who surfaces throughout history in all cultures and in many guises. He summarized it with the words’
‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural
wonder ; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the
hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons
on his fellow man.’
This theory, which has been widely discussed and elaborated ever since, was based upon much research into mythology, anthropology, modern psycho-analysis and patters of cultural transmission. It perhaps helps to explain the perceived similarity between religions which, almost without exception, rely heavily upon a cult of pre-eminent personality which generates a following and, eventually reverence and deification.
In this category, he gives as examples Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses and Christ. More recently, it has been suggested that Harry Potter is based on this
Template, although J.K.Rowling has declined to confirm or deny this!
Ritual and ceremonial also tend to evolve in similar ways in many religions of all ages, whether religions based upon sacred texts or those handed down by word of mouth and based upon tradition. These practices, based no doubt upon the earliest agrarian societies where nature and fertility were deemed to be of the utmost importance. These may be categorised as cycles of nature such as the solstices and the equinoxes, the harvests and rains, the cycles of life such as birth, marriage and death, the sanctification of marriages and sacred buildings or of those in leadership roles and sacrifices to invoke blessings and to appease or show devotion to the deity.
As well as a correspondence of ideological and theological content, it is also evident that the practical rules and structures which are grafted on to religious movements are usually very similar. Whether men are drawing up the regulations for a golf club or for a world religion, the same appetite for codes of conduct and control mechanisms always seems to surface. The process often seems to become self-perpetuating as more and more layers are added to the original construct in the belief, perhaps, that complexity adds more to the sense of awe and innate respect that the institution will command. Hence we see in Islam, the proliferation of the Hadith, traditions about the Prophet or attributed to him, which have come to be regarded as complementary to the Qu’ran despite the fact that the Qu’ran itself states that it is complete in itself. These many thousands of sayings are represented by many traditional Muslim clergy as the authentic words of the Prophet to which obedience is essential if they are to be real Muslims. According to Dr. Taj Hargey, ‘most, if not all, of the thorny problems of faith that British Muslims face today - whether it is apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, women’s oppression, homosexuality, religious intolerance or the democratic deficit in and outside the community – can be traced either to fabricated hadith or the masculine-based Sharia’. Although there are many scholars working tirelessly on the Hadith to separate the authentic or good (sahih and hasan) sayings from the dubious (da‘if) or down right fabricated (mawdu) , it is a task of such proportions and the anti-Koranic perspective is so entrenched, that these distorted versions of Islam will persist and even proliferate for decades to come.
These amendments to the original faith often become inextricably involved with political and civil life to create a theocratic state such as John Calvin’s Geneva where his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ provided a blue print for such a community where the public persona was regarded as a reflection of the citizen’s spiritual wellbeing despite the fact that Calvin’s central thesis of predestination nullified the possibility of such a correlation totally. If your life-style did not reflect the blamelessness of your spiritual life, people argued, why take the trouble to live morally and soberly? Faced with this perceived paradox, Calvin was forced to concede that it was highly likely that those who were predestined to the ranks of the elect, would reflect this in their daily lives and demeanour.
As well as beliefs and moral practices, major religions have tended to develop in similar ways as regards the built environment of the faith and this too is likely to reflect the way in which human beings conceive of living in community based upon inherent promptings and social instincts and these are just as likely to occur in the religious sphere as in the social structure. A distinction between exoteric and esoteric beliefs is often created in order to set apart and sanctify those who are seen (or wish to be seen) as the custodians of the truth whose role it is to interpret it and to pass it on to the generality of the faithful. The apostolic succession, characterised by the laying on of hands at ordination, might be said to represent this as it marks out a priestly caste who are empowered to act as intercessors with God on behalf of the penitent. Here we may perhaps discern traces of the Gnostic approach (proscribed by Christianity in the early years), which reserves true knowledge to an elite who are set apart from others by their receptivity to that truth.
Architecture too, when viewed across a whole spectrum of religions, reveals singular similarities over the past fifteen hundred years in the history of sacred spaces. The urge to look and build upwards whether in the form of Babylonian ziggurats, Egyptian pyramids, cathedral spires is ever present. The choice of site is often meticulous, employing feng shui, dowsing or the identification of ley lines to ensure that the alignment was correct. Astronomy or the calendar were also influential as in the case of the Mesoamerican citadels aligned to the motions of Venus or the Pleiades, the sun temples of Cuzco or the rather less clear motivation underlying Stonehenge. Within, there were usually specific areas set aside for worship, for veneration of the saints and martyrs and for the exhibition of relics as with Buddhist stupas and Christian shrines. Cloisters and courtyards (sahns in Muslim architecture) allow for meditation and tranquillity whilst features such as labyrinths represent the path through the underworld and were incorporated in cathedrals such as Chartres many centuries later.
Of great importance was the portal or gateway, and in numerous religions it represents the point of transition from the mundane to the sacred, often marked by observances such as the mezuzah or the holy water stoup. It has been said that
‘Gateways make the most elaborate and explicit statements about controlling who may
or may not enter a sacred space. From the Christian cathedral door on which the
archbishop must knock, to the house of the Indian Sora people where the shaman’s
assistants break down the door to bring in an ancestral name for a baby, to the gates of
the monastery at Mount Athos which are barricaded from dawn to dusk, gateways
control the identity and timing of those who would enter.’
Within, the importance of ceremonial and mystery is widely discovered; all the senses are deployed with spectacle, taste, smell and sound all playing a part whether through the diffusion of incense, the pomp and splendour of the richly bedecked celebrants, the chanting and music, or the inclusion of food and drink to symbolise renewal and spiritual sustenance. Whether it be a mosque, a synagogue, a Buddhist temple or a Christian cathedral, the same elements will be discernible.
There is much justification, therefore, for concluding that human behaviour, in the context of religious organisation, tends to follow a prescribed pattern. In addition, to the monomyth explanation of Joseph Campbell cited above, recent wide-ranging research suggests that those features common to most major religions may stem from factors within the human psyche that have a bearing on this aspect of our being. Professor Roger Trigg of the University of Oxford, in answer to the question whether humans are predisposed to believe in God, has written, ‘not quite, but He is all in the mind’. He goes on to say that ‘the mind is open to supernatural agency’ and that ‘atheism is not a human’s default option’. Speaking recently (May 2011), he said, ’We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of nature across different societies. Attempts to repress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural gods or agencies, and the possibility of an after-life or pre-life. ….It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few , it’s a basic human nature. This shows that it is much more universal, prevalent and deep-rooted. It’s got to be reckoned with. You can’t just pretend it’s not there.’ Research carried out by Justin Barrett, an Oxford anthropologist, suggests that children are born believers in God and predisposed to believe in supernatural forces. They may well ’grow out of this’ to all intents and purposes, but, as Wordsworth wrote, ’the child is father to the man’ and the original psychological promptings may merely remain dormant as they become overladen by other social influences. In support, Paul Bloom of Yale, writes, ‘there’s now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired.’ ‘All humans possess the brain circuitry and it never goes away.’ Even Richard Dawkins has expressed his willingness to believe this although he still considers indoctrination to be the crucial factor in bringing about present-day belief.
It may also be arguable that the decline in churchgoing and religious observance, in the developed world at least, is due to the general acceptance that we have tamed our environment and have achieved mastery over nature. Consequently, we no longer feel the need to venerate and appease natural forces that we formerly neither understood nor could control and are content to entrust that task to science and environmental planning. It is not difficult, however, to imagine a situation which would shatter this confidence; even recently, with the occurrence of the powerful earthquake on the east coast of the United States of America, followed by Hurricane Irene, there have been apocalyptic pronouncements linking these events to divine retribution for certain types of deviant social behaviour. It may well be that the brain circuitry alluded to above is always on standby to cope with any new ‘trauma of consciousness’ that may befall!
How does this knowledge, if accepted, alter or influence our attitude towards other faiths and to the notions of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue? Once we subscribe to the ideas of commonalty, rooted in the instinctual responses of early man, and an inherent propensity to embrace and to devise belief systems to cope with the challenges of existence, should this change our longstanding attitudes towards the barriers that traditional and modern religion persuasions erect to distinguish themselves from their rivals? Au fond, does this new focus incorporate the possibility that all religions are essentially the same and equally worthy? Do we all believe in the same G-d, or , indeed, not believe in the same G-d? Or is this another example of the distinction between the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that can be identified in other areas of the debate as to whether science has rendered religion obsolete, or is likely to do so? Scientific hypotheses, whether informed by neurology or quantum physics, tell how the universe came into being and evolved; they cannot supply the answers to the related question ‘why’.
They cannot explain the precise features and emphases of a particular faith or value system even if they can help to explain the mechanisms whereby revelation was transformed into process. There is still, therefore, a strong motivation to embark upon interfaith dialogue and to endeavour to reach an informed understanding of the reasons why religions seem to differ so much and to be intent upon erecting barriers rather than building bridges and agreeing to differ in a civilised and mature fashion.
There is a problem, however, with this process in that the current environment within which the debate takes place is often populated by those whose interpretation of the term ‘interfaith’ involves extra layers of meaning in addition to the obvious one of dialogue and understanding between faiths. There is a suggestion that those engaged in this process should accept that, ‘in essence, all religions are the same’ and that ‘we all worship the same g-d’ leading on to the assumption that all those taking part in interfaith discussions should be ready to dilute their beliefs and ‘meet in the middle’. Is this approach either realistic or desirable? Generally speaking, those who are committed to this process come from communities of professing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and many more and are intent upon building on the values of hope, love, tolerance and shared humanity to reach out to all those of genuine faiths, or no faith, in order to initiate dialogue so that we may appreciate ‘that of G-d in every person’ as the Quakers express it, and emphasise those characteristics and impulses that unite us rather than the issues that divide us because of our past failure to reach out and embrace diversity and other roads towards self-knowledge and spiritual development. Religion as history, is inseparable from the prevailing culture and mores; the trick is to identify the elements that serve us best and should endure and cast aside those anachronistic elements that stem from the context and metaphor of a particular historical age and have come to impair the simple message of harmony and co-existence. We do not have to abandon or dilute our own cherished beliefs or to suspend judgement in order to agree to differ amicably where necessary and to enter into a co-equal partnership where we can.
It is often suggested that we should ‘respect the rights of all people to worship as they will’ and indeed we should. This does not mean, however, that we should condone practices that we find repugnant or inhuman merely on the grounds that they are part of a worship system and therefore deserve automatic respect. There are numerous belief systems in the world which involve cruelty, oppression, bullying and indoctrination as we see it , many, though not all, based upon untenable literal interpretations of religious texts. Do we uphold their right to continue practices such as torturing small children who are alleged to be possessed by the devil or stoning to death of adulterers and homosexuals, activities frequently featured in the press of late? Where we can speak out and in contexts where we can intervene, should we not do so? If we do not enter upon an interfaith process with a clear idea of what we ourselves stand for and the way in which we personally prefer to achieve it, then we will find it difficult to communicate with others who do present with certainties (some distinctly unappealing) and often fail to understand our ambivalent stance in matters spiritual. One researcher and writer on the quest for the historical Jesus has opined that ‘open-minded can mean empty-minded’ and to find oneself in that latter category helps no-one and adds nothing to the debate; sincerely held beliefs must be the ‘ground of our being’ and the spur that leads us always to revisit and question them anew and to want to commune with others and learn more of their mindset and personal philosophy. The founder of the Church of Interfaith Christians, the Reverend Ernest Steadman was quoted as ‘always giving…his opinion that the only difference between the deities of the world’s religions was the difference authored by man’. It is hard not to agree with this; one might only add that worship rituals and practices are among those aspects of religion ‘authored by man’ often in the interest of self-aggrandisement and oppression of the faithful. Had the Aztecs chosen to worship Huitzilopochtli with quiet contemplation and commensality, their religious predilections would have been above reproach; unfortunately, they chose to make frequent and grisly human sacrifice the keynote of their ritual worship and we cannot but judge them and their construct of the divine in the light of this fact. There is a profound difference between belief and worship: the former cannot be judged as regards its true essence and purity, whilst the latter is open to judgement. Elizabeth I once said that one cannot open a window into men’s souls; one can only assume the genuineness and spiritual worth of their allegiances, one can only judge them, in a temporal context, by their deeds and practices. Inevitably, therefore, one will come to assess other religions against one’s own moral and cultural standards.
In addition, there is a new and paradoxical element in the equation, that is the existence of a settled, widespread non-faith morality which is generally accepted and tends to condemn such practices as denial of equality to women, gender discrimination and to support contraception, stem cell research and availability of abortion which are still opposed tenaciously by some churches. Religious organisations are now routinely judged against this public morality and found wanting, whereas once it was the morality of the wider community that was judged according to standards enunciated by church leaders. There is, however, no realistic possibility that the wider society can be induced to revert to a narrower seemingly more intolerant stance; those churches, therefore, need to recognise that they are separating themselves from the generality of the population and thereby limiting the scope of their activities and their avowed mission because of their refusal to abandon dogma that is rooted in relatively scanty scriptural authority and that relates to a different social context. It is important, therefore, to identify what specific tenets separate different churches and faiths as well as the generic similarities that offer valuable points of contact.
Ed Stetzer, writing recently in Christianity Today, describes an interfaith meeting intended to lead to cooperative resourcing to help the different churches (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’I and Orthodox were represented) with their congregational and spiritual development. At one point, he caused some consternation by saying, ‘I am not here to form a partnership to help one another. I want to help the churches that I serve, and part of the reason they exist is to convert some of you’. His neighbour, an imam, agreed heartily. He goes on to say,
‘Though the imam and I were in a minority in that group of predominantly liberal
Protestants, we represented the movement among us that are actually growing in
numbers. Both he and I believed in sharing and enlarging our faiths. We did not
think we were worshiping the same God or gods, and we were not there under the
pretence that we held the same beliefs. In other words, our goal was not merging
faiths, combining beliefs, or even interfaith partnership.’
His considered view is that we must recognise a world that is increasingly multi-faith as a prelude to developing ways in which we can co-exist peacefully and productively with those of different faiths, an outcome which is increasingly more important given the extent to which almost all societies are complex, plural entities with representatives of all cultures and religions living in close proximity. He therefore proposes multi-faith dialogue based on a recognition that that we all have ‘radically different visions of the future, eternity, and the path to getting there’ rather than a pretence that we all believe the same thing. This is a salutary view that illustrates the danger of becoming overly enthusiastic and simplistic about the shared (mainly organisational and practical) aspects of different faiths whilst overlooking the inescapable fact that the crucial differences lie in irreconcilable doctrines that the committed believers cannot reject or dilute in the interests of fundamental ecumenical contacts or mergers without effectively reneging on their long-held beliefs. It is worth noting that the world’s four largest religions do not agree on the basic definition of G-d or his main characteristics; Hindus believe that G-d is in each of us and we are all part of G-d leading to the possibility that there are 330 million gods, Buddhists suggest that God may or may not exist, Muslims say that G-d is absolute, independent and father to none whilst Christians believe in one G-d who exists in three persons and that Jesus Christ was his only son. . Such diversity with regard to this fundamental religious determinant surely indicates that not all religions are following the same road towards understanding of the truth about G-d. It is also worth remembering that adherents of a particular religion are likely to believe not only that it represents their truth but also that it embodies the truth. Such certainty is understandable but it manifests itself in intolerance and bigotry. It is notable that where religious belief is on the increase, in Africa and South America for example where Christianity is forging ahead, it often takes a form that has clearly defined doctrines coupled with a degree of certainty that leads to intolerance towards other churches and internecine conflict such as that within the Anglican communion which appears to be in the process of tearing itself apart over issues such a homosexuality and women bishops.
The desire to stand by and to promulgate one’s beliefs is a natural one and part of our culture. It does seem rather paradoxical that supporters of football clubs are encouraged to support their teams to the point of fanaticism and to develop tribal rituals of chants, costume and solidarity and that this partisanship is only considered excessive when it leads to conflict between different clubs and public order issues whilst, in contrast, it is regarded as politically incorrect nowadays to publicise or advertise one’s faith despite the fact that the believer may want to share the sense of euphoria and the expectation of salvation with others. As Ed Stetzer suggests, it is natural to feel that the faith that one professes is preferable to other prescriptions , otherwise why would one choose to espouse it? This should not lead, as in the past, to attempts by the followers of one faith to impose their views on followers of another using political or military means but, ideally, to informed co-existence based upon exploration and dialogue rather than bland assumptions of similarity of belief and goals. Even within Unitarian Universalism, there is a suggestion that being too low-key and failing to share one’s enthusiasms, may be a short-sighted, even selfish, attitude. Thus, one UU minister has written
‘ UU (e) vangelism isn’t unprecedented. It has been proven effective. Are we to be
mocked in order to share our Principles? Do we care as much about the world as the
Watch Tower Society or the Latter Day Saints? Because I think OUR message has a
better chance to save it than theirs.’
If a representative of Unitarian Universalism, a non-creedal, non-judgemental and wholly inclusive organisation, feels moved to express himself in this way, it perhaps suggests that we all feel, and have the right to feel, that the belief system to which we subscribe is the best (for us at least, and arguably for others, too). Stetzer says that “We must get beyond the nonsense of saying, ‘You can believe what you want, but you can’t tell anyone else about it‘ ” . All major religions agree that it is wrong to force people into their faith but, throughout there are groups who ignore this and try to impose their beliefs and the culture that accompanies them by means of coercion and intimidation. Emphasising the former and resisting the latter is the key to religious tolerance and cooperation rather than engaging in attempts to forge a catch-all religion, stripped of any controversy or debate, that will satisfy no-one.
A genuine and on-going exchange of views with a friendly agreement to differ where necessary, is surely the way forward. Interfaith dialogue is a fine phrase and a fine practice so long as we do not view it as being based upon the assumption that there are no fundamental distinctions or differences between religions. It needs to be undertaken in tandem with a recognition that we live, increasingly, in a multi-faith world where our neighbours may be of a completely different religious persuasion and where it is of prime importance to live in peace and harmony based upon a perception of our common interests and our varying beliefs. The study of comparative religions in schools and colleges needs to be better resourced and more effective in order to reduce the levels of ignorance and prejudice that are encountered in many communities about the beliefs and practices of others and to encourage openness and friendly curiosity as opposed to secrecy and exclusivity. We also need to replace hearsay and exaggeration about other faiths and the social practices that may accompany them (often relayed by the popular press) with informed discussion in schools, places of worship and in the media to counter the hyperbole and the tendency to concentrate upon the strident minority rather than the peaceable majority who practice their faith without harming others and who only wish the same courtesy to be extended to them. Global organisations such as the World Council of Churches have also contributed greatly to the development of mutual cooperation and respect between different denominations.
Religions do have a great deal in common, especially as regards the structural and developmental aspects and a good case can be made for a propensity within all of us which renders us susceptible to belief and adherence to a creed or cause. This does not mean, however, that they can be aggregated into one umbrella religion that will satisfy all comers. We may meet in similar buildings, create hierarchies, follow liturgies, pray, worship saints, aspire to the monastic life and perform charitable works, but this does not mean that fundamental beliefs can be reduced to a bland formulaic recipe for religious observance. The history of human nature in action tends to suggest that this is not viable and that discrete groups with shared cultural roots and traditions will always exist within the wider society. This need not be a matter of concern so long as those basic tenets of peace, tolerance and co-existence that are contained within the sacred writings of the major faiths are sustained and enacted. These shared values represent hope for the future as opposed to partisan assumptions of spiritual superiority that only serve to engender conflict and division.
Finally, these words of Joseph Campbell explain much recent history and bear scrutiny.
‘Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically.
but when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are
in trouble.’ (Discuss!)
The more we know about our own beliefs as well as those of others, the better prepared we will be to forge that essential relationship based upon tolerance and mutual respect.