Inter Faith Encounter and Dialogue

INTERFAITH LECTURE AT IARF CONGRESS IN BUDAPEST
GIVEN BY DR HARRIET CRABTREE, INTERFAITH NETWORK UK

1) Introduction

2) Motivations and contexts
3) Some types of inter faith encounter and dialogue
4) Some issues and questions
5) Challenges and possibilities

1) Introduction
Good morning.
I have been invited to offer an overview of inter faith encounter and dialogue, looking at some of the types and models for this, and at the possibilities and challenges and future prospects. It is a privilege to be offered this chance to reflect on the topic at the Congress of IARF – one of first organisations in the world to understand the significance of inter faith encounter and to encourage dialogue between the religions.

Inter faith encounter and dialogue is a growing phenomenon. It is also an enormously important one which can make a real difference to our societies and to the wider global community. In this hall today there are many inter faith practitioners from around the world – people who are helping to create inter faith understanding and co-operation. Others of you are perhaps here because you would like to explore possibilities for inter faith work in your country or area or within your religious tradition.
Now, each person involved in inter faith work will have their own quite specific and unique perspective. I offer you simply my personal picture and reflections. These draw on my experience working for the Inter Faith Network for the UK for the last twelve years. I will be exploring the issues in the following way: First I will reflect on some of the motivations and contexts for inter faith encounter and dialogue

Second I will look at some informal and structured types of inter faith encounter and dialogue

Third I will consider some particular issues and questions (and here I should say that I have been asked to tackle some of the tough ones!.)

I will conclude by reflecting briefly on a few of the challenges and possibilities that lie before us at this time in our shared global history.

2) Motivations and contexts
First, motivations and context.

a) Motivations
Why do people become involved in inter faith encounter and dialogue? Reasons are many. They include, among others:A desire to work for peace and harmony in one’s society and in the wider world -in some countries and regions, inter religious and inter ethnic conflict make this a very urgent calling

A commitment to ensuring a society that is inclusive and welcoming to all its citizens
A calling to work alongside people of other faiths for social justice issues, such as the ending of poverty

The wish to understand the beliefs and practices of one’s neighbours – or indeed of a spouse or relatives of another faith – and to understand how one’s own religion’s teachings relate to those of others

b) Contexts
But now I would like to say a word about contexts because different contexts shape the nature and goals of inter faith encounter and dialogue. For example, in places such as Australia or Belgium economic migration or patterns of refugee settlement have given rise, over recent decades, to more religiously diverse societies. In such countries dialogue and encounter may come about partly as a way of recently settled communities, with different faith traditions, knitting themselves into the fabric of a new land but perhaps also critiquing aspects of it. Dialogue will also be a tool for the wider population to come to know more about and interact with their more recent neighbours.

The nature of dialogue and encounter in every country will be different because their shared histories and concerns are different. In many countries, people of different faiths coexist well and inter faith dialogue will be a gentle pursuit, with unpressured exploration of each other’s traditions. But sometimes difficult histories of colonialism, war, or discrimination are interlinked with the religious pattern of a country and make for tense relations between faiths at times. At the worst extreme, they can contribute to the terrible phenomenon of so-called ethnic/religious cleansing, forcing people of different faiths and ethnicities out of a territory and destroying their places of worship. In difficult circumstances, inter faith organisations can play a vital role in trying to keep open lines of communication between ethnic/religious groups. They also have a role in pressing for equitable legal and social arrangements which allow for a just coexistence of different groups.

Today the world is so interconnected that inter faith relations in most countries are affected strongly by overseas events. All dialogue has a global context. Religious people, most of whose communities have links across the world, feel a particular connection with their brothers and sisters in other countries. When suicide bombers attack in Israel or Israeli tanks roll into the West Bank, Jews and Muslims (and others) elsewhere feel a deep and painful connection. When Hindus and Muslims are killed in Gujarat, their co-religionists in other parts of the world feel a personal link and sense of outrage. When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers last September, Muslims in many countries found themselves affected directly by a backwash of prejudice and suspicion. In Britain, for example, attacks on Muslims in some parts of the country began to happen very swiftly. Among the various highly unpleasant incidents, in Bolton in the North West of England, 20 worshippers, including children, narrowly escaped injury when a petrol bomb was thrown at their mosque. And in South Shields, someone sprayed in 6 foot high letters, “Avenge USA – kill a Muslim now” on a wall near a mosque. According to the Muslim Council of Britain, the extent of the attacks was not as bad as they had originally feared but Muslims have, even so, felt very vulnerable.

As a result of recent tensions around the globe, inter faith dialogue has of late has gained a greater sense of urgency but it has also become much more difficult, particularly in parts of the world where the events in the Middle East and in India are affecting Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others.

3) Some types of inter faith encounter and dialogue
I would now like to move on from context to explore a few different types of inter faith encounter and dialogue or discussion.

a) Informal unstructured encounter and discussion
First, informal inter faith encounter and discussion.

In parts of many countries of the world, such as Holland, the United States, Bangladesh, Russia and South Africa (to name but a few), people of different faiths live and work alongside each other. Here inter faith encounter happens every day: on buses and trains, in workplaces and schools, in hospitals and prisons, and elsewhere. Most of the time the encounter is one where matters of religion are not directly discussed. People share their human experiences – talking about their children, their jobs, their basic economic necessities. But from time to time conversation turns to religious matters and becomes an inter faith discussion. This is particularly common around the time of religious festivals. A Hindu acquaintance said to me that it is particularly at the time of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights when special decorations go up in the streets, that he gets asked the most questions about his faith. Life rituals, such as marriage and child naming, as well as food customs and dietary regulations and clothing can also prompt this kind of informal inter faith discussion.

On the whole, such informal inter faith encounters are positive or at least neutral. Not always though. Deep prejudices can contribute to encounters being depressing and difficult, even dangerous. For example, in Europe there are a small but significant number of nominally Christian people who are terrified by Islam and whose only encounter with Muslims takes the form of attacking them verbally, in writing or even – in some cases – physically. Jews are similarly targeted.

To a high degree, fear and prejudice arise from sheer ignorance. Let me speak on a personal note. I grew up in a very monocultural area of England: York. Indeed, as some of you may know, one of the reasons it is so monocultural even to this day is that there was an appalling massacre of Jews there in the twelfth century. To this day, some Orthodox Jews will not even travel through the city.

In this monocultural city back in the 1960s and 1970s we thought very little about other religions but when we spoke of them we did so as if they were alien tribes and particularly so in the case of Jews. Our images were travesties that bore no relation to any living, complicated reality. They were stick people like the figures from the Hebrew Scriptures that we drew in junior school Religious Education lessons. Or parodies gained from literature like most of the Jews in Charles Dickens’ novels. Or members of a wicked race who helped kill Jesus, as we later learned from uncontextualised New Testament teachings.
And people of other religions remain stick people and parodies for those who have never had experiences to alter their childhood perceptions: stick people and parodies who are easier to ignore the rights of, easier to hate, easier to dismiss, easier to write out of one’s world of reality. Not real living, breathing fellow human beings.

Very important to me, in my late teens and 20s in London and in the Centre for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity school in Massachusetts were the people I met and became friends with who brought their traditions alive as messy, complex, vibrant realities. And I have been fortunate since 1990 to work for the Inter Faith Network and to meet many more people of all the faith traditions and my working relationships and friendships have compounded this awareness. These experiences have helped, I hope, dispel some of the very real prejudices I harboured as a child.

Yet, there are many areas in Britain and in other countries in Europe and beyond where the opportunities for positive informal inter faith encounter are limited or non existent even in very multi faith areas. In the UK, for example, for various economic and social reasons, more recently settled communities often live in ethnically unmixed areas, even where the overall profile of their town or city is very mixed. And schools, even in such mixed towns, can be almost entirely white or almost entirely Asian. This means their pupils may get almost no exposure to young people of other races or faiths.

It is vital that in our different countries we can help create a culture or ethos which enables people to be relaxed and open minded about each other’s faith traditions and where there is no religious bigotry to lead to disharmony or conflict. Education in schools and through the media is crucial to this. So too is the work of inter faith organisations. There need to be many chances for young people, and indeed adults, of different faiths to meet each other, to talk, to learn about each other’s backgrounds and most deeply held beliefs.

Also important for creating such an ethos of openness is work to ensure religious freedom and equitable treatment for citizens of all faiths. Religious freedom and positive inter faith relations are two intertwined goals. In countries where the rights of some faith communities and their members are truncated there will be a sense of discrimination and this is almost guaranteed to undercut positive inter relations. But similarly, there is little point in working for the religious freedom of people of all faiths if this process is not accompanied by a process of education which enables those of different faiths to understand and respect each other and to live in peace and with a sense of contributing to a society rooted in shared values.

b) Structured inter faith encounter and dialogue
I now turn from informal to more structured opportunities for inter faith encounter and dialogue.

i) The first kind I will touch on is what one might call the “dialogue of religious scholars”. Theirs is the task to discuss in depth specific matters of doctrine or difficult aspects of shared religious history. Generally speaking, such dialogues tend only to involve two or three religions because they have particular issues they wish to discuss. Probably the best known examples are of Jewish-Christian dialogue where scholars of both traditions have tried to explore the different understandings in each of their traditions of topics such as the nature of salvation and the figure of Jesus. In recent decades, other in depth dialogues have blossomed: Buddhist-Christian dialogue and Jain-Jewish dialogue just to name two. You will know of many others.

ii) A second kind of structured opportunity for inter faith dialogue and encounter is provided by the meetings, conferences and congresses of inter faith organisations and faith linked organisations. On the international scene, events are held, for example, by the Council for a Parliament of World Religions, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the United Religions Initiative and, of course, IARF to name but a few. After this congress has finished there will be a meeting here of representatives of the growing number of different international inter faith organisations and some of you may be interested to talk with Sandy and Jael Bharat of the International Interfaith Centre which is organising this meeting and which coordinates the International Interfaith Network. They can tell you about many opportunities for becoming involved in international inter faith work.

At a national level there are increasingly, in many countries, also structured opportunities for inter faith encounter and dialogue provided by faith community linked bodies, such as Christians Aware and Rissho Kosekai and by inter faith organisations such as the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone. Here I would like to use my own country’s experience as an example. As I mentioned a little earlier, I have worked since 1990 for the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom. This was set up in 1987 to promote good relations between the different faith communities in the UK. We are an “organisation of organisations” linking nearly a hundred member bodies. These include: the representative bodies of the Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian religions in BritainThey also include:national inter faith organisations, local inter faith groups and inter faith councils from towns and cities around Britain
as well as educational and academic bodies with an interest in inter faith issues.

Over the last fifteen years the Inter Faith Network has held meetings on many different topics, such as “faith and service to the community”, the role of women in the faith communities, and inter faith relations and young people.

We also hold smaller meetings for particular types of member body, such as the representative organisations of the different religions. In these smaller meetings, more detailed discussions can take place, for example on religious dimensions of legislation that the Government may be planning. There has been discussion recently of possible legislation on religious discrimination to bring about the necessary enactment under British law of the recent European Directives designed to end discrimination in employment on the grounds of race, religion and a range of other factors. Meetings to discuss such topics are not “inter faith” meetings in the narrowest sense because some of the key partners in such discussions are Government or other outside agencies. Indeed occasionally opportunities for structured dialogue are set up – not by the faiths or inter faith organisations – but by external agencies, such as local government authorities or Government departments. For example, the Inner Cities Religious Council, with representatives from the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths, was established in 1992 to give advice to the UK Government on inner city issues and this year an Inter Faith Council for Wales has been established as a subcommittee of the Welsh National Assembly, chaired by Wales’ First Minister Rhodri Morgan.

Government initiated initiatives of this kind are examples of the work in the UK to try to ensure that people of all faiths are able to contribute to national and local life. Also important are initiatives which address inclusion at what might be called the “symbolic” level of life. At the recent Golden Jubilee celebrations marking 50 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Government and the Royal Household put a special emphasis on multi faith involvement. A reception was hosted last month by The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace for over 700 men and women of different faiths from all over the UK and during Golden Jubilee visits this year, the Queen and other members of the royal family will be visiting one place of worship of each of the major faiths.

Another Golden Jubilee event was a special Youth Faith Forum which the Inter Faith Network helped the Government arrange last month. 80 young people of different faiths between 16 and 25 from all over the UK came together to discuss growing up as young people of faith in 21st century Britain and to talk about how our faiths’ teachings call on us to help others, both within our faith community and in wider society.

The reception, the royal visits and the youth forum have great symbolic importance for members of Britain’s faith communities because they have sent a powerful signal to the British people that the more recently settled faith communities are truly a part of their country’s life and that good relations between them are tremendously important.

iii) But to return to the different types of opportunity for structured inter faith encounter and dialogue, a third and key kind is local inter faith activity. In Britain, for example, there are around 100 local inter faith groups and councils. Some are quite loosely structured groups bringing together any people of faith who want to belong. Others, as their name suggests, are councils of faiths with representation from some or all of the faiths in their area. Local inter faith organisations bring together people of different faiths in their area to learn more about each other’s faiths, to discuss issues of common concern, and – increasingly – to give input to local government and service providers on religious issues. For example, a number of groups have helped their local hospital develop chaplaincy services and catering to suit the needs of patients of different faiths.

In the wake of serious social unrest in some of England’s northern cities last summer, increasing attention is being given by the UK Government to how local inter faith organisations can contribute to building bridges between the various religious and ethnic groups in the different towns and cities. At this Congress is a representative from Luton Council of Faiths, Shanthi Hettiararchchi, whose Council is a very good example of one which is working with its local government structures and agencies and I hope those of you who are interested will have a chance to talk with him.

iv) A fourth type of inter faith encounter and dialogue is when people of different faiths come together specifically to work on particular projects or to discuss particular topics. Joint projects have great potential to deepen understanding between participants: working side by side gives people a real chance to get to know each other and develop relationships of trust. These can be very simple projects, like coming together to improve a deserted piece of land or paint a community centre, or more complex ones like joint faith community initiatives to respond to the needs of refugees or provide help for the homeless or to work to help people beat drug addiction. In one of the inter faith workshops tomorrow, participants will be brainstorming about ideas for inter faith projects in their regions or faiths and I expect there will be many new and inspiring ideas to take forward after the conference.

At international level, another significant example of a topic/project led inter faith project is IARF’s present project developing a voluntary code of conduct for all religious communities. Through this process of drafting and discussion, a very particular dialogue will be set in process. This kind of work gives people an opportunity to come to know each other’s perspectives very well. Indeed in some ways the process of working together on a document is almost as important as the outcome. The journey matters as much as the destination.

4) Some issues and questions
I move now to my last section: special issues and questions. I would like to touch first on the issue of “process”.

a) Process
In all forms of inter faith encounter and dialogue the nature of the process is crucial. Good inter faith encounter and discussion needs careful ground rules. Positive encounter and dialogue is about a process where participants:

listen respectfully to each other
express and explore any differences in a courteous way
do not compare the best points of their own tradition and practices with the worst points of other peoples (sadly more common than you might think!)and it is a process where they:
allow other participants to express what they value and believe in their own terms
In the code, Building Good Relations with People of Different Faiths and Beliefs, which you were sent with your conference pack, you will see a list of the points which the Inter Faith Network for the UK’s member bodies think are vital guidelines for inter faith discussion. Many other organisations around the world have produced their own guidelines. Although the various guidelines differ, they are all addressing the same very basic and important questions: What will enable people to learn the most? To be heard the best? To talk in a spirit of cooperation? To avoid causing insult?

In the workshops tomorrow those of you who have chosen the inter faith workshop will be talking about guidelines but I would like to single out one point in particular for comment today, namely that inter faith encounter is not synonymous with evangelism or proselytism. When people talk to each other about religious matters there is always the possibility that their views may change. Very occasionally someone may even change their religion. However, it is not appropriate for religious groups to use dialogue situations to target participants for conversion, as Christians and some other groups have occasionally been accused of doing. The ground rules of any dialogue need to make it very clear that this is unacceptable. That is not to say that one cannot speak with passionate conviction about one’s faith – just that it is not right to enter into inter faith dialogue with the express intention of converting people to your faith.

I would also want to emphasise, in terms of process, the particular importance of slow and steady consultation in setting up any new inter faith initiative, especially when setting up formal national, regional or local inter faith structures. Conversations with possible members about the membership, aims and structures will inevitably take time. There has to be immense care if all the key players are to be brought on board and if there is to be mutual understanding about the ethos and purposes of the organisation. The earth must be well tilled and the seedlings well tended for the shoots to grow strongly and the flowers to bloom.

b) Who comes to the table of dialogue?
Now, let me move from the picture or metaphor of the garden of the flowers of many faiths to that of the council table. A rather less beautiful thought perhaps! But one prompted by the fact that a particularly thorny question, in contexts where inter faith initiatives are set up to be “representative”, is the question “who comes to the table of dialogue?”
Would the organisers of an international dialogue, for example – as is often the case – just invite representatives of the religions which are sometimes called the “historic” faiths or the “scriptural” religions – the ones that have been in existence for at least a couple of hundred years and have written religious texts or “scriptures”? Dialogues are often just between such religions. But what of religions such as that of the Bahai’s which, while no longer new, came into formal existence relatively recently in the 19th century? And what of the religions which, while ancient, are not organised into formal structures and have few or no early sacred writings because their sacred transmission has been mainly oral or visual, such as the indigenous religions of the Aboriginal people of Australia or the native Americans? And what, indeed, of groups which have a disputed relationship to the historical tradition from which they grew: for example the Ahmaddiyas, who understand themselves as Muslims but are disowned by nearly all other Muslims as heretical?

Now I should say at this point that some here may think that “who comes to the dialogue table” is a non question. Indeed it is one that people can get quite angry about and think should not be asked. “Why,” they may say, “Surely anyone who wants should be allowed to be involved?”. All very well on the face of it but a statement that an event is to be utterly inclusive is likely to ensure heavy participation from universalist inclusivists but almost to guarantee the non participation of the more conservative strands of the historic faiths. After all, “Universalists” are themselves a “particular” strand and one that does not always sit comfortably with more “exclusivist” forms of faith! Similarly, some of the older religions, for example, rarely agree to be part of a process where the really new religious movements such as Scientology are at the table. And the prospect of Pagans at the dialogue table can lead some Christian Churches, Muslim organisations and others to stay away.

Each situation is, of course, different. An informal organisation set up to explore spirituality in different traditions may flourish with a completely open door policy because it is about spiritual quest rather than representative “religious politics”. But by contrast, organisers setting up a national inter faith organisation with a public role in a multi faith country, may want to involve first and foremost the largest faith communities and organisers and be willing to leave out small controversial groups whose presence could drive the main faiths away. This is because unless the main faiths are actively involved, there is little chance of this kind of organisation flourishing in its intended role. So, decisions about the pattern of involvement usually have to be taken or they often take themselves by default with some faiths opting out or fading quietly out of the picture because others have been allowed in. We have to recognise reality and decide how to deal with it if we are to achieve our particular goal.
Each country, each region or city will have a different faith make up and in each context, different decisions will be taken about who comes to the dialogue table. There is no right or wrong answer but each answer inevitably has its consequences.
I should add, though, that flourishing inter faith initiatives around the globe prove that we are all finding ways to surmount the challenges on this front!

c) Liberals and conservatives.
Next a comment about liberals and conservatives – in some ways, bedfellows as uncomfortable as Pagans and Evangelical Christians! Inter faith dialogue and encounter is a microcosm of the wider political spectrum and of the wider pattern of human nature. Liberals and conservatives of all the faiths are involved in different ways. Liberals are at home in dialogue that is open to far ranging discussion about the issues of modern life and tend to believe their faiths need to respond to this by reinterpreting the meaning of fundamental principles in an evolving context. They will be happy to open up the dialogue table to a wider range of partners but they sometimes find it difficult to deal with firmly conservative positions, particularly on topics such as the role of women or homosexuality.

The conservative involvement in inter faith encounter and dialogue is rather like that of participants in a stately dance where no one touches and everyone’s space is respected. Conservatives will come together so that their religions can make common cause on particular issues or so that particularly burning issues can be discussed. The parameters for dialogue are likely to reflect a more exclusivist notion of whether salvation or enlightenment can be found through a religious tradition other than one’s own and also a strong sense that one’s own tradition and its practices are not likely to alter or change in response to encounter with other faiths. Such participants are particularly sensitive to the risk that inter faith encounter leads to syncretism or compromises their faith. Any inter faith initiative genuinely wanting to bring conservatives into the circle of dialogue within the faiths needs to reassure them that they will not have to compromise or water down their tradition.

d) Another very important issue I would like to pick up is that of the involvement of women. In local inter faith groups and informal inter faith initiatives there are nearly always as many if not more women than men. However the majority of religious leaders at international, national and local level are men. This means that most inter faith encounter and dialogue of an official kind has a strongly male make up. What can get lost is the views and experiences of women. So when developing inter faith projects, a very worthwhile and important question to ask is “How shall we make sure women are active participants”.

e) And my last special issue or question is a very practical one. The most frequent question we hear from individual enquirers to the Inter Faith Network is “I am interested by inter faith issues and I think they are very important. What can I do?”. Here are a few thoughts on this:People are sometimes nervous because they do not feel very knowledgeable about other faiths or inter faith work. Don’t be nervous – there are many initiatives out there that would love to have your involvement. Or there may be new initiatives just waiting for you to help start them!

It is helpful to find out just what is already out there. At the Inter Faith Network, we encourage enquirers to find out through their faith community or through their local information resources what inter faith bodies exist in their areas or within their religious tradition. There is, of course, no point in reinventing the wheel. Where there is nothing, there is a chance to think about what might be good to bring into existence: perhaps a local council of faiths, perhaps a national one. Maybe a dialogue on spirituality or maybe a special inter faith youth conference. There are many possibilities.

Many books and journals are out there which can give information and advice but ultimately it is people who make the difference: people who work and volunteer their time to help on inter faith projects; people who cook and bring their faith’s special dishes for inter faith meals; people who are willing to speak to inter faith groups about their own faith tradition; people who spend many hours quietly peacemaking between groups in their areas. In the language of my own tradition, blessed are the peacemakers. It is one of the greatest tasks.There are many more issues that could be discussed, but I would now like to draw to a close.

5) Challenges and possibilities
I have spoken of some of the different types of inter faith initiatives: structured or informal; international, national or local. I have explored some of the complex issues involved in ensuring that these can flourish and make a significant contribution to their localities, countries and the wider world. I have not skirted the harder issues because inter faith dialogue and encounter work is not easy, but I would like to end on a positive note by reiterating my opening point: that inter faith dialogue and encounter is enormously important. It can make a real difference to our societies and to our wider global community. Men and women of different faiths can and must find ways to live in respectful harmony, able to talk honestly about differences but to build societies rooted in values held in common among the faiths. In face of the threat of prejudice and the entwined evils of religious and racial bigotry and conflict we have a challenge to work for understanding and peace. And in face of the global scourges of poverty, war and limitation to freedom for many peoples and individuals, we have a united challenge to find ways for our faiths to work in every land where they are present to make common cause for justice and peace.