From Fundamentalism to Interfaith Dialogue?

By Richard Thompson

At the end of January, I attended the above seminar organised by the International Interfaith Centre at Somerville College. Before I attended, the word “fundamentalist” had a number of conflicting meanings for me. I knew the media used it in association with “extremism” and “intolerance” for a wide variety of unpleasant groups from terrorist bombers in the Middle East to bible-thumping orators in the American Mid-West. On the other hand I was attracted by the word in its etymological meaning of “going to the roots” of ones faith. I considered Quakers to be “fundamentalist”, with George Fox’s insights into the relationship between mankind and God being the fundamentals.

The seminar brought six faiths together, Sikh, Tibetan Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, each to shed a different light on the subject…

Part of the Hindu input was a salutary reminder to us about the limitation of words and concepts. We were delighted to be told a parable of an “Inter-Number Conference”. The 5 numbers present were far too polite to argue but each of them nonetheless considered themselves as superior to the others. Each was closer to Infinity than the others. No.1 thought he was naturally first. No.2 felt that a lot of the others were decidedly odd. He was the top of the evens! Everyone knows that 3 is the most mystical of numbers. Zero maintained that none of the other numbers could reach infinity without him.

Jay Lakhani of the Vivekananda Centre London who told the number parable

The parable does not warn us away from reaching out to the Infinite, but reminds us not to be judgmental…

One cry from the heart was a plea for dialogue within the Christian Church. It was felt that there is “a huge wall of intransigence” amongst different positions. The Church leadership should foster intrafaith dialogue. Argument might be interesting but it is ineffective in changing deeply entrenched attitudes. There had to be genuine meeting. Only a positive experience could change attitudes. Sometimes interfaith dialogue could be a vehicle for intrafaith understanding.

The increasing use of the Internet was seen as an important growing point in mutual understanding. At any moment, as you read this article, for instance, there are people sharing insights and understanding in cyberspace. We left the conference, knowing that we had confronted some important issues and felt encouraged that both light and heat had been generated.

For the full report go to IIC Newsletter 11