How political should interfaith engagement be?

This week I witnessed two short (very uncontroversial) discussions about the political element in interfaith dialogue. One was about Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be next week, and one about the engagement of faith communities and interfaith organisations against climate change. Having this in mind I want to reflect today about how political interfaith engagement can/should be. I thereby reflect only about the situation in Western democracies. The situation in other kind of states might differ in several points and is to complex to reflect it here.

Interfaith Engagement is always political

The word “political” comes from a time when there existed a lot of different City States (polis) in Ancient Greece. “Political” in its basic meaning is therefore something, that regards the “affairs of the cities” or of the community/society in a specific area.

Interfaith engagement how I experience it here in Scotland has always the aspect of serving the community: It is always about building peace and and a deeper understanding between different religious groups and that is in the end a way of serving the whole community. The Scottish government has realized this and is therefore funding the work of Interfaith Scotland, what I consider as a great example, that other governments in the world (Hello Germany!) should follow!

Furthermore have all the different faith traditions a tradition of political engagement. Be it in the way of building religious dominated states in history or presence or important contacts between representatives of religion and state. That’s completely logical, because the religions claim to be important for the whole live of their believers – and the social/political life is a part of this.

When is political engagement dangerous for interfaith dialogue?

Not every political engagement of partners in interfaith dialogue is good. Should a particular religious group have to close political connections to a political party it might damage their credibility. If religions want to be political in the above meaning – and from my point of view they have to – they should fight (peacefully in a democratical system) for their goals in society, whether they rather fit with the agenda of the government or the opposition.

Of course for an interfaith organisation like Interfaith Scotland that is even more difficult. What if two or more members or dialogue partners follow different political agendas? Well in this cases it is not possible that Interfaith Scotland supports one of the two agendas. It could only make a statement that shows the differences between its members. In general it would be dangerous, if political statements could be made with a simple majority in a vote, for example between the members of Interfaith Scotland or its board. It would be recognized if for example the faith communities in Scotland would all together criticise the government and therefore such statements need a large majority or better a unity behind them. How can you find such a majority or unity? Well I would say dialogue is the answer!

It would also be dangerous for Interfaith Scotland, if it depended to much on one political party. If for example the Scottish government tries to influence the religious groups too much via Interfaith Scotland and would threaten to cut the funding, when they are not successful in that, it would not be possible to provide a neutral platform for interfaith dialogue.

Why and when is it good, that Interfaith dialogue is political?

Interfaith dialogue is political in a good way, when it brings people together for improving the society – and is successful. One example is Interfaith Glasgow’s Weekend Club where an interfaith group of volunteers organizes activities around cultural and religious themes for refugees and asylum seekers. The engagement for refugees and asylum seekers is definitely political in the meaning I mentioned above. It has definitely an impact on the society when refugees and asylum seekers feel welcomed in Scotland and if they have the chance to learn about Scottish culture. It has also an impact on the volunteers, who have the opportunity to learn from each other and the participants at the events. Through projects like the “New Scots strategy” or media coverage around One Big Picnic or the Family Fun Day Interfaith Glasgow raises the voice for refugees, asylum seekers and more justice in our society and that is definitely a good result of interfaith engagement.

Other examples where interfaith engagement has an impact on the society is Scottish Interfaith Week. Not every theme in every year is in the same way political, but for example “Care for the environment” in 2015 or “Religion and the Media” in 2016 or “Connecting Generations”, which might become the theme for 2018 have been and are political in a good way.

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2018: Year of young people

Hello and happy New Year everyone! After the Christmas break my weekly blogging here continues.

The big theme for Interfaith Scotland in 2018 is going to be the “year of young people”. Already in my last blog I mentioned that the Scottish government made 2018 the official year of young people and that Interfaith Scotland as well as the UK Interfaith Network are thinking about how to more engage young people for interfaith work this year. When I visit local interfaith groups the question I am asked most often is “how can we get more people involved? Especially young people?”.

Here are some personal thoughts about this theme:

Who is a “young” person?

This question is not as easy to answer, as it seems to be. Here two examples from my praxis as a minister (in training). When I visit people in carehomes for elderly people the “young” persons are the under 80s or maybe even under 90s. When I give confirmation lesson for the about 14 year old confirmands, I as a nearly 30 year old, am an “old” person for them.

For the work in the UK Interfaith project I’m involved in we decided to draw the line at the age of 25. People younger than 25 are considered as “young” for us.

Is it a specific interfaith problem that there are “not enough young people involved”?

No, it’s definitely not. Nearly all faith communities, but also other institutions like sport clubs etc. in Western countries have this problem. One cause is that today less children are born, than for example in the 1950s. Furthermore “old” people stay longer, because of better health conditions. This gives people the feeling that there are a lot of old people everywhere and very little young people. And if there are less (in percentage) young people involved in the activities of faith communities, how can they come to interfaith work?

I don’t believe young people are less interested in religious themes in general. And my experience when I meet young people here in Scotland is, that they consider interfaith work as important, as soon as they know about it.

Why should young people join local interfaith groups?

Local interfaith groups work well for certain groups of people. From my point of view and the experiences I made when visiting some of them they are a good thing for people, who are settled at one place. Their members are often (not always!) in average older than 50 years. I think the youngest persons I met there, who might have been in their 30s (?), where there in an official position, representing either a certain faith community or a local council. Most of the members of the groups, who are not representing a faith community or a council are retired. I think it’s great that people in this age are putting time and effort in interfaith work! But I can understand, if young people don’t have a feeling that such a group is the “place to be” for them. Honestly I don’t know, if I myself would join such a group on a regular basis in my spare time… I think the “younger group” that maybe local interfaith groups should try to reach as new members are people from maybe their mid-30s, early 40s onwards. In this age, after building a family people often orientate themselves back to faith communities they belonged to in younger years or start looking for new orientation in life. In this age people often get also more interested in a more continuous stable voluntary work in one place, which seems to fit with the concept of a continuous group.

Do we need special interfaith-activities/groups/projects for young people, if we want to reach them?

Yes, definitely! And from my experience this should be rather project-based than very long-term orientated. It’s always hard to generalize, but as far as I can see young people should not have the feeling, that they have to be committed in a project for the rest of their life, if they join a activity. That just doesn’t fit their life situation. It doesn’t mean that young people don’t like to be committed with certain work, but the time frame for the commitment should be clear for the beginning. For example the young people who joined the Rwanada exchange programme last summer committed themselves to join certain activities afterwards, for example telling people about their experience at certain occasions. But this commitment was clear and if some of them don’t want to be involved in interfaith work anymore, they have an easy exist from this. Hopefully they will continue promoting interfaith, but it’s only fair if they are free to choose and don’t feel any pressure. The Rwanda exchange is a good example for successful interfaith engagement of young people, not only because of the clear time frame, but also because it was an “unusual” event. The participants could make experiences they couldn’t easily have had in another way and that makes the project very attractive. So interfaith projects must give young people attractive opportunities – and probably meeting retired persons to talk about the constitution of a group or about religious themes might not be the most attractive thing.

Attractive activities involve spending time with people from about the same age group, but maybe a different religious or national or cultural background. The activities should be fun! The activities should be interesting, that means the questions, which are important for the participants should be discussed/present. The activities should be somehow “special”, not like everyday life. The young people must have the feeling, that the activity is really for and about them.

How can (young) people be reached?

It is important to reach potentially interested people where they are, to make them excited for interfaith. From my point of view the solution should not be to set up a lot new groups for young people but rather providing a platform where young people, who already belong to a certain faith tradition meet young people from another faith tradition. This could be at specially organised interfaith trips or just two youth groups visiting each other for an evening or a special activity where two or more youth groups come together for.

The point for bringing together people, who are already involved in their faith community is important for elder people too. And for this it is important that the bringing-people-together project give the participants an additional benefit, so the project must be “more” than what is already happening in the different faith communities.

Conclusion

Young people can become interested in interfaith and the best way seems to be special projects like journeys, where they can meet other young people. It is rather important to provide a platform for the young people, than setting up special youth interfaith groups.

 

Of course all this thoughts are my personal and are not representative for Interfaith Scotland or the UK Interfaith Network. If someone has other opinions I would be very interested to hear them, especially if they are from “young people” themselves, so it’s not only talking about them, but also to them!

List of wishes

December is a month when many people are thinking about wishes. Children might write letters to Santa Claus with their wishes for Christmas and adults might think about what they wish for the new year.

The following is my personal list of seven wishes for the interfaith work in 2018.

  1. No religious violence anymore.

No person should suffer from violence and religions should in no way support people suffering. Politics, society, religious leaders and every believer all over the world should do everything possible to support the peaceful streams in the different religions.

  1. More dialogue

The dialogue that is happening here in Scotland is very good, but there can always be more. And in other places in the world there is less or no dialogue between different religions.

  1. More young people in dialogue

When I visit local interfaith groups this is the wish I hear most often. 2018 will be the official “year of young people” in Scotland. For Interfaith Scotland the work with young people will be one of the most important parts of its work this year, for example by organising a national youth conference in St Andrews in April. Even the UK Interfaith Network is putting much effort in the work with young people (I can tell you more about this another time).

  1. More funding for interfaith work

As everything successful interfaith work depends on funding. Not everything can be done by volunteers and staff needs to be paid, as well as travel expanses and food at events. So hopefully governments as well as private funders and donators will increase the amount of money they give for interfaith work.

  1. More publicity for successful interfaith dialogue

The media seems to talk about religion mainly if there are things going wrong. I would like to see a greater awareness of the benefits of interfaith work in local, national and international media.

  1. More “professional” interfaith work

In Scotland I can experience the benefits of a very good organised interfaith work, run by special interfaith charities like Interfaith Scotland, Interfaith Glasgow, Edinburgh Interfaith Association and the UK Interfaith Network. I wish that many more countries would organize (and fund!) interfaith work in a similar way – not least my homecountry Germany.

  1. More “theological” dialogue

Something popping up in my blog articles from time to time. From my point of view an interfaith dialogue is only complete, if the theological questions are included. That doesn’t mean every single dialogue event needs to deal with those questions. There is definitely a huge benefit in “just” bringing people together and letting them learn more about each other – but from my personal theological point of view the different religions can (and must) also learn from each other in theological questions, but there seem to be very little opportunities for this kind of dialogue.

Winter festivals

Winter time is a special time in many religions. Often special festivals are celebrated during the darkest months of the year. Often lighting of candles, special meals and families gathering together are a part of these festivals.

The winter festival season starts with Diwali in October/November, when the victory of light over darkness is celebrated. Diwali has a significant role in Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism – even if the three religions remember/celebrate different events each.

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By Khokarahman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37528449

In November/December (in most of the years in December) Jews celebrate Hanukkah and remember the miracle of the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 165/4 BC.

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In December (Eastern Orthodox Churches which follow the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian because of the difference between them in January) Christians celebrate Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ.

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Often there are special regional festivals more or less connected with religious traditions in this time of the year. One example is the Swedish Lucia celebration at the 13th December, when they remember a Sicilian saint from around 300 CE.

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What can we learn from the case that those winter festivals are so widely spread among the religions (there might be some festivals from other faith traditions that I missed…)? Well probably not that the religions are “in the end all the same” and even if there are parallels in the stories that are told at those festivals that “they celebrate the same thing, but in different ways”. There are good cases why Christians are, apart from maybe festival exchanges, not celebrating Diwali or Hanukkah as a part of their own tradition and why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. Especially the comparison of Hanukkah and Christmas shows that they are in their core completely independent festivals, even if some traditions around them are very similar. The Jewish temple, which’s rededication is celebrated at Hanukkah has no special significance for Christians (although the first Christians were Jews and as such of course praying at the temple and for Christians it is completely clear that “their” god is the one, who was worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem). For Jews usually Jesus, who’s birth is celebrated on Christmas has no special (positive) significance (although he was a Jewish Rabi/teacher during his life and all of his early followers where Jews).

What the different faith traditions are sharing, and which is an important part of the different winter festivals is the hope. It’s a hope for a “better” world, where “good” wins over “evil”, where there is light and no darkness. This hope connects us today in a world where nationalism gets stronger, where people build walls and fences between each other, where we face a lot of political crisis and maybe a nuclear war, where people are starving to death in Yemen and people get persecuted for their faith in a lot of places in the world. This hope connects us also with all the people before us. With those 100 years ago during the first World War, with those 500 years ago in the times of the Christian Reformation, the beginning Colonialism and the life of the Sikh Gurus, with those 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born in a small village in a remote corner of the world and with the Jews who celebrated the rededication of their temple about 160 years earlier and with all the people living before us. We all are united by this hope and it might encourage us to work together to make this hope of a better world one day become true.

Theology is not the problem – it’s the solution!

Sometimes I have the feeling that some (of course not all) people, who are involved in interfaith dialogue, are afraid of theology. They seem to think that theology is making the dialogue unnecessary difficult and that the people should just get rid of complicated traditional believes (like for example the Christian trinity) and then they can assume that “in the end we are all the same”. For many people, especially those who are no studied theologians, theology seems to be a barrier between the different religions and their believers.  I’m not sure whether this is because people are afraid of saying something “wrong” about the traditional believes or if they just consider theology as not important.

From my point of view theology must be a part of every deeper interfaith dialogue. “Theology” in it’s original meaning (it’s a Greek word) means: “Talking about God”. Of course the word “God” in this case comes from a Western (Mediterranean) thinking tradition and not all religions share the believe in a somehow personal thought god. But if you use “God” in a more general way in terms of “the absolute”, “the highest” “the infinite” “the ground of all being” or similar the term “theology” becomes (hopefully) open even for believers from faith traditions without a personal god.

In this meaning theology happens always when people talk about their believes and not only in dogmatic discussions at universities, in sermons or between high representatives of religions. If the aim of interfaith dialogue is to gain a deeper understanding of each other, than theology is an essential part of every dialogue. And theology itself has only a meaning if people are discussing it and talking about it, because theology is always about talking, discussing and arguing. That means that a theological dialogue can be very personal and maybe it doesn’t bring everyone to a deep agreement about certain questions (even if this is hopefully possible), but in a way a theological dialogue is more honest than one, where theological thoughts are excluded. If religion is a about the relation between human beings and god (which I would consider as an appropriate rough description), than this relationship must me part of the dialogue. In this case interfaith dialogue must be also about the “difficult” questions like “is there a god?”, “how is god?”, “why are we humans here?”, “what happens after death?”, “why does evil exist?”, “what is a good life?”, “how should we treat the world/creation?”, “how should we treat non-believers?” and so one. The result of such a “theological” dialogue could be, that there is a really deepened understanding of the partners in dialogue.

Of course there are risks in this kind of dialogue. It is difficult if there is a large difference in the knowledge about their own religion between the dialogue partners. These difference can at least make the “lesser-knowing part” feel uncomfortable and in the worst case make one partner dominating the other. But this risk should not be the cause for ignoring the above mentioned “theological” questions. As long as the dialogue partners treat each other with respect it should be possible to have a theological dialogue between any kind of persons.

So when you have a dialogue with someone of another faith, why not try to talk about the “difficult” theological questions? I’m sure that it will be very interesting to have a look at the deep questions, which might be the core of each of your believes – even if you don’t find a finale answer!

Do we need interfaith groups/events for men (only)?

Besides the “normal” interfaith groups exist also some “women (only) interfaith groups”, for example in Glasgow and Edinburgh and some interfaith groups organize “women only interfaith events” from time to time. I think that’s good! In some cultures and faith traditions it is not usual that men and women, who are not relatives, talk to each other in public about personal topics. The women interfaith groups are an opportunity for these women to get in contact with people of different faiths. Of course in a perfect world it would be not necessary to give anyone this kind of special space, because in a perfect world (from my point of view) everyone can speak respectful and safe to everyone without thinking about their gender, sexual orientation, nationality, faith, age, and disabilities – but our world is not perfect. And because of that it’s good that there is a special space for women in interfaith dialogue.

When I attend interfaith events, for example during the last interfaith week, or visit interfaith groups it is interesting for me to see who is there. Is there a wide range of people or are they all from a similar background. Of course one criteria where a huge diversity is expected, when going to an interfaith event, is the faith background and usually this works very well. Not so huge is usually the diversity regarding the age – many interfaith groups members are older than 40 or 50 and younger people are very rare at many of the events. But at the moment Interfaith Scotland is working very hard to get more young people (under 25) engaged in interfaith work – this might be a topic for another blog. From my subjective view on the interfaith events I attended I can say, that at most of the events More than two-thirds of the attending people are female. Also most of the interfaith groups I know have a female majority. In these cases often one of the few male members of the groups work as it’s chair person (but of course not always!). One huge exception of the events with a female majority are the religious leaders meetings – here are men clearly dominating in numbers and speaking time. Also the board of Interfaith Scotland has a male majority, while the staff is mainly female.

Maybe I have been just to the “wrong” events (and I have also been to Interfaith groups or events where there were more men than women – but they were clearly fewer in number than the ones with a female majority), but maybe there is something in the interfaith work in Scotland – especially on the grassroot level that attracts women more than men. If this is the case we should think about why this is the case.

If the female majority at Interfaith Week events was just a phenomena of this year (and I can’t say anything about other months than the time since July 2017), one explanation could be this years theme of Scottish Interfaith Week. Even if men can be as much as creative and artistic as women (and still men artists earn more money with their work than their female colleagues), but in our society are creative works rather recognised as “typical female”.

My feeling is that the cause for the phenomenon is rather not because of the theme, but more general. Maybe women are just more interested in interfaith dialogue… but I don’t believe that’s the case in general. Otherwise it’s hard to explain that on the more representative level suddenly there is a male majority in interfaith. One important point is, I think, that in many Christian congregations – but I think also in other faith communities – in Western countries women are in the majority of the active members. That’s something Interfaith Scotland is not able to change, but a task for the faith communities to think about how to attract more men. But maybe Interfaith Scotland should also try to attract more men for interfaith work on the grassroot level (outside of the representative parts). One possibility would be to organize “men only” events from time to time. I could imagine that these events can be similar to “normal” interfaith events, but maybe have a special topic or are connected with a special activity. Even if men are still privileged in nearly every society in the world I could imagine that they would also appreciate a special space to experience interfaith dialogue in a way that suits them – so that interfaith dialogue doesn’t becomes an activity for women in the age of 40 or older but stays and becomes an activity for everyone.

Scottish Interfaith Week 2017

Scottish Interfaith Week is over. More than 80 events took place all over Scotland. For me it was my very first Interfaith Week and I really liked it. When I look back to the last week I remember a very good dialogue at the Scriptural Reasoning in Edinburgh about food and food restrictions in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I remember a very nice Launch event people of different generations and faith backgrounds came together and not only talked about the theme “Creativity and the Arts” but also became creative themselves in different workshops. I remember interesting talks and tours at St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow – even if there were not many people coming to those events. I remember a nice evening in Ayr organized by the local interfaith group with Choir music, a speech by a local painter and dialogue about what inspires people. I remember interesting meetings with youthworkers from five European countries who learned about inclusive youthwork during Scottish Interfaith Week. I remember a interesting event at the Scottish Parliament where the fantastic “Our Story” exhibition in Edinburgh was celebrated (you can see the exhibition about religious minorities until next April in the Museum of Edinburgh). I remember a nice evening with the Glasgow Baha’i community with interesting information about the Houses of Worship on the different continents. I remember a very positive speech of the local imam about religious diversity and pluralism at the Interfaith Lecture in Kirkcaldy in Fife. Last but not least I remember the great Interfaith Family Fun Day in Glasgow, with a lot of people from different faiths and nationalities.

Family Fun Day

Of course the events I could attend were only a small part of the huge range of events during the last week and also in the next days there will be some more events taking place.

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But what stays in the end of this eight days full of events?

At first a lot of people all over the country who put a lot of time and energy into the week. Thank you for everything you have done for making this week and all the different events happen, whether you did this as part of your job or (and this is the large majority) in your free time, besides your work and family life.

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Second, there is the huge group of people who came to events. Many of them might have been to interfaith events before, but I’m sure there were also a lot of people who went to interfaith events for the first time. Bringing these people together and showing them how to celebrate religious diversity and how to have dialogue with each other is a large achievement of Interfaith Week.

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Third, around Interfaith Week there was a lot of publicity work going on. Articles in local newspapers, a radio interview at BBC Radio Scotland and a lot of posts on different Social Media platforms helped to spread the word about interfaith even outside the “bubble” of people who are already involved in interfaith work. Also the different MPs and MSPs and representatives of local authorities and faith communities who attended events are part of this project to spread the news about interfaith work in Scotland.

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And what is happening now? Of course there will be an Interfaith Week in 2018 again, but until then it is also possible to increase the interfaith work. Interfaith is not only a theme for one week but for our everyday life. If you share this opinion, feel warmly invited to contact your local interfaith group or Interfaith Scotland. There are always projects and possibilities where you can geting engaged as a volunteer. You could also contact the faith communities in your local area and see if you can start your own local interfaith project (for example around a religious festival). Interfaith Scotland is always trying to support such projects as good as possible. So please, spread the word and continue the interfaith dialogue that has started/increased during the last week!2017-11-18 19.46.48