Are you ready for Scottish Interfaith Week?

Have you already planned what you do during the next week? No? Than have a look at http://scottishinterfaithweek.org/programme-2017 and start planning!

At the moment the official programme contains 69 events all over Scotland. There is at least one event in every region. So there can’t be any excuses that Interfaith Week is only happening somewhere else. The events take part from Dumfries and the Borders in the south to Orkney and Shetland in the north and from Skye and Ayr in the west to St. Andrews and Aberdeen in the East. At the Scottish Interfaith Week website you can sort the events by region or by date, so it is very easy to find events that suit your diary. But what kind of events are happening? There is a very long range of events according to this year’s theme “Creativity and the Arts”, here some examples:

 

If you like listening to music (and who does not?) you could visit an Interfaith Concert, for example on Shetland  or Edinburgh. Or maybe you would like to sing yourself? There are opportunities in Moray, Aberdeen and Stirling. You can also be creative in other ways than singing, for example at the Papercutting Event in Falkirk, at the “Fellowship, Food and Fun” Event in Dumfries or the “Family Fun Day” in Glasgow. If you want to experience other kind of arts than the ones mentioned above, maybe the Film event on Skye, the “Poetry and Spirituality” event in Glasgow, the theatre event in Paisley, the “Arts and Creativity” evening in Ayr, the “Food and Poetry” evening in Inverness, the film evening in Edinburgh,   the Dance event in Paisley, the evening about Baha’i architecture in Glasgow or the tour and meditation at Coldingham Priory is the best for you. If you like discussions about texts the Scriptural Reasonings in Edinburgh and Glasgow or the Meeting in Kirkwall/Orkney are perfect for you. Fife Interfaith Group is organising a Interfaith Lecture in Kirkcaldy and in Dundee you can join an Interfaith Symposium. Dundee is also the place for this year’s official Launch event.

If you live in another part of the UK you will also find events happening there. The English, Welsh and Northern-Irish events can be found at https://www.interfaithweek.org/events/map. I’m sure everyone can find at least one event suitable for him/her and I’m looking forward to this very special week. I wish all of you a wonderful Interfaith Week with great experiences.

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Interfaith Places of Worship for the 21st century

It’s only then days until Scottish Interfaith Week is starting. The theme for this year is “Creativity and the Arts”. During the last weeks several classes of 13 schools from all over Scotland have participated in our annual interfaith art competition. This year their task was to design an “Interfaith place of worship for the 21st century”. I think this is a wonderful task and the results which arrived Interfaith Scotland’s office during the last weeks are really great. The results of the competition will be announced at the Launch event of Scottish Interfaith Week on Monday the 13th November in Dundee but I want to take the opportunity to show how creative the children have been.

Some of them built beautiful colourful models, some painted very colourful pictures and some draw detailed plans.

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Many of the teachers wrote us that they had very interesting and intense discussions in their classes. That shows me that the question how different religions can live together is not very abstract. The youngest participants in the competition came from a nursery and the oldest ones from secondary schools. All of them were able to bring their thoughts and ideas into creative form.

Unfortunately in reality Interfaith Places of Worship are a very rare phenomenon (even if they exist in some places), but I think it might be a good opportunity for different faith traditions:

On the one hand I’m thinking about growing faith communities who need more space and have to build a new building anyway. Why not saving costs and build together with another faith community or to connect to the building of another community as it happened in the example from Aberdeen, which I blogged about some weeks ago.

On the other hand I’m thinking of faith communities which are loosing members and have to give up their places of worship, as for example a lot of Christian churches in the UK and other countries are doing. Why not save money and share the building with another faith community and in this way keep the building open for worship?

Of course there are questions to discuss inside and between the two (or more) communities sharing a place of worship, as for example: Who is using which rooms in which way at which times? Are there shared facilities in the building or are the areas of the faith communities strictly separated?

And maybe the most important question: Can the faith community see a excess value in sharing a building with another faith community.

Looking at all this complicated questions I’m thinking of the different places of worship designed by the students and a quote from the bible comes to my mind: in the gospel of Matthew chapter 18 Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.“ Maybe some faith communities will follow this and become like the children in the interfaith art competition and start building their own interfaith places of worship.

 

How diversity enriches culture: a lesson from medieval Spain

With Interfaith Week fast approaching, members of all faith communities are gearing up for a celebration of diversity and plurality in Scotland. This year’s theme of creativity and arts looks to build bridges through the sharing of culture. History teaches us that culture not only brings people together: culture itself can flourish in diverse societies, as was the case in medieval Spain.

It is often forgotten that Spain was once home to the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If you stepped back in time to the year 1000 AD, you would find Christians kings and counts ruling the north of Spain, and a Muslim caliph in charge of the central and southern regions of the peninsula. All across medieval Spain, there were communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims working, living and trading together.

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_Toledo-CC [Creative Commons license] Caption: Toledo, where the Christians and Jews of the School of Translators produced Latin copies of Arabic manuscripts
For 800 years, medieval Spain was a melting pot of cultures and beliefs. The religions did not always see eye to eye – there were times when those in power resorted to violence, and even “holy war”, fuelled by political ambition. But in spite of the periodic conflict, a rich culture grew out of the contact between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Many aspects of art, craft, language and learning were shaped in new and wonderful ways, thanks to the religious diversity of medieval Spain. Many buildings standing today bear the marks of this fascinating blend of art forms. All across Spain and Portugal, cathedrals and palaces were built with a unique fusion of Eastern and Western architectural forms.

In the 12th century, Christians worked with Jews to make the first translations of the Quran in Western Europe. They also worked in teams to translate Arabic books on mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine. Spanish Christians also began to borrow words from Arabic. Even today, modern Spanish still uses many words of Arabic origin, first borrowed hundreds of years ago.

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_Mosque-catedral-of-cordoba-CC [Creative Commons license] Caption: The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is a unique example of the fusion of Western and Eastern architecture
People sometimes refer to the medieval world as a time of “darkness”, but this is not true. This was a time when culture was flourishing (think of the impressive gothic cathedrals and wonderfully decorated medieval manuscripts). This was a time of learning and discovery: and nowhere more so than Spain. Philosophers and scholars from Africa and Europe travelled to Spain in search of learning and new ideas. This exchange of knowledge in medieval Spain may even have helped lay the groundwork for the Renaissance in Europe, many years later.

Medieval Spain is a testament to the ways that culture can thrive when people of different faiths and confessions come together. Being different does not mean we are incompatible: instead it means that we have can offer each other different ways of doing things. This year, Interfaith Week hopes to demonstrate just how valuable culture is, and by doing so, bring people of all religions together.

Christian Kusi-Obodum

How can I be sure that fundamentalists are wrong?

Sometimes people ask me: “What was the most important thing you learned when you studied theology?” My answer to this question is: “I learned not to settle with easy answers.” Some people are surprised when they hear this, because they think church ministers or theologians should be very convinced of everything in the bible and of all the complicated dogmatic believes theology constructed in the last 2.000 years. That’s not the case (at least in the way I understand being a theologian). If someone tells me true believers must do/believe “x” I ask why “x” and not “y” and how can you be sure “z” is wrong? This attitude works very well in a post-enlightenment liberal surrounding where most dialogue partners share the same attitude (and scepticism) towards easy answers. But this attitude can be very challenging in dialogue with more conservative/traditional (in a general meaning) believers or people who just don’t share my sceptical attitude. In my opinion this is not only a personal problem for me but a general problem for people involved in interfaith dialogue how I experience it.

One of the first things representatives of different faith backgrounds do, when they come together for dialogue is to condemn fundamentalism (and its violent outbursts against other faith communities). I can completely understand this attitude because I don’t share a lot of opinions and values of the fundamentalists and to condemn fundamentalism can be the basis for a very fruitful dialogue. But how can we sure that the fundamentalists of the different faith traditions – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’i, Sikhs or another faith – aren’t the ones who are right? How can we be sure that religious plurality and diversity are better than a world with only one religion (which would be in this case the only true one)? Sometimes I have the feeling people involved in interfaith dialogue are take it too easy when they ignore this question.

I definitely like the results of the ongoing dialogue and there are great things happening, when people of different traditions share their thoughts and feelings in local interfaith groups or during events at Scottish Interfaith Week and these things can’t be appreciated enough. They are really wonderful and very important!

Anyway I’m not sure, if we can ignore the question after religious truth, because I don’t want to make the same mistake the religious fundamentalists of all the faith traditions make (from my point of view). They give answers, that are “too easy”, in a way that they are completely convinced to know what gods will is. They know how god and humankind are and how they should be and they have clear rules what believers are allowed to do and what not. In a way I can be jealous of them, because they seem to have much more certainty in their believe, than me.

I personally am convinced that faith and believe can’t be understood by humans in totality. From my point of view only god can understand god – if we could understand god, we humans would be greater than god, and I’m sure that we are not. Because of that I believe that the “easy answers” of the fundamentalists are wrong and that religious violence is wrong. But I’m also convinced that I won’t never be completely certain, that my way is the true one and the more conservative/traditional or the fundamentalists are wrong. Because of that – I believe – we should be very careful in condemning people. It’s a very narrow way but I think it is important that we don’t condemn the fundamentalist people as individual human beings and say “they are no Christians/Jews/Muslims/Buddhists/Hindus/Baha’i/Sikhs/…”, because we can’t be sure that we understand god and the world better than them. But it must be possible to condemn their actions towards people who don’t share their believe/faith, when it results in any form of violence – be it in Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria, the United States, Sri Lanka, Germany, Scotland or any other place in the world. But as long as they stay peaceful, we should not exclude fundamentalist Christians/Muslims/Jews/Bah’i/Sikh/Hindus/Buddhists/… from our dialogue, because there might be as much truth in their faith and believe as in our own.

Faith identities

Last Tuesday Interfaith Scotland run a dialogue event together with Faith in Older People, Marie Curie, Stonewall and Edinburgh Interfaith Chaplaincy about “Identity and Belonging”. There was a very good atmosphere during the event and people of different age groups, different faith and believe, different sex and gender and different nationality shared their thoughts and had intensive discussions about Identity.

In the following I will share some of my thoughts about this theme.

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I would say that a lot of the conflicts we have in our modern world are conflicts between different group identities and individual identities.  From outside point of view the conflict in Catalonia in Spain seems to be amongst other things (economic reasons…) between people with a Catalan identity and people with a Spanish identity and a lot of people in between with maybe both identities or other identities such as a European identity. Also the conflicts in the USA between supporters and opponents of Donald Trump seems for me (mainly) to be about the question “what does it mean to be American?” or “What is the “true” American identity?”. These kind of conflicts seem to be typical for our time. Other examples (always with different focus) could be Germany after the refugee crisis, post-Brexit Britain, the question of Scottish independence and discussions about whether to widen or to diminish the European Union.

All of my examples have something in common: They are about national identity/state identities, but this is only because these kind of conflicts seem to be very strong at the moment because of their high media presence. These conflicts are also an important question in the area of Interfaith Dialogue.

 

On Tuesday evening I held speech at the German Speaking Church in Glasgow about Interfaith dialogue and the work of Interfaith Scotland. One of the question asked during the following discussion was very typical “Isn’t interfaith dialogue about giving up things and producing a kind of “wishi-washi” religion?”. This question is not a bad question, because it refers to the identity of religions involved in interfaith dialogue. People asking this kind of question  would probably say, that there is such as a core identity of their religion, which can’t be giving up and I would assume that a very large majority of believers in all religion would share this opinion. So for a Muslim majority there are things which can’t be giving up without becoming a Non-Muslim in the same way as there are things which can’t be giving up for a Christian majority, a Jewish majority, a Hindu majority, a Buddhist majority and so on. The interesting point here is, that it would be very difficult for all Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, … in their own faith to agree about the things which are building this Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, … identity.

I give an example from my own tradition. If you would randomly ask Christians from all over the world about the core of what it means being a Christian they might answer: “Being a member of the church”, “Being baptized”, “Refer to Jesus as the Lord”, “The trinitarian faith of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, “The command to love your neighbour”, “The belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus”, “to belief Jesus is the son of god”, “to go to church”, “to pray the Lord’s Prayer”, “to help others”, “to recognize the pope”, “to read the bible”, “to believe in 7 sacraments”, “to believe in 2 sacraments”, “to live in a Christian country”, “to celebrate Christian festivals”, …

It would be really hard to find one of these answers that all Christians in the world can agree on and in my opinion it is impossible to make them agree on what they mean when they say “referring to Jesus as the son of god” is the core of the Christian identity.

And I would assume it is the same in the other faith traditions.

From my point of view that shows, that it is only possible to build a so called religious identity as long as the core of this identity stays vague enough, so that a certain group of people can agree on it. If the core of a certain faith tradition is this vague the risk of loosing the identity is very little, because there is no single core for the identity. For every individual believer slightly different parts of the faith are important for their faith identity and all large faith identities (“the Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/… identity”) are in a way theoretical constructs.

For a single individual his or her personal faith identity might change a couple of time during his or her lifetime, but that should normally be not a big problem, because it is a personal decision to agree or disagree to a certain point of view. Identity problems only start, if other people prohibit others to change their point of view, because they consider it as Non-Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Buddhist/….

That means identity conflicts become only urgent or dangerous if people feel they have the right to judge about the identity of others.

If you agree or disagree with my thoughts feel free to let me know your opinion – that’s what dialogue is about!

Holy Scripture(s) in Interfaith Dialogue

This week the former president of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald was in Scotland. During a seminar at Glasgow University he talked about some events he organised during his interreligious work in the Vatican. During one of the events they had dialogue between Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Jains about their Holy Scriptures.

They talked about “easy/nice texts” eg Isaiah 9 from the Hebrew Bible, Mathew 5 from the Christian New Testament and Surah 59 from the Quran. But they also talked about “difficult texts” as Joshua 10 from the Hebrew Bible, Mathew 10 from the Christian New Testament and Surah 9 from the Quran. The Archbishop argued for contextual exegetic studying of the scriptures in interfaith dialogue. I support this opinion and from my point of view it is important not to ignore the “difficult” parts of the Holy Scriptures of the different faith communities.Torah_and_jadBut it is important to realize that every religion has a different way to treat their Holy Scripture(s). My personal faith tradition started 500 years ago with Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura (religious truth is only in the scripture and not in the tradition or decisions of the pope) and it was the protestant church with its very academical way of thinking which invented the “historical-critical method” from the 17th and 18th century CE onwards. Today even other Christian churches, as for example the Roman-Catholic Church, have accepted the historical-critical method, but other Christian communities for example different evangelical free churches have not. In other faith traditions, for example Islam or Hinduism, they have a very different way of dealing with their Holy Scripture(s). A friend of mine wrote his dissertation at the end of his studies in theology (equivalent to a master thesis) about this topic and it was very interesting for me to see the different ways faith communities use their scriptures, but it even showed me that an interfaith dialogue about scriptures might not be as easy as I or the Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald are thinking.Guru_Granth_SahibI as an academic protestant theologian would read the Quran as a document from Arabia from the 7th century CE in which I find a lot of similarities and some differences to the Bible. And as in the Bible I might find texts in it, which I like and texts which I don’t like. I would assume that this point of view does not exactly fit with the point of view about the Quran of many Muslim believers. On the other hand the view of a Muslim on Biblical texts might really differ from my view on the text.Touba3.jpgDoes that mean that there is no sense in having interfaith dialogue about Holy Scriptures? No! It just means, that the dialogue might be not very easy – but I would think that the most people expect it to be easy anyway. The Holy Scripture(s) are for many believers the most precious texts in the world and because of this importance it might not to be easy to be open to different opinions. But that is not only the case in interfaith dialogue but also in dialogue about texts between believers of the same faith tradition. I would assume that it would be enriching to hear what how believer of different faith traditions read texts of the Christian (protestant[1]) Bible. I would not expect, that we share all of our opinions at the end of a discussion, but I would hope that we learn from each other and get a deeper understanding of the texts we are talking about. I also would hope, that partners from other religious traditions would be happy to hear my opinion about their Holy texts.

One possibility to experience this kind of dialogue is the method of Scriptural Reasoning. You can try this method for example at one of Interfaith Glasgow’s Scriptural Reasoning events, which happen from time to time.

 

[1] Did you know, that the Protestant and the Roman-Catholic Bibles differ no only in the translation but also in the texts? The Roman-Catholic Bible includes texts, which are not part of the protestant Bibles.

Good dialogue – Good Neighbourhood

Today I want to share an impressive interfaith story with you and reflect a bit about what good dialogue means.

Two weeks ago, I visited Aberdeen and one person I met there was a local imam. The place of the mosque where we met is very special, because it’s build on the same property as a church. Already this is not very usual and interesting because most congregations probably would not accept to build a mosque on their ground. But the story gets even more interesting. Not only that there have been common projects between the two faith communities on their shared ground but even more.

When the number of people attending the prayers in the mosque grew more and more the building was to small so people started to pray outside the building. When the people from the church realised this, they invited the Muslims to pray inside the church. In the following times the mosque building was enlarged is now directly connected to the church building, and so one side part of the church building became a part of the mosque and there are common shared rooms for example for celebrations or meetings as well.

Here are some pictures of the building:

Mosque and Church Aberdeen
Mosque and Church – outside
Mosque Aberdeen - Inside
One of the prayer rooms in the mosque – still with the church windows

If you want to know more about the story with the church and the mosque have a look here.

The chat with the imam was very interesting, because he told us this story in detail and then a real interfaith dialogue was developed. My colleague Frances from Interfaith Scotland – she is a Christian as well – and I had the feeling we could ask the imam everything and he could ask us everything as well. There was a foundation of trust for our talk and there was also a good general knowledge about the two religions on both sides. Because of that we could really go deep into the discussion about similarities and differences between Christian and Muslim faith. When we had to leave, because it was time for the next meeting, I would have liked to stay longer and to continue the interesting chat.

From my point of view the story of the mosque and the church in Aberdeen show a lot about good dialogue. Good dialogue is like a good neighbourhood – In the beginning you don’t know much about each other and have maybe just some ideas and prejudice about the other. The important step in this phase is to meet each other and to get each other from face to face. Only in personal meetings you can overcome your prejudice or explore the “true core” of them. Getting to know each other in personal meetings is an important step for a better understanding of each other it’s the foundation for every kind of deeper dialogue. This kind of dialogue should be important for everyone – even if someone is not interested in a deeper kind of dialogue – because it prevents people from misunderstandings and conflicts.

The next step of dialogue is building trust. This can be very difficult, but it’s important. Only if you trust each other you can endure different opinions between you and your dialogue partner. And only if there is trust between dialogue partners you can have real discussions – even about controversy topics. On this level of dialogue, you realise what the dialogue partners have in common and which views they share.

The third (and maybe last) step of dialogue is from my point of view the most interesting, but also most difficult one. On this level you can discuss the theological difficult topics between religions. And in my opinion, it is important not to skip these topics because it might feel uncomfortable to talk about differences, whether they might be real differences between faith communities or they can be solved during a deep discussion.

What is the goal of these three steps and of Interfaith dialogue? Well in the end that’s for the dialogue partners to decide. But from my point of view it’s about getting to know each other as good as possible and – where possible – to learn from each other.

Do you think dialogue might work in this way or do you have a different opinion? Feel free to contact me and to tell me your opinion!