Religious Leaders

On Wednesday Adama Dieng, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, visited Interfaith Scotland for a dialogue event. He presented the UN’s “Plan of Action for the Prevention of Genocide”.

In the dialogue he realised that a lot of good practise that he encourages people all over the world to do is actually already happening in Scotland. The plan of action addresses mainly (but not only) Religious Leaders and Actors. For me this gives me an opportunity to reflect a bit on the role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention.

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Impression from the “Prevention of Genocide” discussion

The connection of interfaith dialogue and genocide prevention

For me the prevention of genocides and religious violence is one of the most important motivations for interfaith dialogue. Good interfaith relationships are probably the best way to prevent religious motivated hate crimes (and the genocide is the worst form of a hate crimes). In the Holocaust, as well as in the persecution of Baha’i in Iran or Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar religion was/is one of the motivations for the committed crimes.

The important role of religious leaders for interfaith dialogue

Faith communities are structured in very different ways. They can be very hierarchical or with a very flat hierarchy. They can be structured top-down or bottom-up. Nearly all faith communities have some kind of persons that are responsible for representing them at different occasions.

It is very different how much “power” the different religious leaders have in speaking for their community, but what they are doing as representatives is usually highly symbolic. When religious leaders for example meet people from other religions this usually has an impact on how the public and people from their own religion see the relationship to people of other religions. Depending on the structure of their faith community religious leaders are also able to “set themes” for the discussion inside their community.

One difficulty with religious leaders can be that not everyone in their faith community might be excited about a larger interfaith engagement. Because of that it is possible that certain religious leaders can’t go as far forward with their actions as they might wish to do, because they have to respect and also represent those members of their community that are not interested in interfaith. Another difficulty for an interfaith dialogue between faith leaders can be that in case a leader is not very much interested in interfaith themselves it can handicap the initiatives of those members of their faith communities who want to drive interfaith forward.

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The religious leaders of Scotland at their meeting in the beginning of May 2018.

How I experienced the religious leaders in Scotland

The religious leaders of Scotland meet twice a year together and a third time for a joint summit with the first minister. Interfaith Scotland is functioning as secretary for those meetings. I personally had the opportunity to participate in those meetings as a note taker. The actual content of the meetings should not be shared here but it is possible, to give some of my impressions.

1) The religious leaders seem to appreciate the cooperation with each other. The meet each other very open and respectful and a lot of faith communities large ones and small ones were represented.

2) The religious leaders are talking open with each other. At the meetings they tell openly about what is going on in their communities. As far as I could witness it there seems to be a true base of trust between them.

3) The religious leaders cooperate with each other. At points that concern all/some of the faith communities they work together. For example were most of the face communities and their representatives involved in an event about the risks of climate change at the Scottish Parliament some weeks ago or they show solidarity if one faith communities suffers from certain problems.

That the  leaders of the faith communities are working so good and smoothly together is not usual, especially on a world wide perspective and Scotland can be proud about the process of cooperation which has been made in the last years.

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The Feminine in God

This blog article is based on a talk I was giving last Sunday during a Faith-to-Faith event at St Mungo’s Museum last Sunday. The event had the theme “The Feminine in God” and I was asked to give a personal approach from a Christian perspective. Before me a Hindu woman was given her approach and afterwards there was time for dialogue between the 27 attendees from different religious backgrounds.

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I’m not an expert in feminist theology, but I’ve had some lectures about it, especially in the beginning of my studying at the “augustana university” in Neuendettelsau in Bavaria. I will start with some examples of the traditional Christian way of talking about god in mainly Christian terms. Afterwards I will give some examples from the bible and the Christian tradition where feminine aspects in god are stressed. In the end I’m finishing with some personal thoughts.

The bible and the Christian tradition is dominated by a terminology that seems to support a male interpretation of god. Jesus talks about god as his father – not his mother. In the Lord’s (not the Lady’s…) Prayer god is called “our father”. At least two of the three persons in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are described by masculine terminology – and in some languages, as for example German, even “Spirit” is a grammatical masculine word. Christians believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in human flesh – so god choose to become a man and not a woman, when he (!) decided to become a human being. Some traditional attributes and activities of God are traditional connotated as rather “male”, for example gods anger or god leading his people to a military victory. Furthermore the whole Christian art tradition, as so far as pictures of god are shown, shows god often as an old man.

All this is probably not very surprising, because biblical times as well as the last 2000 years of church history happened in mainly patriarchal dominated societies and the religious institutions were dominated by men. That those men were teaching a male god, should not be a big surprise.

Fortunately there are examples in the bible and in the tradition that also support talking of god in feminine terminology and it is interesting that those examples come usually from the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanach) and not the New Testament.

It starts with the second verse of the bible. In Gen 1:2 the text talks about “Gods spirit hovering above the water”. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach” and other than in German or other languages it is a feminine word.

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Also in the story of the creation in Gen 1:27 it is said that mankind was created in gods own image as male and female. So god includes male and female aspects and both aspects are represented in mankind.

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The prophet Isaiah writes in Is 66:13 that “as one whom a mother comforts, so will I (God) comfort you”. In the protestant church in Germany this text was the official motto (“Jahreslosung”) for 2016.

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Archaeological findings show us that there were times when the people living in Israel prayed to JHWH their god not alone, but JHWH also had a female companion (Ashera). Of course those times were long finished before most of the biblical scriptures were written, but it shows that for Judaism before the Babylonian exile the female aspects in god were so important that people prayed to their own goddess. After becoming more (and later completely) monotheistic those female aspects of god became part of JHWH and the biblical texts mentioned here are one result of it.

Also in the Christian tradition the female aspects of god were stressed from time to time, mainly in the Mystical traditions. One example are the texts and visions of “Mechthild of Magdeburg” and other powerful women in the medieval church.

For me personally the question of the feminine aspects in god is connected with the larger question of our human ability of talking and knowing about god. I’m convinced that no human talking about god – may it between highly educated theologians or just “normal” people – can describe god in any complete way. Our language and our thinking about god is therefor always incomplete and we are only able to use the language and vocabulary we have. Therefore neither “masculine” or “feminine” terminology describes god in any “better” way than the other does.

This position has also a tradition in the Christian tradition. In the ten commandments god prohibits to make images of god and to pray to them. In my opinion everyone who declares their own description of god as the only right one, does exactly this. They claim to know more about god than they are able to and this is one form of idolatry.

In the fifth century Christian theologians tried to resolve a huge argument about Jesus’ nature. Some were arguing that Jesus was “completely” human and some that he was “completely” divine. Recognizing that from a Christian point of view Jesus is god incarnated they decided in the Chalcedonian Creed to use paradoxical formulations (Jesus’ two natures are “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”). What is important in this for the question of the Feminine/Masculine in God is that they recognized the incompleteness and inability of human language in speaking about and describing god.

So human language and thinking can always just reach a part of gods being (like the A in the B in the picture).

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This means the question of talking about god in feminine or masculine terms is not a question about truth, but about stressing different aspects of god. Because our tradition has overstressed the masculine aspects much more than the feminine ones (because of the causes mentioned above), I find it very important to stress the feminine aspects more than we used to be. One possibility for this is using feminine terminology. When I was in church at St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow last Sunday Jesus was for example addressed as “our mother” during the intercessions prayer. Such small moments of irritation can help us, to realize that god is not a man in meaning than a human being can be a man, god is much more. God has male and female aspects.

To recognize those aspects Christianity can probably learn something from other religions. I find it very interesting to see how Hinduism can see all the different gods and goddesses as appearances of the one divine being and so make the people much more aware of the different aspects of god.

The Feminine in God

The value of travelling

“The train now leaving platform four is the 10.45 service to Edinburgh.” This and similar announcements have I heard very often since I came to Glasgow last July. Travelling is a large part of my work with Interfaith Scotland. I travel, when I visit the different local interfaith groups all over Scotland, between Dumfries and Shetland and between Skye and Fife. I travel also when I attend meetings of the youth engagement advisory group in London and I travel when I attend dialogue events or networking meeting with other charities or institutions. I had to travel to come to Scotland in the first place as well. Travelling is nice, because it gives me the opportunity to see a lot of different places and meet interesting people. Today we have very easy travel opportunities and even if a train is delayed or a flight cancelled, we (at least the privileged people with a passport, which opens most countries for us) can be pretty sure, that we can reach nearly every place in the world in relatively short time.

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Most of the people I work with at Interfaith Scotland and Interfaith Glasgow have been travelling a lot. Frances grew up in Northern Ireland and has spend time in India, Else has a Malaysian-Chinese background, Maureen is from the Highlands, but has lived in Samoa and the USA and is exploring interfaith connections in New Zealand the next weeks. At Interfaith Glasgow Rose is from England, Magdalen from Northern Ireland and Lynnda from South Africa. In a lot of the local interfaith groups there are people who are not born in Scotland or have lived in another country for some time of their life.

On the one hand this mixture of travel experienced people in interfaith context is a result of our modern globalized world, but on the other hand it also shows that travelling has a value in increasing interfaith and intercultural awareness. If I never had met people from other cultural or faith backgrounds than my own I probably would not be that interested in interfaith dialogue. I probably would never have thought about the question what my faith and believe means for the relationship to people of other faith. And I’m sure a lot of people involved in interfaith work and activities share this opinion.

Of course there are different kind of travelling and journeys where people of different backgrounds directly meet each other might be more fruitful for raising interfaith awareness than holidays where people spend there whole time at the beach and the only “strangers” they meet are those, who clean the dishes at the hotel buffet. But the first step is anyway to start moving being open to meeting others.

For some people it is easier to travel than for others. Therefore Interfaith Scotland offers schools the opportunity to bring volunteers from different faith backgrounds to them, so that students, especially outside the large and diverse cities can meet people of different faith backgrounds. Two weeks ago I joined a group of volunteers and delivered a day of school workshops in Oban, where it is not that easy for the students to meet Muslims, Hindus or Baha’i. It was really interesting to hear the interested questions the young people asked and I wish more schools would organise days like this (even if it were difficult for Interfaith Scotland, because of the small staff team we have…).

One idea, which has been discussed in the last years, that I really liked was to provide every young person in the European Union with a free Interrail ticket. It’s really a pity that in case this project comes into reality the young people in Scotland and the other parts of the UK can’t benefit of this! I think this would be a great opportunity especially for young people to meet people from different backgrounds and raise their awareness of the value of diversity. Maybe the Scottish government or the UK government should think about supporting/founding similar projects or at least organise/support more projects where people can travel in Scotland to meet people of different backgrounds (be it from the Southside of Glasgow to the East End of Glasgow, or from the rural areas of the country to the more diverse ones), like Interfaith Scotland does with it’s school workshops. Hopefully more people can have similar interesting travel experiences, as I do at the moment!

“Hine mah tov…”

When you are studying protestant theology in Germany you have to learn Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Fortunately for me I had learned Latin and Ancient Greek in school, so I had to learn “only” Hebrew when I started my studies. It was definitely not very easy to learn the language of the Hebrew Bible but in the second attempt I managed to pass the exam. When we learned the language, we not only learned how to read the alphabet and from the right to the left and not only vocabulary and grammar, but we also learned some traditional Hebrew songs. One of those songs has the text

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“ and it quotes the beginning of Psalm 133. The verse means “Behold how good and how pleasing if brothers (people) could sit together in unity“. The song was also sung at the National Holocaust Memorial Day event, which I reflected about last week.

But it came much more to my mind after I visited a Shabbat service at Glasgow Reform Synagogue last Saturday. To be guest in this service was a very special experience for me. Not only because it was a remembrance service for Holocaust Memorial Day and not only because of the difficult history between Christians and Jews – especially in Germany. The experience was special because I felt welcomed and in a way “at home” that is unusual for visits in places of worship of other faith tradition than my own. Of course it helped a lot, that I was able to follow the Hebrew texts of the liturgy but also the texts itself and the setting of the service felt very familiar. That was of course because Christians and Jews share not only a lot of history, but also a large part of their Holy Scriptures. Probably because of that I had the feeling, that I could truly participate in the prayers say “Amen” to what was said in the service. The differences to my own tradition, which I definitely experienced as well, did not feel larger than when visiting a service in a different Christian denomination. Of course that does not mean that Jews should be seen as just another Christian denomination – that would be wrong and dangerous, but it shows the brother- and sisterhood between Christians and Jews.

Up till now I had the feeling that people stressing the “Christian-Jewish heritage of the Western World” do this mainly to support Anti-Muslim tunes in society, and I think very often this is the case. But during this service, listening together the story how god saved the Israelites on their way through the dessert, singing psalms, praying and remembering the Holocaust I really had the feeling: “Yes we are brothers and sisters. And there is a deep understanding between us. And besides all the differences that should not be denied, we share much more than we ourselves might think.”

If I could have a wish, I would wish that this deep understanding I experienced in this Shabbat Service is possible between believers of all the different religions. I would wish that Jews can pray with Muslims and Muslims with Christians and Buddhists with Hindus and Hindus with Sikhs and Skihs with Baha’I and Baha’I with Jews and so on. That would really be “good and pleasing”!

“Hine mah tov uMah-Nayim shevet achim gam yachad“

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.

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.