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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Faith and Activism

This week my colleague Frances and I visited Dundee. Dundee had been one of the longest running local interfaith groups, but in the last years the group has been less active. Since last year engaged people from Dundee are reviving the group. One step for this was the launch of Scottish Interfaith Week. In January Frances and I went to Dundee for a first meeting about the future of the group and Maureen, our Director, gave a talk about Interfaith. In the beginning of march Frances was organising a women’s dialogue event. For the meeting this week people from the group had suggested to have dialogue about poverty and we had an interesting discussion about the roots of poverty in our todays society (in Dundee) and the results of poverty (in Dundee).

This meeting was one of a couple of meetings I had in the last weeks were the social aspect of faith and social activism of believers was important. In February the monthly Faith-to-Faith event in Glasgow was about “Faith and Activism” and people talked about the connection of their faith and social activism, for example by engaging in Glasgow’s Interfaith Food Justice Network. Here people of different are providing food for those who can’t afford it themselves, because they for example are living on the streets. In the work with young people and about the question how to increase interfaith engagement of young people one feedback we often got in the last weeks, was that young people are rather keen to get active together in interfaith contexts, than “just” having a formal dialogue.

For someone like me, who has an academic background and enjoys having (theoretical) theological dialogue it is important to get reminded of this element of the different faith traditions. So why is the activism part of religion (in interfaith contexts) so attractive?

  1. Commonality

The element of practical care for those who need it, is something that is shared in all major and most minor faith traditions. Besides all other theological differences: to care for the poor, the old, the sick, the lonely ones, refugees and asylum seekers … for every one who is vulnerable is something all Holy Scriptures, all prophets and founders of religion and most believers agree is important. The way the different religious groups and individuals practise this care might differ, but in general it’s a shared element of faith. Therefor it is a good starting point for joint interfaith activities.

  1. Everyone can do it

You don’t need a degree in theology to help others. Being active for others in our society can look very different and so everyone is able to do something. Someone can visit people, that are lonely, someone can donate money or food or other essential and bring it to people who need it or to a charity/organisation that cares for others. Someone can set up and sign petitions for the good of minorities and vulnerable people. Someone can change their way of life, so others or the environment benefits from it, for example by doing less flight journeys or volunteering with a charity.

  1. You see practical results

When you give food to someone or clean a park from rubbish in your community together you see immediately results. This can give you better feeling than having just a “dry” discussion about a theme, because you directly see the impact of your doing.

  1. You can choose what to do

There are so many different possibilities to get active, that there is something to do for everyone. No one must do something they don’t like, but everyone can do something that has an impact.

  1. It strengthens religion in society

We live in a more and more secular world. In a lot of Western countries religions is becoming a less natural part of society. But even the strongest anti-religious people usually recognize the social aspect of religious activism, which cares for those no one else cares for. So if religious people are getting active in social matters and because of their faith and believes they show the importance religion has for every state, society and community.

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

Religion and Gender Justice – why we must criticise our Holy Scriptures

On Wednesday last week Interfaith Scotland had it’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). Besides the change in a constitution and some changes in the Trustees Board the main part at the evening was a speech by Rev. Kathy Galloway about “Faith in Gender Justice”. As a Christian theologian she mainly reflected on her own tradition but in a way that was transparent to the other religions. In my opinion this was a very clever solution, because so she didn’t get into the trap to teach the other religions from a “superior” point of view, what they were doing “wrong”. By heavily criticizing  her own tradition members of other religions could see parallels in their own tradition.

In her talk Kathy Galloway followed some Christian Feminist Theologians from the 20th century, especially Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and her hermeneutic thoughts.

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A hermeneutic approach to this theme make absolutely sense because traditionalist in the different traditions often use their Holy Scriptures to suppress women. That is possible is logical, because the Holy Scriptures of the major traditions usually were written/revealed in patriarchal societies. And even if the positions in the Holy Scriptures were progressive in their time and place, as eg. in the Quran, they are still patriarchal, old fashioned and discriminating today. And to stress it again this is also (or especially) to say about my own Holy Scriptures – the Christian Bible.

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In this case the question of Gender equality in the different religions can be a symptom for a problem that all the different tradition have to deal with and that might become one of the big questions for upcoming interfaith dialogue: the possibility to criticise the Holy Scriptures because of their historical dependence on their time and place of revelation.  Some of the traditions, such as the Western Christianity, has been dealing with this question since the 17th or 18th century – for some this question is relatively new. Of course in the Christian tradition this didn’t mean that people were dealing with the question of Gender equality – this is rather a development of the 20th century – but they have developed a tradition of a historical-critical dealing with Scripture since the age of enlightenment. This theological approach is of course not without problems, it has lead to division in the world wide Christian community and to a higher degree of religious uncertainty and probably also to the huge degree of secularisation in the Western World. Anyway I don’t believe there is a alternative to a critical approach towards the Holy Scriptures if a religious community wants to stay a part of the “modern”, “enlightened” world – and the members of the different tradition I meet at interfaith dialogue events seem to want to have an impact on our society. That doesn’t mean that all the traditions must follow the methods the Christian churches in Western Europe and some other countries have chosen. I’m sure every tradition must find their own way to criticise their Holy Scriptures. I’m for example a bit jealous of the (at least theoretical) possibilities to criticise the Holy Scriptures in the Baha’i tradition. With the idea of gods continues revelation through divine messengers at different places in different times, when humankind can’t understand the former revelation anymore they have an interesting tool to deal with the belonging of their Holy Scriptures to a specific time and place of revelation. Of course the idea that their revelation is the actual one for the next 800 years (1000 years from the point when they were revealed) makes this tool a bit less useful…

From my point of view to able to criticise the own tradition and their Holy Scriptures actual doesn’t mean to have a weaker faith than the ones who follow a somehow literalistic understanding. It actually rather means a huge amount of trust into the guidance through god, who is also trusting us. Many traditions (as so far as they believe in a personal deity) idealize the relationship between god and humankind as a loving relationship. If I follow this idea I must admit that a relationship were it is not allowed to criticise a partner is not very healthy, but repressing and definitely not loving. So if we really believe that god loves us and we have the feeling that we love god, than we must be able to criticise god in the same way partner in a relationship, be it between lovers, friends, family or colleagues, are able to criticise each other.

And I’m completely convinced that god accepts it, when we criticise him and the Scriptures he has revealed himself and his will in, because they are not in all cases helpful to support gender equality and justice in our society, but often rather dangerous.

I hope that this thoughts are understandable for you, to whatever faith tradition you belong, and that they maybe encourage you to find your personal way to fight for gender justice and equality in your faith tradition.

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.