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.

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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.

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.