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.

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.

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

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.