How political should interfaith engagement be?

This week I witnessed two short (very uncontroversial) discussions about the political element in interfaith dialogue. One was about Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be next week, and one about the engagement of faith communities and interfaith organisations against climate change. Having this in mind I want to reflect today about how political interfaith engagement can/should be. I thereby reflect only about the situation in Western democracies. The situation in other kind of states might differ in several points and is to complex to reflect it here.

Interfaith Engagement is always political

The word “political” comes from a time when there existed a lot of different City States (polis) in Ancient Greece. “Political” in its basic meaning is therefore something, that regards the “affairs of the cities” or of the community/society in a specific area.

Interfaith engagement how I experience it here in Scotland has always the aspect of serving the community: It is always about building peace and and a deeper understanding between different religious groups and that is in the end a way of serving the whole community. The Scottish government has realized this and is therefore funding the work of Interfaith Scotland, what I consider as a great example, that other governments in the world (Hello Germany!) should follow!

Furthermore have all the different faith traditions a tradition of political engagement. Be it in the way of building religious dominated states in history or presence or important contacts between representatives of religion and state. That’s completely logical, because the religions claim to be important for the whole live of their believers – and the social/political life is a part of this.

When is political engagement dangerous for interfaith dialogue?

Not every political engagement of partners in interfaith dialogue is good. Should a particular religious group have to close political connections to a political party it might damage their credibility. If religions want to be political in the above meaning – and from my point of view they have to – they should fight (peacefully in a democratical system) for their goals in society, whether they rather fit with the agenda of the government or the opposition.

Of course for an interfaith organisation like Interfaith Scotland that is even more difficult. What if two or more members or dialogue partners follow different political agendas? Well in this cases it is not possible that Interfaith Scotland supports one of the two agendas. It could only make a statement that shows the differences between its members. In general it would be dangerous, if political statements could be made with a simple majority in a vote, for example between the members of Interfaith Scotland or its board. It would be recognized if for example the faith communities in Scotland would all together criticise the government and therefore such statements need a large majority or better a unity behind them. How can you find such a majority or unity? Well I would say dialogue is the answer!

It would also be dangerous for Interfaith Scotland, if it depended to much on one political party. If for example the Scottish government tries to influence the religious groups too much via Interfaith Scotland and would threaten to cut the funding, when they are not successful in that, it would not be possible to provide a neutral platform for interfaith dialogue.

Why and when is it good, that Interfaith dialogue is political?

Interfaith dialogue is political in a good way, when it brings people together for improving the society – and is successful. One example is Interfaith Glasgow’s Weekend Club where an interfaith group of volunteers organizes activities around cultural and religious themes for refugees and asylum seekers. The engagement for refugees and asylum seekers is definitely political in the meaning I mentioned above. It has definitely an impact on the society when refugees and asylum seekers feel welcomed in Scotland and if they have the chance to learn about Scottish culture. It has also an impact on the volunteers, who have the opportunity to learn from each other and the participants at the events. Through projects like the “New Scots strategy” or media coverage around One Big Picnic or the Family Fun Day Interfaith Glasgow raises the voice for refugees, asylum seekers and more justice in our society and that is definitely a good result of interfaith engagement.

Other examples where interfaith engagement has an impact on the society is Scottish Interfaith Week. Not every theme in every year is in the same way political, but for example “Care for the environment” in 2015 or “Religion and the Media” in 2016 or “Connecting Generations”, which might become the theme for 2018 have been and are political in a good way.

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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.

Holy Scripture(s) in Interfaith Dialogue

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

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

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

 

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

Good dialogue – Good Neighbourhood

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

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

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

Here are some pictures of the building:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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