FROM INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE TO
By Prof. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)
2004 – “InterReligious Insight” http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html
Affirming Religious Diversity
I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder. The differences between religious beliefs and practices have never bothered me, nor have their conflicting truth-claims unnerved me. I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself. But the call to tolerate and coexist with the other in mutual respect, however desirable, was not enough for me. The intuition underlying the ancient saying, “the lamps are many but the light is one,” gently led me on to look for a theological affirmation and validation of more than one religion. What was lingering in the depths of my soul came to the surface of my consciousness sometime in the mid-1970s when I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form; otherwise a religion will become a god and that would be utter blasphemy. The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.
Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.
Co-witness and mutual mission would replace the literalist approach to religious language by a symbolic understanding of diverse and conflicting symbols and statements. A real evangelist would be one who brings the good news of universal truths as these are glimpsed through various religious symbols and philosophies. Then our perception of the other as a spiritual being will achieve a real depth and we shall apprehend underneath the outer differences and conflicts a shining unity of mystical experiences. Our perspectives will expand: we shall not only notice religious diversity as a spatial fact but also value the coming and going through time of teachers and prophets, religions followed by religions – all calling upon us to wake up and humbly bow in self-knowledge before the almighty source of our souls. Then our conversion will be not to this or that religion but to one God (speaking theistically), All Transcendent-All near, All Freedom-Ever New!
In order to attain this perspective I soon learnt that one had to give up the traditional scholastics and adopt a hermeneutic approach by which a pathway to the fountain itself of such unity and diversity could be opened. There was nowhere to look for its source except in one’s own soul, for nature and culture, art and religion, philosophy and science had emerged from the depths of the soul. Soul is thus the treasure house of all the archetypes from where all our symbols and insights emanate. As I once put it:
Without the unifying reality of the soul we shall be wrecked in the multiplicity and conflict of the forms of life and nature. The soul is the one-multiple being, one and divided at the same time, fully one with itself possessing the vision of what is above. Unless we postulate such a principle and revive the classical discourse on Soul, we cannot rise above our divisions of body, belief and consciousness to a bodiless and non-discursive reality. Before we ask about the other out there, we should ask about the other in us, our nobler and loftier companion, our Soul, which with one hand holds our body and mind here on earth and with the other holds on to the Divine. With this knowledge we can hope to pass from one hand to the other, from the lower to the higher. Hence, to experience the truth about oneself and about the other is to experience the reality of the Soul, which individualizes and universalizes us all at once. First soul, then God!
It is as if the soul possesses the vision of the Supreme One, and yet creates countless forms in order to preserve that singular vision through such endless multiple endeavour.
Soul as One and Many
I have outlined a double validation of religious diversity, from the viewpoint of the theology of transcendence, and also from the perspective of the gnosis of the soul as both one and many in her being and works. The point of departure on the interreligious path is the very vision of our reality as souls and the point of our arrival is our souls’ witness of the transcendence and universality of one God.
Let no one imagine that her or his soul is just her or his corporeal and social identity. Our soul is vaster than our conscious and unconscious psyche put together. Soul is one and many, a universal being. It is in souls of each other that we encounter each other both individually and universally. We surpass the boundaries of our outer identity. We seek our inner connections, as follows:
Do I recognize the other as my hermeneutic kin, as an associate in awareness and being? I meet a so-called co-believer. I do not recognize in him my inward kin. I meet a so-called other who belongs to a different religious tradition, but I recognize in him my inward companion. Encounter is now a prelude to lasting friendship and union.
“Know thyself” were the words written on the Gate of Entrance to the ancient Temple of Delphi. The prophet of Islam categorically made self-knowledge a pre-requisite to knowing God when he said, “Whoever knows his self knows his Lord.” As such, the gnosis of our soul and self, our real being, has thus been the goal of all our mystical and religious life. The classical discourse on soul from ancient India and ancient Greece, and from various Gnostic traditions requires to be revived, for it is also the cornerstone of interreligious spirituality. Dialogue becomes a vision of the magnificent utterance, “Here I am”! Reflectively, we all become co-present to one another – not as one exclusive identity, but as one who says to the other, I am both me and you and you are both you and me, and together we stand on holy ground.
Interreligious dialogue requires not only a theology of transcendence but also a spiritual anthropology. The movement from interreligious dialogue to spiritual humanism is natural. It also involves a philosophical conviction about the human soul as a universal principle, which itself is a source of both our diversity and unity and calls for its concrete expression in social and political life. Spiritual humanism then appears not only as a mystical vision but also as the ideology of a new world order.
The Christian sponsored interreligious dialogue seems to have failed in all problem areas from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, from Ireland to Central Europe, because, firstly, it has not been accompanied by a clear articulation of the anthropological vision of one spiritual humanity and, secondly, because there had been a gap between interreligious dialogue and society at large. There was no connecting point between the spiritual hope expressed in the movement that promoted interreligious dialogue and the social situations which, at various points on the globe, had degenerated into sheer ethnocentrisms and religious obscurantism. The rising tide of exclusivist doctrines and identities seems to have overrun the complacent confidence of the advocates of democracy and secular humanism. Then there are those who criticise people like me that we do not honour the specificity of each religion sufficiently. To them I would say that without honouring the universality of God and the universality of the human principle as a soul, there remains no grace about the so called specificity of any religion, nor any hope for the survival of humanity.
We can act at least at 3 different levels together:
At the academic intellectual level, to revive the classical discourse on soul and to cultivate the theology of transcendence as integral to a multireligious spirituality.
At the ideological and pedagogical level, to replace exclusivist religionism and secularism with spiritual humanism.
At the prophetic level, to confront all those forces which enslave and cripple the human spirit.
Before I explain what I have in view by the prophetic role of spiritual humanism let me reflect on the reasons for the current mutation of religious consciousness, which are threefold:
A. Loss of transcendence with respect to the supreme reality, which turns our ideas of God into idols – we all become disbelievers in the disguise of our collective and self absolutised beliefs!
B. Loss of Gnosis of soul which leads us to regard our outer form and our separation as constituting our total reality.
C. Loss of transcendence with respect to both God and soul narrows the self down to bodily ego, practical reason and literalisation of symbols and myths – so we all become materialists in the guise of religious dogmas.
Had we remembered the higher Gnostic grades in our soul, namely the contemplative and intuitive, which bring to us our transfiguration as universal soul beings, we could have given birth to a new humanity through our inner expansion and enlightenment.
Interreligious dialogue urgently requires the revival of the classical discourse on soul. The Threefold Need to Revive the Classical Discourse on Soul
a) Theological Need
The materialists are right in refusing to believe in God, for neither the physical eye nor practical reason can bear witness to a metaphysical absolute. The knower of metaphysical reality should be a metaphysical being oneself. Therefore, as it has been said already, “Whoever knows his soul, knows his Lord.” As for interreligious dialogue, it is only on the basis of the unity of the human soul that we can confidently hold dialogue between various languages (religions) of that one very same soul.
b) Philosophical Need
The philosophical need for discourse on the soul is for both cosmological and epistemological reasons. If our knowledge is based only on sense perception and empirical reason, it will always remain subjective. The truth as objective reality will always elude us. But soul is both an objective and a subjective reality. The proof of this is our facing each other as we meet when we are both subject and object for each other. This miracle is possible because of our one common soul. When what we are and what we seek, as Plotinus used to say, are a unity, then our philosophies and religions are not in vain. Then there is a kinship between the knower and what he seeks to know. Soul, being diverse, is a seeker, and Soul, being one, is the sought after. Having thus known herself, she yearns for the one who is the source and lord of her one being. All our spirituality is that yearning of the soul.
c) Psychological Need
Modern psychology requires the rediscovery of the classical discourse on soul in order to transcend the dichotomy of the conscious and the unconscious sectors of the psyche, on one hand, and of the psyche and matter, on the other. The Neo-platonic discourse is coming back and will reflourish in the 21st century to provide the foundation for a unified theory of physical and metaphysical reality.
Only by knowledge of the soul can we know the immortality of our essence, by which we are filled with courage to confront and conquer oppression and injustice – by which our life is both within and beyond bodily limits and by which we are both individuals and universals, residents of both this world and hereafter.
The soul is one multiple being, fully one with herself and also many, possessing in her unity the vision of the supreme one. Unless we postulate such a principle we cannot rise above the divisions of our body, belief and ego, to a spiritual and non-discursive reality. Neither friendship nor love could be possible nor the universal validity of our mystical experiences.
Universal Validity of Mystical Experience
There are some who question the universal validity of mystical experience as an expression of one universal ultimate reality. But we do not normally question the universal presence of life, beauty and love which inspire diverse forms of art, music, song and poetry. Nor do we normally question the universal presence of intellect which is the common foundation of different and conflicting theories of science and philosophy. But why is it that as soon as we refer to the universal validity of mystical experience people leap upon us from all sides insisting that mystical experience is subjective experience determined by one’s culture, theology, and personal psychological history. In every other case they seem to remain unperturbed by the co-presence of the objective and the subjective, the universal and the particular – as, for example, in regard to the human body, where there is one objective science of human anatomy and physiology upon which the entirety of medical science is based, and yet there are individual variations as to the state of health and nature of sickness. It is obvious then that the tendency to object to mystical experience’s claim of its inherent universal validity is influenced by a bias that if it is conceded, the next step would be to admit that there is a universally objective source of religious revelations. The objection is motivated by unphilosophical reasons. But it does not mean, however, that all mystical experiences are valid, and that there are no influences from the subject’s milieu and psychic constitution towards the experienced mystical state.
Criteria of Mystical Experience
With mystical experience, whether it be a transformed state of consciousness or an ecstatic utterance, there is the need for guidance in order to discern whether or not the experience in question is really transcendental. Hence, in the scriptural expression within Islam, there is on one hand the Qur’an as the recital of the divine word, and on the other, within the recital, is the Furq’an as the guidance to know truth from fantasy, knowledge from conjecture. Every spiritual teacher aspires to epistemological clarity. It is this clarity which is a pre-requisite for initiation into a mystical order.
Experience and guidance to interpret it descend together. The experience itself is on certain occasions a response to prayer for guidance. However neither a mystical experience nor a belief is always an authentic experience or a right belief. Therefore, consultation among seekers and dialogue between different believers should go on in pursuit of truth, our common beloved!
Mystical experience does not entail the suspension of rationality. Nor does it surpass the intellect which is itself a divine light. Let the soul always be lightened by the sun of intellect, the lamp of divine consciousness.
Within our soul are three Gnostic grades – Contemplative, Intuitive, and Discursive. What the contemplative eye has seen the intuitive would hold in its cognition, and what the intuition has cognised in all its totality reason would conceptualise and communicate in logical stages, and in such a harmony reason itself will be transfigured, becoming self-luminous as light upon light, as the light of the parable upon the light of our common understanding.
Religious Diversity as Mystical Experience
I have already touched upon the religious validation of religious diversity, preserving with the different religions their transcendental dimension. But when it all began for me in the mid-sixties in India it was more like a vast swing in my soul by which I lived all the diversity of the Indian civilisation – as if I were a worshipper in every house of worship, as if all rites of worship were within me. Religious diversity was thus for me a deep religious experience and now I know it as the experience of my soul itself, my soul in its universal dimension. I did not arrive at this point of affirmation by first philosophising about the necessity of interreligious dialogue on spiritual and social grounds in search of understanding and peace. Valid as they are, those reasons were extraneous to my inner being. My inner experience of religious diversity not only blossomed into my thought and writing, but also attracted, as a magnet, people from far off lands, knitting them into lasting friendships.
In order to bring this open-ended and universally harmonising outlook to the world at large we have yet to go a long way. The loss of a sense of transcendence from our consciousness, and the accompanying loss of the gnosis of soul, have led first to the degeneration of religion and eventually to the despiritualisation of politics and science. Hence, there is a prophetic role for spiritual humanism to take a stand against the following three massive threats to the very essence of our humanity:
- Self – Idolatry of Religions
- Self -destructive Militarism of the States
- Self -hypnosis of Materialism
of the Sciences.
Racism and ethnocentricism accompany religious exclusivism; absolutisation of ideological divides and the cult of supremacy of power provide the political and psychological bases for the self-destructive militarism of the state, while the self–contradictory argument in favour of nuclear armament for the sake of national security passes unnoticed with the gravest consequences for the survival of life itself; and the abolition of the spiritual dimension from every walk of life in the name of pragmatism and scientific materialism allows a free hand to the demigods of nationalism, consumerism and sensationalism.
The schools are fast emptying the souls of our children of the light and warmth of universalism and idealism. A hollow functionalism and obsession with mechanical proficiency dominate our school curricula. The soul thus emptied of all vision is dead – what is a human soul without its universal stature, and which is the fountain of our ideals and aspirations? Emptied from within, our youth grab their own outer husk to defend themselves against the loss of their real identity. Through our education, through our media, through our politics, through our militarism we are leading the youth into a wasteland. Their anger expressed on our streets, irrespective of the occasion, is their loud desperate cry for recognition, for a vision of their greater self which includes not only themselves, but also all humanity.
The language of critique and protest is replaced by the language of social conformism. The language of socialism is being made taboo by those very people who were until yesterday the leaders of socialist movements. Another wind is blowing and striking at the roots of all idealism: the wind of postmodernism, by which all universalist and metaphysical terms of reference are to be suspected. There is no ideological foothold for our next generation. 150 Years ago Karl Marx gave the call, “Let the workers of the world unite!” The call meant a universal sense of belonging to the rest of humanity, by which one could transcend religion and race and nation. When there is neither socialist nor spiritual–humanist language made available, under what banner would our youth unite?
The mere rule of law is not enough. The call to democracy requires people who can hope, not just to hear the empty promises of the politicians. The call for more productivity is not enough; more jobs are not the answer. Nor is less inflation the remedy. Those who give such calls know that they stand upon the unstable ground of the global market. They can no longer refuse to see the unruly crowds in their cities which their soulless education and politics have begotten. What we need is not laws. Law, however just, has to punish somebody, lower him in his own eyes. We do not need laws, we need self-realised individuals, mutually forgiving, mutually supportive, mutually educating, who can hold each other, who can rise together hand in hand. So with nations, my dear comrades of the spirit! No cause, no ideology, no national interest, is worth a war that destroys newly born children. As Martin Luther King once said, “After Nagasaki the choice is between non-existence and non violence.”
We have first to wake up from the spell which our collective identity, whether it be of race or of religion has cast upon us, and see the sun of awareness rising in the horizon of our souls, in whose light the hidden grace in each one of us would become visible to the other. As we bow to each other as soul beings, we bow before God who is both in us and above us. What can then prevent us from saying to each other that my soul and your soul is one soul, that our God and your God is one God? We shall then abolish fear, and then our greeting of peace will be a perfect greeting!