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Spiritual Human Interview with Linda Woodhead

Prof Linda WoodheadProfessor Linda Woodhead MBE  DD teaches sociology of religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her work delves in to the relationship between religion and society. Co-founded the Westminster Faith Debates which fosters debate and discussion aided by the latest research.

Sincere thanks to Linda Woodhead for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH LINDA WOODHEAD

Musa Askari: “It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, whom I first met in 1965 and then again in 1968 at a seminar in Bangalore, who gave me the insight and direction I was seeking. When I attended that seminar….I had no idea that it would open a new path for me and bring me into the very heart of the interfaith dialogue across continents. Smith’s distinction between faith and belief provided me with a foundation to relate positively to “the other”. While belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s life, to all those whom one encounters, faith being a vast world in which all can participate. Faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without fear. I now had the spiritual basis to respect and listen to others.” (Prof. Syed Hasan Askari – Solomon’s Ring)

In your opinion what do people mean by the words “faith” and “belief”? From surveys commissioned of public opinion is a distinction between “faith” and “belief” recognised and how is this distinction expressed within the field of sociology of religion?

Linda Woodhead: I think the general perception would be that ‘faith’ means something personal, existential and ‘inner’, whilst ‘belief’ has more to do with external religious formulations. To that extent, there is an overlap between the faith/belief distinction and the spirituality/religion one. Moreover, where ‘beliefs’ seem to define particular religions and distinguish them from one another ‘faith’ is a more inclusive term (despite Christian associations). I was speaking to a university chaplain the other day who told me that when they renamed the ‘Chaplaincy’ ‘Centre for Faith and Spirituality’ the number of people coming through the doors almost tripled!

Another way of looking at it is that there are two dimensions of religious identity – the collective identity which I inhabit, and the inner dimension of that identity which, to some extent, is private to me alone. People may be able to pigeonhole me in terms of the collective identity, but my personal identity is part of my inner life, and – a religious person might say – ‘known to God alone’.

Musa Askari: Professor Askari in his 2004 article, From InterReligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism discusses the threefold need to revive the classical discourse on soul: theological, philosophical and psychological.

As well as understanding the number and various sub-set distribution of those who identify themselves as “religious” or “spiritual but not religious” does reference to “soul” feature in the studies and opinion polls you have conducted? What is meant by the word “soul” and are the various definitions people offer contextualized depending on which faith or spiritual attitude the person belongs or ascribes to?

Linda Woodhead: There are plenty of surveys which show that belief in the soul has been growing in the UK – despite the fact that other elements of religious belief, including belief in God, have been declining. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by ‘soul’, and my interviews and talks with people suggest that different people mean different things. But the word seems to help people express their intuition that there is ‘more’ to me – and other humans, and possibly animals as well – than mere flesh and blood. This ‘something’ may be hard to pin down, but it can include the belief that people have a unique, irreplaceable value, and that that value is never completely destroyed – even by death. So the ‘soul’ names something of great value, something which transcends the mundane and utilitarian aspects of existence.

But people don’t always mean something eternal when they say soul – and often they make no reference to God at all (atheists can believe in a soul). Here soul may simply mean the essence of a person, their deep identity. It’s also interesting to note that souls are not necessarily good! We may say ‘poor soul’ of someone we pity. And ‘she has a beautiful soul’ of someone we admire. But we also say ‘he has no poetry in his soul’, or ‘his soul is in danger’ and ‘he is an unhappy soul’.

Musa Askari: If religion is a particular “faith body” then “spirituality” is its temperature reading varying in intensity from the individual to the collective. It is an impossible task perhaps to capture a spiritual reading through social attitude survey-opinion polls. We are perhaps using the wrong tools to grapple with that question. Would you agree to ask about spirituality, before we arrive at any expression of say religious faith, is to ask also more fundamental questions? Namely, “who are we” or “who am I”.

Can these be considered the cornerstones not of doubt but a deeply felt sense of spirituality? This couplet of questions, over and above all cultural-social-ethnic-national and religious identities is, would you agree, “The Identity Question”? It is from here we start our journey, consciously or otherwise. Some may even refer to it as the beginning of a spiritual quest. (for reference please see interview with Dr. Rowan Williams.

Linda Woodhead: The question of identity can certainly be the starting point for a spiritual or moral question. ‘Who am I?’, ‘what am I really like’ are questions which we all have to answer at some point in our lives, and which crises can precipitate. We can get stuck in a particular identity, including one which others want us to inhabit, but the construction of identity can also be an ongoing process. This is not to make it all sound like an individual or individualistic matter: we construct identity in relation to given social identities (‘a good daughter’, ‘a good Muslim’, ‘a respected professional’, ‘a tough man’) which are often conveyed by images and stories and real people we know. And we constantly negotiate our identities in relation to one another: how you feel and speak about me may shape who I am. For religious people, god, goddess, goods and holy places are important elements in this whole process.

Musa Askari: The question on knowing our place in the world, some would argue, is more than to ask about our physical existence as a planetary form of life. Is it not also, together with the physical, a spiritual non-material question which goes beyond our empirical existence? If “spirituality” is also that which expresses our longing for “transcendence” then humanity’s quest to know its place in the world, in the cosmos, the whole endeavour of human thought, has been and remains perhaps a super-trans-historical spiritual pursuit.

I would be grateful for your thoughts on if the hidden debate between all of us as communities, as one “Human Self” (sacred – secular, religion-humanists, spiritual-atheist, physical-metaphysical) is a spiritual one also and that such a term of reference requires admission into the continuing debate/dialogue between religion and humanism, towards a spiritual humanism? (for reference please see section on Human Nature by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari )

Linda Woodhead: To ‘Know my place in the world’ is a very good starting point – and perhaps ending point – for a humanist or a spiritual quest. How many of us really know our place? We can take up too much space, or too little space. To know one’s place is a very difficult and demanding task, and it means making proper allowance for the space that other people, creatures, plants, and other elements of the natural world occupy. We have to give space as well as take it, and in doing so we find out who we really are. I think this may be a point on which humanists, atheists, environmentalists and many religious people would agree. There are also powerful traditions within many theistic religions which speak of God having to withdraw Godself to make space for the created order.

Musa Askari: From his reflection, There are only Four Communities (Alone to Alone: From Awareness to Vision), Hasan Askari writes, “There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture….There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices….There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals….And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. ”

I am interested to understand if it is possible not only to enquire if a person identifies themselves as religious or otherwise, but if there is any work undertaken to capture an understanding of the outer and inner aspects of one’s religious, spiritual life and mystical life? Is the question asked on a recognition of inner and outer? For example take Islam where we have the outer enactments of faith, “salat”- canonical prayer, “Haj”-pilgrimage and so on all pointing to something beyond the outer act itself, a way to transcend as it were. On the other hand we notice a calling in the Quran to remember God, to contemplate and reflect in silence even outside of the prescribed rites of faith.

Linda Woodhead: I think we live in an age which is very focused on the external life – on how I act into the world, what material success I have, my relations with people and things. The price of this emphasis is often a neglect of the inner life. Mystical traditions saw nothing odd in a person dedicating the whole of life to exploring ‘inner space’ – a world which is invisible. Today many people would regard that as a wasted life, and think that such a person was being escapist, and retreating into an illusory world. At the same time, however, we all know that we have an ‘inside’ which we often find it hard to understand and articulate. We may need help – a friend or a therapist – to explore it. It is wonderful when we meet someone who can understand us, who can ‘see inside’. When this happens, the fundamental loneliness we al live with can be lifted in a miraculous way. Some people may experience this in prayer, some in nature, some with people they love, some watching movies or reading poems. You can call this ‘transcendence’, but it is a transcendence which at the same time roots us more deeply in who we really are.

Spiritual Humanism

 

Spiritual Human Interview with MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog

Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH

Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”

In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”

On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?

Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning.  Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)  

Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe.  I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family.  The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.

 When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.

Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?

We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context.  But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making.  As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.  

It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.

Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”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.”

Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.

Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.  

Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples”  is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith.  Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas. 

When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about  and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit.  More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol,  tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening. 

Over the years  the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others.  Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.

Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.

However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?

Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral.  People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill. 

For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present. 

The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.

Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”

The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”

Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer. 

On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?

Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question.  The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need.  These are counter intuitive expressions of love. 

When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Gregory A Barker

Gregory A. BarkerFormerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies, Uni of Wales, Trinity Saint David . Author, educator, coach.

www.gregbarkercoaching.com/

Sincere thanks to Dr. Barker for this interview

Musa Askari: I would like to begin with your “spiritual quest” as a seeker of truth and understanding, its origins and movement from a Lutheran Pastor for many years to Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wales. What were the main, inner spiritual, factors influencing the move from being a pastor to entering the world of academia? Whilst it may not have been a conversion to another faith, was it perhaps an inner conversion, a conversion to “self”?

Greg Barker: It began with a death – the drowning of a 16-year-old boy in our church’s youth group. He had gone out diving with full gear, wet suit and oxygen tank, not far from the shore of our seaside town. There were three of them and he indicated that he was ready to return to shore. Instead of going together, he emerged to the surface alone.  All we can guess is that he was blind sided by a wave, choked on some water, struggled and drowned. This tragedy hit me more deeply than any event in my life. He was a wonderful person, full of life, dreams, aspirations.

In the days that followed, I committed myself to all of the necessary and proper pastoral duties.  Many people in the church had much to say about what happened such as “he is in a better place now…”, “this has happened for a reason…”, “In time we will all see what a blessing this has really been…”  I found myself infuriated with these statements. I was deep in grief and angry at what I felt were rationalizations of a terrible event.

In the coming days, I must have heard hundreds of these kinds of sentiments. I looked closely at the faces of those who uttered them and began to suspect that many of these words were not the result of a deeply held conviction tested in the crucible of life, but a nervous grasping for a ledge to hang onto in this precarious world.

It was the first time that I began to realize at a personal level that the things we say – even very spiritual sounding things – can represent not a searching for the truth, but an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, spirituality can be a very selfish affair covered by a thin veneer of pious language.  If good people in church could engage in religious language at this level, then how far did this go?  Could this invention of self-serving spiritual language extend to the liturgy, the sacred texts of my tradition? 

It was not a very comfortable place to be for the pastor of a church.    

Musa Askari: In the book review of “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” by Hasan Askari/Jon Avery you write, “On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies. Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement…..Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.”

Please talk more on what “Towards A Spiritual Humanism” may have anticipated twenty years ago within context of the above quote? Specifically with reference to theological reformulations. In your experience could you please share if this is taking place more in some faiths than in others and if so why that may be the case?

Greg Barker: Walk into any bookstore and you will see, prominently displayed, the work of the “new atheists”: Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Grayling. These brilliant men (and I mean that sincerely) are engaged in sounding a loud “no” to religion and they do so in the most incisive and witty ways possible. When it comes to biblical literalism, fundamentalism and even liberal forms of belief, these writers point out the intellectual depravity of religious formulations and attitudes. 

Along with their rational critique of religious belief is the quite unscientific argument that our world will be a peaceful utopia, freed of violence once all forms of religious belief have been eradicated.  This strikes me as naïve in the extreme – though we can all say a loud “yes” to their elucidations of the sins of religious intolerance.  Not only does their approach raise the question of how we define religion (they define it as “belief”, whereas a sociologist would take a different tack), but, more importantly, it raises the question of who we are as humans and what religion truly represents as a human creation. 

Only recently have some atheist writers tried to articulate a “yes” to the creation and value of religion to balance the “no” which is so prominent in current media.  Imagine my delight to discover that this “yes” was being discussed more than 20 years ago by Hasan Askari and Jon Avery, two men very well aware of both the depravity and value of religious beliefs.  

Musa Askari:  Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task. Perhaps this engagement or “due encounter” may be possible ironically as a result of the self-questioning/ re-thinking you allude to in both world views. It might also be fostered by a positive working through of “doubt”, as a critical tool, which does not reject outright but more so seeks to explore – we may then even apply the word “quest” to both sacred and secular pursuits of knowledge and understanding.   

Would you agree with the connection between “doubt” and “quest” as framed above? Furthermore, do you see today greater possibility of due encounter (co -witness) between a person of faith and an atheist rather than the usual “for-against” arguments which lead us no further forward?

Greg Barker: When we travel, we are immediately given the opportunity to see a new place as a “cute” reflection of some aspects of our own culture that we find interesting – yet are expressed in an exaggerated (and ultimately “deficient “manner) by the culture we are visiting OR we can view what is around us as potentially revealing something we need to know, something that we missed, something that we may ignore only at our own peril.  Most middle and upper class western journeys are designed to give us the “cute” factor. This helps us feel secure in the world (a false security) and reinforces our cultural superiority.

However, to travel with the assumption that the other culture is always superior and always will make me a better person is also misguided, revealing perhaps a loathing or hatred for our own cultural achievements and background. We must find a way to love where we have come from as we attempt to love where we are going.

Between these two attitudes is the “doubt” and “questing” that you refer to.  And, yes, I very much love your connection between these words, though in reality it is a very difficult place to be. Difficult, but full of life.

You ask if there is a greater possibility of a deeper encounter today between a person of faith and an atheist than the usual “for and against” polemic celebrated in the media.  You are asking an important question but I can only say this: (a) to ask about a “greater possibility” raises a question of measurement and I am afraid we have only anecdotal evidence and (b) I would not like to contrast “person of faith” with “atheist” – as that is already a polemical differentiation. If we look at Durkheim or the French existentialists we will see that the need to make decisions in our lives ALWAYS runs ahead of the available scientific evidence, so, in a sense, we all need to live by some kind of faith.  There is a stepping out into the unknown that is guided by our heritage, our intuition, our relationships…one cannot avoid the unknown.  But we can tell our stories to each other so that we are a little less alone and a little more informed on the journey.

Musa Askari: Your book, which I highly recommend, “Jesus in the World’s Faiths”, you bring together “leading thinkers from five religions” to “reflect on his meaning”, one of which is my late father Syed Hasan Askari. He concludes his essay, “The Real Presence of Jesus in Islam” as follows, “Religious and doctrinal formulations are like rivers, each crossing unique lands. Some of those rivers dry up before they reach the sea. But others make it to the ocean and when they merge with the ocean they leave their name and form behind. They have then become one with the One. It is my belief that the Christian and Muslim perspectives on Jesus are two such rivers. They are different from each other, crossing different lands. But now they are nearing the end of their journey. When they finally reach the ocean, what divides them will be lost. If we don’t understand this lesson, then the ocean will walk toward us and there will be deluge. We will then need a Noah’s ark. Not even the highest mountain of exclusivism will save us. So we have a choice. We can refuse to engage in the common life that we share, or we can learn from it and move toward the ocean, merging with it and becoming new spiritual beings. I beg Christians and Muslims to listen, as they have never before, to their complimentary witness about Jesus.”  

When a writer “begs” their reader I think it is a moment to take note. For a writer to “beg” they must have known “poverty” of some kind. Perhaps only those who have either known literal poverty or poverty of estrangement, to be forsaken almost and/or spiritual poverty can know deeply what it is to “beg” to listen. It is all these inner related aspects of poverty which to me, if reflected upon deeply, cannot help but prepare the individual, one hopes, to listen to a spiritual counterpart hearing a testimony about the an important “Sign” between them of friendship; Jesus.  

To talk about Jesus is no ordinary conversation in my view. It is a tremendous encounter, especially for Christians and Muslims due to their scriptural importance, where I have often felt one must come in a state of inner poverty to that conversation (and all such inter-faith conversations), recognizing that the other has something truly wonderful to offer. In other words only when we arrive in a state of inner poverty at the door of the other are we then perhaps, just perhaps, better placed to be “enriched” and transformed. I would stress in the type of encounter I am referring to we are far beyond any theological objections or social tolerance, we are in a state of “kinship”. We have put down our outer defenses of identity, as like leaving our worldly possessions at the entrance to an inner sacredness. We have “recognised” the other and in doing so we have removed the veil of “otherness”. That is how friends should meet in my view.  

In your opinion, has inter-faith dialogue delivered on it’s promise to bring faith communities together not only socially but also spiritually to “listen” to one another as Hasan Askari, a long time partner in Inter Faith dialogue, begs in this case Christians and Muslims to do? Beyond Christianity and Islam looking at the general world religious faith body have we reached the limit of what inter-faith dialogue can do in its present form and should we re-think and re-formulate this also?   

Greg Barker: Hasan’s writing above casts a spell over me!  Think of those rich images:  he sees religious formulations as rivers rather than rocks, moving through history in a winding way; he grasps that there is a movement toward something larger – that there is something shared in humanity that we desperately need to find.  I count myself a very fortunate editor to have had Hasan’s contribution in my book!  And I agree with him that religious thought is fluid and moving – despite the cries of those who believe that their truth has dropped down from heaven in tact for all time. I have actually never heard the truth of religious change expressed as eloquently as it has by Hasan.

Interfaith dialogue faces an often-unseen danger. The danger we first see is a fundamentalistic-literalistic-cultural intolerance.  Yet there is another danger:  a liberal theory that fits all of the religious component parts into an inclusive whole.  Many theologians and philosophers invent a rich and beautiful philosophy which harmonizes the religions.  Some times these theories are so intricately conceived and so inclusive in their reading of history that they seem to present THE WAY to view the meaning of all religion. But, for me, these “uber-theories” crush the dialogue, the doubt and the quest itself. Those who don’t hold to the harmonizing theory feel that it is a cultural and religious bulldozer and so back away from dialogue.  Those who do hold to these theories feel so wonderful about the theory itself that they do not feel that they actually need to really engage with religious adherents. Instead, they find only like minded pluralists or perennialists.

My own experience with Hasan was that he did not fit into either of these categories – he took an incredibly personal approach with me in our private discussions and I will never forget these moments for the rest of my life.

Yet, I have questions about the “ocean” that Hasan describes.  To what degree is this an “uber-theory” or a testimony to a truth larger than I can see right now? I am sure I am betraying my ignorance of Plotinus…And I wonder how much we can leave behind our identity.  Yet, I believe in what you are saying, Musa: there needs to be a sense of poverty and openness if we are ever to experience a moment of fellowship with another human being.  Rather than trying to “shed” identity as a butterfly would shed its former life as a caterpillar, I think we need to take our identity in with us to our encounter, put it on the table, feel it threatened, speak from our truth – and see what happens.  Perhaps you are saying the same thing? I suppose I see myself as a caterpillar and have no idea if that state is the end of my journey or not.  

Musa Askari: From your introduction to “Jesus in the World’s Faiths” you write, “….we cannot know who we truly are without encountering others. When those we encounter are from vastly different backgrounds than our own, the potential for growth and change is enormous.”  

I could not agree more with the spirit of your quote and end as I started with a question about your on-going “spiritual quest”. I would be grateful if you could share on a personal level how your spiritual journey has grown and changed in the light of encounter with people from diverse faith traditions?

Greg Barker: It took me decades before I realized that not everyone was a part of the “United Federation of Planets”, that there were other stories reflecting values I did not know about from my diet of childhood TV in the United States.  My study into the history of interpretations of Jesus began somewhat naively – I just wanted to know what others thought of a key figure in my tradition. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted to hear how great my tradition was from those outside of it?  What I didn’t count on was that those I encountered had questions for me:

• Why do you and your tradition see us as inferior?

• Why have your co-religionists persecuted us, treating us so differently than the ways prescribed by your founder?

• Don’t you think that our focus on law (or awareness or asceticism or…) can help you be a better human being?

Sometimes these questions came through books and journal articles.  But the most powerful way they came was face to face – in awkward moments where I did not have an answer prepared, where I had to look my questioner in the eyes and choose to speak a platitude, change the subject or confess my confusion and ignorance. When I chose the latter, I would feel that I was falling off a cliff, but that the place I landed was better than I had been before.  I’ve fallen off that cliff with you…and it has made all the difference.

Spiritual Humanism

There Are Only Four Communities

“There are those who do not look beyond this world and its appearances, who are attached to its fortunes, however fleeting, and who insist, either on account of their personal conviction or under the influence of some dominant ideology, on a materialistic outlook. They are to be found in every age, country and culture. They constitute one community however they are distributed into various conflicting identities.

There are those who call themselves religious but are strongly attached to the outward forms of their beliefs and practices. They seem to have substituted religious forms for the material forms, and as they are fanatic about them, they bring about a far greater degree of discrimination and conflict in the world than their materialistic counterparts. They too constitute one community. Though they may belong to totally conflicting religious interests and traditions, they are still like mirror images of one another. When their fanaticism for the outward forms of their religion is combined with their material interests, they create havoc both for themselves and for the rest of the world.

Therefore, let us not be deceived by how these two groups identify themselves, whether as materialists or religious people. Ignore the names they give themselves after some ideology or religion. Beware of the trap: imperceptibly without the slightest awareness on your part, you may be dragged by them into giving yourself a collective name or belief. All of them, as you will often notice, feel uneasy before an unidentified or nameless mode of self-understanding. Unless you are careful, you will soon be a part and parcel of their discourse even when you think you are disagreeing with them. It is how most of the reformers end up as greater fanatics than their opponents. So beware of the outward forms, and those who adore them. At best these outward forms have a value for the species in its collective discipline, but they are a hindrance to the individual.

There are those who look beyond the outer forms of this world and of their religion and culture. They look at their inner meanings and correspondences. They are the individuals. They are not many. They are to be found in every age, country and religion. They are the ones who embody the one indivisible humanity. They are the true humanists. They are one community on account of their inwardness, their interconnection across religious, cultural and historical boundaries. They reflect a deep positive patience. They may stand in one or another house of worship or they may constitute one unbroken fellowship of the spirit. They are the salt of the earth. They are the peacemakers.

And there are those who have gone beyond both the outward and the inward. They have gone beyond themselves. Though they appear as present, they are in reality absent. They are very few, some known and others hidden, even from themselves. They are past even human identification, neither man nor woman, they are a being, pure and transparent. They are the elect. They are the horizon towards which the people of the inward look.

Between the outward looking and the inward looking there is an abysmal gulf. Between the inward and the elect there is a bridge. They are both communities, and also modes of awareness and being*.

“Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision” by Hasan Askari *For a detailed discussion about these four modes you may refer to “Towards a Trans-Religious Dimension” in Spiritual Quest: An Inter-Religious Dimension by Hasan Askari.