Formerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies, Uni of Wales, Trinity Saint David . Author, educator, coach.
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.