Inter-faith pioneer Prof. Syed Hasan Askari interviewed by Rev Earl Hanna – 1988 radio show “An Endless Search”. A beautiful encounter through dialogue between spiritual seekers on topics such as : religious diversity, Oneness of God, theological challenges, critique of religious exclusivity, co-presence, mutual mission in dialogue, inner spirituality, the need for the Abrahamic witness. At the time of the interview Prof. Askari was Louise Iliff Visiting Professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Prof. Askari speaks also about his experiences of being engaged with inter-faith dialogue through his consultations with the World Council of Churches from the 1970s. On dialogue encounter Prof. Askari says, “For me dialogue is an occasion to be born spiritually as persons before each other, before God.”
A Changing Perspective on Life
by Mahjabeen Fathima
My perspective “life” has considerably changed on this trip to the UK. To support my answer I quote these words from the book Alone to Alone by Hasan Askari, author of many books on spirituality, “God is the Friend and a Protector of those who believe. From the depths of darkness He will lead them forth in to Light. But there are those who deny that there is an Unseen Dimension to this sensible world.”
I came here all the way crossing over continents solely of the intention of spending a lovely time with my sister’s family and exploring the beauty of English soil. I am awed at the beauty of this land which the Almighty had crafted. I fully succeeded in my goal. But with it, my perspective of life or rather my viewpoint has shifted from the materialistic world to the spiritual; from the outer to the inner; from awareness to vision. To live with a purpose and not to get drowned in the mundane routine chores but to awake, arise, ponder and reflect – like a diamond which requires a lot of wear and tear to reach its final destination to rest and be decorated on the jewellers showcase.
I would like to thank my brother-in-law Musa Askari for his enlightening talk on self, soul and spirituality. His sharing of the quote from Rumi suffices to support my enhanced perspective on life, “The Lamps are many but the Light is One!”. My personality is now more at peace. The calm and peace were due to Musa’s motivation on meditation. My heart, soul and body were in complete union during the zikr (remembrance) chant of “Allah Hu”.
I will go back to my country, India, with full awareness to concentrate on the Higher Unity of my “self” and my “soul”. We are a soul together and each one of us is a soul within One Self.
The words of Plotinus from the Enneads herald my perspective of life going forward. “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.”
*See also :
Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008), inter faith pioneer, responds to Karen Armstrong’s engaging interview (audio) from 1984 on the Sufi Mystical Experience, Whirling Dervish dance inspired by the Sufi mystic Rumi, Zikr (Remembrance of God). The need for Religious diversity and much more.
The dialogue begins with the question, “What is the aim of a Sufi Mystic?”
Syed Hasan Askari one of the eight important Muslim thinkers in Kenneth Cragg’s “The Pen & the Faith” writes, “Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society.”
Selected quotes of Syed Hasan Askari from the above interview:
Zikr :“Remembering God in His attributes, in His Mercy and Power and Love.”
“We remember that God is the Greatest and thereby we deny everything else as great. And then we say that He is One, there is no other. And then we say the Praise and then we say He is Sublime, He is above all we say about Him.”
“The ultimate goal of Zikr is to transcend Zikr itself.”
“Doctrine is a conscious individual statement of one’s own form of belief about the ultimate.”
“Dogma is an embodiment of a particular theological crisis and how it was resolved at a given time in the history of religious thought. There are creeds in Christianity and creeds in Islam which represent those crises in theological thought. But religious life is far ahead of dogmatic statement. For instance when I [Hasan Askari] stand in prayer I don’t say that here stands a “Muslim” with a particular belief statement on his lips…in ritual prayer we don’t enact the dogmatic what to speak of the mystical where the dogma is left behind.”
“In very high levels of religious life a word becomes an eye and thereby we obtain a new sense, a new vision. But not with the physical eye, not with the eye of the body…..the rational mind is only analytical. It doesn’t give us a totality. One needs an intuition, a sense of partaking in the wholeness of being. Then perhaps we arrive at the level of true words which are also true visions.”
“Dogma is more a matter of institutional identity, continuity and solidarity in any religious life whatsoever. Whereas the mystic is concerned with the religious person, the individual. If man becomes alone before God then he becomes a truly religious person.”
“On one hand I feel, I know and I notice the unity of religious experience transcending image and symbol and dogma and institution and culture and language. And on the other I notice a variety, a diversity, a differential dynamics both between religions and one particular religion. And therefore I have to affirm the mystical value of diversity.”
“I would say that if we who say that we believe in God who is Sublime and Infinite and Transcendental and Almighty…how could that God be equated with one form of one religious belief?”
“Every man, every woman is potentially a mystic. It is more a matter of moving from a state of sleep to a state of awakening.”
“There is a world religion, namely, the Mystical.”
“I made a simple discovery some twenty years ago [1960s] in India that my religion was one among many. And then my journey began and now I feel at home in a Church or a Synagogue or a Mosque. A man of God should feel at home wherever one is. I should also say that a man of God is never alone. The invisible Companion, the invisible Friend is always there.”
(apologies for the sound quality however it is hoped you will still find the conversation deeply interesting)
On leaving from a visit to Stratford Upon Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, Musa Askari reflects on the experience.
The following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed Hasan Askari entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters. Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.
Introduction narrated by Musa Askari
“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.
The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.
There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.
At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.
It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.
The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.
It was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989 – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari
For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:
The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.
Professor 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.
Professor Don Page has taught since 1990 at the University of Alberta, in the Department of Physics. Professor Page is an expert in the field of “black holes”. He has studied at leading institutions, Caltech, USA; University of Cambridge, UK where he was research assistant 1976-1979. He has worked & collaborated with Prof Stephen Hawking co-authoring with him “Thermodynamics of Black Holes in Anti-de Sitter Space” in 1983. (photo by Anna Page)
The following interview questions are taken from the brief reflection by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) entitled “Fireworks” where he enquires on the nature of the “Big Bang” & what if anything preceded it.
Sincere thanks to Professor Don Page for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR DON PAGE
Musa Askari: If one talks of the original Big Bang, what sort of bang was it? An explosion where each piece that flies out becomes an occasion of further explosion (multiple Big Bangs)?
Don Page: We have very strong evidence that our universe was very much smaller, denser, and hotter about 13.8 billion years ago. The explosion out from that hot dense state is call the Big Bang. We are not certain whether this was the absolute beginning of the universe, or whether it was a bounce from a previous phase of contraction, or whether it was just the latest in a series of big bangs, or whether perhaps it does not make sense to say that there was any absolute beginning to the universe.
Musa Askari: The behaviour of the original particles and forces issuing from the Big Bang. Was this behaviour haphazard? Was it arrived at through trial and error? Was it pre-given?
Don Page: So far as we can reliably trace back the behavior of our universe back toward the Big Bang that was nearly 14 billion years to our past, it seems to have been very smooth, nearly homogeneous and isotropic. However, there are strong suggestions, based upon indirect evidence from the form of the small departures from homogeneity and isotropy, that before the time for which we have reliable fairly direct evidence, there was a time of very rapid exponential expansion, called inflation, that could have smoothed the universe out even if it had been more lumpy before (though there do seem to be limits on how lumpy and disordered it could have been before inflation started for it to occur and be able to smooth out the universe).
Some scientists speculate that there might have been many different big bangs, most of which did not lead to much life like ours, so that we are seeing one of a relatively small sample that occurred with a form suitable for life. However, the type of big bang that we observe seems to be even much more special than what would be required simply for life like ours. So one cannot fully explain all its properties as being due to the selection effect that observers can only observe conditions that permit observers to exist.
Musa Askari: What about “Laws” which seemed to immediately come into operation soon after the said explosion. Did laws also “explode” into existence along with the energy and matter they were supposed to govern and regulate? What about other laws which govern the properties of those elements which came into being much later, say carbon dioxide? And laws governing organic matter, life, consciousness, reasoning. Did they all explode with the Big Bang? Were they lying in suspense until those substances and forms arose which required them? Where were they lying in abeyance?
Don Page: If the universe did indeed have a beginning at some point in the past, using some measure of time within the universe, the laws for the
universe would not have applied before that beginning, using the time within the universe to define “before.” But one might say that the laws have some Platonic existence beyond the existence of the universe itself, in a sense somewhat similar to the sense in which 1+1=2 can be considered to be a true theorem of arithmetic (a logical consequence of the axioms of arithmetic) even if there are no individual objects such that one could count one of them and another of them to get two of them. However, there is the difference that theorems like the logical following of 1+1=2 from suitable axioms are logically necessary truths, whereas the laws of physics are just descriptions of a contingent concrete entity, the universe, so there is no logical necessity to laws of the universe as there are for theorems of arithmetic.
Musa Askari: In contemplating the Big Bang are we also reaching for the smallest possible unit of condensed matter?
Don Page: In classical general relativity (ignoring the Heisenberg principle that is believed to apply to gravity that we think is actually
quantized and so does not obey the classical equations of Einstein’s
theory of general relativity), there would be no limit larger than zero to how small the universe could be, so in principle it could have expanded out from zero size (or at least it could have had any size greater than zero, though one might say that the limit at which the size goes to zero, as one goes backward in time, is not itself part of the spacetime of the universe). In quantum gravity we do not yet know whether or not there is a positive limit on how small the universe might be.
Musa Askari: What held it in that state of intense density not allowing it to explode or expand?
Don Page: The point of infinite density would not really be part of the universe in the classical model in general relativity, so whenever the universe existed, it would be expanding, in this classical big bang model. But even for a classical model, the universe could have had a bounce at large but finite density rather than an expansion from an arbitrarily small size and arbitrarily large density. And in a quantum picture, it might not make sense to say how large the universe is as a function of time to be able to say whether or not the universe started expanding from an arbitrarily small size.
Musa Askari: What force of gravity within itself pulled it to itself that it retained its intense density?
Don Page: In the classical big bang model with an initial singularity (the limiting t = 0 time that is not really part of the universe), the
universe has always been expanding during its entire lifetime, for all t > 0. If we measure the time t that has existed within the universe,
that can be finite (perhaps roughly 14 billion years now), but the
idea is that time t cannot be zero. t = 0 is only a hypothetical
limit, what is called a singularity, not a time within the universe,
since in the classical big bang model, time is only defined for t > 0.
Musa Askari: If it exploded at “x” time, why not before, why not later?
Don Page: We can measure what is the time interval that the universe has existed up to now, but it does not make sense to try to assign a definite time other than zero for the limiting “point” or initial singularity at which there has been no previous time. In a classical model, time differences make sense (though even these may not be definite in a quantum model), but even in a classical model, only time differences after the initial singularity make sense, not any supposedly absolute time at which the singularity happened. (Well, we can say that if the big bang about 14 billion years ago really did have a singularity, a limit beyond which one cannot go back in time and at which densities would go to infinity, then the singularity was 14 billion years in the past relative to us now, but there is no meaning to its time other than relative to events within the universe.)
Musa Askari: What suspended its internal gravity for an instant that the great bang was triggered?
Don Page: There is no instant at which the big bang was triggered. There is only a limit at which one can say that t = 0, but this limit is not part of the existing spacetime. Going back toward that limit, the density would diverge, meaning that it would get greater than any pre-assigned finite value, but one cannot say that it actually reached infinity as one goes back in time, since the universe only exists for t > 0, and not at t = 0. Well, this is within a classical model of general relativity. Probably quantum gravity so alters the properties of time that the whole question of the time evolution of the universe becomes a meaningless concept.
Musa Askari: If the Big Bang is a result of an instant’s suspension or weakening of the force of gravity is in itself a hopeless question perhaps. Or, was it so that a force involving a greater force of gravity pulled out of the contents within that mythical mass with such force that an explosion occurred? What was that force? Could it be what we refer to now as “dark energy”?
Don Page: The “dark energy” is the name for whatever it is that is now causing the linear size of the universe to be accelerating with time, so that the rate of increase of the linear size with time is itself increasing with time rather than decreasing. So the gravitational effects of the dark energy are a form of what might be called anti-gravity,
gravitational repulsion rather than attraction that would cause the
expansion rate of the universe to decelerate (slow down). But it
doesn’t seem to make sense to say that the big bang explosion itself was caused by this dark energy.
Musa Askari: If there was any, does it then make the Big Bang a secondary phenomenon?
Don Page: In a quantum description, our Big Bang (the very hot dense phase nearly 14 billion years ago) might have been a secondary phenomenon, not the first big bang of our universe. It might have been only the latest in a long sequence of successive big bangs. Scientists speculate that quantum tunnelling in a pre-existing universe might have led to new big bangs. Perhaps the new big bangs would wipe out the evidence for the previous ones, or perhaps they would not, so that one might be able to find evidence of earlier big bangs. However, so far no one has found any convincing evidence for big bangs further in the past than our Big Bang that occurred about 14 billion years ago.
Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012), is currently Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Williams is a highly respected scholar, theologian, poet, translator, social commentator to name but a few of the reasons why he is held in such great regard.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS
Musa Askari: I would like to begin with a quote from your book “Faith in the Public Square” (section: Religious Diversity and Social Unity), “To be concerned about truth is at least to recognise that there are things about humanity and the world that cannot be destroyed by oppression and injustice, which no power can dismantle. The cost of giving up talking of truth is high: it means admitting that power has the last word. And ever since Plato’s Republic political thinkers have sought to avoid this conclusion, because it means there is no significance at all in the witness of someone who stands against the powers that prevail at any given time.” (Dr. Rowan Williams)
The following a quote from my late father, Professor Syed Hasan Askari, on “The Platonic Illusion“: “the directors of the October Revolution suffered from what we call the Platonic Illusion from which all ideologies, whether religious or secular have suffered, namely to create a protective state to guard what they hold as true. Plato had thought as he watched his dear Socrates being put to death, by the City of Athens, that by creating a Republic he would protect the free quest for truth, a state governed by the wise and the enlightened, under which no other Socrates would be silenced. Plato failed to notice that by the manner Socrates accepted his death he had showed how he regarded himself and his soul as indestructible, that he did not require any other means than of himself and his awareness in order to protect what he stood for.”
How significant do you sense it is for the individual, the individual witness, to avoid losing one’s individuality? In other words keeping intact an inner differentiation, guarding against collective hypnosis. Also to what extent would you agree it is problematic when those in power seek to institutionalise or “create a protective state to guard what they hold as true”?
Rowan Williams: Keeping an inner freedom is essential. We need to be aware of who it is or what it is that we are truly answerable to, rather than assuming that our final judges are those who happen to have power and influence in our immediate context. It must always be possible to ask, ‘is the majority right?’ And this is why a genuine democracy protects freedom of conviction and expression; it will encourage robust public debate and give a place to religious conviction as part of that. It will of course make decisions, but will also leave room for conscientious dissent.
Musa Askari: I would like to offer you two views on the term “spiritual” and invite your comment.
First from my interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In an interview for The Humanist in 2007 Professor Chomsky is quoted, “When people say do you believe in God? what do they mean by it? Do I believe in some spiritual force in the world? In a way, yes. People have thoughts, emotions. If you want to call that a spiritual force, okay. But unless there’s some clarification of what we’re supposed to believe in or disbelieve in, I can’t”.
Second from my interview with Professor Tim Winter / Abdal Hakim Murad who commences his comments with, “The meaning of the category of the ‘spiritual’ has been so heavily debased by vague New Age appropriations that, although I have sometimes used it myself as a kind of shorthand, I usually find it useless. So many people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’; but have nothing to say when asked what this means, other than offering a woolly, half-finished sentence which indicates that they have experienced an emotional high in certain situations.”
What does the term “spiritual” mean to you and I would be grateful if you would offer some clarification which Professor Chomsky talks about? And is it unusual in your experience for both humanist and believer to share what appears to be a similar perspective on the term “spiritual”?
Rowan Williams: I rather share Tim Winter’s doubts about the word ‘spiritual’, as it is so often used simply to designate someone’s feeling of a moment’s significance without posing any questions about the nature of reality or the possibilities of change in society. I understand the word very much against the background of a Christian scriptural use which sees ‘spirit’ as that which connects us to God and one another, that which gives us relation with God and the possibility of life together in peace and justice. Hence the Christian scriptural imagery of the ‘fruits of the spirit’ – the products of God’s indwelling seen as love, joy, peace, patience and so on. To Professor Chomsky’s remarks, I’d respond by saying that the essence of belief in God as I understand it is not belief in values or imperatives but in the actual (though mysterious) presence of an immeasurable agency whose action is directed towards our life and well-being. Such a belief gives me not only assurance but also a sense of being under judgement for my failures to reflect that utterly generous orientation to the Other in my own life and actions.
Musa Askari: “This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to see.” (Plotinus – The Enneads)
These words from the great mystic-philosopher Plotinus, introduced to me by my late father-teacher, have long been, along with other things, a cherished part of my spiritual life. Yet perhaps within the inner life of a believer there needs to be awareness of a kind of spiritual complacency. Would you agree to simply memorise a set of words, a prayer perhaps, or even a whole scripture, or the universal declaration of human rights appears to be not enough? How would you advise we guard against at times the familiarity of words we utter from becoming a mask over the reality of what the words are but a signpost toward, “a journey not for the feet”?
Rowan Williams: Plotinus’s words are echoed by those of the great Christian thinker Augustine (who knew Plotinus’s work) when he says that God is ‘more intimate to us than we to ourselves’. God is always nearer than we could imagine. Sometimes we need familiar words to use to remind ourselves of this – I think here of the prayerful recitation of the Names of God or the invocation of the Name of Jesus. If we are careful to punctuate our thinking and speaking with silence, words will begin to recover their original depth. We need always to be aware of our words as ‘nets let down to catch the sea.’
Musa Askari: On universal validity of mystical experience Professor Syed Hasan Askari writes, “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.”
I would be grateful if you could share your thoughts in response to the above quote on “mystical experience”. How has your inner life been influenced by the presence of more than one religious witness in the world? Is it easier to encounter the other socio-religiously, almost inevitable, even involuntary given the instant nature of global communications? However, to encounter our spiritual neighbour perhaps involves invoking another kinship. One laid out for example in the great mystical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, how do we recognise each other as not only culturally-religiously co-present, upholding all the wondrous diversity, but also spiritually mystically deeply significant to one another, transformative?
Rowan Williams: The idea of universal recognition is crucial here: we see in one another something of the same desire, the same journey, the same drawing onwards – and if we truly believe that our humanity is one at the end of the day, then this is hardly surprising. So I don’t find difficulty in learning from the spiritual explorations of those who do not share my exact convictions. Of course my prayer and understanding depend to a degree on where and who I am and what specific beliefs I hold; I’m not in favour of any attempt to construct a universal system above and beyond the particular religious traditions. But I also think that the more securely you are rooted in your own tradition, the more hospitable you will be to the deepest life in other places. You will see the other, in their otherness, as a gift to you for your growth and maturation.
Musa Askari: I would like to turn now to issues with respect to revelatory communication, the scientific age and quest for alternatives. First, some context by way of the following selection of quotes from Professor Syed Hasan Askari (Discourse on Soul, from Towards A Spiritual Humanism, 1991).
“Let us begin with those people who went through a cataclysmic experience which altered their own self-understanding and which they identified as revelation, as an experience transcending their empirical or functional self. For them, and also for those who said “Yes” to that experience and who entered in to discipleship with such people, and for those who were more reflective in their understanding, the central question was: how could the human mind or the human self become a receptacle, or a vehicle or recipient of an experience, of a revelation, of a transcendental communication – unless, between the source of communication and the recipient there is a common link. Unless there is such an ontological parity between one who communicates and one who receives, the communication will not be obtainable…….It is this problem which was at the heart of the controversy between philosophers and theologians. Izutsu, the Japanese philosopher and an expert in the semantic analysis of the Qur’an, suggests in his analysis of the Quranic discourse that unless there is an ontological parity between the two partners in communication, communication is impossible…….whether you take St. Augustine or Immanuel Kant, you have the same thrust, the same emphasis about the mystery of the human recipient…….Taking hints and clues from medieval insights based upon the edifice of knowledge we have accumulated, I am striving to formulate an alternate anthropology, a substantial alternative to Darwin, Marx and Freud. We have to ask if the anthropology we have held as sacred in modern times is the whole truth or is it not already a dogma. A dogma perhaps more dangerous than the dogmatics of the ancients and medieval peoples because, at that time at least, the conflict between theology and philosophy and between theology and mysticism was very sharp. In our times, the dogmatics of a scientific understanding of man has swept across the whole world and there appears to be no rival to it. Moreover, whoever tries to rival it is considered as either pseudo-scientific or not to be taken seriously at all. Heretics in the past enjoyed a certain prestige, and they became in posterity the great pioneers of human thought. Does the scientific age of our times allow our heretics to become future founders of thought? I am doubtful.” (Syed Hasan Askari)
I welcome your thoughts in reply to the above quotes. In particular do you support revival of the classical discourse on soul as a means to help explain not only revelatory communication between the Supremely meta-physical (Beyond Being, The One/The Good as Plotinus refers) and the material aspect of a human being but also communication between individuals in our everyday lives? That the principle of “Soul” (non-material, indivisible, invisible companion, one-many all at once) is the ontological parity. And finally what do you see as the great opportunities before us for meaningful, mutually respectful, engagement/dialogue between religion/spirituality and humanism? Can we start to talk about what Hasan Askari advocated, a move towards a Spiritual Humanism?
Rowan Williams: Hasan Askari is absolutely correct in saying that a proper account of our relation with the Infinite God requires us to see ourselves differently. The Christian teacher Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century CE says that if we understand that we cannot ever come to the end of understanding God, neither can we come to an end of understanding the human person. So we must always approach the human person with absolute reverence – this human individual is a reality we shall never completely contain, control, explain, reduce, and so we have an endless task before us, which is loving and serving them, not explaining them! And for religious believers, there is therefore a close connection between recognizing the infinite mystery of God and reverencing humanity properly. Lose the one and you will sooner or later lose the other. Humanism in the fullest sense requires an acknowledgement of God. A ‘soulless’ humanity, understood simply in terms of mechanical processes, does not have any obvious claim on our kindness, our service, our veneration. We may not be able to say with complete clarity what we mean by the word ‘soul’, but we know that it stands for our capacity to be in relation with God, and thus for all that belongs with our freedom and dignity.
(Many thanks to Dr. Rowan Williams for his kind permission on use of above photo)
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.