I’ve been turning over the Big Question for most of my life: is there meaning to our existence beyond whatever meanings we ourselves ascribe to it? Clearly, I’m not alone in this. It has given rise to religions, philosophies and belief systems of all kinds throughout human history.
My own faith background is Christian but for many years I have also been profoundly influenced by teachings and practices from other faiths and generally describe my writing and teaching as “”interfaith””. This term does not imply an abandonment of your own faith, if you have one. But it does give space for a more inclusive interest in spiritual questions, and the variety of ways in which those questions are asked and answered, an urgent need when religion and religious differences are still used to justify war and other social agonies. The experience of looking more broadly helps show that at the core of all faiths is a tremendous awe for the sacredness of life – but complex human needs intervene and inevitably drive interpretation and action.
My interest in interfaith doesn’t mean that I believe that all religions are the same. They are not. Nor do I believe that any religion is homogenous. It is not. But having read widely, prayed and meditated in many forms, sung, chanted and listened to people from all kinds of faith backgrounds and none, I observe markedly similar patterns of response. Large and small, all faiths (and most sub-branches within the faiths) have some adherents who are generous, tolerant, compassionate and supportive of outsiders as well as of their own community. Equally, all faiths have some adherents driven by a need to prove their superiority and quick to condemn others not of like mind.
The effects of those differences – largely psychological in origin – can seem extreme. Christianity is the example closest to hand. Founded as a radical movement preaching inclusiveness, love and forgiveness, it became an imperial institution insistent upon its supremacy and capable of slaughter in the name of its founder. Yet through its many branches Christianity has also consistently offered genuine spirituality and life-changing engagement with social justice issues – and still does. Again, this contradiction says less about its founding principles than it does about the way each and every religion is used by a huge variety of human beings at very different stages of consciousness and social development.
We can see this also in Islam. Muslim fundamentalists are increasingly feared. But Islam is described by many of the devout as a religion of peace with explicit respect at least for other theistic faiths. What’s more, its mystical arm is Sufism, perhaps the most inclusive and love-drenched of all traditions, which was itself tolerated by mainstream Islam during the many centuries when mainstream Christianity and Judaism feared and forbade the expression of their own unifying mystical observances.
It is also true that fundamentalist (dogmatic, self-righteous, judgemental) thinking is not the exclusive province of religion. There are also atheists who are utterly fundamentalist in their worldview and as cruel in their pursuit of those who do not share their views as any heretic hunter. But co-opting God to shore up your views doesn’t help. (It can even be a kind of grandiose narcissism when someone believes that God favours them or their kind over all others.) This has deepened my wariness about any claim that one faith has all the answers or is especially favoured by God. And it has certainly deepened my respect for adherents of any faith who use it to live compassionately, humbly and well.
Religion in the 21st century is going through a new kind of upheaval. We do not now automatically inherit the faith of our forebears. Questions of religion compete with other urgent ideologies. This brings confusion to some and an outbreak of extreme certainty to many. But the situation is not entirely bleak. With this fresh opportunity to see living religions side by side, we can see and experience how much we have in common. The best and worst of human behaviour can arise within all faiths, depending on what human beings are doing in the name of God or their religion.
What I am sure of is that when it comes to humankind and their flawed institutions, God does not play favourites. From all kinds of people, from every possible faith background or none, I hear similar, deeply touching stories: of a friend or spiritual guide turning up just when needed; a sense of hope or purpose arising when least expected; funds arriving unexpectedly for a worthy project; a book “”falling open”” to answer a deeply-considered question; a tough situation seen freshly; a simple ritual bringing exceptional comfort; and “”coincidences”” of the most extraordinary kind bringing people together – and perhaps to God.
(In 2005 Stephanie Dowrick was ordained as an Interfaith Minister.)
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