Interfaith Meetings: Working out how to conduct vigils

vigil

We sought out Reverend Tom Wilson, co-author of Learning to Live Well Together, to find out any advice he had for frequently encountered issues with regards to interfaith meetings. In the second of two common scenarios, Tom discusses what must be considered when working out how to conduct vigils.

You never know when you will have to conduct a vigil; the nature of tragedy is that it takes us unawares. But this does not stop us planning. Many may know of the existence of plans for Operation London Bridge, the code name for the activities that will take place across the United Kingdom when the Queen dies, as she must do one day. Whilst it is inevitable that every individual dies, and so we must of necessity plan how to mark those deaths, the nature or fact of a terrorist attack is not as clear-cut. But given recent history, with four terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom in a few short months, it is nevertheless important that we have some ideas of what we might do should something terrible happen. Continue reading

Interfaith Meetings: How to handle concern about a planned mosque visit

Interfaith Meetings

We sought out Reverend Tom Wilson, co-author of Learning to Live Well Together, to find out his advice for frequently encountered issues with regards to interfaith meetings. In the first of two common scenarios, Tom considers how to respond to concerned parents who have approached a head teacher about the prospect of a planned visit to a mosque.

A significant proportion of the work that the St Philip’s Centre undertakes is educational work with school children. We are recognized providers of learning outside the classroom. Our focus is on bringing religious education to life. Rather than pupils reading about Sikhism in a textbook they visit a Gurwara, see the reverence afforded the Guru Granth Sahib and smell the vegetarian food cooking for langar. Instead of discovering that Muslims wash before they pray from a book, they are taken into the Wudu area of a mosque, and their guide explains, step-by-step, the process of purification he undertakes before joining in congregational prayers.

It is the scenario of visiting a mosque that can, at times, unfortunately become problematic. In the past few years, after there has been a major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom, it has become not uncommon for a school visit to be cancelled or postponed. The situation might not be this drastic; it might simply be that parents begin to voice concerns about whether such a visit is appropriate. Continue reading

Why do we need to talk about Religious Education?

Although Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in UK schools, it is an oft-neglected and misunderstood subject. It is important to seriously re-think this key subject at this time of low religious literacy and rising extremism, to protect communities from the consequences of hatred and misunderstanding.

We spoke to Mark Chater about his new book (co-edited with Mike Castelli) that brings together essays from prominent thought leaders in the theory and practice of RE, to promote wider discussion of what exactly is needed from a new model of RE within our education system to benefit wider society.

What were your motivations for writing We Need To Talk About Religious Education?

A creative anger that the voices of very able younger teachers are not being properly heard, that they deserve to become thought leaders for RE; also, an interest in listening to voices of experience and wisdom who can see change coming and welcome it; a desire to pump some life-giving fresh air into the old body of RE, to save it; and a professional and personal commitment to promoting the change debate in RE.

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‘This is Pilates for the soul’ – Claire Foster-Gilbert talks to us about morality in public life

One year after Brexit, a stellar cast of eminent contributors from of politics, public service and religion explore why now more than ever, public servants must consider and reassess how to keep moral courage in public life alive in this new book of essays – ‘The Moral Heart of Public Service.’ Here, she talks to us about her motivations for writing the book.  

What first motivated you to collate these essays on morality in public life?

Westminster Abbey Institute, of which I am founder-director, was established by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to revitalise morality in public life.  We offer twice yearly programmes of lectures to this end.  We have been able to invite some really stellar speakers and to work hard ourselves to produce thoughtful and high quality lectures.  I wanted to turn those lectures into essays and produce them in a form that would last.  The Institute is meant to offer timely wisdom that is also timeless, so the book form is a good one for us.  The test is whether the essays are still relevant in ten, twenty, even fifty years’ time.

Continue reading

What’s the difference between a public service organisation and a sailing boat?

In this exclusive extract from ‘The Moral Heart of Public Service,’ Claire Foster-Gilbert of the Westminster Abbey Institute explores why we so often think that members of the public service lack moral integrity, and explains how public service companies, like the police, the military and government, can be imagined as a sailing boat.

Click here to read the extract.

‘We live in an age when noisy moralism is everywhere, and the news and social media have invaded the pulpit. Quiet reflection on moral truth, however, and the noble sobriety of public administration, have become under-valued virtues. All power to a book like this in redressing that imbalance.’
– Matthew Parris, Times columnist and author

For more information and to buy this book, please click here.

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The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar

 

 

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 

 

A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

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Stephen Cherry’s Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

It’s Fascinating

Theology is fascinating even at the simply human level. It’s extraordinary that people can hold such different convictions and yet get on really well. And at the same time it’s very odd that people can hold very similar views and yet get into serious and bloody conflict over what seem to be rather minor differences to anyone outside their tradition.

One of the things that I have found interesting as I have recently re-read some of the great theologians of the Reformation era, is just how extremely rude they are to each other, and how confident they are that they themselves are right. What Martin Luther had to say to Desiderus Erasmus would make anyone blush! It is also extraordinary that people with religious convictions have put such huge amounts of energy into their controversies.  It is said of Augustine (the one who wrote Confessions) that he worked hard all day as a bishop and then worked all night as a theologian, writing books and commentaries and letters. Sometimes he was in a reflective mode, wondering about who he was and what his life meant, sometimes he was in dispute with those who understood human nature quite differently, sometimes he was sketching out (I mean writing thousands of words about) his understanding of how society should be organised.

One of the things that people easily forget when they think about theology is that people have often been prepared to die for it, that theological opinions have often been a matter of life and death.  There are different versions of this. Some people will die for their faith because they believe that martyrdom is a fast track to paradise.  But this isn’t the driver of most martyrdom down the ages and is not, in a Christian understanding, true martyrdom.  A martyr is a witness and true martyrs are those who have been so committed to their faith, their understanding of the truth, that witnessing to this truth became more important to them than their own life. True martyrs don’t want to die; but they are not prepared to lie their way out of a situation when matters of ultimate truth are at stake. True martyrdom is not about seeking any personal reward but about standing up for truth, however costly that proves to be.

Along with the idea of martyrs goes the idea of heretics. Although people don’t often make this point, it almost goes without saying that all heretics are theologians. They are people who have thought things through for themselves and come to conclusions that religious authorities have not found acceptable. A heretic is not someone who suddenly has a dodgy idea in their head. A heretic is someone who has taken a lot of trouble to come to their unpopular view and is prepared to take the flak for maintaining their position. The study of theology involves the study of heresy and heretics. And thank goodness for that, because it is potential ‘heretics’ who push the boundaries and possibilities of theology wider and wider.  The pursuit of deep wisdom involves the possibility of making major mistakes. It may seem strange, but to a theologian that is all part of the pursuit of the truth. It is fair to say that just as some mistakes in life are worse than others, so some errors in theology are worse than others and it is therefore possible to think of heresy as sometimes very negative; it does not follow that all heresy is bad or that all those branded as heretics have been in error or done a disservice to the truth.  Often, inevitably enough, heretics are castigated not because they are actually and ultimately wrong, but because what they have to say is inconvenient and awkward for the powers that be.

Fun

Theology is fun partly because it is one of the most interdisciplinary of subjects. To study it properly you have to engage with philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology.  But that’s not all. Recognising that people express religious, spiritual and theological ideas indirectly, theology very often involves the study of literature. Novels, poetry and drama often include or allude to theological themes and discussions.  Theologians also try to progress their understanding by looking at historic works of art. The pictures, buildings and music of religious communities can teach us a great deal about their beliefs and values, and in today’s world you are as likely to find theological questions addressed in films as you are anywhere else. So yes, theologians go to the movies and try to ‘read’ or interpret them in a theological way.

One of the observations that I have made in life, not least in my ministry as a pastor, is that many people will be happy letting life go by, enjoying the good times and not asking many questions until something goes seriously wrong for them or someone they love. It’s for this reason that theology is often borne out of suffering or catastrophe. Good, interesting, lively compelling theology doesn’t often grow on happy trees in jolly gardens. It tends to spring up from the ruins of some kind of lost hope or shattered vision, or if not that then some genuine puzzlement and dissatisfaction with existing answers. Theology never grows out of smugness, but comes out of perplexity and the need to find answers to questions that keep us awake at night or which occur to us when life (or death) stops us in our tracks.

Maybe that idea doesn’t quite belong under the heading of theology as fun, but there is in fact a kind of fun to be had in looking difficulty and despair in the face and letting that reality challenge complacent and easy believing. And there is a huge amount of fun to be had (though ‘fun’ is too light a word now – joy would be better) in seeing hope rise again in the once despairing, in seeing the liberation of the oppressed, the forgiveness of those who have made great mistakes and the reconciliation of sworn enemies.  No theologian would claim that the study of theology will make these things happen, but for theology to be complete it must be interested in the upside of life, even if it often begins in the downside.

Important

Thirdly, theology is important. There was a time not very long ago when it was common for people to think that religion would die out.  ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ wrote John Lennon, ‘and no religion too’. This line of thinking didn’t start in the 1960s with the Beatles however, but in the nineteenth century.

In 1882 the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ (adding that ‘we have killed him’). Previously, in 1867, one of the big name English literati of the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold, wrote a poem called ‘Dover Beach’ in which he referred to ‘the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith’.  Arnold was connected with the strong-minded and eminent Victorian Leslie Stephen, whose father and grandfather were leading evangelical clergy, very much involved in social campaigns such as anti-slavery. They were members of the so-called Clapham Sect alongside social reformers like William Wilberforce and John Newton (the former slave-ship captain who wrote the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’) and missionaries such as Henry and John Venn.

As the twentieth century dawned the advance of atheism continued. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem called ‘God’s Funeral’ between 1908 and 1910 and the First World War put an end to any easy idea that ‘God is in his heaven and all is right with the world’.  This was the era in which Leslie Stephen’s daughters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, found themselves at the heart of an elite London group that was as different as it is possible to be to the Clapham Sect of their grandparents.  This was the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, which was famous for its artistic and progressive values. After the First World War religious authority figures were no longer trusted as they had been and it became increasingly common for people to think that what was taught or thought about God was essentially what people made up about God.  This approach was given a huge boost by the work of Sigmund Freud who developed the idea that the human mind was dominated by thought processes of which we were not aware, and that ‘God’ was essentially an idea conjured up in the recesses of our ‘unconscious’ to help us feel better and cope with life’s more difficult challenges.

But the end of faith wasn’t only prophesied by philosophers, poets and psychologists. Sociologists came up with the idea of ‘secularization’ almost as soon as their subject was invented. Studying the number of people who attended church from year to year they soon saw that the numbers were declining and, plotting graphs of the decline, proved to their own satisfaction that church-going should be over and done with by the early years of this century.  The sociologists were both right and wrong. Church going has declined in many places, especially in the north of England, but there are also places where it has increased, and the actual ultimate decline of religion, the death not only of God of which Nietzsche spoke, but of believing in God, has not yet happened. In fact, the reverse is the case. The spin-doctors of the ‘New Labour’ government of Tony Blair famously announced in 2003 that they didn’t ‘do God’. But that didn’t matter, plenty of other people were busy doing God, although the equally ‘new Atheists’ were becoming increasingly vociferous, annoyed perhaps that their predecessors had not managed to put an end to faith and that, if anything, the tide of the sea of faith seemed to have turned and was coming back in again.

There are many reasons for this, and not all of them are based on the better aspects of religious thought and practice, but that’s not the point.  The point is that religious beliefs and religious organisations are today having an enormous impact on the lives of people all over the world. Religion has not died out and it isn’t going to die out anytime soon.  It had a very serious wobble in Europe and Britain, but the edifice of organised religion has not toppled, and the whole new phenomenon of people calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ has exploded. It is evidence of ‘faith’, the sort of thing that a theologian out to try to understand. And if you have the cast of mind that is theological you may be thinking ‘hmmm, there is interesting and important stuff here. I wonder whether anyone understands all this. Let me try to find out’.

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From Chapter 3 of God Curious.

If this extract has made you feel a little God curious, why not follow this link to find out more about Stephen Cherry’s book.

Stephen is the Dean at King’s College Cambridge, and tweets here.

For more exclusive content from our authors, follow us on Facebook – @JKPReligion – or join our mailing list here. You can unsubscribe from the mailing list at any time. 

Stephen Cherry’s Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

What is theology? And why should we be interested in it?

Stephen Cherry tackles five ‘not very good’ reasons for not engaging with theology, in his new book, God Curious. Here in this exclusive extract, he shares them with us.

Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

The first reason that might be suggested is this: I don’t believe in God therefore I can’t possibly study God.

If theology were limited to questions about the nature of God then you might have a point. That which doesn’t exist can’t have a nature … However, theology and religion have been important in history and philosophy. They continue to impact hugely on current affairs and inform the ways in which people respond to realities as different as beauty and tragedy. In other words, what goes on when people are motivated by religious faith and theological conviction is a matter of significance well beyond the community of believers. Indeed, an atheist may feel that theology is too important a subject to be left to those who believe in God. And certainly, theology and religion aren’t going to go away just because atheists are dismissive of believers.

The second reason is the opposite of the first. I not only believe in God but I know God very well, and for this reason I don’t want to study God any more than I would want to study my parents or my partner. 

I agree that if you are completely confident that you know all there is to know about God then theology is not for you.  Theology is only worth exploring if you think that other people’s views about God are at least as interesting as your own.

The third reason why you may not want to study theology is because you think it is not a real subject of study but just a professional training programme for ministers of religion.

It is true that this used to be the case, and that there are places where people study theology only for this reason. It is also true that if you study theology at university you may well come across people who are studying for this reason, and you will almost certainly read books by people who are trained and ordained ministers and you may well be taught by some.  But theology stopped being the province of the clergy alone a long time ago, and it has become a much more lively subject since – so don’t let that one worry you.

The fourth reason you may not wish to study theology is because it’s just about learning what the Bible says or what people of different religions do.

If you think this you may be muddling up theology, the most exciting subject imaginable, with what has all too often passed for ‘religious education’ at school; which is all too often dominated not by the pursuit of life’s deepest questions but by learning superficial details about religious traditions.

The fifth reason is a bit like the fourth in that you may think that theology is entirely concerned with ancient and irrelevant philosophical problems of the ‘how many angels can dance on a pin-head’ variety

I can guarantee that you won’t be discussing that question, or anything like it, if you engage with theology today! The agenda has moved on. Theologians today seek to learn from the past and to understand why theologians of previous eras posed and answered certain questions in the way they did, but they also seek to learn from theologians of other faiths and to respond to the problems and predicaments that occur in today’s world as well as to the classic questions such as the existence of God and the consequences of believing specific doctrines.

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From Chapter 3 of God Curious by Stephen Cherry.

Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College Cambridge, and the author of many books. He tweets here.

For more information on God Curious, or to buy a copy of the book, please follow this link.

For more exclusive content from our authors, why not follow us on Facebook – @JKPReligion – or join our mailing list here. You can unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. 

“We simply cannot afford to be complacent.” Fiyaz Mughal on why we need a book that presents the true nature of Islam

On the publication of ‘Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age’, we spoke to one of the book’s editors, Fiyaz Mughal. Fiyaz is also the founder of Tell MAMA and Faith Matters

– Why did you think there was a need for a book that presents the true nature of Islam?

There is little literature that highlights the deep reflections and introspection that is taking place in parts of the Middle East around Islam. This work is being driven by Muslims and from an Islamic theological set of principles and this has been ongoing for over a decade. There is much talk about ‘Muslims not doing enough’ and we try to set out that maybe people are not looking over into what is happening and taking place in the Middle East to tackle extremism, but also in bridging the East and West.

There are lots of books and articles about Islam and whether it is ‘compatible’ with Western values. We outline the fact that Islam and its interpretation are flexible enough and compatible enough with a Europe that is based on secular and liberal traditions – though these are also being challenged by the rise of populist and xenophobic parties in Europe. This book thereby undermines the view that Europe and the Middle East will be in perpetual conflict. From within the heart of the Islamic world, in Jordan – with a deep Islamic history – we see that some of the solutions to extremism have come through strong leadership and from Islamic theological leaders coming together. There is hope and this hope must win over the politics of fear which is fuelling anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia in some parts of Europe.

– Could you briefly summarise the King of Jordan’s Amman Message for people who are unaware of it?

The Amman Message, in summary, is a nationwide Jordanian attempt to provide a set of theological frameworks to tackle extremism. At the core of this, was a response from Jordan’s Royal family that something needed to be done to provide an Islamic theological set of positions against extremism post the Beslan massacre that horrified so many. The Beslan massacre was a driver for the His Majesty King Abdullah II to push for a theological framework through which religious leaders, civil society activists and community leaders could challenge extremism and build resilience in Jordanian communities. Yet, the vision was wider and there was a genuine belief that that Amman Message could be promoted and pushed in the Middle East and also within Europe, so that it could also challenge perceptions of Muslims in Europe which have been progressively been turning negative. It was a vision of a Europe and Middle East that were co-dependent and reliant on each other to tackle issues of extremism.

– In your opinion, what is the most interesting issue that the book raises?

The book raises a range of issues. It looks at Muslim communities in Europe, challenges that they face and how there are developments emanating from the heart of Muslim majority countries that can reduce Islamic extremism. It also looks at the challenges within Europe of a rising set of issues around migration, integration and extremism, whilst reflecting on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice that further fuels separationism and grievances. This cycle is one that the book explores with views from across Europe and the Middle East.

– The book presents perspectives from writers of various faiths, including those with no religious affiliation at all. What was the thinking behind this?

The reality is that the writers reflect Europe in all of its pluralism. It also reflects a world which is complex and with competing world views which are precisely reflective of debates on Islam and Muslims and on the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. This complex and fast shifting environment is what the book captures and provides a snapshot into a world where communities seem to be more fractured.

– What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

We hope that readers take away the hope that from within Muslim majority countries, the theological solutions to extremism are developing. They will have long lasting impacts over the next 50 years and readers should also take away the fact that there are challenges in Europe in reducing the xenophobia and populism that could well fuel further grievances and extremism in the future. We simply cannot afford to be complacent.

For more information and to buy the book, please follow this link.