There will be many different kinds of events – some looking at serious issues, some dialoguing about scripture, some meeting over a meal, others engaging in some kind of social action and others just about enjoyment as in the family fun day being organised here in Glasgow. The events will probably cover what we think of as the 4 kinds of dialogue – living with one another as good neighbours, serious theological discussion, a sharing of what it means to be a believer and engagement in social action. All of these are important though sometimes there is a debate within interfaith circles as to whether side by side or face to face activity is better. It’s true that some people are drawn to one approach rather than the other but if common activity (the side by side approach) isn’t based on dialogue which leads to a common agenda then it isn’t a true interfaith activity and if it doesn’t lead to dialogue there’s a chance that it won’t make much of a contribution to mutual understanding and respect for one another’s faiths.
Some of the events this week will be of the kind that Fiyaz Mughal called kumbaya events – something I spoke about in my last blog. I rather liked the phrase and thought there was some truth in it but a friend took me to task over it. This is what he said :
"To my mind the expression kumbaya religion is a teeny bit belittling and a teeny bit dismissive, because it suggests interfaith meetings are only of value when they tackle difference or problems or things like that. But most day to day encounters between friends are pretty mundane and run-of-the-mill,and if that’s how interfaith meetings appear then maybe at least it’s an indicator that a meeting of friends is going on! - maybe polite and unchallenging, but better than not meeting at all.”
He’s right of course and I do believe this and I’m reminded of Pope Francis comment when he met the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University that the meeting is the message. Interfaith relations are built on good solid friendships which can only be developed over time. They require a certain amount of patience and while on the surface some of the encounters might be mundane or simply celebratory more is happening within the encounters and within the individuals taking part than maybe they realise. I still meet people who have never met a person of another faith, or talked to a person of another faith or shared a cup of coffee with them. Any event, no matter how small, that allows for this is breaking down barriers and sowing seeds of peace. It takes a long time in a friendship before we are able to be honest and challenging with one another. Friendship is a journey. It begins very often with small, tentative steps and requires commitment of time and energy if it is to succeed and deepen. Interfaith friendships, like all friendships, are a great gift. While allowing us to share our own perspective their true worth is letting us see the world from another perspective. They are powerful relationships which can promote mutual human flourishing and offer a locus for honest dialogue about the so-called difficult questions.
So this week, as many different kinds of events are taking place, there will be a movement towards greater understanding and appreciation of the other, even if this is not too obvious in the event itself. There’s no knowing how people who participate will be affected by what, for some, will be their first step into the interfaith world. Those who simply hear that there is an interfaith week will be aware that there are places in society where religions can and do get on with one another in spite of the bad publicity which focuses on the contrary. I am reminded of the image of the iceberg which has become a favourite of mine. There are many problems facing our society, reflected in the tip of the iceberg which is above water. Underneath the water is a massive berg which is only kept in existence because of the temperature of the water. If the water were to get warmer the iceberg could melt. Not everyone is able to or wants to engage in the presenting issue which, in my case, is religious conflict and disharmony, but everyone in their own way can contribute to the change in temperature in our culture which will bring about the transformation of the issue. Kumbaya events might not tackle the tip of the iceberg directly but they surely can contribute to the transformation of the culture in which we all live. This will be happening slowly but surely as Interfaith Week progresses.