On New Year's Day the BBC magazine had an article by Roman Krznaric with Leo Tolstoy's philosophy of life - very appropriatefor a new year. It offered an approach to life that the world could well do with heeding - as could organised religion.
1. Keep an open mind
We grow up with beliefs and philosophies that have been given to us by our familiy, teachers, religious communities culture etc. We're conditioned by those beliefs. They determine what we see and how we interpret the world and our place in it. They also limit how we see the world because by focussing on them we're in danger of being blind to other philosophies and wisdoms. We can even deny reality like Albert Einstein who distrusted his calculations about an expanding universe because they contradicted his given beliefs - his greatest blunder he called it. Beliefs if held by a closed mind can confirm prejudices and superstitions. Beliefs held by an open mind can see through and beyond the words to the meaning and truth within them. An open mind can recognise truth and wisdom wherever it is found - in other faiths and philosophies, even in the most unexpected places.
2. Practise empathy
Aticus in ' To Kill a Mockingbird' famously said that we don't understood another until we have walked a mile in their moccasins. The adventure of interreligious dialogue is to enter into the world of another faith - its beliefs, its rituals, its concerns and to see the world from that perspective. It's to try to understand the beliefs of those who are completely different from our own. It often strikes me that those who strongly hold beliefs that are not just non-religious but anti- religious do so as a result of a bad experience of religion. And it's important for religious people to understand and acknowledge this. Even today when religion is implicated in so much violence it's good to consider the motivation behind some of this violence. For example, why would the State of Israel not be afraid for its existence when a publishing firm like Harper Collins erases Israel from its map of the Middle East because the Atlas is used in Arab schools? What is this saying to students about peace in Israel/Palestine? What is it saying to Israel about the intentions of its neighbours? It certainly isn't helping any peace process. And so too for young people going to Syria to join the Islamic Caliphate. It's easy to condemn them and debate whether they should be allowed back into this country but what is it that motivates them. Should we try to understand this?
3. Make a difference
It's become common place to speak of face to face and side by side when describing interfaith relations. Side by side is about social justice and working together for the common good. Many religious communities are committed to making a difference in their neighbourhood through soup kitchens, homeless shelters, centres for old people, youth groups etc. The Scottish Government recognises the social contribution that religious communities make as do others and some would see that this alone as sufficient reason to engage in interfaith relations. But do face to face conversations also make a difference? Well of course I think they do. For one thing common social action, if it is to be truly common, must emerge from face to face dialogue. But face to face dialogue in itself also offers an alternative vision of how religious people can understand and respect one another. It offers an alternative narrative that suggests religions are in competition with one another and opposed to one another. It is this kind of dialogue that leads to an open mind, to a transformation and expansion of our beliefs
4. Master the art of simple living
Religion advocates a simple life. All religions recognise the temporary nature of this life and keep alive the notion of an afterlife whether that be described as a heaven or as a future rebirth. What we do in this life will have consequences in the hereafter in some way or another. And this will not depend on possessions or wealth but on the virtues and values we have practised in our present existence. Religions encourage us to develop and promote a loving energy that seeks human flourishing and the common good and we know from science that such energy affects not just the world but the cosmos in which we live. Perhaps this energy is all that we have to contribute to our world even when we are trying to make a difference in more practical ways. It is to be content with little and to recognise that consumption, materialism, greed, power can lead to a selfishness that could destroy our planet and harm future generations.
5. Beware your contradictions
It's easy to be idealistic but we fail time after time. For example Tolstoy preached universal love yet was constantly fighting with his wife. St Paul tells us that the good we try to do, we don't do and the evil we want to avoid we end up doing. It's something I'm sure we all recognise. Religions tell us that we are incomplete, sinful human beings with tendencies to selfishness and greed. It's good to have the opportunity to acknowledge this, to confess that we don't live up to our ideals, to recommit to starting again. And we have to do this over and over again as individuals, as faith communities and as communities in dialogue. It's easy to talk about interreligious dialogue as though it just happens. It doesn't. It needs working at and part of the dialogue is to be aware of the prejudices and contradictions we bring to the table.
6.Become a craftsman
Roman Krznaricolstoy suggested in his article that If Tolstoy were alive today he would be suggesting we get some craft into our lives rather than spend so much of our leisure time tweeting and texting. While I don't do much of the latter I'm not an artist or craftsperson apart from the odd bit of knitting. I do get my hands dirty occasionally in the garden and recognise when I do how wholesome it is to feel my connection with the earth. Is this an area for development in the coming year?
7. Expand your social circle
We all have a tendency to live in closed communities, whether religious, professional or whatever. We might emerge from time to time but tend to retreat back into the circles where we feel comfortable. However as Krznaricolstoy said, "The most essential life lesson to take away from Tolstoy is to follow his lead and recognise that the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own.......... Cosseted within our peer group, we may think it perfectly normal and justifiable to own two homes, or to oppose same-sex marriage, or to bomb countries in the Middle East. We cannot see that such views may be perverse, unjust, or untrue, because we are inside circles of our own making. The challenge is to spread our conversational wings and spend time with those whose values and experiences contrast with our own."
What better way to do this than through interreligious dialogue?