When I first got involved in interfaith there was one interfaith group in Scotland, the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths, now there are seventeen groups all over the country. In those early days people often asked why interfaith was important and what it was all about but this changed after 9/11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. People are now more interested in what happens within interfaith and glad to know what’s going on. The conflicts between faiths and the wars that, if not caused by faith, have a religious component to them show that dialogue and good relations between faiths is a positive step and according to some people even necessary for peace in our world. In some parts of the world, like Sri Lanka, interfaith groups have played a significant part in peace processes.
Many of us live in silos, knowing little of people beyond our own communities. Because of my own experience I’m amazed when someone tells me they know no-one from the Jewish community nor ever had a cup of coffee with a Muslim. This is so much part of my life. It’s this isolation that can lead to suspicion, misunderstandings, stereotyping and prejudice – and this can lead to hate speech and violent action. I often think of Pope Francis’ greeting to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University when they met after years of tension between Al-Azhar and the Vatican: ‘ the meeting is in the messsage’- quite profound I think because any respectful, open and friendly contact between people who have been at odds with one another is a sign that conflict, competition, mistrust doesn’t have the final say and that relationships can change.
Anything that helps overcome misunderstanding and prejudice that sets people against one another must be a good thing and have an impact on society in ways that may be small but no less important or significant for that. I’m encouraged by words attributed to Oscar Romero which suggests we are planting “seeds that one day will grow and water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise”. I find this hopeful because it tells me that what I do “may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way”. Most of the people I know who are truly engaged in interfaith do it with the intention of creating positive relationships across divides, widening their own perspective by entering into the world of another. They desire peace in their locality and in the world. I believe this is a positive energy which, because of the interdependence of the cosmos, will have a positive effect.
All this is a matter of faith. I like to feel I am part of a movement, an evolutionary process for dialogue and wider relationships, working with others and contributing to the human family but is there any evidence of the good that I believe it does? I used to put into my diary at the beginning of each year a quotation from TS Elliot “for us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business”. This freed me from the burden of tick box exercises and worrying about attainment targets. But that’s not enough in this day and age, especially where public money is involved.
The Wolf Institute’s work therefore is important and it will be interesting to see what indicators they produce to measure the effectiveness of interfaith work. Growth would be one I think – in that more people are engaging across differences and not just religious differences for there’s also a dialogue with people of religious faith and those who say they have no faith – the nones as they are now known collectively. And there is a growing realisation in government of the contribution that all faith communities make to social cohesion and to the infrastructure of society in that most of them care for their young people and their old, care for the poor, are concerned about the environment, develop a sense of community. Social justice has a place in the teaching of most religions and is also part of interfaith relations. More and more people of different faiths are working together in common projects and have a desire to contribute together to our common home. All this is good and for me a sign of success but whether it would satisfy those looking for success indicators I’m not so sure. I look forward to seeing the results.