At least that is the image I’m left with as I reflect on the last five weeks of inter-faith encounters on the OMC course at Ripon College Cuddesdon, whilst exploring the very edges of Christian theologies of engagement those of other faiths. We’ve dipped our ‘ordinand’ boots in the water of other faiths, but I guess we won’t get them really dirty till we’re in ministry and faced with opportunities to really engage with them ourselves.
What follows is a digest of who we have met and heard, and interesting links that will act as a filing system for me, but may also be of interest to others, particularly those involved in education. There are a few rambling reflections along the way, which you are welcome to comment on and critique.
The first thing I want to do is to celebrate the deep and generous hospitality that we received from all those who hosted our little band of sometimes hesitant pilgrims:
- The special one-off place that is the Oxford Jewish Congregation, Jericho, Oxford
- Oxford Central Mosque
- and the Gurdwara of Oxford’s Sikh Community
I was particularly struck by the differences with which our Abrahamic brothers and sisters understand and experience the forgiveness of God. If I understand correctly, Jews can only seek forgiveness from God for those things that they have done which have specifically wronged God. Where they have wronged people, they are required only, but personally, to seek the forgiveness of those concerned.
As the Imam we met at Oxford Central Mosque explained it, Muslims must seek forgiveness from those they have wronged BEFORE they seek God’s forgiveness, after which the matter rests with him at his final judgement of us all. Sins are ‘scored’ and weighed against a Muslim’s adherence to the five pillars of Islam, with the Hajj scoring the most number of positive points.
The contrast with our Christian understanding of forgiveness, paid fro through Christ, stood out for me, yet as a matter for concern as to our response to it. Does the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord as our ‘mediator and advocate’ before God, make us lax in the practice of seeking the forgiveness of those we wrong? As I wondered this out loud, I was sent off to read Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” to reflect on the alternative to accepting “cheap grace” as normative. A subject I am sure I shall return to.
In all the faiths we’ve glimpsed, the importance of symbolic action for not simply the faith leaders/ministers, but also for their lay adherents, was noticable. It emphasised for me what my recent experiences of college worship, and past encounters with my high Anglican placement parish, and leading services like ‘An hour at the cross’ have suggested: that people often engage with their faith more, or their experience of God working in them is deepened, through the symbolic action of more sacramental forms of worship.
In the churches I have attended regularly over the last 25 years, outside of Holy Communion services (where we hopefully make ‘Peace’ as well as share it, before receiving the symbols of bread and wine) and perhaps All Age and the occasional special service during Holy Week, it has been unusual to see any form of symbolic action, or response to God, accepting those who raise their hands in worship. Prayer for example, is rarely marked by more than a bowed head these days; rarely do we kneel in the presence of our God and King.
I am pretty sure that there are many additional ways in which God wants to actively work in all our lives, if would could only be brave enough to engage in a rather more whole body approach to worship, as do those of the other faiths I’ve seen at worship recently.
The interfaith module also enabled us to practice the hospitality of listening to others who visited us:
Dr Hugh Boulter is Secretary to the Oxford Diocesan Committee for Inter-faith Concerns and helped introduce the module to us. Their recent work includes involvement with Dr Eleanor Nesbitt, Prof of Religions and Education at Warwick University, and Slough Grammer School students, in the production of two DVDs, of which we saw a clip, and which will be presented at November’s meeting of Oxford Diocesan Synod.
Apparently one DVD looks at eight discussion topics including, ‘Dress as Identity’ and ‘Caste, Class and the Influence of School’. This resource, which I guess could be sourced through the Diocese of Oxford, (who also have a useful looking guide to relations with people of other faiths) seemed to me to emphasise, among other things:
- the sort of things that motivate young people to believe, rather than the specific traditions of their faith;
- the importance of home and family in both the questioning and growth of faith;
- the assumption portrayed in the media, that younger generations are dangerously possessive about their faith.
Our Hindu visitor Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, surprised us, and not simply for his Irish Catholic upbringing! Using an explanation of five words important in the Hindu faith as a gateway to engagement with Abrahamic faiths, he managed to simultaneously make Hinduism attractive (through is emphasis on the spiritual desire to love in acts of service), confusing (because of it’s division of the material and spiritual self) and frightening (for what seemed a denial of what we see as the Hindu caste system).
Our last visitor was Imam Monaware Hussain founder and director of The Oxford Foundation, set up to work with young Muslims to offer them arguments against extremism. This work is developing into a more widely available provision of educational materials for teaching Religious Studies. He is the Muslim Chaplain at Eton School, and involved with the national Three Faiths Forum which brings together the ‘people of scripture’ for the purpose of scriptural reasoning using portions of text from each tradition.
Monawar emphasised that the outworking of the idiological label ‘Islam’ is very different in the UK to that which we might find in other countries; e.g. here Muslims of many different ‘flavours’ will pray together. He gave us a useful outline of the historical context of different schools of theology in Islam, and the rise of (among other things) reform movements in Islam in response to the western colonialism of 19th and 20th centuries, and suggested that in the UK, Sufism was in fact the most common form of Islamic spirituality practised.
Lastly, he spoke about the work of ‘A Common Word’ which five years ago formed a landmark new beginning in Muslim – Christian co-operation which now boasts several hundred international signatories. Based on the overwhelming scriptural authority in Muslim and Christian Scriptures for these faiths to be united in their love of God and love of Neighbour, in a world where the media likes to dominate our thinking with the consequences of fundamentalism in both these faiths, this was the idea from which I drew the most encouragement for our future world at the end of this module.