Religious and inter-religious education
Prof. Dr. Johannes Lähnemann:
Interfaith Services – Inspiration for Spiritual and Moral Learning Across Religions
Interfaith services constitute the clearest example of members of different
religions standing up and saying: Our faith and our spirituality serve
to bring us together with members of other faiths, and not to keep us separate
and always on the defence.
2. Interfaith services have to reckon with critical objections:
- suspicion of syncretism
- suspicion of denying the truth-claims of one’s religion
- suspicion of mutual takeover
- suspicion of using religion for purposes of show
3. Interfaith services can become the touchstone of sincere forms of interfaith encounter:
- through people taking it in turns at being each other’s guests
- through people bearing full witness to their individual faith openly and authentically
- through people becoming sensitive to the spiritual riches available in other traditions
- through focusing on the true substance of issues which affect patterns of coexistence and mutual interaction between religions
4. Interfaith services can be a preparation for shared global responsibility on the part of religions. They can be a forum for showing how the spiritual foundations of religious traditions yield beliefs and values commensurate with the global challenges that we all face, as these are spelled out in the Conciliar Movement for justice, peace, and integrity of creation (or conservation of the conditions of life), and in the Global Ethic Project with its ‘four irrevocable directives’ (respect for all life, solidarity, truthfulness, partnership). They provide a basis on which to nurture both the powers of imagination necessary, and also the stamina needed for the long haul towards joint action.
The title of my paper contains, though, a third element, that of learning. Interfaith services as a place of learning? Is this anything more than a quirk on the part of a religious educationalist constantly on the lookout for learning-opportunities?
I think not. Certainly I personally would insist – and so would many others who have taken part in such services – that I have learned more through preparing, planning, and participating in them than in almost any other way.
Let me now trace the steps I have taken along this path of learning, which is so central to the concerns of this whole conference.
My first involvement with an interfaith service occurred in 1989, at the World Assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace in Melbourne. Very early on the morning of Sunday 28th January, six hundred conference delegates, drawn from seventeen religions and from all parts of the world, gathered on the ocean shore. Everyone conducted their devotions according to their own religious tradition: Buddhist nuns were immersed in silent meditation, with Hindus alongside them. Jews recited psalms in Hebrew, and Christians stood with hands folded in prayer. As the sun slowly rose across the water, two Jains from India walked in their white robes into the waves and performed their morning prayers in its rays. As for me, taking my horn I played the chorale ‘Morgenglanz der Ewigkeit’ – ‘Morning Radiance of Eternity’ – towards the back amidst the trees. The Reverend Achilles, pastor of the German-speaking Lutheran church in Melbourne, wrote subsequently: ‘A breath of eternity infused the occasion’.
In stark contrast, however, was a different event at the same conference. During an interval on the first day of the plenary sessions an American Buddhist stepped to the microphone and read out a moving peace message – one significant too for our attitudes towards the environment – from the Dalai Lama. As soon as the Chinese delegates heard this in simultaneous translation, they tore off their headphones and left the auditorium, threatening indeed to leave the conference. The General Secretary of the WCRP at the time, John Taylor, struggled to pour oil on troubled waters, and issued an urgent appeal to delegates only to read out messages approved beforehand by the conference organisers.
This is where I learned my first lesson in this kind of context. I was faced with the question: How can this contradiction be overcome – between peaceful spirituality on the one hand, and harsh political-ideological reality on the other? Is there not here a fundamental tension in which religions are constantly caught, and which requires sustained rigorous action for there to be any hope of its resolution? Do interfaith services achieve anything more than present a pleasant front which, however, does not withstand close scrutiny?
first thesis stands in conscious opposition to this view:
1. Interfaith services constitute the clearest example of members of different religions standing up and saying: Our faith and our spirituality serve to bring us together with members of other faiths, and not to keep us separate and always on the defence.
Interfaith services are a milestone in the process of interfaith encounter and dialogue – a process which now extends beyond simple visits, and observation of each other’s forms of spirituality, to their actual incorporation as living and appreciated reality.
The best known example of this is the prayers for peace hosted by the Pope in Assisi in 1986. It was perceived worldwide as giving a signal – and evoked much criticism of the Pope in his own church!
One year later religious leaders met for prayer again, this time on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto in Japan.
A variant of this kind of occasion is when interfaith services are triggered by an immediate cause, for example the interfaith services which filled our churches at the beginning of the Gulf War, highlighting the field of social and political responsibility.
The lesson to be drawn from these interfaith services that there is a felt need, at the very deepest levels of our faith communities, to experience spirituality in a way that transcends religious boundaries and relates to the challenges we face in the world today.
On the other hand, it was precisely these spontaneously organised interfaith gatherings that sparked off protests, at times furious, on the part of conservative evangelical Christians in particular. One critic of the interfaith service that occurred at the time of the Gulf War, in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Regensburg, urged that the church had been desecrated from the Church of the Three in One to the Church of Take Your Pick of Any Three You Fancy! And after our first interfaith service at St. Martha’s here in Nurnberg in 1989, two loyal church members made an official complaint against their pastor with Lutheran church leaders at regional level.
Suspicion of denying the truth-claims of one’s religion is suggested when prayers and meditations from various religions apparently receive equal recognition. Am I any longer taking my own faith seriously – Jesus as Saviour? Or total submission to the one God in Islam? Or rituals for better karma in Hinduism? Does faith not end up as something shapeless, if everything is being regarded as equally valid (and hence, by implication, as a matter of indifference)?
Suspicion of mutual takeover arises when one religion claims to incorporate all others, as easily happens with New Religious Movements in particular. Yet it is a stance that one comes across too in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism: One takes from each religion everything assimilable into one’s own. Hence one sees others as anonymous Christians, Muslims or Hindus, rather than as people with their own distinctive roots and identity that they wish to affirm and maintain.
Suspicion of using religion for purposes of show means an alleged misuse of prayer for outward display, as though it were more effective for members of all the different religions to pray together on public display than for each person to pray in the space set aside in their own traditions for prayer or meditation – or indeed in the quiet of their own room.
Each of these critical objections needs to be taken seriously, not least because they are for the most part expressed by extremely pious and committed believers.
This is where the next step on the path of learning, or discovery, needed to be taken. We were forced to ask the basic question: What does this shared enterprise really mean? Why do we find it important? How are we to counter misunderstandings?
In our established Lutheran church in the state of Bavaria, a lengthy discussion was conducted on just these issues. The theological faculties in Erlangen, Munich and Neuendettelsau were asked by the bishop of the region to produce statements. The suggestion from Neuendettelsau was that one might refer to ‘multireligious’ rather than ‘interreligious’ prayers, as a means of reflecting the plurality and distinctness of religious traditions as represented in interfaith services, where they certainly do not get blurred into one. In the work of the WCRP it is one of the basic tenets that one should avoid any kind of syncretism in which the identity of individual religious traditions would be denied, and transmuted into an allegedly higher form of religion. Equally there should be no attempt at proselytisation – meaning questionable kinds of conversion where one seeks to get others to switch allegiance through one’s powers of persuasion, or by pressurising them, or by material incentives – in sum, by unacceptable or indeed dishonest means. Conversely there is conscious acknowledgement of the fact that everyone taking part in interfaith encounter and interfaith services does so as a committed representative of their own particular faith wishing to bear testimony to it out of their own sense of conviction. The lesson we have learned in this respect is that measures are needed, and rules not only introduced but also actually practised, which enable forms of encounter characterised by sincerity and integrity.
The notion of people taking
it in turns at being each other’s guests is a particularly apt image both
for mutual visits to each other’s places of worship, and also for shared
interfaith services. For being a guest means being welcome, being there
by invitation to see, hear and feel something of a faith community’s spirituality.
We learn much more about a faith in this sort of way as compared with a
straightforward academic description. Conversely, being a guest means not
being subject to undue demands, not being required to take part in anything
one feels uncomfortable with; while at the same time acknowledging the
dignity of the religious service being performed, keeping alert to all
its aspects, ready to listen and to learn what it is that is of importance
for one’s host, and why, and further respecting what seems alien and meaningless.
Take, for example, the issue of peace. In Judaism we find the notion of shalom, which refers not simply to the absence of war, but the salvific togetherness of a community under God’s salvific will in its most comprehensive sense. In Christianity we find Jesus’s ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, and the command to love one’s enemy, a command issuing from the experience of God’s loving-kindness, and with a veritable sting when we realise that it applies even to national and indeed religious enemies. In Islam we find a repeated emphasis on ‘Islam’ – submission to God’s will – entailing efforts for peace.
In Buddhism morality is not rooted in a belief in God. Yet the enlightenment that liberates people from attachment to ephemera generates a compassion and equanimity which are in fundamental opposition to any kind of destructive enmity. In every religion there is an awareness of human fallibility, of the fact that any kind of self-idolisation precipitates dreadful disaster, and that on the contrary people need a changing of their ways and constant renewal in order to become emancipated from egoism. Religions also provide consolation and hope which transcend human limitations.
The various pictures, readings, prayers and hymns drawn from the religions bestow concrete shape on the spiritual power that flows from the several religious sources. At the same time, the texts are not designed for literal repetition, but require interpretation as applied to the challenges of today.
Let me illustrate this with reference to a prayer drawn from the Christian tradition but which also incorporates the perspective of religious encounter. It originated with Angelo Fernandez, first President of the WCRP, and was introduced by him in Melbourne in 1989:
„O Lord of all, who inspires and blesses each effort made towards better understanding, mutual acceptance, and global solidarity, we thank you for the faith you have granted us, and for the efforts towards a just peace which have brought us here together.
Cleanse us and our religious traditions from every trace of narrowness and intolerance; bestow your spirit upon ever more people, especially the young, that they may join forces with all those who work for peace. Support them in developing, across all borders and beyond all selfish goals and interests, an awareness of the unity of the human family, and in establishing responsible community.
We beseech thee especially: grant us all the experience of deep faith, that we may be brought ever closer to thee, source of truthfulness and compassion. Plant in us a wideranging awareness of the unbearable burden of poverty borne by millions of our sisters and brothers, of the ever growing divide between North and South, and of the demonic striving for weapons of mass destruction.
Release in us a greater spirit of individual and social responsibility, so that the treasures of this earth may be used, not for the destruction of our planet, but in wise stewardship and a brightly shining flame of all-embracing love.“
Here moral conduct and engagement for peace are accorded a spiritual dimension which acquires inspiration and dynamism from dedication to God.
It was - this to be added at the end of 2001 - after the 11th September that not only religious congregations and interfaith groups but also schools increasingly asked for symbols, texts, prayers and ways of this kind to gain spiritual comfort and encouragement for a moral responsibility which transcends the borders of cultures and religions.
|Revised version of my paper at the VIIth Nürnberg Forum. Thanks to Dr. John Shepherd/Lancaster for the translation!|