First of all, I would like to set the scene by looking at some statisitics for Yorkshire and the Humber....
Christian - 73.1%, No Religion - 14.1%, Religion not stated - 7.8% , Muslim - 3.8%, Sikh - 0.4%, Hindu - 0.3%,
Other - 0.2%, Jewish - 0.2% , Buddhist - 0.1%.
Broadly speaking comparable with the UK as a whole with the exception that the Muslim figure is slightly higher. Obviously, if you were to drill down to the figures for separate authorities or even down to individual settlements, you would see certain groups higher and others lower. When you consider that the greatest concentration of people from faiths other than Christianity is in the larger cities and towns, then it is not surprising that most people experience interfaith matters as second or even third-hand. My background and training and early experience was within a very traditional Christian framework. Furthermore, I accepted what was taught as incontrovertible fact. Crudely put , conversion to my religion, or at least my version of it, was both an aim and a responsibility. However, once I had come out of parish ministry which, in my experience, was almost wholly church-orientated and moved to Selby to be a full-time industrial chaplain....then my experiences widened, I became less fearful of difference and, quite frankly, I did not feel the pressure so much to toe the party line.
During that time I went to an interfaith education conference with both my college chaplain hat and interfaith council member hat on. One of the speakers traced a change in attitude of the dominant white Christian majority towards those of other ethnic and religious backgrounds. He said that the initial challenge was to tolerate those who were different. In time, when toleration was established, the challenge was to offer respect to those who were different. Five years or so ago this was the point that he felt we had reached as a society. But he offered a further challenge....and that was to accept those who were different on their own terms. Each of these attitudes carries a value judgment of the other person....we might just reflect on that for a moment or two.
Toleration is a good thing....it prevents us from engaging in harsh responses; but it has negative overtones. It is perfectly possible to tolerate someone whilst harbouring extreme dislike of them.
Respect, on the other hand, is an acknowledgement of the value of the other person and the position that they hold.
Acceptance is a much greater step because it recognizes that what is valuable for the other person might actually have something of importance for me. This is a difficult step because it is tantamount to saying that I don not have all the answers and, in a sense, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and open to challenge. For many, if not most of us, that is a difficult thing to do. When we are being asked to accept someone of another faith, it asks the question of where do we stand with our own faith and its propositions and traditions and practices.
Pause for comments on what I have said so far and then move on to consider two questions which I believe to be vital precursors to any interfaith encounter:
(1) What did Jesus mean when he said: Who do people say that I am?
(2) How can we live and work constructively alongside people of other faiths?
Qn 1 Who do people say that I am?
Mark Goodacre (Sen. Lecturer, Birmingham University) says: The big question about Jesus is did Jesus think of himself as Messiah, did he believe he was the distinctive person that had a really pivotal role to play in the plan of God?
Jesus asked the question of his disciples; some said people thought he was a resurrected Elijah or John the Baptist....but it was Peter (who later claimed not to know him) who said you are the son of the living God. All any of the first disciples had to go on was their upbringing, their own personal knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and their religious teachers interpretation of them, and the evidence of their own eyes and experience. What do we bring to bear in answering that question? How we answer it will play a large part in how we interact with someone from a difference faith background.
Broadly speaking, three positions have been offered in regard to that question:
Exclusivist - as its title suggests, those who belong to this camp take the view that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is able to bring us to the realisation of salvation (viz. John 14v6; Acts 4v12). Raises the further question as to what we mean by salvation? At its root is the meaning of being given the space to grow and mature. I suspect that the first disciples would fall into this group because of their own unique set of circumstances: political, geographical, and theological.
Inclusivist - here would be those who say that Jesus speaks for all people and includes all, irrespective of class, race or creed. They would take their inspiration from the gospel of St John; the notion of Jesus as the Logos, the Word of God. This Logos is identified with the Spirit that moved at the time of creation and which is beyond the close confines of the Christian Church alone.
Pluralist - the view here is that Jesus is a pathway to God for Christians but that those of other faiths have their own equally valid pathways. A musical analogy would be that of singers singing together in harmony rather than unison; what sounds very different when heard in isolation, together makes for an uplifting whole (this would be the view of the PCN).
I would say that only the pluralist would be able to be accepting of people from other faith backgrounds. The exclusivist would find it almost impossible to have any dialogue or shared activity; expressed by the words of the hymn: At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow. The inclusivist would also wish to give pre-eminence to the name of Jesus in some form or other.
Questions for discussion: How can we live and work constructively alongside people of other faiths?
In the Report Understanding Faiths: What we believe informs our sense of who we are, gives rise to our attitudes and values, and affects the way we behave towards each other and towards the environment we all share. So faith is a social and public matter, as well as a private matter, and it is something we must try to understand in order to build better, stronger communities.
In the context of the overall question, how do we demonstrate this?
These are just some of the areas of life where faith may impact on our everyday lives: diet, death and dying rituals, dress codes, economic choices, education and nurture, employment issues, environment, ethical decision-making, health, housing, identity, leisure choices and requirements, political choices and participation, travel, voluntary activities.
Example: as a child, I vividly remember our next-door neighbour banging on our door in the middle of the night in a state of extreme distress. She had woken up during the night and was unable to wake her husband up. My father went to investigate and found that he had died in his sleep. If your neighbour is, or were to be, a member of another faith, are you aware of the protocol to be followed in such a situation? What must, or more importantly, what must you not do?
In recent years, the government has seen the value of engaging with both the voluntary and community sector and the faith-based sector in order to deliver its agenda of regeneration and development of sustainable and effective communities. Would you feel comfortable working alongside someone of another faith? Are there some issues that you could not work together on? What are they?
(Rev'd John Davis)