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An Overview of Interfaith

Interfaith: An Overview

by Paul Trafford

 

Preface

This is a brief introductory overview of interfaith from a personal point of view. It was originally prepared for those religious organisations new to this area and have growing international presence. The format is mainly in form of Question and Answer.

It is intend that this article be revised from time to time, so comments are welcome.

Q. What is interfaith?

There are many ways in which interfaith may be defined since it operates at many different levels. These days one may say:

Interfaith is a process of coming together of people committed to their respective religions and spiritual paths for the purpose of mutual understanding, appreciation and enrichment.

[inter is a Latin word meaning among or between]

This process is often termed interfaith dialogue. The dialogue has a positive and deliberate conotation, a sense of offering space, openness and respect, thereby contrasting with e.g. a dispute or confrontation. It can be informal or formal, internal to oneself, between neighbours, among community groups, right up to large international gatherings. The venue can be a church, temple, mosque, or a house, street, bus, etc. The use of the word faith recognises the personal commitment of the practitioner.

There are some related terms, each with their own emphases:

multi faith This term is sometimes used synonymously, though it actually only means many faiths, with no implication of dialogue.

inter-religious dialogue This term is often used with a similar meaning to interfaith dialogue though, particularly in academic circles, its sense encompasses more the philosophical, sociological, cultural and political aspects. Hence it also may be subject to analysis from the disciplines of philosophy, sociology and politics, whose scholars are not so interested in the practice itself. Some scholars, who focus on culture, prefer the term religion to faith, as they take the view that faith does not express the full plurality of culture.

Example: the encounters between Jewish rabbis, Muslim Imams and Christian priests, say, in Israel may be regarded by the practitioners as interfaith dialogue, but studied by scholars as inter-religious dialogue.

comparative religion This term is generally used in academic circles, with the emphasis on scholarly analysis. It covers, for example, scriptural analysis, history, and culture. The scholars themselves may have no practice.

ecumenism This term is part of the vocabulary used by Christian organisations to represent dialogue mainly between Christians - an example of what is sometimes termed intra-faith dialogue [intra is a Latin word meaning within]. The processes of ecumenism are similar to those of interfaith.

engagement, activism These are ancillary terms that reflect some very popular angles for interfaith. They often concentrate on practical projects to tackle the critical issues on the planet which are evident externally: conflict resolution, reconciliation, human rights, education, social welfare and the environment.

Many people when studying about different religions in the world, are surprised to find a lot of teachings in common. This encourages them to be more interested in interfaith. It is also interesting to hear what people of other faiths find inspiring about one's own faith.

For instance, it is noticeable how many non-Christians love very much the Beatitudes in Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount. It can make Christians reflect on the qualities of Jesus which they should try to practice in their lives.

A well respected overview of many different religions is called A Sourcebook for Earth's Community of Religions, edited by Joel Beversluis. It is available on-line at: http://www.origin.org/ucs/doc.cfm?fg=3176

There have been some large scale initiatives to publish selections of texts from the world religions to show similarities. In particular, the Unification Church has published World Scripture, a massive undertaking involving many scholars around the world. It is available at http://www.unification.net/ws.

 

Q. What is the main purpose of interfaith today?

For many interfaith has one over-riding purpose: to bring peace to the planet.

 

Q. How has it developed over the ages?

Throughout history, whenever people of differents faiths have met and communicated with each other, then there has been implicitly an opportunity for dialogue. This has arisen especially through migration of populations which have led to substantial multi-ethnic communities being established in many parts of the world, particularly in urban areas. Interfaith dialogue is a fundamental part of fostering good relations between the respective communities.

Much of the more formal 'dialogue' in recent centuries has involved followers of theistic religions, particularly Christians who have focused on doctrinal aspects - what has usually come under the heading of theology. The principal player has been the Roman Catholic Church under the guidance of the Pope in the Vatican, whose membership has for a long time been hundreds of millions (and is currently about 1 billion people). The exchanges have had a chequered history, particularly during some of the missionary activities, where historians record that in some instances (e.g. 16th Century Jesuit missions to China), the missionaries sought to assimilate themselves as a means of conversion. In the process they would have had many discussions with local people with some genuine dialogue, but the subsequent ill feelings and disputes indicate that a lot of the activity was inappropriate.

Fortunately, during the past century people of different faiths have come together on more equal footing. One asks why and personally I sense it is because the 20th Century saw so much suffering all over the world that preaching the superiority of any particular faith made a hollow sound. In any case, there has been a sense of urgency for people of faith to work together. Christians have continued to travel all over the world, so they have a tremendous amount of experience of encounters with other religions, perhaps more so that followers of any other religion. Hence, a lot of those involved in interfaith activities these days are Christian, publishing copious literature and founding many organisations. Indeed, most of the large international organisations have strong Christian presence.

It is noticeable that those Christians who work in interfaith have often changed their attitudes. For instance, the Benedictine monk, Ven. Bede Griffiths, OSB, initially went to India with the idea that his religion was very much superior to others, but in time his viewpoint changed to one that was much more appreciative of other religions.    Also, the focus has shifted from detailed theological discussions to the critical issues and there is a lot more genuine collaboration. The context for this is very much at the local community level.

Furthermore it is quite common these days to hear the term interfaith movement, reflecting the fact that collaboration has been ongoing for some time. Looking back, one can see that the roots for formal collaboration started in 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This momentous event has been taken as a starting point for Pilgrimage of Hope, a very well informed survey of interfaith activity during 100 years (1893 to 1993). The book is written by Rev. Marcus Braybrooke and published by SCM Press, ISBN 0-334-02500-1. Some other good titles may be found among the World Congress of Faiths' list of publications.

 

Q. Why should we be Involved?

As a general consideration, the critical isses mentioned above have become so severe that the entire world needs to address them. The most immediate threat is war, and many wars are promoted in the name of religion. Interfaith serves to overcome the religious prejudice in such conflicts by creating the conditions for positive encounter - work that can clear misunderstandings and reduce divisions. It is without doubt growing in importance: the one time World Parliament of Religions has since evolved into the Parliament of the World Religions, which is now being held on a regular basis: the last two have been held in Cape Town (1999) and Barcelone (2004)

As an organisation you may have a lot to offer to interfaith and find other organisations very welcoming and receptive. If your organisation is international, then it is likely that it would be committed to a culture of world peace - which is just how this decade has been designated by the United Nations: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/1998/19981110.ga9500.html If you investigate the aims of interfaith organisations that have already been establised, then you may well find the aims of interfaith compatible and worthy of support.

Religious organisations usually have a lot to offer in terms of ethics and pathways to the development of higher human activities, particularly a deeper and more fulfilling inner life, which in turn reflects in wiser outer conduct. Any programmes that help society in such activities could be of benefit to many and a fine example for others.

Notwithstanding the above, any large organisation with growing international presence, not necessarily religious, needs to get to know about other cultures and, particularly, their religious practices. In some countries governments are issuing legislation that requires particular respect for religious observance on behalf of employees, so the motivation for understanding other faiths becomes even stronger for religious organisations. An interfaith approach seeks to do this through positive engagement.

There are also potential drawbacks in not becoming involved: consider the other organisations or individuals that are involved in interfaith. If there are just a few representing your particular religious tradition, then they carry a great deal of responsibility and have considerable influence. All being well, they will all be examplary and present a fair and true picture. However, if some are not, then they will be doing a disservice and other voices need to be heard. (It is noticeable that the same few figures appear at international gatherings and they are free to express many views.)

 

Q. How does it work?

Interfaith works through people meeting each other - especially through networks. Its scope sweeps across many aspects of society as can be seen in the following instances, taken from the UK, which indicates that a lot of activity just comes at various gatherings. Although many of the activities may not be relevant to an organisation per se, it may be that many individuals will be participants and thus representatives.

1. Education

Children are introduced to R.E. from quite an early age, certainly before they reach 10 years old. [There are some wonderful ways for introducing very young children to this area: for instance, I had the chance to watch a professional story teller perform the lives of some of the religions' founders. The costumes and sets were very colourful!]

Whereas until quite recently the syllabus was predominantly Christian, nowadays in all schools it is expected that religion be taught in a plural context - that typically involves the study of the major teachings from several world religions. It is becoming increasingly common, especially in urban areas, for school parties to make visits to various places of worship, to watch, ask questions and even try some practice, thus gaining a quite vivid impression of what life can be like in another faith. It is also becoming common for schoolchildren to send queries to maintainers of web sites on particular faiths!

In higher education (19+), there are more courses becoming available on the study of world religions and quite a number are using the term "interfaith". The syllabuses for such courses use a lot of current material.

The above relate interfaith in terms of an object of study but also, with potentially more far reaching significance, interfaith has a lot to offer education as a whole, particularly regarding the issue of ethics - most notably in the form of the Global Ethic. More about this later.

2. Community Centres

Community centres are becoming more diverse in what they offer. Nowadays people can attend talks about other spiritual paths, try yoga, practice meditation, and join in the celebration of other religious festivals. These gatherings bring together people of different faiths and can highlight shared values leading to new friendships.

It is noticeable how strong is the demand for such activities - there is no doubt that many people are searching in earnest for greater depth.

3. Official co-ordination: organisations and networks

In the UK, interfaith activity has been formally organised to quite a degree: there are local, regional and national bodies that co-ordinate interfaith activity. In the UK, there is the Interfaith Network for the UK; in the United States, there is the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN).

Such bodies maintain lists of events where people and organisations of different faiths will be meeting. They can inform you of what is happening in your local area, often they will know particular contacts, but may not actually host many such gatherings themselves, but rather co-ordinate meetings between representatives of different religious organisations.

On the other hand, there are some centres that are designated as interfaith centres, which  may organise seminars, conferences, retreats, projects and other activities in a more explicitly interfaith context. Some of these are bilateral and others multi-lateral. In Birmingham, UK,  there is a Centre for the Study of Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak Colleges, part of the University of Birmingham. There has also been the Multi-Faith Centre, based at one time in Harborne Hall during the 80's.

At the University of Derby, there is currently a fundraising campaign for a purpose-built Multi-Faith Centre.

4. Implicit interfaith activities

There is growing recognition of the potential of project work that involves people from various backgrounds, where religion is not the first item that is brought to attention.   Projects have already taken place where essential needs such as housing and land cultivation have led to co-operation. These projects have the characteristics of being locally rooted and emphasising service. It is during the process of working together that awareness steadily increases about the faith of the others and the importance it plays in their lives. In this case, we can refer to implicit interfaith activity.

These projects are particularly attractive to young people - see, for instance, the work being done by the Interfaith Youth Core at http://www.ifyc.org.

5. Other interfaith activities

Compared with even 10 years ago, many of us now have much more opportunities for dialogue with others - through the Internet. It is a technology that is accelerating the sense of a 'global village', enabling us to be in touch with people at any corner of the planet in a matter of seconds.

The fact that you are reading this document, which has been hosted on a web site, is testament to the extraordinary means of communication.

The Internet provides many ways for dialogue: electronic mail, mailing lists, discussion forums, and all of these can be used to sustain ongoing co-operation. As we use this technology from day to day, we can take encouragement as we discover more and more people, from various faiths, sharing many of our aspirations in faith.

 

Q. How to become involved? Where to Join?

Involvement is done mainly at the individual level - much of the vitality in interfaith comes from the fact the people are there through personal interest which is not dependent upon formal representation. Meetings between organisations require a lot of planning and extra effort and can be  highly problematic: when organisations meet formally, the situation can be easily politicised and issues become magnified: Where is a suitable venue? Who should be sent to the meetings? How do we handle the media?   How to incorporate the wishes of all the members in this? One has only to consider some large international bodies to realise the immense difficulties and obstacles to progress that arise

A more manageable approach is to attend designated interfaith gatherings where individuals or groups are welcome to represent their organisations, but not in such a wholesale manner as above.    In these events, it is common for the programme to include presentations that summarise the aims and activities of particular organisations, to which others may respond and report back to their organisation.   Whether presenting or not, there should be ample opportunity for outreach - informing others of one's background, perhaps exchanging business cards and various literature. In due course, there will be opportunities for presentations about one's own organisation.

So a constructive approach is to support individuals in participation at such events and programmes, which in turn may open up avenues not just at the individual level but also at the organisational level. Networking between individuals can lead to collaboration between organisations.

One may learn about such events by contacting some of the co-ordinating organisations, some given below.

Organisation
URL
Parliament of the World Religions http://www.cpwr.org
International Interfaith Centre (IIC) http://www.interfaith-center.org
International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) http://www.iarf.net
World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) http://www.wcrp.org
United Religions Initiative (URI) http://www.uri.org

However, there are some other ways that an organisation can enhance its visibility to those interested in interfaith. When people of other faiths encounter you for the first time, they will wonder about the role your organisation plays and in what context: As an organisation that represents a particular religion, what is the involvement in that particular religious community?

So, here are a few suggestions to enhance visibility:

1. First check the status of the organisation in one's locality: is it listed in local, regional and national directories? Is it active in these areas?

2. Similarly, check the status of any multifaith directories and initiatives at local, regional and national levels.

3. Find out about co-ordinating bodies (e.g. in the UK the main body is the Interfaith Network for the UK).


There are some bodies that have membership at an organisational level, but not so many. For international involvement, an organisation may consider offering its services as a consultant to international and global bodies, such as the United Nations. For interfaith organisations, IARF does have member organisations - notably the Unitarian Church and Rissho Kosei-Kai; WCRP, which hosts assemblies of religious (last one held in Jordan in November 1999), is important for the respect it has from the Vatican; URI is a fast growing organisation that has opened itself more than many others to newer religious movements.

Many other organisations will have religious components though they may not make this explicit. Of special significance are those organisations that work explicitly for the benefit of people, often for human rights. Such organisations will play an increasing role over the coming years, whose influence will be accelerated courtesy of the Internet. A few years ago, the Millenium People's Assembly Network (MPAN) was campaigning for a Permanent People's Assembly to be affiliated with the United Nations, which would mean that individuals are more directly represented. Their web site was at: http://www.ourvoices.org, but as of writing it is no longer running. However, this has moved on to a Globabl People's Assembly Movement and if you search the internet, you find many people's assemblies have sprung up around the world

A very useful way to help interfaith work would be to respond to initiatives that have come from interfaith work, especially the Global Ethic and Call to Our Guiding Institutions - see below. These kinds of initiatives are the result of high aspirations and a lot of hard work, so it would be much appreciated if it could be supported and tested out.

Individually, one can attend courses, join mailing lists, listen in and contribute to discussion groups, particularly on the Internet. It is often helpful to identify issues of common concern.

 

Interfaith Networks: From the Global Ethic to A Call to Our Guiding Institutions

This section is presented as information, not in Q and A format.

In 1893 there was held the World Parliament of Religions as part of the Chicago World Trade Fair. It was motivated largely by theological concerns and had a disproportionately large representation from Christian denominations. However, there were represented a wide range of religious traditions from different parts of the world. An acknowledged star of the conference was Swami Vivekananda.

A hundred years later, in response to requests from people of faith, Chicago was host to the Parliament of the World Religions organised by the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions. The impetus came from identifying that the world was in crisis. The core document was the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic, henceforth simply referred to as the Global Ethic, whose initiator was Professor Hans KŁng of the University of Tubingen in Germany.   Professor KŁng sought common ethical principles by which religions could work together for peace and then a means for encouraging its uptake, resulting in the Global Ethic, a document in four parts.

PART 1 asserts:

"No peace on Earth without Peace between the Religions"

"No new world order without a global ethic"

The following four principles are identified as being held in common:

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not steal
  3. Do not lie
  4. Do not commit sexual immorality


In PART 2 the Global Ethic encapsulated into one statement about responsibility

"Treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves."

We are especially called to respect human dignity.


In PART 3, are issued Four Directives that seek to carry this out:

  1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
  2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
  3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
  4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.


PART 4 calls for a Transformation of consciousness: an increasing awareness of human dignity and our responsibilities across many fields with ethical implications, ranging from bio-ethics to the media, and a call to religious organisations to define clearly their stance on such ethical issues.


The response has been considerable, particularly in Germany, where the Global Ethic is taught in many schools. For further information please consult the following websites:

The Declaration is available at: http://www.weltethos.org/dat_eng/st_3_e.htm

Research is being carried out at the following sites:

Stiftung Weltethos (Global Ethic Foundation) at the University of TŻbingen

http://www.weltethos.org/ (and site in English).

Center for Global Ethics at Temple University, USA.

http://astro.temple.edu/~dialogue/geth.htm


A useful workbook: Testing the Global Ethic, edited by Marcus Braybrooke and Peggy Morgan.


1999 Parliament of the World's Religions: "A New Day Dawning"

In December 1999, the 3rd Parliament was held in Cape Town, a fitting choice of venue in view of the recent triumph in adversity. This was another very fulfilling event and I'm in the process of drafting a separate report for MultiFaithNet.   This is just a brief mention of the main  initiative: "A Call to Our Guiding Institutions" which seeks to apply the global ethic at the institutional level. The drafting of this document has been mainly in North America, by the Millenium Institute. A copy is held at: http://www.cpwr.org/resource/call_to_gis.htm 

About a dozen large organisations including government, religion, education, media, business have each been requested to reflect on their roles and responsibilities and invited to respond in a manner that respects the global ethic. It asks us to question our values, something which modern materialism often omits to do. At the Parliament, about 300 religious leaders and various key figures gathered over the course of three days in an Assembly to work through the document and meet its challenge.   The organisers had the wisdom to involve the youth from the Next Generation, who were there to ensure its practical application. At the end of the session each person in attendance made a commitment to apply the Call after the Parliament closed.

I was not involved in the Assembly, but I personally feel the Call document presents a fine vision and am trying to encourage support for it at my place of work (University of Derby). There are strong economic pressures on academic institutions to lose sight of their original vision - where staff and students are encouraged to ask fundamental questions as part of the education - and, instead, reduce themselves to merely a kind of factory pumping out students with qualifications to meet the demands of the workplace.   The Call document challenges this in a very healthy manner.

As regards the Internet as a whole, which serves as my livelihood, I think it vital that on-line business (e-business) consider the question, "What are the values underpinning our conduct? Where is the ethics in e-business?" 

These are early days, so those institutions that respond to the Call today will serve as beacons for others tomorrow.

 

Some Examples

This section provides a personal selection of organisations and projects in which I have been involved, so I write from experience.

The International Interfaith Centre

I start by highlighting the work of the International Interfaith Centre, which has evolved some very skilful approaches for interfaith. It is a relatively new organisation with much older roots as it arose through an emerging need identified by those who already had been working a long time in this area.   It has three founding organisations: IARF, the World Congress of Faiths and Westminster College in Oxford.

Its mission is:

"to help facilitate inter-religious encounter, networking, research and reconciliation through co-operative programmes with other organisations and engaged individuals around the world."

It has a small team of staff, with quite a number of experienced volunteers. Collectively, they have travelled all over the world, which is very useful as it is one of the key co-ordinating organisations at an international level. It does not have member organisations, so it relies upon individual financial support as well as what grants and funds it can find from elsewhere. It is not [yet] well off financially (so donations are particularly welcome!)

Having worked for the IIC, I have noticed that is has some particularly special qualities and characteristics:

  • Excellent knowledge of international initiatives  The IIC networks effectively with many international organisations and is well respected. It shares offices with IARF, WCF and Rissho Kosei-Kai.
  • Focus on and involvement of the young   In 1998, in association with the Northern Ireland Interfaith Forum, the IIC held a conference in Northern Ireland.   It focused especially on conveying to schoolchildren possibilities for conflict resolution and did this in a manner that did not preach. Rather it allowed space for people to reflect and come to their own conclusions, with many clues provided by guest speakers who had been in similarly difficult circumstances. It was a measure of respect that the speakers were senior international figures - for instance, Yasmin Souka, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was flown in all the way from South Africa.

    At the Parliament in Cape Town, the IIC involved many young people in its three day symposium and the final day saw very impressive visions of young people - as commended by Bishop Bill Swing in a report for the IIC Newsletter, a twice yearly publication.
  • The use of thematic approaches: The IIC has been building up particular themes, especially the area of conflict resolution. The IIC goes beyond tolerance to provide neutral and supportive spaces for conflict resolution, helping to prevent polarisation.   As an example, in 1999, the IIC held a conference where there were two very articulate young men from  Cyprus. One was a Turkish Cypriot, the other Greek.   The venue of Oxford and the supporting people in their midst facilitated some melting of ice and they eventually declared that when they returned they would tell their friends that there were people from the other side seeking peace.
  • The events are holistic in structure:  A great deal of careful thought is put into organising events in such a way as to provide balance - subject, location, representation, personalities are all taken into consideration.. As an illustration, there was held in January 2000 a seminar on Karma: in one session there were presenters from Indian religions (Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism) with the chair from Abrahamic faith; in another session there were presenters from Abraham religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) chaired by a Hindu.   A plenary session brought all panellists and two chairs together.

Almost every event I have attended has been very well received and provides the impetus for further work.

 

Projects at the University of Derby

This section focuses on some of the initiatives at the University of Derby, where I worked from October 1998 to June 2000.

The University is located in the city of Derby in the Midlands, UK, which has a significant population from ethnic minorities. It is unusual in that it was formed through the merger of a number of Higher Education Colleges - it was never a Polytechnic. The smaller colleges had been well rooted in the local community and the University has tried to maintain this special relationship whilst it has expanded. In particular, the University has involved religious communities in the religious and pastoral affairs of the university - which is reflected in the fact that the University does not have a Chaplain as such, but a Director of Religious and Pastoral affairs.

Parallel to this involvement there has emerged in the subject area of Religious Studies two Professors - in Comparative Religion and Inter-Religious Relations respectively, which is unusual. In 1993, the University published jointly with the Interfaith Network for the UK, the first edition of Religions in the UK: A Multifaith Directory, which not only lists organisations and addresses, but provides useful background information into various religions covering, among other aspects, history, festivals and appropriate conduct for entering places of worship. Second and third editions were published in 1997 and 2001 respectively. See: http://www.multifaithnet.org/mfc-pages.asp?ID=14

Coming out of this backdrop is the emerging purpose-built Multi-Faith Centre, which will be a university facility open for staff and students, but also available for the local community. It has the distinction of having been co-designed by seven different religious communities, so it really is multi-faith from the design up!. It is a shared village of spaces - no-one owns it, but all are free to make use of it - not just for worship, but for seminars, conferences, and the scope for these is very wide indeed: as well as explicitly religious themes, it is conceivable that there could be courses on ethics applied to many activities. It is quite substantial in size - originally designed with partitions that could be moved to accommodate a main gathering of 200 or three smaller gatherings of 50, 50 and 100. Completion date should be end of 2004 or thereabouts.

In a way the MFC can be regarded as the physical embodiment of the electronic gateway called MultiFaithNet, which promotes wide participation in dialogue and serious study. It tries to provide editorial quality control through providing signposts as to the provenance of materials, i.e. information about the particular angles that are presented.

Conclusion

I hope that this overview is helpful and an encouragement to support interfaith work in the years ahead. There is a lot to be done to ensure peace, so co-operation is essential.

As always, you are welcome to send me feedback.

Thank you.

 

Paul Trafford

Last modified: 16th July 2004
Created: 31 January 2000


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