Faiths, Conflict, Violence and Dialogue

Notes for members:

  • How faiths are going to postively relate to each other.

  • The tribe and ethnicity attaches itself to religion as part of identity - extended and defended.

  • Islam went into decline with the West's Renaissance, and clericalised: it lost its flowering of civilisation. It has a huge chip on its shoulder; the final prophet reciting the preserved Book of God suggests it should be the advanced civilisation.
  • Al Qaida's aim is to defeat the West and reinstitute a strict Sunni Islam Caliphate.
  • Islam is in a reactionary phase, and repressive instead of tolerant.

  • Hinduism has nationalists who burnt down the mosque at Lord Rama's said birthplace, and preventing lowest caste conversions to Buddhism and Christianity.
  • Buddhist State has responded with violence to Hindu separatists in Sri Lanka.
  • Christian fundamentalism theatens an economically declining USA.

  • Messianic Judaism - these are Christian fundamentalists - support Israel's expansion to bring Jews to Jerusalem and have the return of Christ.
  • Religious Jews compromised with Zionists to prepare for Israel's restoration by God - giving history a push.
  • Shia Islam expects the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam to be followed by the return of Jesus Christ and paradise.

  • However, Orthodox Judaism understands difference.
  • Christianity has in places reformed, modernised, accommodated with secularisation and developed theologies and biblical criticism.
  • Islam has mainly Western voices calling for ijtihad, or renewal.
  • Buddhism is self-relativist, like a raft over a river.
  • Hinduism is pluralistic and has undergone modernisation in parts: it was a key faith in the World Parliament of Religions.
  • Sikhism is a reform movement sparked from the poetry of Hinduism with Islam.
  • Paganism is recreated and pluralistic, feminist and has both superstition and postmodernity.
  • The Bahai faith is virtually designed (in its syncretism) for interfaith contact.

  • Reformation, then, frees up faiths.
  • Dialogue is important because it can unhook nationalism.

  • Christian interfaith: Inclusivists, Pluralist Universalists and Liberal Cultural-linguistic Pluralists are most likely to engage with people of other faiths, offering a less dogmatic Christianity, less useful for the tribal and the violently disposed.


Adrian Worsfold

For this discussion we consider the final question of the last discussion: the twenty-first century issue of how faiths are going to postively relate to each other.

I suggest this can be tackled from three perspectives. The first is the broader political-religious predicament; the second is the content and tendencies of religions that provide either means to resolution or tension; the third is Christian approaches.
Political authorities and national structures have recruited and used religion for the purposes of identity. Nationalism does this, to help identify who is in and who is out. Indeed, the most basic collective organisation of humankind, the tribe, has used religion or magic for identity. Ethnicity attaches itself to religion. In Northern Ireland the ethnic tribes of Nationalists and Unionists identified themselves each with a distinctive religious identity. Note, by the way, that ethnic identity is not always about race. Ethnicity is always socially and culturally constructed.

Tribes and nations have grouped together and fought on the basis of defending and extending their identities. This is the basis of violent conflict.
I would not focus upon the events of September 2001 in New York and indeed Al Qaida. Indeed it is a mistake to focus on Islam exclusively. The contemporary problem with Islam in particular has a longer history.

After the Roman Empire ended and became Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire, the most scientifically and culturally advanced civilisation was represented by Islam. Islam is essentially a politically organised, communal, faith: a community called the umma by which everyone within it is essentially equal in submission under God. It is from a survival approach of the tribe in the desert, encoded into its universal scriptures. It will fight the outsider, or have a Covenant of Security with a non-Islamic land, but once it organises a land it will usually aim to treat people tolerantly. The stability this gives allows civilisation to advance. The belief that the final prophet recited the Book of God suggests to Islam that it should produce the superior civilisation and indeed it has developed science, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts, and was tolerant of both Christians and Jews.

Then the West started to develop out of its Dark Ages with the Renaissance. It repeated its own intolerance of others, like the Jews and Muslims. As Christian political elites reasserted themselves, Islam started to retreat. It was also retreating within itself. Indeed its Ulema, its whole people making decisions, became equated with a narrow clerical group.

The long humiliation of a religion that considers it has the final prophet was the secularisation of Turkey and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1923, which had been a loose and in the end somewhat dysfunctional combination of religion and State. Before and since the First World War Islamic lands have suffered Western colonialism and a series of failed nationalist regimes exploiting Islam in a haphazard manner. The political aim today of Al Qaida is to defeat the West and reinstitute the Sunni Islam Caliphate, but a Caliphate in keeping with the Wahabi form of Islam in Saudi Arabia: the kind of Islam being exported to Saudi-funded mosques in Pakistan and around the world.

We know about Puritans in Western Christian history: severe fundamentalists, killjoys of every kind, dressed in black, usually merchants and traders; well, Wahabism is a Puritan style Islam that took hold in Saudi Arabia when it, through the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) supported Ibn Saud becoming established in power instead of the Caliphate, this between 1902 and 1925, and Wahabism is a now a figleaf of legitimacy for the Saudi royal family.

Islam then has one huge historical chip on is shoulder. American forces in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, and the rise of Western all-powerful secular materialism in a shrinking world, have provided the basis for the reactionary Islamist groups. As there is no one Sunni authority, it is left to individuals to state whether the Covenant of Security is broken in a country like ours, and a series of radical groups has arisen.

In its reactionary forms, Islam has become repressive. Shia Islam in Iran, in claiming the final Prophet, represses Bahai communities that claim a new Manifestation of God - even while it claims tolerance by restoring the tiny Anglican Church! In Islamic states, Christianity represents a Western threat, corrupted by Western materialism and morals, and so is variously restricted or repressed. Since the Jewish state was established, and has fought its neighbours, Jews and Judaism have been suppressed in many Islamic territories.
Hinduism has a nationalist side, especially since partition, and this reacts against the Indian secular state and the presence of Islam and Christianity as non-Indian faiths (Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are more favourably regarded). Nationalist Hinduism attempts to legislate against conversions of the lowest caste to Christianity and Buddhism. It burnt down the mosque at Ayodhya, which Hindus claim is the birthplace of Lord Rama. It will be interesting to see how Hindu nationalist movements respond when many Indian traditions are perceived to be under threat during economic modernisation.

Even the Hinayana Buddhist State in Sri Lanka, set against ethnic Hindu violence aiming for partition, has been violent in return. Set against the most virulent repression in Tibet, a few monasteries have broken out in violent resistance. The Dalai Lama continues peaceful resistance to Chinese repression.

We have a rise as well in Christian selective literalism, with its evangelism beamed around the world by satellite. Selective literalists wish to get right into the American schooling system: America is pluralistic, but their effect could be to add to the decline of the USA as an economic power (arguably not disimilar from the Islamic world over a long period). We should not under-estimate the impact of huge levels of national and private debt in the USA, a fall in its general competitiveness, and an enormous military. Fundamentalist religion is a dangerous element when there are empires in decline.
It is not inconceivable at some time in the future that there could be Christian terrorist groups trying to bring about armaggeddon.

A number of new so-called Messianic Judaism groups, that is fundamentalist Christians who adopt and adapt Jewish ceremonies, support the repression of Palestinians. They want Israel as a Bible land with Jerusalem under full Israeli control so that Jews will return to Jersusalem and therefore Jesus Christ will return to establish his Christian-understood kingdom. Reverend John Hagee supports this and preaches for an American war against Iran in order to bring about Armageddon, and these fundamentalist millennarians have direct input into the Republican Party. This conflict based approach follows on from the nineteenth century when at first Messianic Jews rejected Zionist intentions, but then, after the decisions of the British, the Messianic purists accommodated the Zionists in order to give history a push towards an Israel that God would then fully restore. This idea of giving history a push has a long legacy in Judaism; indeed it can be said that Jesus practised it, if in a completely different manner. Judaism still has its rabbis who tell us that the Kingdom is about to come, though after the Jewish War in 70 CE Judaism in general became suspicious of messianic movements. Sunni Islam is also suspicious of last days movements: which is why Al Qaida wants a strict Caliphate. Shia Islam, however, has its belief in the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam, the last of the Imams, and after he reappears (in conditions of violence) Jesus Christ will return, and paradise on earth will be established.

The near Eastern religions (that is Judaism, Christianity, islam and Bahai) have a time-line, and so the eschatological or millennial movements, or aspects of these, are important, if minor. They are just very disruptive. In Eastern religions, that are circular or spiral in terms of understanding time, millennial movements are but tiny offshoots.
Let us be more positive:

Judaism understands itself as a people chosen to be holy, and can only be an advance-faith among faiths. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote The Dignity of Difference after the 2001 New York outrage. A number of rabbis objected to this book, and he made changes to chapter 3, but he has kept the main thrust. In any case Judaism consists of several movements and responses to modernity: Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist movements adding to the stability of the Orthodox and the vibramcy of the Ultra-Orthodox.

Christianity has undergone several splits and the Reformation, and for many the relationship with secularisation is one of accommodation. Many churches are split from the State. Roman Catholicism now preaches in favour of toleration and conscience. Biblical criticism began in the nineteenth century, and modernist and postmodernist theologies have been developed.

Islam has a number of voices suggesting reform and indeed some that did (Muhammad Abduh). Fazlur Rahman (1911-88) was one exiled Pakistani figure wanting to free up Islamic education from its clericalism. He promoted a key Islamic concept of ijtihad, meaning interaction of opinion leading towards renewal. The Western location of some reform voices makes their message difficult to accept for some Islamic regions. Secondly, Islam emphasises submission to God and good lawful behaviour, as in the Covenant of Security, and that jihad is a spiritual struggle.

Buddhism includes the view that religion is like a raft and when you have crossed the river you can give the raft up - and in the Mahayana tradition you give the raft to someone else. This way the Buddhist Dharma has always been relativist, in that it is a transient truth towards a condition of no-being. Buddhists are associated with a peace maintaining faith when in positions of power (e.g. Emperor Ashoka, 273 BCE to 232 BCE, but after his conversion), and, as with Jainism, non-violence is fundamental. The Dalai Lama does not assertively seek converts, but asks people to understand their own religions more deeply.

Hinduism is pluralistic: worshipping one God, three Gods, thirty three Gods and thirty three thousand Gods - as the saying goes. With its internal plurality the religion has been at the forefront of interfaith developments, such as the World Parliament of Faiths in 1893, represented by such as Swami Vivikenanda (1863-1902). Whilst village Hinduism has been highly superstitious, philosophical Hinduism has also generated reform movements emphasising rationality, scriptural texts and the oneness of transcendence with which the soul can be unified. However, it It uses the story form with a wealth of characters that embody both the good and the evil in divinity and humanity and so also does not need to undergo a postmodern literary turn, as has sections of intellectual Christianity in rejecting the Bible as pseudo-history and pseudo-science.

Sikhism grew from a poetic combination of Hinduism and Islam, and has produced a rationalised, yet musically centred, communal faith that looks after its community in a condition of equality between the sexes. Sikhism can be seen as a reformation of Hinduism and Islam, in a way that Buddhism was a reformation of Hinduism.

Paganism is a recreated faith in different branches such as Wicca and Druidism and New Age. It combines both contemporary superstition, astrology and yet also has postmodernist writings, such as by Miriam Simos (or Starhawk). It is postively feminist in outlook and its polytheism and lack of dogma means its adherents welcome conversation with other faiths.

The Bahai faith has combined a spiritualised reform of Shia Islamic features with an attempt at combining modernism, syncretism and revelation as the faith came from Persia into the Western orbit. It is a religion almost designed for interfaith contact, and pursues this, including at United Nations level. It uses the number nine in its symbols and shapes, in a recognition of nine manifestations of God from the near East and East: such as Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Guru Nanak and Baha'u'llah.
Reformation, then, frees up faiths. Dialogue is important because it can unhook nationalism, tribe and territory from religion. The central political issue is of course the Palestianian-Israeli problem, and the ethnic divide over territory, with Islam and Judaism facing each other, and Christianity facing both ways. Islam and Christianity are both expansive faiths, and clash in many regions undergoing development.
Finally, the third part, that there are roughly four perspectives by which Christians can vary in attitude to relating to people of other faiths: these are exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralistic universalism, and a divided postmodern pluralism.

Exclusivism derives from Jesus Christ being God incarnate, and especially the Gospel of John and later doctrinal developments that no one can get to the Father except through him. It has Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic variants. This means, for exclusivists, that other religions are just wrong and cultural, and their adherents had better convert.

Inclusivism also derives from Jesus Christ being God incarnate but sees people of other faiths being, in the words of the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, "anonymous Christians" or receiving grace. It is best that adherents covert, but they may be saved too. So inclusivists are in favour of dialogue with other faiths, hoping to gain converts on the way.

Pluralist Universalism understands that each faith, including Christianity, is cultural, and each is the most suitable expression of the divine for its adherents. Jesus Christ incarnates with us; Lord Krishna manifests with them. Each religion, though, points to a universal and undefinable transcendence which is outside of culture and language. Dialogue is about listening and learning. John Hick is a main theologian here.

Cultural-linguistic pluralism has it that every faith is its own communicative system which can only be known by adherents and there is no higher or neutral position between them. Incarnation as a Christian term is understood only within Christianity. This has both conservative and liberal sub-positions: the conservative one has a representative in Anglican theologian John Milbank plus George Lindbeck, where the package of Christianity is all true within its own postmodern bubble and has no reference point of truth outside itself. The liberal variant represented by the writings of Anglican Don Cupitt, Mark C. Taylor and Daniel Liechty is that faiths and any individual constructions of belief are changable cultural constructions. Religions are like languages and self-contained symbol systems, and offer internal signals of transcendence. For conservative postmodern pluralists, interfaith meetings are irrelevant because adherents work within their own, and in politics they keep to their own. Milbank regards Christianity as the container of pure peace. Some liberal pluralists are interested, like the anthropologist, in absorbing how some other religious systems and insights function in worship and action, and hop between and study postmodern bubbles.

Obviously the Christians most likely to talk to others are inclusivists, universal pluralists and liberal cultural linguists, in trying to develop a world of understanding and peace. Their faith is less dogmatic: less useful for the tribal and the violently disposed.

Sacks, J (2002), The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, London: Continuum.

Other references are not given as this was written from self-knowledge, with basic checks for dates and spellings.


Updated 6 August 2007


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful