In the following interview, Rev. Fergus Capie describes his views on interfaith relations and dialogue with fundamentalism as well as movements outside the boundaries of religion. Rev. Capie is the director of the London Inter Faith Centre, which he describes as a place of meeting, study, and dialogue among the religions and with the secular world. The interview took place in Aldeburgh, England, with Ms. Janine Edge, chair of the Trustees of the Scientific and Medical Network in Gloucestershire, England, as the interviewer. It originally appeared in the Network Review, the journal of the Scientific and Medical Network in slightly different form in December 2009. Dharma World is pleased to publish this revised version of the interview, in which a new reference on interfaith cooperation has been added by Rev. Capie.
I would like to start with finding out a bit about you personally and in particular how you square your own religious beliefs with acceptance of other religions?
I was brought up in a Christian community in which (as in many others) it was acceptable to consider your own religious position to be right and that of others to be wrong. I suppose it was only when I moved in ministry from Oxford to East London that my firsthand encounter with those of other faiths, especially Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, gave me a fresh challenge. It was then I became convinced that if we can but be "true to self and open to others," then, in the words of your question, we might move toward squaring our own position with acceptance of others. For me it is a paradox. The greater the depth of my experience of others, the further I am led into my Christian and Christ-centered life, while at the same time becoming more open to those with different beliefs. It would be easy to say that this was because I found things in common with other religions, but for me, looking for the "lowest common denominator" is not the way forward. It is true that exposure to insights from other religions, whether it be the Brahman-Atman connection in strands of Hinduism or the Islamic emphasis on the oneness and transcendence of God or the powerful Sikh constant remembrance of the name of God or Buddhist insights on the nature of the self, has enriched my own life and faith, alongside my Christian focus on "the self-giving love of God in Christ" and its power through sacrificial love. Some of my Christian spiritual practices have been informed by contact with other religions, particularly those involving meditation and silence. But were I to sum up squaring my position with those that are different, I would say that it happens via a sort of paradox, and I do not think it is avoiding the issue to say so.
I take it from what you say that you are not a relativist when it comes to religion. By which I mean that you would consider it simplistic to say that all religions are a version of the same truth?
You are right. I am not a relativist, as, for me, that would suggest there would be a single frame of reference. I was once asked by a Christian colleague "Can Buddhists be saved?" The sense in which the idea of "saved" was being used may work well in the context of Christianity, but in my view it could be a sort of category mistake outside such a context. In other words, for me this question may not be the best place to start. There are a number of ways of accounting for the religions, and we could for a moment look at three. The first could be described as propositionalist, namely, that religious truths are propositions about ultimate reality, "handed down from above." The second could be described as an experiential-expressive approach. Starting from inner experience, the forms of religion are taken to be objectifications of core human feelings and attitudes. I suspect this may have become the default position of many Western liberal Christians and thereby the basis for many of the assumptions of a Western interfaith impetus, as well as underlying assumptions within current related U.K. government policies. But I favor a third approach, which may be described as cultural-linguistic, as outlined by the American Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck in his Nature of Doctrine. This proposes that each religion could be accounted for as a sort of language, which thus has its own discrete grammar. Such an account enables us to work with contradiction, without needing to find commonality. This would remove the need to explain one religion in terms of another, as each is then accorded its own integrity as a system.
There might be an analogy here with science, which originally was seen as a description of actual reality, but now there are many different accounts of its epistemological status. One is that it is a codification of intersubjective experience, and another is the social constructionist interpretation. But just as scientists often find the idea of science as just a social construction unsatisfactory, do you not find the idea of Christianity defined by culture and language inadequate?
That is not quite a correct description of what Lindbeck is saying, because for him the languages of religions are idioms both for constructing reality and for living life. I would be more comfortable with saying that, on the one hand, I see Christianity as expressed via culture and language, and on the other, as not being limited or wholly encapsulated by them. There is perhaps a sense in which adherents of any religion see its insights as existing precisely to help us break through the limits imposed by culture and language. Lindbeck's use of the concept of "cultural-linguistic" allows us to see by analogy something of how religions "work" and can be accounted for.
So the fact that one religious language is different from another is explicable, and should in theory be less troubling, because each has as its purpose the construction of a way of living and each is pointing beyond itself (indeed, beyond the idea of a definable reality). But what does your experience show is the key to tolerance among those of different faiths?
Were tolerance to mean a sort of "anything goes" in the sense that being tolerant is to be uninterested in and indifferent to the other, then its potential for being constructive could be missed. However, when it can mean an active accommodation of and engagement with difference, then that, I think, can only be creative and helpful both for those immediately involved and for the wider world.
What has been most effective in bringing those of different faiths together at the London Inter Faith Centre?
My definition of interfaith is "faiths in encounter and the issues raised thereby." In my experience, it is not necessarily the most effective route if the encounters are about faith. So, for example, we have musical events. As a result of these, three young musicians, a Muslim, a Baha'i, and a Sikh, have met and now work together. On the one hand, they are able to fully acknowledge one another's faith, and on the other hand, each is putting the faith part of his identity into a wider perspective. One of the emerging dangers of our U.K. interfaith project is that we overplay the faith element in personal identity. The fact is that there are multiple aspects to our identity, and having events that are not focused on interfaith issues helps to redress this balance.
What types of event do you hold that do focus on interfaith issues?
Well, we offer a variety of contexts for meeting, ranging from informal gatherings such as faith-neutral meditations and study groups to formal conferences and courses. For example, over the last decade we have run three two-year courses, taught by those of different faiths, giving a "Certificate in Interfaith Relations." Many of those attending had roles in education or society, and this course has given them the confidence to enable greater cross-faith interaction to occur. One representative of a non-Christian faith attending the center once said to me, "We never meet except at your place." So I have found that events at the center sometimes enable different ideological groupings from within one faith to come together, thus building cohesion. This in turn may help interfaith relations. Perhaps as much as anything else, I believe that if you designate a space for a particular activity, that can help legitimize the activity. In one sense, creating the space at the center has done just that.
This comes back to a recurring theme in our conversation, namely, that giving permission to all people to be true to their own faith actually helps interfaith relations, as opposed to trying to ignore or reduce the difference between religions.
Yes, and by way of example on that, a Muslim friend of mine applied for the post of deputy head teacher of a Church of England school. After morning assembly, the head teacher apologized for the explicitly Christian content of the assembly. My Muslim friend said that he was saddened by this. He had known when he had applied for the job that it was a Church of England school and expected them to worship God in the Christian way. He said to me, "I could never apologize or deny my faith in that way." On another occasion, at a gathering where those of other faiths had been attending, we sang a very explicitly "Christ-as-God" hymn. When someone enquired later in conversation about the sensitivity of that, a Muslim colleague replied, "If that is what you believe, then sing it." In my experience, lack of clarity and confidence in your own faith does not help interfaith relating at the faith level.
You say on your Web site that you might like to be thought of more as an interideological, than as an interfaith, center. What do you mean by that?
The interfaith impetus in this country emerged largely from responding to the presence of those of other faiths, through the pattern of immigration to the United Kingdom in the postwar period. But all the other-than-Christian faiths in the United Kingdom put together account for only about 10 percent of the population. What of the other 90 percent? What of the significant numbers of thought-out views, be they within aspects of Humanism or Secularism, or within the spectrum of New Age and New Spiritualities? What of them? We are developing projects toward their inclusion, such as our "Who Owns Britain?" series of seminars, which looks at both the secular and the spiritual/religious dimensions of our society.
What then do you think is the role of New Age spirituality in interfaith relations?
Initially, interfaith relating needed to be about the main faiths, but I think it can now be extended to include New Age and New Spirituality. Within the New Age movement, I personally see a plus and possibly a minus. The plus is that it can offer a way of challenging materialism and gives a spiritual alternative outside the boundaries of traditional religion. In this respect, New Age spirituality both is salutary and can have a new constructive angle, such as on environmental and gender issues. But I have two reservations on New Age spirituality. The first is that this form of spirituality can become like some of the less attractive features of a consumer society, including a type of shopping for a spirituality that suits one and gives one freedom to shop for spiritual self-fulfillment. Secondly, this "spirituality shopping" can be problematic, and on occasions, in my experience, potentially dangerous if the shopper is working outside any known grammar of spiritual practice, mixing elements that first arose in different times and places, which may never have been intended to be combined. There is a way in which time and consensus can give a tradition authenticity and a proper container.
What about those such as Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and Eckhart Tolle, who seem to have evolved a new form of spirituality that many are finding fulfilling? Are these examples of New Age spirituality not based in any particular religion?
They may not appear to be based in any particular tradition, but no one works out of a vacuum, and these and other writers also have a sort of place and lineage. So, for example, someone like Wayne Dyer seems to me to have the European Jewish-Christian post-Enlightenment story in his background, however "free" he may seem in his writing. (I greatly appreciate some of what he has written, such as parts of The Power of Intention.)
You have talked about how you involve those of no established religion, but how do you approach fundamentalists when you encounter them through the center?
As you may imagine, an interfaith center is not the first port of call for a fundamentalist. Having said that, we have striven to engage with the more conservative elements of each faith. It is easy to think that we have to help people to be less fundamental in their religion, but then we fail to register the force of its significance from their point of view. They see the world as losing purpose through lack of a particular view they hold. It seems they may rather lose their own life to the end of a potentially better human future, as they see it, rather than soften their view within liberal compromise that could then lead to further degeneration of civilization. Our desire to soften fundamentalism could almost become its own sort of fundamentalism.
I would also just like to point out that people can be fundamentalist in their belief but be against any kind of political extremism or violence. I think that two constructive approaches to fundamentalism would be, first, to work toward understanding it better, and second, to promote wherever possible (and this is not at all easy) the increased contact between those we consider to be fundamentalist and their wider social context - be it family, local, or a wider religious community. When people have come to me with concerns about a member of their family whom they fear may perhaps be becoming fundamentalist, they also note that the individual concerned is becoming somehow more remote from the family and less connected to the mainstream of his or her community.
We also encounter fundamentalism in science; particularly the view that science renders religious truth superfluous or just plain wrong. How, for you, do religious belief and the scientific worldview fit together?
I suppose I see them to be different approaches to similar issues: again, in terms of George Lindbeck, they have different "grammars." The writers of the Genesis accounts of creation were expressing theological truth. They were not seeking to record observable phenomena. Reimaging the cosmos, taking insights from both science and religion (as in the work of someone like Richard Tarnas) may continue to be a challenge. Within all of this, in my view, God can be seen as the ultimate locus of energy in a world constantly re-creating itself.
Do you think that even scientists become "fundamental" in their views, by which I mean that they seem to take the view that science is the only form of truth?
Well, this is a complex subject, but I think it is again about meaning and purpose. If scientists gain a definite sense of purpose from asserting that scientific law is the only truth, who knows, perhaps they may become fundamentalist about it.
Do you think religious relativism (by which I mean the idea that all religions are versions of the truth and none the truth) could actually be unhelpful to interfaith relations?
I fully accept people's desire to emphasize what is held in common to the end of greater cooperation and mutual understanding. However, I think the longer-term solutions may be better found through accepting and working with difference. What I think is important is to have a reasonable awareness of one's own position and how it came to be (most people on the planet belong to the tradition into which they were born). Only then can one interact with and learn from others, with one's own self constantly growing and changing thereby.
In other words, understanding your own religious position is the first step to knowing yourself and therefore both honoring and transcending it when interacting with others? I take it from what you have just said that you do not think the idea of a perennial philosophy will resolve differences between religions.
The perennial philosophy is interesting in a number of respects, but the moment you say that the different religions are to be seen in terms of that view, then you are in effect saying "You ought to see it this way." So, constructive as the idea of the perennial philosophy may be, it would be difficult to imagine how it could actually resolve differences, as it would actually be promoting a single view of how to do so. It would virtually become its own religion. Good old human nature would surely kick in and before long, hey, presto! you would have the Temple of the Perennial Philosophy, with the first schism about a generation down the line. "Are you a conservative perennialist or a liberal perennialist? You don't mean you're one of them?" - and back to square one we would go. No. "True to self and open to others" is my own hope and prayer for where we all may go on all of this.
World Conference of Religions for Peace is one of the key initiatives working toward such openness and interaction, with a valued focus on issues to do with peace and conflict resolution. Religions for Peace has a track record of sustained work on this since the late 1960s, when they were among the first - and I am honored and delighted to have been involved in supporting their vital work (including as chair of the U.K. chapter). I warmly commend their work to readers - who, in many parts of the world, will find a local chapter with which to become informed and involved, that yet more of us can be "true to self and open to others."
This article was originally published in the July - September 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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