Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sr. Isabel Smyth reflects on the Common Ground Conference

Sr. Isabel Smyth, Rory Fenton and Chris Stedman on the Scottish Parliament panel discussion

Sister Isabel Smyth is the founding CEO of the Scottish Interfaith Council, the Scottish Catholic Bishops Associate Secretary for Interfaith Relations and an honorary lecturer in the Centre for Interfaith Studies, Glasgow University.

While we have much to be proud of in the area of inter-religious dialogue in Scotland we have not had too much success with dialogue between religious and non- religious groups.  When I was involved in drawing up a document for the Scottish Government on Guidelines for Dialogue between religious and non-religious groups we tried to find examples of dialogues which included humanists. In spite of the fact that the humanist member of the working group spoke of his commitment to dialogue we could only come up with an example which had taken place in London in the aftermath of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain.  At this meeting Catholics and Humanists had discussed a number of difficult issues and at the end a humanist summed up the catholic position and a catholic summed up the humanist perspective.  I am not sure if this dialogue continued or if it was a one off event but the process of articulating the other’s point of view is a good and healthy one.

The dialogue held at the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge in early November was, therefore, a very welcome contribution to a dialogue that is becoming increasingly important and an initiative which will spawn other such dialogues in Scotland. The weekend was refreshing, informative, challenging and encouraging and I offer the following reflection on what spoke to me over the weekend.

The keynote address at the beginning of the conference was given by Chris Stedman, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Chris describes himself as an atheist, a humanist and a secularist but one who is totally committed to interfaith dialogue.  Chris has two degrees in religion, done a course in spiritual direction at the Jesuit Centre of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University and worked with the U.S. Interfaith Youth Core.  Here was someone quite different from well known atheists such as Richard Dawkins who was not out to get rid of religion but respected it, wanted to dialogue with it and was even interested in it.  I suggested to Chris that he might even have a religious personality and he agreed with this though his religious stance is to reject any belief in a transcendent supreme being.

Another presentation was a bit more sobering. This was by Professor Calum Brown of Glasgow University who shared his research on ‘leavers’ of religion. His oral history stories suggested that many of the subjects of his research had given up religion because of a bad experience they had had when they were quite young (between 7 years and 9) or because they had not felt that their homosexuality had been accepted. Leaving religion for them had been liberating and honest.  It reminded me of Aloysius Pieris, a Sri Lankan theologian, who said that all religions had liberating and oppressive aspects to them. It was obvious that the ‘leavers’ had experienced only the oppressive aspects and had no insight into the liberating aspects that I presume those who remain in religion have experienced. This is shameful for those of us who are religious.  Much of the tensions between religious and non- religious people is caused by religions being dogmatic and rejecting of people who felt they couldn’t fit in and some of this feeling had begun at an early age which also shows the importance of good religious education at the primary stage.  An interesting statistic in Prof. Brown’s research showed a significant decline in religious affiliation in the 1960s. And this was universal in the western world. The reason was attributed to the self-realisation of women at the time – another lesson   for religion.

There was a lot said about identity over the weekend with just the suggestion that religious identity was rather monolithic while people who were non-religious could be described as humanist, atheist, and secular depending on the context.  But of course religious identity is also complex.  Before the unfathomable Mystery of God I certainly could describe myself as agnostic, when it comes to desiring human flourishing I could describe myself as humanist and when it comes to living in a secular world which gives freedom to all religious and philosophical beliefs I could call myself secular.  We all need to know who we are and a strong identity is necessary for dialogue but it is important to have an open identity which recognises the wisdom and insights of others.  This I would think is essential to any serious dialogue as the opposite, a closed identity does just what it says closes people off from dialogue and sets up barriers.
To understand one another means to learn the other’s language. It is so easy for religious language to be rejected as meaningless whereas sometimes if we just scratched beneath the surface the language would reveal a human reality which all might agree on. An example of this was a participant suggesting that the language of call, used by another participant, meant nothing to her and yet as a psychiatrist she must have felt some attraction to leaving one profession to follow  another – perhaps not such a different reality.

These thought are just one window into the discussions and dialogue of the weekend. These moved the dialogue on. Just as 9/11 moved inter-religious dialogue on from asking why to how so this initiative has set the scene for a conversation which will take for granted that our common humanity and common citizenship, our common concern for the future of our world, our nation and our society require a dialogue between religious and non-religious people.  Now we can ask how we are going to further and develop this.

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