An interesting point was raised in the Interfaith Youth Conference earlier this year at St. Andrew's, which I was lucky to attend. It touched on a major issue among almost every religious community one could think of - that of inclusivity vs. exclusivity. That is, do we have an approach to our beliefs that recognises the worth and potential of those outwith our religion, or do we have the idea that those outside are somehow inferior and at a loss? This is actually such an important issue, especially in a society which is becoming both very secular and very pluralistic. Assuming we intend to try and work with both secularism and pluralism, we do need to think carefully about how we answer this question of inclusion and exclusion. It touches not just on how we treat our fellow people, it also touches on rather deep ideas.
Put simply, there are many among us who still believe those outside their faith are damned, and those within it are saved. Can such a stance possibly be productive for dialogue? Is dialogue even possible if this is our perspective? I suppose there are different levels of discourse, but whatever the case may be such views probably don't gel at all with pluralism or secularism. They also probably don't bring together people of different religious backgrounds, in common works of charity and social justice. It seems therefore, that in order to fully participate in effective and real inter-faith discussion and work, we need to be open to the idea that people outside our religious community have a good chance of attaining Heaven. That's putting it in a rather fundamental way, but perhaps getting down to the nitty-gritty is what we ought to do.
There are also a whole host of practical ways in which people can be included or excluded from our faith. Indeed, the vexed issue of inter-faith marriage still causes a wide range of problems touching on these very points. If we are truly humanist in our religious understanding, seeing God's presence in everyone, how can we possibly deny people the right to love and to marry someone coming from another faith? It was most refreshing to converse with one of the speakers at the conference, Imam Hasan, who is one of the very few Muslim clerics in the UK performing marriage ceremonies for Muslim women and non-Muslim men. Such witness is most inspiring, I think, and shows what can be achieved by just having some dialogue with people outwith your religious tradition.
Coming back to the conference itself, there were even worse problems highlighted by Mike Jervis - another speaker - regarding exclusivism. Indeed, we need only look at religious extremism and some of the terrorism coming from that to see some of the dangers. Whether this be the type of extremism seen with the so-called ISIS, or with some of the Buddhist community against the Rohingya in Burma, the cancer is the same. An interesting aspect to all this, I think, is that religious exclusivism can often become tied to other forms of exclusivism. These other types of setting up an"us vs. them" scenario can involve racism, class prejudice, homophobia and misogyny. All are very ghastly phenomena, and this did admittedly give a rather depressing tone to some of the discussion at the conference. However, it was good to be in company with similar ideas on these topics and discuss possible solutions.
Firstly, it would seem that the subjective nature of faith has to be understood if we are to move forward as communities of religion. While most religious traditions have leadership, how we comprehend that leadership can change with time. Viewing the Priest, Shaykh or Rabbi as more of a guide rather than dictator is important in my view. Moreover, the ever increasingly connected world demands some individual thought. We see diversity around us and are challenged to understand it in the light of our own faith. We have to, in many ways, find our own answers. Not just to these big questions, but to our own lives also, as we meet more and more people who have entirely different faiths. In the Christian context, all this means that when we do worship together in community, it ought to be much more of a "Communion" rather than a spectacle. Each person is called to give their own piece towards the whole. No doubt, this may seem overwhelming to some. Taking our own responsibility for our faith, and lacking what may once have seemed like absolute answers in our religion, can be a shock. I found my own faith develop along these lines when I began speaking of it to others, who were Atheist or Muslim or Protestant. It forced me to go deeper into it all. It also made me realise that it is really the choice to believe that keeps you going, because I didn't always have easy answers, but still felt drawn into my religious community. This kind of experience may well force us to become like converts within our religion.
The understanding that each community is made up of largely independent minds, helps us realise that perhaps that community is always in flux. It is always growing and developing. We're always converting to new understandings. Those absolute answers, they always elude us. They lie beyond the horizon. Maybe we'll be ready for them in Heaven, but it may well be a Blessing that we don't have them yet. Cleaving to perceived absolutes leads to the fundamentalism mentioned in the Conference, and a dangerous exclusivism. On the other hand, failing to communicate with others within your community and share one's ideas and spirituality is an exclusivism of the individual. Can such individualism be a good thing? Maybe for the solitary minded, but generally speaking it would seem to myself that we all ought to be working together, in the name of inclusion. Though, I suppose for a religious group to maintain its unique status, it has to be to some extent exclusive even if in name only. Most religions have dogma, and these dogma tend to be rigid. Our understanding of them does not have to be. This can evolve.
That's just some thoughts on a pretty difficult, but in my view pertinent, topic!