How ‘Religion’ confuses Interfaith work

by Theo Poward

We have published a few articles on interfaith work here at Understanding Theology. One recent article written by Chris Lynch offered a more critical view of interfaith work, especially in how ‘interfaith dialogue tends to downplay or even dismiss entirely the existence of disagreements’, creating false consensus for often political reasons. Another article,¬†written by Bradley Allsop, paints an encouraging picture of how interfaith work and events are absolutely vital in building communities and improving relationships. I find myself in a position where I agree with both articles unreservedly. This article, as a result, is written as an attempt to explain how I find myself in such a position.

Problems with the term ‘Religion’

I believe the reason that I find myself agreeing with two seemingly contradictory positions is because of the confusion over term ‘religion’, or ‘faith’. We use the term religion simultaneously as a description for our identity and belief system. It is something we are born into and something we choose. This complicated nature is often not adequately addressed by people working in this area. And it should be, because how we see it radically alters what our aims for interfaith dialogue are:

If religion is an identity, chosen or given at birth, that is lived and defines how we dress, talk, and act; then interfaith work is incredibly important because it allows and encourages people to build relationships and communities that bridge different identities. Interfaith, in this understanding is perhaps the best defense against all forms of prejudice and fear. It builds up and strengthens local communities, helps forge friendships and just generally brings people together. In this model the enemy of interfaith work is ignorance about each other, and the aim is simply an understanding, respectful and peaceful society.

If, however, religion is a belief system, a conscious acceptance of what the individual believes to be ultimately true about the world around them, then the kind of interfaith work described above is woefully ill equipped at bridging the differences that arise between religions. In this model of interfaith work the enemy is falsity and the aim is the seeking and defending of truth.

A Potential Solution

I propose that the first thing we need to do is drop the confusing word ‘religion’, and clarify exactly what we are talking about and what our aims are. Interfaith work that aims to build community in indeed vital, but, it cannot, and should have no illusions about its ability to solve the real and deep differences that exist between people in their beliefs.

I put it forward that the work in seeking and defending truth, about what we should believe is nothing more than the study of Theology. Theology is the subject that tackles these differences in belief. It is an intellectual and truth-seeking activity. There should be no barriers or preconditions of belief for anybody who wants to seek the truth. The truth that Theology seeks is about belief, what we should believe, and how it should shape our lives. This is not a place for identity, just as it is not the place for ego.

Conclusion: Two different aims, equally important

Both Interfaith work, that aims to build community, and Theology, that aims to seek truth, are vital; but they need to be kept separate. Interfaith work should not bring people together to talk about how they are different. What is the point? Do people need to agree in order to get on in a peaceful society? Interfaith work is not the place for Theology, but Theology cannot be properly done without the contribution from people of different faiths. The two need to run parallel to each other, but should never be confused.

So Bradley is right when he says that Interfaith events are vital; they help to build understanding and respect in a community, and ultimately, especially on a local level, make for a better place to live. Chris is also right that this work should not blind itself with ambitions to solve what are differences of opinion that some of the best and brightest people to ever live have not agreed upon. This theological work requires intellectual rigour and commitment from academics of all backgrounds. This work cannot be rushed, and to be involved in it means a self-less commitment to truth seeking which is the opposite of what is needed in good interfaith work.

We need better relations between different people, nobody would argue different, but we do not need to agree with each other in order to have better relations.

I believe that, in interfaith work, the more we talk about ourselves and the less we talk about theology, the better. I also believe that the reverse is true; in theology, the more we talk about theology and the less we talk about ourselves, the better. We need both, but they are not the same thing.

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