Tag Archives: Inter Faith

Spiritual Human Interview with MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. http://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/chaplain You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog, http://mitchaplain.blogspot.co.uk/

Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.

SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH

Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.” http://mitchaplain.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/between-certainty-and-skepticism.html

In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.” http://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/spiritual-human-interview-with-gregory-a-barker/

On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?

Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning.  Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)  

Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe.  I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family.  The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.

 When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.

Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?

We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context.  But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making.  As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.  

It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.

Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism”. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.” http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html

Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.

Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.  

Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples”  is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith.  Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas. 

When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about  and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit.  More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol,  tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening. 

Over the years  the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others.  Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.

Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/3q-chaplain-on-religion.html As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.

However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?

Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral.  People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill. 

For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present. 

The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.

Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense”, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-m-randolph/the-boston-tragedy-after-the-nonsense_b_3224973.html

The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism”, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.” http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/bedlam_code/data/2012-07_a4.pdf 

Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer. 

On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?

Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question.  The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need.  These are counter intuitive expressions of love. 

When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

Sincere thanks to Professor Gregory A. Barker on the following book review.

“Towards A Spiritual Humanism” is as a result of many hours of dialogue sessions between Hasan Askari and Jon Avery in June 1989. Hasan and Jon met one another at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado where Hasan was the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor. Jon writes in the introduction, “Hasan’s openness, warmth and erudition were engaging, especially in his informal discussions with students after class.” It is with the aspiration for that same sense of openness “SpiritualHuman” is proud to present this book review by Professor Gregory A. Barker.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

A Review of Hasan Askari and Jon Avery’s Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (1991)

Gregory A. Barker. Formerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies The University of Wales, Trinity Saint David

A Dialogue Joke?

Did you hear about the Muslim Mystic who found common ground with an American Atheist? That question sounds like the beginning of a joke. It isn’t. 

A very unusual book, first published in 1991, brings us a series of discussions between the celebrated esoteric Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and the American humanist Jon Avery. 

The book is unusual because these dialogue partners are interested in exploring common ground beyond obvious differences toward metaphysical beliefs.

Perhaps what is most striking about the volume Towards a Spiritual Humanism is that it sounds such a different note from the voices we typically hear in our polarized culture.

In popular media, religion and atheism are viewed as locked in debate: religion represents revelation, dogma, and traditional values; atheism champions truth, science, honesty and innovation.  Each charges the other with immorality, violence and repression of the human spirit, with atheism currently gaining the upper hand for many with its “slam-dunk” arguments against traditional belief.

Yet many are currently questioning this simple opposition.  On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies.  Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement.

Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time

Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.

Don’t worry: this volume does not end up as a set of vague platitudes or a mutual admiration of liberal social principles. The encounter between these men produces heat as well as light. 

Askari describes himself as an esoteric Muslim mystic who utterly rejects the dogmatism that holds contemporary Islamic movements in a “collective hypnosis”, blind to the deeper spiritual unity of the human race.  Yet he will not surrender his conviction that there is a transcendent, non-material dimension to the cosmos, a force that unifies and enlightens every human being.

Jon Avery, an atheist, rejects this notion but sees it as a possible corrective to a rationalism that denies the emotional and aesthetic sides to human personality.  He also shares Askari’s view that literalist-traditional theologians have created dogmatic approaches to theology that oppress rather than liberate the human spirit.

Thus, the central disagreement over the non-material transcendent dimension is accompanied by a central agreement over the “sin” of reducing human beings to theological slavery, rationalist one-sidedness or rabid consumers of western products.   The two men bring this agreement and disagreement to a host of vital subjects: religion, psychology, the problem of evil and contemporary challenges such as the environment and the threat of nuclear war.

Let’s look at just a few of the central concerns.

A Materialistic Universe?

Askari begins by clarifying the nature of his own adherence to Islam.  He seeks to locate his own position between a thoroughgoing rationalism on the one hand, and a religious literalism on the other.   He has found his own answer in a mystical or esoteric approach witnessed to by a host of thinkers from Plotinus to Carl Jung.  A significant shift on his journey came when he accepted the notion that symbols from various world religions witness to unity and transcendence, a position he calls “poly-symbolism” rather than “polytheism”. This view, he says, mitigates against making absolute any one religion and relativizes any claim to “revelation” in terms of a strict set of doctrines and rules. It also challenges, for Askari, the reduction of life to that which can be seen with the physical eyes.

As one might guess, a chasm opens up between the two men on this final point.

Avery agues, “…only matter exists (as long as this matter is understood as evolving and dynamic) is more conducive to happiness than the language of a soul that is separate from the body.” (30) Avery, rooted in his humanist tradition, wants to see humans freed from superstition and religious fanaticism so that they can live in harmony with their physical environment – something, he says, that religious traditions have not always championed. 

Askari is concerned that Avery’s view of religion is little more than a superficial ideology, a projection of materialist scholars about the content and direction of religion rather than a serious attempt to reconcile ancient and abiding insights with modern discoveries.  

It is clear, says Askari that our intellectual lives operate on a different level from the material systems governing our physical lives.

Avery insists, however, that there is no need to introduce a dichotomy between the soul and the body – they are the same reality.  The two then move into a complex argument about motion, with Avery arguing that material movement is self-caused and Askari that all motion is, ultimately, caused by non-material forces.  Through this discussion, Avery is concerned that a religious determinism will remove humans from being properly concerned about the material world. Yet Askari argues convincingly that the idea of “self caused motion” is itself a metaphorical interpretation of reality rather than a scientific statement – to which Avery agrees.

Is There A Soul?

Both men use the word “soul” but, predictably, with different meanings. For Jon Avery the soul is a “metaphor for the source of human values” (46); this leads him to define God as the earth and “the soul is the earth in us.” (47). For Askari these definitions are inadequate as they leave humans subject to collective social hypnoses that are destructive to human life; there must be a source beyond ourselves he insists.  

The two men are able to agree on the importance of human responsibility, the danger of the doctrine of “original sin” and the idea that human identity is not exhausted by individual consciousness.

Both men are fascinated by Carl Jung and see much promise in the idea that there is a shared humanity, the collective unconscious that unites humans at a deeper level than ideology.  Yet, Avery contends that there is a rationalistic explanation for Jung’s archetypes: they are a product of a specific functioning of the human mind, rather than stemming from a mystical source. In other words, the fact that similar categories of thought emerge between otherwise disparate cultures is not necessarily an argument for transcendence but may simply be how the human body works.  Still, Avery appreciates the wider view of consciousness provided by a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

At this point Askari passionately declares: 

“We need such a unifying principle (i.e. the soul), which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality.   Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give to it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today.  What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race, or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psychic and the physical realms.” (65)

Avery admits that a rationalistic suppression of the emotional and aesthetic dimensions has limited human life and contributed to an exploitation of the earth’s resources.  He accepts that there needs to be a human “integration” that accompanies positive progress.

A Spiritual Government?  

The dialogue takes a fascinating turn when Askari reflects on attempts to fuse or separate spirituality in politics. Bearing witness to Islamist movements, Askari makes the point that the state inevitably is divinized when it is viewed as a necessary arm of religion.  In other words, the state is equated with spirituality and becomes nothing less than an idol that oppresses humanity.

But Askari does not stop here. He believes that America has produced an equally devastating problem through the separation of church and state.  By privatizing spirituality, the state becomes free to create powerful ideologies that are immune to spiritual criticism. Here, too, the state is divinized.

At first, Avery objects to this criticism of the United States and champions the justice that has come from the separation of church and state. However, after some further interchange, he admits that the state needs a corrective from a non-ideological point of view.

Askari accuses America as having fostered nothing less than “schizophrenia” between private spirituality and public ideology which leads to an imbalanced soul.  His solution is that there should be a unity between our private and public lives  — which, for Avery, is best captured by the term “dialectic”.  However, for Avery there are forces other than the state that lead to dehumanization; for example, the uncritical use of technology.

A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?

Shining through these pages is the fact that both of these men are “Humanists”: each hold human life to be precious, and are convicted about the need to resist the threat to human welfare that comes from war, inhumane actions and the irresponsible use of the environment.  However, these men are at odds with their definition of the term “evil”.

This critical difference means that they take a different attitude to human suffering.

For Avery, evil is anything that prevents life from flourishing. He identifies with the “meliorism” of William James: our task it so reduce human suffering as much as possible.   However, Askari locates the source of suffering in human ignorance of the underlying unity of life, an ignorance fought against by leading spiritual figures through the ages.

Thus, the book ends with the same tensions introduced at the beginning.  Askari is, ultimately, informed by a religious or spiritual vision of life and Avery tends to think that this vision has done more harm than good for human beings.

Askari’s point of view leads him to the striking attitude of questioning that all suffering should be eradicated. Suffering is, he says, a part of the structure of human life.  The main enemy is not physical death but absolutizing our own narrow images and ideas about life and holding these as a sword over the heads of others.   His vision of “poly-symbolic” pan-spirituality rooted in notions of the divine realm testified to by Plotinus is recommended as an antidote to religious sectarianism and the collapse of the human soul into superficial trends.  Scientific reason is not alone going to be able to combat the forces that pull humans into blindness and ignorance, he insists.

But Avery will not so quickly be lured away from his conviction about alleviating all human suffering.  Furthermore he sees dangers in superficial spiritual solutions promoted by New Age approaches. Yet, he acknowledges that the answer to the question, “What is the basis for human rights?” must draw upon a different type of reasoning than that normally provided in the rationalist-humanist tradition and he thanks Askari for helping him to seeing that some thinkers from religious traditions have answers to this question that can complement a humanist perspective.

The Meeting Ground

Despite all of these differences, Avery refers to having broken new ground as a result of this dialogue:

“If human rights are an expression of these higher reaches of humanity beyond the physical and dogmatic level in the creative and trans-human levels, then I would agree with you that human rights have a spiritual foundation.” (121).

The use of the term “spiritual” by an atheist is but one of the many features of this dialogue which puts it decades ahead of its time. 

Anyone who is not satisfied with polarized portrayals of atheists or religionists will find this book to be a rare gem.

-Gregory A Barker

More on the work of Professor Barker: http://www.trinitysaintdavid.ac.uk/en/schooloftheologyreligiousstudiesandislamicstudies/staff/drgregoryabarker/

* See also “Human Nature” above for extract from Towards A Spritual Humanism

*See also “Spiritual Humanism” above for speech transcript by Hasan Askari

*See also “InterReligious Dialogue” above an article by Hasan Askari

“The Eternal One” by Lee & Steven Hager

“The Eternal One” by Lee & Steven Hager 

reflection on the work of Hasan Askari

We didn’t have the privilege of meeting Hasan Askari while he walked
this earth, but we have come to know him through his son Musa, and his
abiding spirit that continues to live through his words. As Hasan
himself said, “A book written by a sage is like the residence in which
he still lives.”
We felt especially drawn to Hasan because he was

among those rare seekers who looked both within and then is also able
to look without. He recognized, “Before we ask about the other out
there, we should ask about the other in us, our nobler and loftier
neighbor and companion, Soul.”
But instead of becoming caught up

solely within his personal inner explorations as many do, Hasan turned
his attention to the problems that fill our world. His work speaks of
his heartfelt desire to help others look past the outward religious
dissimilarities that separate us and instead discover the great truths
that unite us all at the core.
 
Enlightenment can be described as an inner awakening that allows us to
see past the illusion of separate forms and realize the Oneness of All
That Is. Hasan wrote, “The life which is multiple and diverse at the
human end is One at the Divine end.”
He was not the first person to

awaken to this truth, and he won’t be the last, but it was extremely
important to him that we all see beyond our humanity and make a
connection at the level of the soul. Hasan recognized that while
religion has often been a huge bone of contention, it can also become
a tool for unity when we understand that all souls are united by the
same eternal truths, and those seeds of truth can be found within
religion when we look past the surface.
 
In the introduction of his translation of “Solomon’s Ring: The Life
and Teachings of a Sufi Master,” Hasan said, “I was looking for a
language which could make dialogue possible and mutually enriching
between people of different religious traditions. I was already free
from sectarian and religious dogmatism…Real speech was for me a
linking of soul with soul.”
Hasan found that language when he

discovered the distinction between belief and faith. He wrote, “While
belief is a part of the cumulative tradition, faith is the personal
immediate possession of each individual by which one relates to one’s
life…faith is thus an inner ability to relate and communicate without
fear”

So much of the world’s self-imposed misery could be avoided if
humanity embraced that understanding. As Hasan recognized, we often
mistakenly cling to the trappings of religion, much as we cling to the
outer trappings and traditions of our national origins, because we
mistakenly believe they define us. In doing so, we fail to ask
ourselves how something that is essentially non-material (the Self or
soul) could be defined by something associated with the material. We
become militant in their defense because we fear being swallowed up
and lost, but as Hasan pointed out, “Love is the harmony into which
all contradictions resolve.”
Love is the glue that holds us in

oneness, but we cannot see it when we’re tied to outward appearance.
But if we dug up several different types of trees and looked only at
the roots, we would find that it’s very difficult to tell them apart.
 
However, as Hasan recognized, opening ourselves to others requires
courage. Hasan’s son Musa relates that we must first recognize that
the ‘other’ is not truly ‘other,’ but “someone from whom one can
learn; that their experience has something deeply meaningful to
offer.” We find this a frightening prospect because, as Musa points
out, we “run the risk of being transformed positively by the witness
and testimony of the other.” Our first challenge, if we wish to see
positive changes in our world, is to stop seeing anyone else as
‘other’ and embrace Oneness.
 
We are surely at a critical time in man’s history. Certainly human
beings have always been at odds, but we have never before had the
capability of ending our arguments by obliterating life as we know it.
If there was ever a time to heed the words of visionaries and
peacemakers like Hasan Askari, it is now. Our differences have not
given us anything of value, our oneness can.
 
Where there is no other, there is no fear. To the extent this
awareness is obscured, fear will rise in the same degree
—Hasan Askari 

____________

Lee & Steven Hager, the authors of “The Beginning of Fearlessness: Quantum Prodigal Son.” Writing about themselves, “We’re just like you. We have no special qualifications, but after years of struggle, we discovered the key to living a life of fearlessness. If we could, you can too.” Please continue reading more about Lee & Steven and their unique journey of living a life of “fearlessness” http://www.thebeginningoffearlessness.com/

See earlier article on this blog by Lee & Steven “That’s Good” http://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/thats-good-by-lee-steven-hager/

Inter-Religious Dialogue : An Encounter by Musa Askari

Below Musa Askari’s article for HeadWaters/Delta Interfaith

http://blog.headwatersdelta.org/2011/05/inter-religious-dialogue-encounter.html

To engage in inter-religious dialogue is a tremendous moment of encounter. An encounter primarily between individuals. A great challenge at the same time. For to enter dialogue is to run the risk of being transformed positively by the witness and testimony of the other. It is this challenge which at the same time holds great reward for those who partake in dialogue wholeheartedly as individuals and not simply as individual representations of a collective identity.

Here lies the first challenge to see the other as someone from whom one can learn; that their experience has something deeply meaningful to offer. Sadly, many fall at the first hurdle. The individual is missed and we are left with only a shell, an appearance of dialogue, where inter-religious dialogue is seen as the destination and not as one of many starting points to spiritual quest. Which maybe is why some remain disillusioned that the promise of dialogue did not bear more fruit after initial discussion sessions.

For purposes of context crucial we state a distinction between the term “inter-religion” and inter-religious dialogue. They are not one and the same. “For centuries this inter-religious consciousness was suppressed, the only way to redeem it is to clearly and whole-heartedly acknowledge the reality and necessity of multi-religion….inter-religious dialogue is one of the many ways in which inter-religion becomes a conscious process.” (Hasan Askari, from Inter-Religion, 1977)

If inter-religious dialogue is only about acquiring knowledge about the faith of one’s spiritual neighbour then it is not “dialogue”. It is a study of religion and there are many ways to acquire this socio-historic knowledge outside of a dialogue meetings. That cannot be the goal of dialogue. If it is then it is a secondary not a primary goal. The goal at its core surely must be of encounter, to bear co-witness leading to mutual mission.

Should inter-religious dialogue remain an institutional formality then I fear it may never rise to fulfill its promise of deep and meaningful engagement between peoples of diverse faiths and backgrounds. It is as individuals we dialogue not as collective identities. To arrive at such a door of dialogue presupposes some deep sense of inquiry about the very fact of a multi-religious world. A knocking upon an inner door followed by entry in to dialogue which is both with the other and within oneself. Both individuals become doors for each other’s entry in to a moment of “presence” before one another. A presence that is both independent of them and also within them.

To partake of inter-religious dialogue is to ask the question, consciously or not, “Why do we have more than one religion upon our planet?”(Hasan Askari).Thus to engage in inter-religious dialogue is also to peer in to the very obvious phenomenon of more than one religious and spiritual witness. It is a call to abolish exclusivity and one-sidedness, first and foremost within the mind of the individual. To break free of the grip of collective hypnosis; that one’s own tradition alone holds the truth exclusively:

“Perhaps we need more than one religion. How could the mystery of the Transcendent Reality be equated with the form of one faith and practice, or with one state or sign of a given religious experience! That there was something essentially desirable and positive about the very existence of more than one religion. Accepting multi religion as a theological necessity, almost a blessing. Religious diversity was thus a school of true humility and patience”. (Hasan Askari: Spiritual Quest – An Inter Religious Dimension)

My own journey spiritually, which includes a deep appreciation for inter-religious dialogue, began at the hand of my teacher and friend, my late father Professor Hasan Askari (1932-2008) http://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/hasan-askari/. From a young age I was immersed in the work of who many regard as one of the pioneers of inter-religious dialogue. At first it was a curiosity to know more about the work of a father before me but later it became, through love, a life’s endeavour and remains so. Religious diversity has always been a part of my life. Looking back I was fortunate in other ways too by having a childhood in both India and England. The spiritual diversity which was overtly a part of my life in India continued in England. However, it continued in a more subtle manner but nonetheless significant.

I came to accept, very early on, religious diversity as a sign of deep inquiry rather than something to confront. Furthermore, I came to accept it was not enough for me to be simply curious about the variety of religious practices, rites and rituals, but to move on from that understanding and integrate it in to my spiritual life, an inner life. I was interested in the individual before me as much as I was interested in my own individuality.

Spiritually I needed the presence of the other to help me consider the mystery of religious diversity. Without the other, who bears no outward resemblance to one’s collective history, to the faith in to which one is born, without the other there is no diversity. Without diversity there remains no self-limiting principle within the life of humanity to remind us of the dangers in making the most exclusive and one-sided claims to truth and finality.

I was not interested in pseudo dialogue. I was interested in not only what the other before me had to say of their faith but more so interested in a “sentiment” which can be shared despite outward differences. I was interested in a most ancient and beautiful term, the essence of one’s being, namely soul (atma/psyche/ruh).Overtime I realised that unless one is prepared to stand apart from exclusive truth claims, from the baggage of collective identity, breaking free from the weight of collective burden that one was somehow responsible for the entire collective faith of one’s tradition, one would never meet the individual in dialogue. There would always remain a hesitation to engage fully. There would be no dialogue let alone encounter only a repetition of well known themes and objections ending in not dialogue but monologue. There would be neither sentiment nor the rising to a moment of being present to one another in co-witness.

Is inter-religious dialogue failing? Is it yet to deliver on its promise? It maybe too early to say despite the great efforts made over the previous four to five decades. For example, from Ajaltoun consultation to Lebanon and Broumana in Colombo, Europe and the United States. From those early days of commitment inter-religious dialogue has now become a global phenomenon which must be regarded as some measure of success. Today we have the “Common Word” initiative – Love of God and Love of Neighbour. In the end as in the beginning the common word for me literally and spiritually is simply “Life”. To ponder this mighty question of “Life” spiritually one cannot help but stumble upon soul as the principle of “Life”. Perhaps, just perhaps, what is missing from inter-religious dialogue may be met by reviving the classical discourse on soul.

The Dialogical Relationship between Christianity and Islam

By Professor Hasan Askari (published 1972 Journal of Ecumenical Stidies)

“It is sometimes easier to reflect with the aid of poetic metaphors, particularly when one has to tread the difficult space between two massive traditions. Where the conceptual finds the door solidly barred against all entry, the symbolic carves its way in. Where the theologian is confident within his boundaries, the poet takes the risk and leaps beyond. Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet, once said: 

“O for a friend to know the sign, And mingle all his soul with mine.”

“With the help of these two line, let us reflect on the “friend,” the “sign,” and the mingling of “all his soul with mine.” Is there any common sign between Christians and Muslims? Would they become friends? And would their souls mingle?”

“There are certain difficulties in the way. Dialogue is sometimes misunderstood by Muslims as a masked attempt at syncretism. The suspicion is not always without basis. The Muslim immediately becomes self-conscious of the differences that lie between Christianity and Islam. He often fails to notice the deep and vast changes the Christian faith, in its interpretation and expression, has been undergoing in almost every century. The notion of an evolving and expanding faith is somehow alien to the Muslim mind. It is however strange that evolution is often considered as betrayal and perversion of the original dogma. Herein lies, I suppose, that most serious disparity between the Christian and Muslim attitudes to questions of faith. Secondly, the political experience of Christianity, recently in the form of imperialism, hampers on both sides the openness and trust necessary for an informal encounter. Thirdly, the cultural experience of Christianity, particularly in the shape of science and technology, is usually looked upon as a threat to Islamic civilization. The Christian-Western influence is held responsible for secularization of culture and institutions. The intermingling of academic and religious traditions by Muslims is another aggravating factor. One often comes across an intriguing mixture of fantasy with fact, inquiry with apology. It appears that, more than the primary and fundamental differences in the dogmatic frame, the differences in historical experience and cultural development are responsible for incommunication and mistrust among Christians and Muslims.” 

“But equally grave are certain features in the Christian situation. Many a complex issue owe their origin to the scientific traditions as well. The speech of religion is being determined after the model of the speech of science. The process of secularization has already taken command paving the way for the priority of “word of man’ over “Word of God.” Above all, the entire theory of communication on which most of the theologians and philosophers rely is a historicist theory through and through. We are told that the first revolution in communication was brought about by scientific invention and mechanical engineering, and the heroes of this revolution were Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. At the heels of this revolution came another, the consequence of the theory of cybernetics headed by Norbert Wiener and Dichter. It was the discovery of the unity of communication and control. All communication to the giant computers seems to take place in an imperative mood. Wiener is afraid that this process might be reversed with immense consequences for the human civilization: The process of from man to machine might soon become from machine to man. A corrective against the cybernetic threat becomes imperative. The foundations of a third revolution have to be explored.”

Continue reading at http://www.sierraf.org/articles/Askarieh.pdf

From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism

By Professor Hasan Askari

“I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder. The differences between religious beliefs and practices have never bothered me, nor have their conflicting truth-claims unnerved me. I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself. But the call to tolerate and coexist with the other in mutual respect, however desirable, was not enough for me. The intuition underlying the ancient saying, “the lamps are many but the light is one,” gently led me on to look for a theological affirmation and validation of more than one religion. What was lingering in the depths of my soul came to the surface of my consciousness sometime in the mid-1970s when I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form; otherwise a religion will become a god and that would be utter blasphemy. The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.”

“Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”

Continue reading at InterReligious Insight http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html

Dedication: Professor Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008)

This blog is dedicated to and inspired by the life and work of Professor Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008).

Hasan Askari figures as one of the eight important Muslim thinkers in Kenneth Cragg’s The Pen and the Faith and is also acknowledged in the West as an uncompromising advocate for inter-religious spirituality. He has lectured and taught at several universities in India, Lebanon, Germany, Holland, Britain and the United States. Hasan Askari has been one of the Muslim respondents to the Christian initiative to Dialogue and figures extensively in the study, “Striving Together in the Way of God: Muslim Participation in Christian-Muslim Dialogue”(1987) by Dr Charles A Kimball (Presidential Professor and Director of the Religious – Oklahoma University). Hasan Askari’s works include The Experience of Religious Diversity – co edited with Professor John Hick, Spiritual Quest – An Inter Religious Dimension and Towards a Spiritual Humanism – A Muslim Humanist Dialogue (with Jon Avery), Alone to Alone : From Awareness to Vision, Seers & Sages (co-edited with David Bowen), Solomons Ring : The Life and Teachings of a Sufi MasterInter-Religion to name but a few.

In the foreword to Spiritual Quest, Professor Jane I Smith (Harvard Divinity School – Senior Lecturer in Divinity and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs) writes, “This is the deeper dimension of interfaith conversation to which Hasan Askari call(s) persons of religious sensitivity, a dialogue that leads not simply to a new epistemology but to what he would call a new ontology. A long time partner in dialogue sessions sponsored through the World Council of Churches and other agencies, Askari has been a courageous and sometimes lone voice urging that conversation move to levels at which this kind of transformation indeed can take place. Those who have known him through the years find it no surprise that the noted interpreter of Islam, Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg, has acknowledged Hasan Askari as one of the eight prominent Muslim thinkers of this century(20th) in The Pen and the Faith. A philosopher, a mystic, an historian and a social scientist, Askari pleads with religious persons everywhere to transcend the limitations we have placed on ourselves and to move together to new levels of understanding.”

In the aforementioned study Dr. Charles Kimball writes, “Hasan Askari is among the most active and visible Muslims engaged in interreligious dialogue. Since 1970, he has participated in numerous international and local dialogue meetings and lectured widely on various dimensions of what he terms “inter-religion”…His prominence in the field of Christian-Muslim encounter is noted by Kenneth Cragg, a pioneer and acknowledged authority in the area of Christian-Muslim relations:

Few thinkers in contemporary Islam have so tellingly explored the issues of inter-religion or undertaken them as strong vocation. Hasan Askari holds a unique position in the search for unity of heart within the discrepancies, real or unreal, of religions in society.

Dr Kimball continues, “Hasan Askari is a provocative and engaging person, a thoughtful scholar and sometimes an enigmatic mystic.”  

Professor Askari has taught at several universities including, Osmania, Aligarth, Beirut, Amsterdam, Birmingham (UK) and has been a visiting professor at the universities of Antwerp and Denver. He was also the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

Professor Askari’s international reputation rests on his vast experience as both consultant and participant at several international conferences and seminars on inter-religious dialogue: Ajoultoon 1970, Broummana 1972, Colombo 1974, London 1974, Bellagio 1976, Freiburg 1976, Beirut 1977, Hamburg 1982, Hanover 1984, The Hague 1985, Hartford 1982, Philadelphia 1986, Amsterdam 1990.

Professor Askari has been the first Muslim to address the Conference of European Bishops (Vienna 1985), and the International Council of Jews and Christians (Salamanca 1986). He has also given special lectures at several universities – Tehran, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Nainz, Gottinghem, Rome, Utrecht, Leiden, Aberdeen, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Uppsala and Stockholm.

Committed to co-presence and dialogue between diverse forms of spirituality, Professor Askari emphasises the urgent need to revive the discourse on soul and promoting Spiritual Humanism as an alternative ideology.