Last night I attended the launch of a government consultation on creating a framework for inter faith dialogue and social action. Secretary of State for Communities, Hazel Blears, stated that its intention is ‘to find out how Government can best support dialogue between faith groups and the circumstances in which inter faith activity is helping to make a positive difference to communities around the country’ as ‘faith groups are a key part of the way we respond to the challenges we face.’
The consultation’s twenty questions on the structures and impact of interfaith should stimulate some thoughtful analysis by faith leaders from a variety of religious communities and geographical areas over the next few months, and last night I was intrigued to hear the initial thoughts of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Rowan Williams spoke about the way faith is often perceived by society as ‘exotic’ and something that makes someone ‘other’ to the mainstream community, or as ‘poetry’ – far-removed from the experience of the ordinary man. He urged us to challenge this perception and speak about faith in the language of prose, something that is part of the daily experience of the ‘man or woman on the street’ and intrinsic to many people’s identities.
As a Jew who works in inter faith education, I agree that both faith and interfaith discourse should be accessible and take account of ordinary lives, but believe that to do so in a useful way it needs to more closely resemble poetry than prose. Once, poetry was the language of the masses, an oral tradition whose music filtered into memory, extending and reinforcing identity. Poetry is concentrated and powerful, as inter faith dialogue has the potential to be, and teaches us to frame words carefully.
In poetry the white space is as important as what is written, highlighting the poem’s place in its environment and the interaction between writer and reader, encouraging us to listen with acuity. The space for eisegesis and exegesis in theological terms, or ‘reading into and out of a text’ is essential because it encourages a dialectic approach.
I am currently steering a piece of research about Jewish involvement in interfaith activities and many of the respondents describe their motivation as ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘anti-Semitism’. This is both understandable and valid, but if the sole prompt for inter faith engagement is fear of ignorant prejudice from the other, then there is a danger that what it will lead to will be a monologue - as the impulse is to tell one’s own story and listening to others’ stories becomes a secondary concern.
I would argue that ideally inter faith encounters should be dialogues where speaking and listening have equal weight, so that the connections created have depth and trust.
Finding the appropriate structures for interfaith engagements depends on both internal and external resonances. The title of the government consultation is Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side and is taken from the work of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has written a great deal over the past few years exploring different structures for inter faith. The Chief Rabbi posits two main models: ‘face-to-face’ direct encounter and ‘side-by-side’ working together in joint projects and social activism; recently he seems to be leaning more towards side-by-side joint activism to recreate society as ‘the home we build together’.
As the consultation progresses over the next twelve weeks it will be interesting to see what forms and structures other faith leaders and religious communities favour and how they believe interfaith dialogue shapes and is shaped by British society.