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Questions the London Conference on Libya didn't ask: Notes from Belief in Dialogue forum

Most eyes in London were on Lancaster House today as Hillary Clinton joined foreign secretaries from around the world to talk about an international response to Libya.

But just a stone’s throw away overlooking the Mall in the magnificent building of the British Academy, a different, but perhaps no less important, conversation was underway.

The Belief in Dialogue symposium brought together scientists, theologians, political historians, policy people, and inter-faith practitioners to thrash out a model of the way in which religious and secular forms of knowledge and practice can coexist.

Particularly interesting was a thought-provoking commentary by Prof Stephen Chan suggesting that western metropolitan societies might need to become ‘more Islamic’ in order to enter a dialogue with the Islamic world.

Chan’s point was to highlight the extent to which ‘dialogue’ is often established on the terms of the more powerful interlocutor. He suggested that we all could be more empathetic and reflexive in our conversations with ‘the other’.

“But how do non-Muslims become more Islamic?” returned Prof David Ford, director of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme at the University of Cambridge, with a typical acerbity.

Prof Ford has been very influential in guiding a long term partnership with Meedan to develop inter-faith dialogue online, a project we are calling Nurani.

Here he argued that it would be wrong to portray the modern world as purely secular, and suggested that in fact there were many different settlements between a spectrum of religious and secular viewpoints and institutions even within Europe.

“The epoch we are in is one in which societies that don’t have settlements [reconciling the religious and the secular] that work need to work them out,” he said, in direct reference to the societies of the Middle East undergoing revolutions. “We are constantly in the process of negotiating about these settlements, but it is possible to have settlements that work out.”

He also argued that ‘political mobilization’ of religion should not be sidelined as Egypt and Tunisia moved forward from their revolutions and raised concerns about making inter-faith dialogue an instrument to other social questions.

The first panel of the day took questions on Human Rights, publicly funded schools and state neutrality, but was most passionate tackling the issue of whether inter-faith dialogue necessarily implied participants stepping into a secular space to take part.

“Inter-religious dialogue does not assume secularism. Participants have to be able to make some theological space for the other in terms of their tradition,” suggested Rev Lord Harries.

Prof David Ford, a Christian, said: “There are very good Christian reasons for taking part in discussions with people of other faiths."

"The bigger issue is the idea here that faith is totalitarian and everything has to fit into it – that faith is imperative and not interrogative and subjunctive and experimental and not oriented towards a future where there are going to be huge surprises.”

“Rather faith communities should seek wiser faith,” he concluded.