Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A question of faith?

This evening was the annual (at the moment) multifaith discussion at the University Chaplaincy, this time entitled “The Benefits and Challenges of Living in a Multifaith Society”. It was very well attended, with Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu speakers – all but one were representatives of student faith societies at the university. Aside from the great (if bizarrely diverse) food and fantastic networking opportunities, there were some really thought-provoking talks, which led on to quite a deep discussion after the break.

Here’s the Jewish contribution by yours truly. Feel free to comment if the mood takes you!

The Benefits and Challenges of Living in a Multifaith Society

Living in a multifaith society, in close contact with people of other religions, gives us a new perspective on our own faith. Certain aspects of our faith may seem immutable – and then we see that another faith does it slightly differently, and another slightly differently again, and we start to see our own practices through different eyes, to re-evaluate them and come to a new understanding of what we do and why we do it. We may not change what we do, but we have at least examined it from a new perspective.

In Judaism, we are encouraged to ask questions, to challenge. The name ‘Israel’ (which in this context is nothing to do with the country, but which is rather a name for the Jewish people) means ‘one who wrestles’, who struggles, who challenges and argues – not just with other human beings, but even with G-d.

Questions are really important; answers possibly less so. Maybe, in many cases, there isn’t an answer. Sometimes several seemingly opposing answers can be right simultaneously. Maybe what is right for one person is not for another, or what is right today will not be tomorrow. What are important are the questions we ask ourselves and each other, and living and working with people of other faiths provides all of us with a wonderful opportunity to find new questions.

Judaism itself is not seen as ‘the’ answer for everyone – we do not believe that you have to be Jewish to get into heaven, for instance, which is why we are not a proselytising religion. That awareness, that there are other ways than just ours to approach G-d and to be a force for good in this world, should make us particularly open to learning about other faiths, and to realising that their ways of doing things may be different to ours, may be hard for us to understand, but that they are no less valid.

Sadly, of course, it doesn’t always work that way. As human beings, we are scared of the unknown. Differences make us feel uneasy and insecure – they challenge our own values, the beliefs we hold dear. Questioning the moral and religious framework on which we base our lives is a terrifying step, and one which we do not always feel ready to take, and yet living in a multifaith society means that we are constantly confronted with people from other faiths who obviously get on perfectly well with a completely different belief structure, who in essence constitute a direct challenge to the rules that we strive to adhere to. After all, if those rules and precepts are not universal, are not ‘right’, what is the point in us making the effort to keep them?

And yet, we all ask essentially the same questions – the conflicts arise from the different answers that each of us find. If only we could learn to value the questions more than the answers, how much more we would learn from one another.

And the final point of the evening:

At some point, each one of us has to make the leap from evidence to faith. We all need to start off with evidence of some kind – it might be that we meet someone who has a real sense of peace about them, that comes from their belief in G-d, or in a higher power, or in the connectedness of the world, and we think that that must come from somewhere. Maybe our faith itself can be the evidence that we need: that even in the face of science, which (at least at the moment) does not provide evidence for the existence of G-d, we still have faith. Perhaps that conviction that endures for no apparent reason is all the evidence we need.

All in all, a successful evening. Best of all, the Islamic Society have accepted our invitation to join us for an event, and we have scheduled a meeting to discuss dates and logistics!