The Next Step in Interfaith Dialogue
Review: Learning to Live Well Together (Wilson and Ravat)
by Paul Chaffee
Like so much else in this contemporary culture, the ‘interfaith movement’ is at a watershed moment. For the past quarter-century, spontaneously, globally, thousands of groups have gathered to promote interfaith harmony. What began with interfaith Thanksgiving services has evolved into all sorts of relationship-building, collaborative projects bridging the world’s steep religious divides locally and globally.
The criticism, though, has been that enjoying each other while having few measurable achievements means the interfaith movement will never coalesce to help transform the troubled cultures in which we live. That critique has been heard, and the growth of interfaith activism has become a powerful presence in dozens of countries. At the grassroots level in the United States, hundreds of interfaith councils from New York to San Francisco are starting to take on the complex systemic issues that keep us from making a significant difference.
This entails much more than taking up a cause. Today becoming an interfaith activist includes addressing a number of tough questions:
How do we deal with serious disagreements? How do we engender tangible trust of the other with an individual, with a community, among communities? How do we engender trust among police and doctors, mechanics and teachers, engineers and civil servants, particularly when they come from totally different cultures and religions? And while we promote diversity and trustworthy relationships, how do we deal with economic injustice, racial bigotry, and sexual prejudice? Providing services such as food programs and free clinics is one solid answer, but not nearly enough, not something to catch the attention of the larger public except in times of crisis.
An Unexpected Treasure
Learning to Live Well Together by Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat is a slim paperback about St. Philip’s Centre, located in Leicester, which is in the East Midlands of England. St. Philip’s is answering these tough questions on a daily basis. Perhaps no community in the world has generated the kind of transforming interfaith dialogue with measurable results that Leicester is experiencing. During and after the Brexit vote, hate crimes doubled in Leicester; but they multiplied five-fold in the rest of the country. This well-documented and indexed 178-page narrative sheds light on how and why Leicester did so much better. The book is a clear candidate for best interfaith book of 2017.
Early on we read, “The thesis of this book is that we must learn to live well together if we are to develop a positive society, where difference and conflict are seen as opportunities for growth, and diversity is celebrated and not feared.” Their journey makes clear this is not pie-in-sky do-good dreaming. St. Philip’s goals and strategies are carefully considered and crafted in an environment that treasures listening, embraces differences, and thrives on inclusivity. Early on they sought out their core value as an institution. Three candidates were considered and rejected. Tolerance is way too weak a word for what should animate interfaith relationships. Respect was considered and is often touted as foundational to interfaith, but it was set aside because it does not imply “close engagement” with the other, a criticism raised again when considering honor.
As St. Philip’s staff and students confronted serious differences of opinion, the value that emerged was trust. Learning to Live Well Together is a gloss on what it takes to create trust in the midst not just of diversity but of significant differences of experience and opinion. The book’s subtitle is Case Studies in Interfaith Diversity, allowing the authors to provide numerous examples of what it takes to engender trust in today’s world.
St. Philip’s interfaith mission has three areas of focus: “First, the delivery of experience-based education and training. Second, resourcing and equipping those at the grassroots. Third, developing and supporting those within positions of influence at all levels,” within both religious communities and the different sectors of civil society. St. Philip’s works with students and religious communities, but also the police, England’s armed forces, medical students, and even, in the Prevent program, with those at risk of joining a terrorist group. This latter activity has been controversial for St. Philip’s. The book details their involvement with Prevent and why they pursue it in spite of the tough issues it raises. In all of this, trust is the coin of the realm. At St. Philip’s, achieving trust entails organizing interfaith encounters, generating understanding, and eventually cooperation in a process which creates trustworthy relationships.
Learning to Live Well Together does not provide a model to be imitated or a step-by-step guide to community transformation. After all, there are certain parts of this story that cannot be duplicated, starting with unique demographics. Leicester is a community of 300,000 (with 600,000 in the surrounding county), where only 33 percent are Christian, 25 percent claiming no religion, followed by Islam (18 percent), Hinduism (15 percent), and Sikhs (6 percent), with smaller numbers for Jews and Buddhists. Two percent registered “other.”
Secondly, the United Kingdom does not have the separation of church and state like the United States. That means there can be much more coordination and collaboration between the private and public sectors than is the case in the U.S.
What ceaselessly inspires us, though, is St. Philip’s willingness to face difference and disagreement head-on with sensitive care, and come up with good results. Their goal for the future: “… a procedurally pluralist and welcoming public square, a space for good disagreement, and difference becoming a catalyst for growth.”
This is a pioneering book that sets our assumptions topsy-turvy, makes us rethink the whole process of dialogue with ‘the other,’ and offers directions for a peaceful world in spite of all the conflict we face today. It is an invaluable resource for interfaith activists. With this kind of approach, the possibilities of an authentic, effective interfaith movement become brighter. Co-authors Tom Wilson, director of St. Philip’s Centre, and Riaz Ravat, deputy director, have done their homework and leave us with tools to empower any interfaith activist.
Header Photo: St. Philip's Centre