8. ‘Lectures, Chat and Lukewarm Coffee’: Conferences and Lectures
8. Lectures, Chat and Lukewarm Coffee: conferences and lectures.
8. Lectures, Chat and Lukewarm Coffee: conferences and lectures.
There are various stages to building friendship between people of different faiths. Often people have false or prejudicial views about members of other religions. In part this can be countered by the production of accurate books about the world religions or by lectures which give correct information. It is even more important to meet members of another faith and to visit their place of worship. As trust and friendship grows, people begin to discuss common problems and to share their experiences of faith. They may discover concerns that they have in common and take action together. They may wish to meditate and pray together.
Because the growth of interfaith friendship has different stages and each person has to travel this journey for herself or himself, the programme of the World Congress of Faiths has tried to cater for a variety of needs.
WCF’s work has been primarily educational, arranging conferences, lectures and tours and publishing a journal and other literature.
Lady Ravensdale once said, ‘I sometimes think that our congress has been a series of good lectures, chat and lukewarm cups of coffee’ (1)’. Conferences have been of three main types. Large conferences with a high level of intellectual content; quiet, smaller conferences of a retreat character for spiritual sharing; and conferences to meet with members of local multi-faith communities.
It would be tedious to try to summarise all the conferences. All that can be done is to mention a few. We have already glanced at the pre-war conferences. Even during the Second World War and immediately afterwards efforts were made to arrange an annual conference. The annual conference has continued to be important in the life of the Congress, although its nature has changed over the years.
The 1951 Oxford conference seems to have been remarkable for the quality of the papers. Professor Andre Toledano from France mentioned his initial surprise that ‘at a time when mankind is living in the dreadful fear of a grim future’, the conference did not address economic or political questions. ‘But on second thoughts’, he continued, ‘I realised that a religious meeting should deal with what is of permanent value for mankind; beauty, health, the body and the spirit and, to finish with, the defence of the spirit fighting with matter in industry’. Even so he remained surprised that one session was devoted to ‘The Religious Attitude to Animal Welfare’. The session changed his mind. ‘In our time of hatred and contempt for the human person, recalling the reverence due to all the creatures that God made was most inspiring’ (2). Canon L W Grensted, Regius Professor at Oxford, gave a paper on ‘Religion and Healing’. Professor Alistair Hardy, Professor of Marine Biology who was to do pioneering work on religious experience, led a discussion.
One person at the conference was critical that at the service only Christian prayers were used. In fact, as was pointed out to her, prayers were drawn from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Zoroastrian sources. As the Forum Editorial comments, ‘”Prayer unites the ages, it unites the faiths, it unites all mankind”‘(3).
In 1955, a European Conference, organised together with the World Alliance for Friendship through Religion, was held at Diekirch in Luxembourg. There was obviouly dissatisfaction with the hotel accomodation, in particular that there was no hot water. The addresses on the subject of ‘Spiritual Experience and Moral Responsibilities’ were of a high standard. Joan Dopping felt it was one of the most vigorous WCF events for some years.
A Conference at Bremen.
Two years later, a Conference was held with the German branch at Bremen. Some two hundred people attended. From Britain there was a small group, which, included Lady Ravensdale, Arthur Peacock and George Appleton. The opening address on ‘The Unity and Collaboration of Religions’ was by Professor Friedrich Heiler of Marburg. Deploring the exclusiveness in some religions, including Christianity, he mentioned a number of Christians, in different generations, who had had a broader outlook. He then listed seven points held in common by the higher faiths. These were:
1. The reality of the transcendent,
2. The immanence of the transcendent in our human heart,
3. This reality as the highest truth – summum bonum
4. The revelation of the divine love and mercy in man,
5. The way to the divine reality by sacrifice, prayer and meditation.
6. The unity of love towards God and one’s neighbour
7. The last aim: perfection of the soul in God’s infinity.
One of Heiler’s pupils, Annemarie Schimmel spoke about ‘The Importance of Islamic Mysticism for the Unity of Religions’, whilst Pastor Engelhardt spoke about Rabindranath Tagore. Rev George Appleton warned that there was perhaps a tendency at the conference to assume more had been achieved than was in fact the case. ‘We were only at a beginning and the encounter and confrontation of different religions in a spirit of mutual tolerance must go on’, he said. This encounter he believed was in the purposes of God.
A particularly moving moment was when Heiler paid tribute to the Grand Rabbi of Luxembourg for his willingness to return to Germany from which he had had to flee many years before. The Grand Rabbi spoke on ‘Judaism and the Unity of Religions’ and explained that the idea of ‘a chosen people’, which was often misunderstood, was not inimical to the aims of the conference (4).
The centre pages of World Faiths, No 77, contain pictures of the WCF Conference held in 1969 at Wills Hall, Bristol. The subject was ‘Moral Standards Today’. Speakers included Ven. Boonchuay, a Buddhist monk, and Albert Polack, who for several years was Education Officer of the Council of Christians and Jews. The conference concluded with a memorable service at which the preacher was Lord Sorensen – some of whose sermon has already been quoted (5). The conference included a visit to the tomb of Rajah Ram Mohun Roy, the great Indian reformer and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, and also to the seventeenth century Lewins Mead Unitarian Chapel, at which Keshub Chander Sen, another leading Hindu reformer, had preached in the last century.
Looking back through past copies of the journal, one comes across a galaxy of well known speakers who have participated in WCF conferences. They have included Professor Ursula King, now of Bristol University, on ‘Mysticism and Feminism’, Dr Frank Lake, founder of Clinical Theology, at a conference on ‘Wholeness and Healing’, Professor Zaehner, former Spalding Professor at Oxford on the ‘Dangers of Mysticism’ and Dr Martin Israel, a well known author and mystic, on ‘The Scientific View and the Mystical Vision’.
The subjects discussed are very varied. It is impossible to try to summarize all these conferences, although each one brings back vivid memories for me of people whom I have been privileged to meet. The most I can attempt is to give a glimpse of these gatherings and to look again at questions raised about the nature of dialogue, which are of continuing interest.
The Fortieth Anniversary Conference.
At the Fortieth Anniversary Conference held at Canterbury in 1976, speakers included Ven Thich Nhat Hahn, Professor Harbans Singh, Bishop George Appleton, Dr Ezra Spicehandler and The Lord Abbot Kosho Ohtani.
Two personal comments on the Canterbury conference are still significant. Pamela McCormack (Pamela Wylam). who had first attended a WCF conference in 1962, had the feeling ‘that we have been here before, meeting old friends and repeating the same discussion’, although she added that the circle had grown. Marian de Fossard (now Marian Tewksbury) was at a WCF conference for the first time. She wondered whether
The talk about what should be done might be greater than works accomplished… I realised two needs arising from serious membership of such a group. The first is an individual one of inner growth through knowledge and experience of other faiths…The other need is a collective one which necessitates activity of the group, recognition and influence, in a world that is being approached and moulded by a thousand other voices crying “change””.
The problem then, as Marian de Fossard said, is how do religions relate to politics.
The further question is to what extent is a religion an entity. As Ven Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, said,
We are here to meet each other. I cannot imagine how religions can meet each other but I can imagine how people of various faiths meet each other… If religion is only knowledge of religion, meeting is not necessary. What we need is only an exchange of books; but we are not books, we are human beings, and that is why the meetings of human beings are very different from meetings of books’. He also questioned whether we necessarily get on better with people within our own religion or ‘theological circle’ than we do with those outside it. ‘Because I have several friends who belong to different religious traditions and I know them and I love them and I work with them, I know that this ‘theological circle’ is a very arbitrary thing’ (6).
At the 1989 conference, Dr Paul Williams, a Buddhist who is a lecturer at the University of Bristol, raised a similar question about who are the participants in dialogue. A religious tradition is moulded by its great teachers, but how can there be dialogue with the dead?
How can there be dialogue with Nagarjuna, with Asanga, or indeed with the Buddha himself? … Dialogue is something which occurs between living representatives of religions, not dead ones. For the purposes of religious dialogue the dead live on not in their texts but in their spiritual descendants who appropriate and use the texts’ (7).
Dialogue is a meeting of people and the experience of such encounters is for many people the most vivid and lasting memory of a conference.
A Conference on Suffering.
This is why one of the most profound conferences was on ‘Creative Responses to Suffering'(1979), at which the speakers were Professor Donald Nicholl, Ven Sumedho, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Dr Frank Chandra and Fr Benedict Ramsden. Each spoke out of his personal experience and warned about the superficiality of much religious talk on the subject. ‘Suffering’, said Donald Nicholl ‘is unique to each of us and has as many faces as there are human beings’. Fr Benedict Ramsden, an Orthodox priest, began by speaking of experiences of suffering in his own life.
Freedom involves pain’, he continued, ‘but the central doctrine of Christianity is that the cost of that pain has been borne by a man who was God. God entered the world to encounter our life and to share it. God entered into the shriek of a man demented by the world’s ultimate rejection, and by death’s extremities, who cried out in atheistic despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”‘.
Rabbi Hugo Gryn, after giving a clear summary of Jewish teaching, ended on a personal note.
Suffering more often than not shatters and weakens and we do not need to be broken or tortured to discover the goodness and the love of God. The creative response to suffering must be compassion’ (8).
50th Anniversary Conference.
If dialogue is mostly conducted by words, the way we use words in our religious life is important. At the 1978 York Conference, Professor Maurice Wiles, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford and Dr Al Faruqi, Professor of Islamics at Temple University, Philadelphia, spoke on ‘The Language of Faith’. In November 1986, a rather similar subject was discussed at the fiftieth anniversary conference, which was held at the Royal Veterinary College in London. The main speaker was Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who is Professor Emeritus of the Comparative History of Religion at Harvard University. He argued that
First, we cannot speak about even the everyday immediate world without metaphors; let alone, about the transcendent, the ultimate, about God. Secondly, metaphors, as linguistic symbols are marvellous: not to be apologised for, but to be rejoiced in. They are the medium of transcendence par excellence; to speak theistically, God Himself speaks to us in metaphors, and more generally, has come to us in and through symbols. Thirdly, if we recognise these facts, we can talk to each other, with grace and effectiveness.’
In a challenging closing section of his talk, Wilfred Cantwell Smith asked whom we meant when in a religious community we use the term “we”. ‘The time has come’, he said,’when it is a criterion of moral and spiritual maturity to mean, when saying “we” religiously, “we human beings”‘. He expressed his unease with the word ‘dialogue’. Certainly the idea that ‘we Christians are speaking to you Sikhs is an advance on the we/they way of speaking’. Yet, religious diversity is a human matter that we confront together. “Colloquy”, he suggested is a better word. ‘We share a common planet and we are jointly in process of constructing a common future… The only common goal worth pursuing is one that appeals to us all; and one to the building of which the faith of each one of us can inspire our striving’. Responses on ‘The Language of Dialogue’ were made by Professor G S Mansukhani, Ven Dr M Vajiragnana, Professor Seshagiri Rao, Professor Keith Ward, Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon and Dr Zaki Badawi (9).
In 1989 the main speaker was Professor Hans Küng. His subject, which has since become well known through his book Global Responsibility, was ‘No World Peace Without Peace Between Religions’. The conference itself, however, was based on his book Christianity and World Religions. Responses were made by two Buddhists, Dr Paul Williams and Ven Dr M Vajiragnana, by two Muslims, Dr Muhammad Mashuq Ibn Ally and Dr Yaqub Zaki, and by the Hindu scholar, Professor Seshagiri Rao (10).
The discussion again raised questions about the usefulness of dialogue, especially as one speaker at the conference said ‘Interfaith dialogue is an exercise in futility’. One question was whether the Christian scholars on whom Küng had relied for information about other faiths were accurate. Can a member of one faith really understand another tradition? A second question was who speaks for a religion? Thirdly, ‘is each religion making a permanent take-over bid for all the rest?’ Fourthly, if that take-over is not your aim, will you be suspect to other members of your faith community? Does that therefore mean that it is only those willing to be self-critical about their own tradition who are willing to engage in dialogue? This is why helping members of a faith to redefine their attitude to other faiths is important and has been, as we shall see, the subject of several Younghusband lectures.
In recent years the pattern of conferences has changed for various reasons. In the seventies, well-attended residential conferences were held in different parts of the country. In the eighties several large non-residential conferences were held in London with well known speakers. The size, however, and the fact that they were non-residential, meant that whilst the conferences were intellectually stimulating, they lacked the sense of fellowship of earlier gatherings. Large residential conferences present a number of problems. The first is the cost both of residence and of travel. Secondly, younger people especially find it difficult to get away, so that conferences may be arranged mainly for the benefit of the retired. Thirdly, in the last decade a great number of interfaith meetings have taken place. Often speakers of another faith are invited to events which in a previous generation would have been only for members of the faith which was arranging the event.
This has meant that recent WCF conferences have perhaps been more specialized, because there are now many opportunities for people to gain information about other faiths and to meet with members of those faiths. Local groups, however, are often maintained by the enthusiasm of two or three members. WCF conferences now are perhaps aimed more at providing nourishment for these enthusiasts, allowing those who have considerable experience in this field to pursue issues at a greater depth than may be possible in a local meeting. For example, WCF with the Religious Resource Centre at Derby University has arranged two conferences on ‘The Care of the Dying in a Multifaith Society’. At Ammerdown, conferences have been held on Multifaith Worship and about the needs of members of mixed-faith marriages. WCF arranged, at Peterborough, a conference about the pastoral and spiritual needs of prisoners.
The Derby conferences brought together people from a variety of backgrounds. Some were clergy, imams or rabbis, others were doctors or nurses. There were social workers and volunteer helpers at hospices. The mixture of disciplines as well as of religions was stimulating. The conference soon moved beyond the important questions of ensuring respect for the religious practices of patients to look at the way that the spiritual strength of a believer of one faith could help a believer of another – be he or she a doctor or patient. The conference also heard about the training given to future clergy, rabbis and imams on ministry to the seriously ill.
Some of the small conferences have been retreats designed to encourage personal spiritual growth and appreciation of the inner meaning of religions. In 1972, a small number of people met together in the spring in the beautiful city of Durham to share together on the subject of meditation. In the early eighties, a similar emphasis characterised the St Alban’s Congresses, led by Rev. Peter Dewey and arranged by the Interfaith Association.
Several retreat weekends have been held at the ecumenical centre at Ammerdown, near Bath, which was at that time run by the Sisters of Sion. Bernice Joachim wrote of the first such gathering, which was held in 1976, ‘We practised meditation together, several times a day, in quiet waiting, focusing our restless minds on the kingdom within, gently bringing back our life and all its concerns to the Source’ (11). For several years Bishop George Appleton and Swami Bhavyananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre were regular leaders of these weekends. Recently, Sandy Martin has arranged retreats at Wantage and at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre at Bourne End.
Shahin Bekhradnian, a Zoroastrian and a member of the WCF Executive, described her feelings about the Wantage retreat.
The challenging prospect of a silent weekend in retreat attracted me in the first instance. The opportunity to spend it inside a convent further aroused my curiosity, while the chance to be guided through the techniques of different meditation disciplines seemed too good to miss. Above all, the idea of getting away from it all and of just “being” was precious, although for some, including me, the idea of not talking for the whole weekend, spending two whole days in the company of complete strangers was fairly daunting’. (12).
Experiencing multi-faith Britain.
WCF has also arranged a number of weekends to give an opportunity for people to experience the multi-faith life of some cities, such as Birmingham (1983) or Wolverhampton (1989). Emphasis has been placed on visits to places of worship and on meeting members of different faith communities. Particularly valuable have been the invitations to stay in local homes, with the chance for friendship that this creates.
Those who attended the conference in 1983 at the Multifaith Centre in Birmingham, which was established by Sister Mary Hall, were given as a souvenir, a card which described a person of dialogue.
‘A person of dialogue experiences the other side, listens to others, learns from them;
A person of dialogue enters completely into the real life situations of people, suffers their lived reality with them;
A person of dialogue gives up power, does not yield to the temptation of imposing ideas, discovers with people – not for them – what their needs and programmes are;
A person of dialogue meets people on their own terms, in their own time, realising that waiting may well be a more powerful force than acting;
A person of dialogue accepts the fact of not possessing the truth or the only right way of doing things, is disposed to the message of others and continuously open to further conversation as a result of dialogue with them;
A person of dialogue develops deep personal relationships, realising that in listening to others, asking them seriously, identifying with their world, he or she is saying Yes to them, affirming them in a way that is tremendously creative, mysteriously salvific;
A person of dialogue is so immersed in the world of others that he or she can begin to ask questions which endorse and which challenge basic human values and, in that context – from within – can announce the good news and denounce sinful structures’ (13).
A Journey in Faith.
In 1990, an imaginative Interfaith Pilgrimage to Iona was arranged. This involved links with many local interfaith groups and stressed both fellowship and the shared spiritual search.
The journey began at the Coronarium at St Katherine’s Dock, near Tower Hill, London, where the pilgrims were seen off by the actress Hayley Mills and by Keith Ward, Chair of WCF. The first night was spent in Derby. The next day, a second send-off was arranged at Derby Cathedral. The pilgrimage was full of surprises. In Huddersfield the pilgrims were invited to share in the celebration of a wedding at Shir Guru Sikh Temple. In Bradford, they were invited to a mosque for evening prayer. ‘Afterwards, we were led to a basement room where large white cloths had been spread on the floor. Our hosts had prepared a vegetarian meal for us. They had never before prepared such a meal and asked, somewhat anxiously, if it was all right. It was, in fact, excellent but it was the thoughtfulness that lay behind it that moved us. Our hosts said that they felt that mutual trust had been established and added that they respected Christianity and wished that Islam was equally respected by people in this country’.
Crossing into Scotland, the goal was Iona. The group, on its way, stayed at the Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre at Eskdalemuir, in Glasgow and at the Scottish Churches House at Dunblane.
One pilgrim wrote a prayer, summing up what she had learned:
‘O Great Being, in your wisdom you show yourself within our hearts in so many guises. Give us the intelligence not to constantly chatter and question everything, but to listen to your living answer that we know is the Truth, beating inside us, whoever we are, whatsoever we be. Let us see this Truth in others, remembering that we share the same plan, the same earth, the same cycle, that you have given us. Let us give you thanks and praise for giving us love and fellowship as gifts to guide us, and hope and trust to inspire us. Help us to understand each other, and bring peace to our time. Honouring you as you wondrously honour us’.
Tom Gulliver, whose idea it was to arrange the pilgrimage, wrote that perhaps ‘the most important lesson of the pilgrimage is that we found in so many people a longing to meet each other, a hunger no longer to feel divided by race or culture or religion’ (14).
The value of pilgrimage in interfaith work has been clearly shown by the annual London Multifaith Pilgrimage for Peace, which is arranged by Westminster Interfaith. Sarah Thorley ends her report of the tenth pilgrimage with these words,
‘There were also the conversations, wonderful conversations, I shall long remember. I talked with a Hindu about how he grew up in Muslim Rawalpindi and how it feels to be a member of a minority religion. I met a Zoroastrian whose family was originally from Iran; we discussed religious attitudes to the environment. I talked with a Buddhist monk from El Salvador; I spoke with a Malaysian sitar player and a Scottish Jesuit. I talked with a Quaker and his Jewish wife about euthanasia. And I had a long discussion with a Sikh about whether salvation comes through faith or good works!
It was a real celebration of our differences and of how much we share. Different does not have to mean bad or suspect; it can be enriching’ (15).
In the nineteen seventies, at the suggestion of Bishop Appleton, an Annual Sir Francis Younghusband Memorial Lecture was inaugurated. The first lecture was given by K.D.D.Henderson who spoke about Sir Francis Younghusband.
In the eighties, there was a series of Younghusband Lectures, in which scholars of different faiths were asked to outline the attitude of their religion to other religions. Each lecturer affirmed the distinct identity of religions and his or her own particular commitment, but in a way which was not exclusive.
Professor Seshagiri Rao used his Younghusband Lecture in 1982 to expound the views of Mahatma Gandhi on the relation of religions. ‘Gandhi’s interreligious dialogue authentically represents the Indian attitude of respect for all religions’, he said. ‘The idea that “Truth is one: sages call it by different names” has been alive since the time of the Rgveda (the earliest Hindu scriptures)… To ignore any of the religions meant to ignore God’s infinite richness and to impoverish human spirituality’ (16). Similarly, in his 1988 Younghusband Lecture, Dr Karan Singh, a devoted worker for inter-religious understanding, after reviewing Hinduism’s relationship to several particular religions, ended with a passage which beautifully expressed the Hindu vision of an underlying unity.
At the heart of all the great religious traditions of the world lies a luminous core based upon a certain perception of the divine. By definition, the divine power cannot be confined within any limitations of time or language, scripture or iconography. The great rishis and prophets have all received glimpses of the divinity that pervades the universe, and have sought to express that realization in glowing language. And yet surely it is clear that what they have seen are not different divinities but different aspects of the same all-pervasive divine power, and that the mystic tradition that runs like a golden thread through the world’s religions is a powerful unifying force. Just as the sun, reflected in a dozen vessels of differing shapes and sizes, does not lose its unity, so do all the great religions of mankind reflect different aspects of the same divinity’ (17).
Dr Zaki Badawi, in his 1984 Younghusband Lecture, started with the assumption that each religion sees its beliefs as final. ‘No religious community can allow itself to float in the empty space of uncertainty’. He outlined Islam’s view of other religions and suggested that the initial classification of Hinduism as paganism was regrettable. He ended with these words:
The Muslim accepts differences of belief as a fulfilment of the will of Allah. “If He so willed He would have made you unto one religious community”. He sees in them a manifestation in mankind of the deep feelings of the Eternal. To quote a Sufi poet whom I often quote – who once said addressing the Creator, “On my way to the Mosque, Oh Lord, I passed the Magian in front of his flame, deep in thought, and a little further I heard a rabbi reciting his holy book in the synagogue, and then I came upon the church where the hymns sung gently in my ears and finally I came into the mosque and watched the worshippers immersed in their experience and I pondered how many are the different ways to You – the one God”‘ (18).
Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon, in his 1985 Younghusband Lecture, suggested that the dialogue of faiths was a natural outgrowth of the mission of Judaism.
The “covenant of Noah” offers a pattern for us to seek from others not necessarily conversion to Judaism, but rather faithfulness to the highest principles of justice and morality which we perceive as the essence of revealed religion’. ‘I cannot’, he said, ‘set the bounds of truth, I want to listen and to learn, to grow in experience and forge language, to be open to the world around me and its many people and ways, and to reread and reinterpret my scriptures and the words of the sages constantly, critically, in response to what I learn each day. Only by exposing oneself to such a process can one hope to meet Truth revealed, no granite statue but a living, dynamic force’ (19).
Dr Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1986 Younghusband Lecture given to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Congress, to which reference has already been made, expressed very well the hopes of WCF. Dialogue, he said, ‘can help us to recognize that other faiths than our own are genuine mansions of the Spirit with many rooms to be discovered, rather than solitary fortresses to be attacked’. Whilst theology is talk about God, we must recognize
that no words, no thoughts, no symbols can encompass the richness of this reality, nor the richness of its disclosure in different lives, communities and traditions. Signs of divine life and grace, of the outpouring of the spirit on earth can be seen in myriad forms in human history and consciousness. From the perspective of faith, different world religions can be seen as different gifts of the spirit to humanity. Without losing our respective identities and the precious heritage and roots of our own faith, we can learn to see in a new way the message and insights of our faith in the light of that of others. By relating our respective visions of the Divine to each other, we can discover a still greater splendour of divine life and grace’. ‘For Christians’, he affirmed, ‘the person of Jesus Christ, his life and suffering, his death and resurrection, will always remain the primary source of knowledge and truth about God’. ‘I am not advocating’, he said, ‘a single-minded, and synthetic model of world religion. Nor was Sir Francis Younghusband. What I want is for each tradition, and especially my own, “to break through its own particularity”, as Paul Tillich put it… The way to achieve this, he says, “is not to relinquish one’s religious tradition for the sake of a universal concept which would be nothing but a concept. The way is to penetrate into the depths of one’s own religion, in devotion, thought and action. In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence’ (20).
There does not seem to have been a Younghusband lecture which discussed this issue from a Buddhist point of view, but the Buddhist scholar Ven. Pandith M Vajiragnana in his response to Professor Hans Kung at the 1988 WCF Conference said, ‘Buddhists are not looking for a convergence of religions’. Quoting the well known edict of the Buddhist Emperor Asoka, Ven Vajiragnana continued,
Let us be prepared to accept our crucial differences without trying to throw a threadbare rope between them. Rather let us build bridges of better understanding, tolerance for diverse views, plus encouragement for morality and ethical culture. This is where harmony is to be found’ (21).
It may be seen that whilst all speakers affirm the importance of understanding and mutual respect, their view as to the relationship of religions may differ. To some the mystery of the Divine transcends all human language, for others it is shared ethical imperatives which are vital. These differences are reflected in the varying motivation of members of the congress. Indeed they stimulate the continuing debate about the relationship of religions to each other to which WCF has made a significant contribution.
In recent years the subjects have been more varied. Mr Indarjit Singh spoke on A Sikh Approach to World Peace. In 1993 the speaker was H E Dr L Singhvi, who is a Jain. In 1994, Dr John Taylor, a former Secretary General of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, spoke about efforts at reconciliation in former Yugoslavia. His lecture brought some strong reactions from those who thought that it was too even handed and did not show sufficient moral indignation about ethnic cleansing.
In 1995, the speaker was Patrick French, author of a recent biography of Younghusband, to which several references have already been made. He spoke about ‘Younghusband’s Religious Visions’.
The lectures have all been interesting and significant in themselves, but an added value is that a member of one faith speaks and reflects in the company of those who belong to another faith tradition. Hearing how people interpret and live out their faith today, helps us to overcome the barriers not only of ignorance and mistrust but of misunderstanding. The lectures show the need for us to draw on the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions as, in Cantwell Smith’s words, we ‘jointly construct a common future’ (22).