A World of Difference...

Thanks to Arthur Scholey for this report of the 4th London day conference, held on 29 March 2003.

"A World of Difference"... had more than the makings of actually being realised at the Sea of Faith’s 4th London Open Conference on Saturday 29 March, when it was discovered that not one but three events were happening simultaneously in Friends House, Euston. While applause for Tony Benn’s every word bubbled up from (Labour against the War) below, at one point the respective sound systems co-operated by transferring their proceedings as well, and vice versa! What George Fox might have made of all this was fortunately not on the agendas, but SoF’s team, assembled to introduce ‘A World of Difference: Diversity and Division within Religious Traditions’, rose to the challenge.

‘The clash of faiths is being played out for real’, declared Merryl Wyn Davies, writer, anthropologist and practicing Muslim, in a wide-ranging opening to the day, on ‘Conflict and Accommodation in Islam’. She assured delegates that ‘the kind of god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either’. And while Islam, compared with Christianity, had ‘no sense of tragedy, no original sin, no denial’, there were nevertheless confusions and fossilisations to be dealt with by followers – ‘how we make our journeys, both in the engaging and in the understanding.’

David Hart, as the first ‘responder’, contrasted Christianity’s Christological and patriarchal/ matriarchal discussions with the interpretative intricacies of a fixed Koranic word of God – one of several aspects to be explored in the following question and answer session.

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok then embarked on a pacy survey of a ‘quasi-religious but not faith community’, engagingly conjuring up an ‘I hate him but he’s my brother’ dysfunctional family state of current Judaism. He outlined some of the differences between orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy, conservatism and middle-groundism, the reformed and the reconstructionist, the humanist and the non-theist, who ‘celebrate all the festivals but don’t mention God!’

A hard act to follow, but Hindu philosopher Amrat Bava quietly responded, bringing together ‘the many gods but one creator’, the core and diversification in faiths, and the many paths converging on the one God.

Post-lunch proceedings were ably tackled by Peter Clarke, Professor of History and Sociology of Religion at King’s College, London. As a ‘sociologist but not a believer’, he concentrated his survey on socially constructed religious concepts, from supernaturalism to ‘froth on the beer’ humanism, from Buddhism’s understanding of mankind to the inter-connected web of creation. There was a thirst, he said, for a common language and a ‘looking beyond’ to the understanding of one another.

It was left to founding SoF member David Paterson to wind up this section of the conference with the suspicion, during the movement from tribal god to Invented Absolute, that the search for a common language might inhibit the finding out of the unique qualities in each others’ gods.

Plenary session questions to the panel of speakers, led by Don Cupitt, evoked the problems of preparing for globalisation versus parochialism, the psychological reasons for, and needs to re-evaluate, fundamentalism; and the range of definitions and comments about the S-word – spirituality. Perhaps the day was best summed up by the title of Don’s next book: Life, Life.

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