A Buddhist scholar of Keirkegaard, an agnostic scholar of Buddhaghosa, an orthodox Christian theologian and a learned Oxford don who happens to be a Hindu were sitting side by side on a discussion panel.
Sounds like it could be the beginning of a rather convoluted study-of-religions joke, but actually it was an interfaith conference organised by Dr Kate Wharton, deputy secretary for inter-religious affairs to the archbishop of Canterbury.
The panel seemed to be uncovering a tentative common ground – each of them in their way complicating the notion that a religion is a coherent phenomenon that starts and ends with its card-carrying devotees.
In theologian Dr Brandon Gallaher’s way of thinking for instance, the Christian injunction of social transformation can easily be understood or pursued by non-Christians. ‘My most brilliant student was an atheist!’ he exclaimed.
Clare Carlisle, who lectures on Søren Keirkegaard at Goldsmiths, admitted that when teaching she inhabits the philosopher’s position to the extent that students are surprised to find out she is not a Christian. At the same time, she is reluctant to be known as a Buddhist, despite her years of Buddhist practice.
Her fellow speakers nodded sagely as she paraphrased Kiekegaard’s point that we are all human beings first.
The human being part of me agreed wholly with this sentiment. However, the journalist part of me knew that sage agreement alone would not make for good copy.
However, things began to get interesting when the audience were allowed to enter the proceedings. What had begun as discussion moved slowly and unstoppably into debate.
One man attending was Dr Raj Pandit Sharma, who is the general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples.
He spoke eloquently about the primacy of experience to authentic spirituality. ‘You have to toss out every belief and see what is left over. And what people who have managed to do that have experienced is a state of unceasing delight.’
It was clear that he was opposed to the faith-oriented Abrahamic religions. Dr Gallager, a theologian, countered his point, contending that rather than being something abstract and outside everyday life, faith is ‘something to be understood within the life lived within a community’.
‘If you want to understand what we believe, look at how we worship. Look at our life.’
It became clear that the spiritual position Dr Sharma was advocating was bound up with historical and contemporary tension between Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths.
‘Hindus for centuries have been known as “infidels”, which is “non-believers”, and that is a term that is generally perceived as being derogatory, but actually psychologically speaking I think this has a greater degree of integrity than belief. To accept something as being real that hasn’t been directly experienced seems to me to be slightly psychotic.’
As is common in Hindu traditions, Dr Sharma interprets Jesus as one prophet among many who had an experience of the divine.
‘To be able to say that never again will a human being have that experience when, in his own words, Christ says “greater things than these shall you do” seems to me slightly schizophrenic.’
The tone of the conversation had taken on a harder edge, and people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. We had moved way beyond the platitudes that are often the standard fayre of interfaith events.
‘But we don’t claim that Christ is an experience!’ asserted Dr Gallager. ‘We claim that god has seized and become so one with this particular human life that it is unique and unrepeatable.’
‘It is not something abstract. It has to do with an encounter with the wonder of a particular person and how he shaped a community.’
The gulf between the speakers had been made clear. It was satisfying to me that they had the conviction and bravery to draw attention to it, rather than gloss over it in the name of politeness.
Dr Sharma apologised, saying, ‘I can’t understand this. I can’t piece these words together into an experience that has meaning or value. I can’t put that into my head.’
There is a common perspective on religion that someone in the audience voiced when they quoted George Bernard Shaw: ‘There is only one religion, just countless variations of it.’
Immediately someone quipped in response: ‘I wonder which one he meant?’ It was a funny quip, and like all good quips, it had a backbone of truth.
As the debate highlighted, religious systems are not just so many different flavours of the same brand of confectionary; they are radically diverse ways of being in the world. The statement that all religions lead to the same place, as well-meaning as it always is, usually just works to affirm the legitimacy of the speaker’s favourite.
Afterwards, when we were safely tucked into the familiar rituals of tea and cake, Dr Sharma and Dr Gallager embraced. It was, truth be told, a pretty awkward hug. And yet I could not help hear again the closing remarks of Professor Gwen Dickinson, who had chaired the panel: ‘I feel there is something to be said for an interfaith of action rather than of speaking.’
Dr Sharma and Dr Gallagher had not been able to synthesise their respective traditions, but they had been able to affirm their common humanity over the jaffa cakes.