FaithWorld

Interfaith talks on agenda in Mecca, Rome and London

Saudi King Abdullah (r) and former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 4 June 2008/Ho NewThere were interesting words on interfaith dialogue from Mecca and Rome today and London yesterday. Efforts to improve contacts and understanding among the main monotheist religions have been gaining steam recently and we’re starting to see some concrete steps. But, as a meeting in Mecca showed, the road ahead could still be quite rocky.

The Mecca meeting, organised by the Saudi-based Muslim World League, is supposed to draw up guidelines for the inter-faith dialogue that Saudi King Abdullah says he wants with Christianity and Islam. “You are meeting here today to say to the world with pride that we are a fair, honest, humanitarian and moral voice, a voice for living together and dialogue,” the monarch said in a high-minded speech.

But former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the few prominent Shi’ites at the conference, rained on his parade with broadsides against the United States and Israel. But he also said: “To have a dialogue with other religions we need to start talking among ourselves. The call needs to be directed at ourselves first of all, and all the sects need to agree on shared points. As a Muslim and a Shi’ite … I say the things we agree on are many.”

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, 25 Nov 2005/Jameson WuThat may have been a reaction to a statement this week by a group of independent Saudi clerics saying that Shi’ites, including Lebanese group Hezbollah, were posturing against Israel to hide an anti-Sunni agenda.

On the same day Abdullah spoke, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said his Vatican department for inter-religious dialogue was drawing up its own guidelines for Catholic dialogue with non-Christian religions. He told Vatican Radio (here in Italian) the guidelines for priests and lay people would be based on the Ten Commandments, which he called “a kind of universal grammar that all believers can use in their relations with God and their neighbour.” This approach neatly links Christians with Jews and Muslims such as the “Common Word” scholars who’ve called for a dialogue based on the principle of love of God and neighbour.

Lambeth Conference: News or Not?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 22 Feb 2008/Darren StaplesIt has been spoken of as a setting for schism. But could the Lambeth Conference — the worldwide Anglican Communion‘s once-a-decade global meeting beginning July 16 in England — be a bust when it comes to headline-making news?

That’s the way leaders of the U.S. Episcopal Church see it. There will be no grand pronouncements made or resolutions voted on, they say. The traditional Western parliamentary idea that produces winners and losers on debated issues has been scrapped for face-to-face meetings. Some of them have been baptized ”Indaba groups,” which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described as a Zulu term denoting “a meeting for purposeful discussion among equals.”

The Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor of World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts who helped plan the meeting, recently told reporters at a briefing:

from Environment Forum:

How did Noah’s Ark float?

Greenpeace volunteers build a modern day version of the legendary Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey May 21, 2007 as part of a project to draw attention to global warming. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas (TURKEY)The story of Noah's Ark in The Bible is widely read as an allegory and discoveries of a stunning range of species of wildlife raise questions, for those who believe in the account as literal truth, about how they all crammed aboard.

The total number of species of animals and plants on the planet, according to biologists, may well range up to the tens of millions. About 1.8 million have been identified so far -- many of them are plants and fish that Noah did not take along to escape the flood, according to the Book of Genesis.

Even the Ark, with its three decks, would have quickly filled if Noah took at least two of all living creatures as God instructed Noah in the Book of Genesis. 

China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

china-2.jpgThe light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.

china1.jpg 

Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.

Jew for Jesus could win Israel Bible quiz

An Israeli with the Jewish Bible, 27 July 2004/Gil Cohen MagenA 17-year-old Israeli girl is a leading contender to win the country’s annual youth Bible quiz, but there’s a controversial twist: She believes in Jesus.

Tipped off about Bat El Levy’s beliefs, an anti-missionary group has called on religious Jews to boycott the May 8 contest, at which she will compete against 15 other teenagers from Israel and abroad for a prize awarded by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The group, Yad L’Ahim, has invoked Israeli law forbidding Christians from proselytizing in the Jewish state. But there is more at stake in the quiz, which is held on Israel’s 60th
Independence Day — the question of who has a better command of holy writ.

Is there a “religionome” and can it be mapped?

An undated image of the human brain taken through scanning technology, /Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara/HandoutNeuroscientist Andrew Newberg has an intriguing idea: is there a “religionome” similar to the human genome and can scientists map it? He raised this idea at a recent Pew Forum conference on religion and public life in Key West, Florida, where he discussed the topic of why belief in God persists.

Newberg’s work focuses, among other things, on his view that we are biologically driven to find meaning in our lives. He argues that our brains have the capacity to create and perpetuate systems of belief that take us beyond our basic survival needs. These beliefs are biologically rooted in the brain, he thinks, but are also given form by our peers, parents and society.

Newberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Neurosciences, all at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He talked with Reuters on the sidelines of the conference, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, to flesh out his vision.

Is “God Particle” the right term for massive mystery in physics?

Peter Higgs at CERN, 7 April 2008/poolOne of the most brilliant simplifications I’ve ever come across is the term “the God Particle.” Physicists think this subatomic speck of matter, if it is ever found, could explain the mysterious code at the origin of the physical world. To know this would be to “know the mind of God,” as Einstein wanted to do. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book with that name 15 years ago that was so interesting that even a physics klutz like myself (I almost failed it in high school…) read and enjoyed it.

It turns out, though, that the physicist who launched the hunt for this elusive particle doesn’t like its nickname. “It embarrasses me,” Peter Higgs said in Geneva this week at a news conference our correspondent Robert Evans attended. “Although I am not a believer myself, it’s a misuse of terminology that might offend some people.”

Higgs, now 78, first proposed a theory of the particle officially knows as the Higgs boson 40 years ago. CERN, the giant nuclear research centre at the French-Swiss border near Geneva, is building a vast underground particle collider to try to find it. “The likelihood is that the particle will show up pretty quickly … I’m more than 90 percent certain that it will,” Higgs said after visiting the collider due to start working early next year.

Has Sarko gone too far praising God, faith and the Saudis?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy giving a speech, 17 Jan 2008/Charles PlatiauNicolas Sarkozy’s serial taboo-breaking is getting him into hot water. Anybody following the news these days knows about his roller-coaster love life, which has hurt his popularity ratings in a country where Monsieur le Président is supposed to be more discreet. Now his challenge to France’s laïcitéa word signifying both the separation of church and state and the taboo against bringing religion into public affairs — is provoking a backlash. What especially seems to have got his critics going is the fact that he not only praised religion in a speech in Riyahd on Monday but also counted his Saudi hosts among those Muslims “who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” The fact he was also trying to sell nuclear power plants and other big-ticket French export items to Muslim countries during the same trip did not go unnoticed in his detractors’ comments.

The issue came up during parliamentary questions in the National Assembly on Wednesday (click here and search for Glavany for the exchange in French). Now criticism is coming in from the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as in editorials. Jean Bauberot, a professor of the history of laïcité, told the Catholic daily La Croix he was worried that Sarkozy was pursuing a “lay Catholic civil religion” that might define France as a Catholic nation rather than a secular one.

True to form, Sarkozy broke with the presidential tradition of staying above the fray and shot back at his critics in an aside during a speech on Thursday about economic policy: “I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system.”

In Riyadh, Sarkozy praises God, Islam and Saudi Arabia

France’s President Sarkozy speaks with Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, 14 Jan 2008Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.

We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels,” the outspoken left-wing magazine Marianne commented. “Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ, as he did during his papal visit. Travelling in Arab lands, Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam.”

In a more moderate tone, the Paris newspaper Le Monde commented that the “God who does not enslave man” quote was “surprising for a head of a secular state“. Laïcité, the legal separation of church and state imposed on the traditionally Catholic country in 1905, is a key concept of modern French democracy and presidents before Sarkozy never challenged it. Public attachment to laïcité has actually strengthened in recent years as religious demands by the growing Muslim minority upset the quiet consensus against allowing faith a role in public life.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.