Posted on June 16, 2012 by IS
“There is a fundamental flaw in the very concept of ‘inter-faith’. The problem lies in the world ‘faith’ for defining religious and spiritual traditions. Western monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, are certainly faith-based and one can rightly call them different faiths, that being what they call themselves and how they define themselves. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, however, are knowledge-based and do not call themselves ‘faiths’ but dharmas.” – Dr. David Frawley
Is the inter-faith model valid?
Much is being made of ‘inter-faith conferences’ in which representatives of different religious traditions, particularly major religious leaders, like heads of states, are brought together on a common platform.
It is important that people come together and dialogue relative to religion, spirituality and the main issues of life, regardless of their backgrounds or traditions. This is essential for any truth, peace or understanding to arise in the world. But one wonders whether the interfaith model is really able to do this.
What is faith and does it define religion or spirituality?
The main issue is that there is a fundamental flaw in the very concept of ‘interfaith’. The problem lies in the world ‘faith’ for defining religious and spiritual traditions. Western monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, are certainly faith-based and one can rightly call them different faiths, that being what they call themselves and how they define themselves.
Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, however, are knowledge-based and do not call themselves ‘faiths’ but dharmas. For them faith (shraddha in Sanskrit) has a place but is subordinate to a higher knowledge. Just as a scientist would not attend an interfaith conference representing science as another faith, so too, the followers of knowledge based traditions are not comfortable with their traditions being turned into faiths or made on par with faith-based beliefs and dogmas.
While Biblical traditions generally define the goal of human life as salvation through faith, in the dharmic traditions the goal is liberation through knowledge, which implies questioning, perhaps even rejecting much of what the Biblical traditions call faith. Faiths are human based, historical and transient, while dharma is eternal and universal. The law of gravity is not a matter of faith, nor is the law of karma, unlike the virgin birth or other such faith-based doctrines and miracles.
In dharmic traditions everything must be questioned, including the nature of faith, the mind, the ego, the soul and God. Dharmic traditions also discriminate some faiths as false or illusory and cannot embrace anything that is called a faith as being true or real. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of faith as being tamasic, rajasic or sattvic and only the later bringing true knowledge. The Gita (XVII.27-19) says that sattvic faith is done without the seeking of any fruit or reward. Rajasic faith is done with the aim of gaining honor for oneself and done with ostentation. Tamasic faith is done out of ignorance, to cause pain to oneself or to others. The question is whether faiths that seek conversion, conquest of the world, and employ aggression and violence – or which are in any way exclusive claiming to be the only true religion – can be called sattvic. If we promote rajasic and tamasic faiths, then we will also promote rajasic and tamasic values, which lead to inevitable violence and destruction. Even in common language, blind faith is known to be quite negative in its consequences. Without a critical examination of what faith is merely to promote faith may not really help creating peace in the world.
India based or Bharatiya traditions do not sacrifice knowledge at the altar of faith. They are not based upon irrational faiths like a final prophet, an only son of God and his miracles, a final book or revelation or what you will. They do not promote faith in a person, a book, or an institution as the ultimate. They emphasise our own direct individual experience of truth through Yoga and meditation. In the dharmic traditions faith also can and must be questioned. To not question something because it is a matter of faith is a dangerous tendency that leads to illusion.
Faith based religion as promoting Western monotheism
The first problem with the idea of interfaith and faith-based traditions is that faith as such is assumed to be valid to define the real nature of religion. Each faith is presumed to have its own validity as a faith. Religion is defined as faith, which diminishes the relevance and importance of knowledge-based traditions. And each faith is not to be questioned because it is a matter of faith. To question someone’s faith is regarded as inappropriate, insensitive and out-of-place. Faith is made into something sacred, without first purifying the faith in the fire of knowledge.
In interfaith movements there is a general agreement that ‘I won’t question your faith and you won’t question mine’. We will agree to respect our mutual faiths, without questioning them, even if my faith requires converting your children. This means there is no questioning of dogma, theology or metaphysics in interfaith gatherings. There is no philosophical or psychological analysis of states of consciousness in religion. There is no search for a greater or universal truth that might take us beyond the limitations of different faiths, which largely reflect emotional assertions not a higher perception.
In interfaith gatherings, religions as they are seen to be cloaked in a mantle of unquestioning acceptance. While the followers of one belief-oriented religion may accept one irrational faith, interfaith followers pride themselves in accepting any number of irrational faiths, even if they are mutually contradictory. Differences in theology or practice are blurred over. One embraces faith as the ultimate truth of religion, when faith is at best a door way.
The whole idea of ‘faith based traditions’, moreover, is largely a Biblical model and promotes monotheistic traditions. It can easily be subverted into a conversion based agenda and is resistant to question the politics of conversion. Faith usually implies faith in the One God, his book and his representatives. This One God of the faith is not a common truth of all humanity, but the religion of one community that casts out the non-believers as unholy. In spreading the notion of faith, it is these faith-based approaches that are emphasised and their definition of religion that is accepted.
The message of interfaith gatherings – in which Biblical traditions are usually the majority – is that ‘we will tolerate you if you become like us’. This is half way to conversion and still reflects the conversion based mentality. It is an attempt to impose faith-based monotheism as the basis of inter-religious communication and harmony. This is to accede to the authority of faith-based monotheism on the level of ideas. This means that interfaith gatherings can also be regarded as warm ups for conversion rallies!
Inter-knowledge, not inter-faith
What we need is not interfaith gatherings in which all religious faiths are allowed to go unquestioned but ‘inter-knowledge traditions’ in which there is an effort to arrive at a universal truth in religion and spirituality, just as in science, which requires that everything must be questioned.
Certainly people of various religious backgrounds should come together to discuss the truth of our existence, including religious leaders. But let them come together as human beings first of all, not as representatives of vested interests in religion protected by the aura of faith. Of course the proponents of the faith are unlikely to come to inter-knowledge gatherings. If they do, their purpose will be to protect their faith, not to find truth because in faith-based traditions truth is a matter of faith, of suppressing the questioning mind, not of examining the fundamental questions of life and finding an answer in our own deeper awareness.
Inter-religious gatherings have their place in the global society, just as meetings between scientists, artists, politicians or business leaders. But these gatherings must first of all accept a ‘pluralistic conception of religion’, which includes knowledge based as well as faith-based traditions and which does not bow to western faith-based monotheism as the prototype of religion.
This does not mean that we should make a show of questioning, much less mocking the faith of others. Let each person believe what he or she wants. That should not be our business. Yet when a particular faith becomes socially aggressive and seeks to convert the world, it can and must be questioned. We need not elevate faith into dogma that no one can question, whether it is one faith or many.
Freedom and pluralism should be there in religion as in our secular lives, but one need not accept all religions as true in order to do this. This making of all religions true through faith is in fact expanding the medieval notion of the supremacy of faith that led to inquisitions, holy wars and massive genocide, not to mention the suppression of knowledge in the Dark Ages. It shuts down any critical scrutiny of religious organisations, particularly those engaged in conversion. After all they are just honouring their faith. Today we see a new suppression of the questioning of religion in the name of protecting certain aggressive faiths that are rooted in the Middle Ages. If this is allowed to go one, the entire world will be taken back to the Middle Ages.
Hinduism and its Vedantic philosophy welcome dialogue in religion. This is only possible when pluralism and diversity in religion is honoured and when religion moves from faith to knowledge, from seeking to convert others to seeking understand the nature of the mind and the consciousness that transcends it.
» The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.