Posts Tagged ‘University Ministry’

wa075-035055-27Recently I and a couple of my student leaders attended an ‘Interfaith Welcome,’ to which we were invited by a University chaplain. We did so partly to show respect to the team who operate ‘Oasis’ (the religious centre on campus), and partly to observe and give feedback to the Christian club’s leadership team so they could make wise choices about how they as a Christian club would relate to and interact with the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy.

Having observed similar events in the past, I went with certain expectations, and was not disappointed to have them all met.

After being welcomed, our attention was directed to large bowl containing pebbles, which the presenter then submerged in water – symbolically representing the many religious faiths which while unique, make up the one riverbed, united by the water of our common ideals and humanity. We were invited to take a pebble from the bowl (I declined, as I did not know what we would be required to do with this pebble once we had it).

We were then give a series of pithy thoughts, including a story of a man who left his village with his only destination being ‘away from here’; a quotation from the Dalai Lama: ‘All major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.’; and a call for people of all faiths to be working together on campus, focussing on ‘mutuality’.

Participants were then invited to return their pebble, this time to create a line of stones, indicating that we are all, ultimately, on the same path together.

The ceremony concluded with a ‘Christian’ blessing (which contained nothing distinctively Christian),  followed by an Aboriginal blessing, and an invitation (which was not taken up) for anyone else to add a greeting or blessing from their own tradition.

The three of us then made a discreet exit to avoid being included in the group photo that was to be posted on Facebook.


I called this post ‘The Failed Interfaith Experiment’ because this experience highlights a number of reasons why I think such endeavours will never become the revolutionary, culture-changing phenomenon that their proponents often envisage.

Firstly, this event was entirely ‘horizontal’ – in that it was simply people talking to people, interacting with people, talking about (or implying) the Divine rather than addressing Him (or She, It, etc…). It implicitly  presented religion as a human endeavour, and contained no acknowledgement of divine presence or activity. This approach would not resonate with the majority of ‘religious traditions’ in which activities such as prayer, singing, reading, preaching, meditation and many other things are understood to be direct connection and communication between humans and the Divine.

While this could be seen as a positive thing – we weren’t expected, for example, to pray in a way that was incongruent with our understanding of God – it means that these kinds of events will not be able to offer any kind of ‘spiritual nourishment’ to the participants; they will be largely humanistic, rather than spiritual. The moment they cross over into spiritual activity someone will inevitable be excluded or offended.

Secondly, in their attempt to be inclusive of everyone, the organisers of the event were actually being exclusive. Anyone coming from a conservative religious tradition – such as an Evangelical Christian, and Orthodox Jew, or a Wahhabi Muslim – would not feel free to participate without compromising their own convictions that their faith is the only path to truth and to God. Some would find the Dalai Lama’s quote not only untrue, but even offensive, especially if their people have faced horrific suffering at the hands of people of other ‘religious traditions’.

So such an event is inclusive only of those who either already hold to a universalist or syncretist theology, or who have not really thought through the implications of their participation and how it could implicitly compromise the convictions they hold dear.

Thirdly, this kind of event actually holds very little appeal to the majority of secular, religiously apathetic Australians. This was evidenced by the fact that apart from us three, there was only one other white Australian present who was not a part of the Oasis team (ie. who was there voluntarily). The message of interfaith activities is, ‘No matter what your beliefs are, we are all on the same path,’ and this is interpreted by the average non-religious person as, ‘So if what you believe doesn’t matter in the end, why even bother with religious belief at all?’

This means that interfaith activities end up being essentially ‘in house’ and have very little potential for having any impact on the wider community.

Fourthly, these kinds of activities contain their own inherent contradictions which cause them to lack any ring of authenticity.

As I have already mentioned, while claiming to be all inclusive, they exclude those with conservative faiths.

Statements like the one made by the Dalai Lama cannot actually be maintained: Do all religious traditions really carry the same message? Does this include the tradition held to by ISIS that lead them to slaughter, rape and pillage? Or the ancient cult of Molech in which children were sacrificed to fire? Or the modern American Hebrew Israelite movement that declares white people to be devils? The Dalai Lama’s claim is ignorant and naive at best. While sounding warm and fuzzy, it actually offers no real solution to those who are wanting to both authenticate their own faith, and relate well to those of other faiths, because it ignores the fact that our differences are significant and do matter.

In an attempt to offend no-one, these events can often contain much ambiguity, relativism and obscurity – apart from the repeated dogmatic claim that this is how things should be. Making an absolute claim that there are no absolutes is symptomatic of confusion, not clarity. It may appeal to the emotions – in which case it becomes a handy excuse for not standing form on one’s convictions – but it does not ring true to a mind that is interested in truth, reason and consistency.


I have tried to write this post from the perspective of an objective observer, uncoloured (I hope) by my Christian convictions. However I must also point out that there is another reason why the Interfaith Experiment is a failed one.

It is worthy of notice that many interfaith activities, at least in the West, are initiated by those coming from a liberal, ‘progressive’ Christian perspective. In all cases they flow out of a milieu in which the Gospel and the authority of Scripture has been watered down or abandoned altogether. In this sense, while interfaith proponents sincerely believe they are working for God and the gospel (whatever they believe that to be), they are in fact, in the words of Gamaliel (Acts 5:39), ‘…fighting against God.’

‘All worship the same God,’  ‘All religions are the same,’ and ‘The key to world peace is interfaith cooperation,’ are relatively recent ideas in human history. Future generations should not be surprised if they observe that such ideas and those who promote them will have slipped into obscurity as yet another attempt by humanity to rule ourselves and solve our problems apart from the True and Living God made known in His Son, Jesus Christ.