Interfaith rules of engagement, parts 1&2

Two blog posts are grouped together for convenience.

Our Home Page motto is Peace-Unity-Diversity. Unity in diversity is a formula for peace and peacemaking, the focus of part 1. Also, there are four interfaith perspectives that relate to unity in diversity. They form the rules of engagement for interfaith peacemaking, and will be the focus of part 2.


In a blog post from November last year, the two complementary principles that make possible the social organisation of unity in diversity are explained : hierarchy and subsidiarity.

Hierarchy is the principle that organises society from the top down, while subsidiarity is the principle that organises it from the bottom up.

Either principle should work within its proper bounds and not take over the other’s role. An ordered, peaceful society needs unity but not crushing uniformity, which could result from an overreach of hierarchy. A vibrant, peaceful society embraces cultural and religious diversity but not chaotic fragmentation, which could result from an overreach of subsidiarity.

A balance between order and freedom is a condition of peace.

We can learn from historical states like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union that have pursued order at the expense of freedom. Today, the authoritarianism of nations like Saudi Arabia and North Korea raise concerns for freedom watchers. On the other hand, the USA has historically prized freedom, but has been riven with strife from the Civil War down to recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Such strife threatens the unity and integrity of a society.

Likewise, peace requires a balance of conservatism and progress, so that the pace of change does not destabilise society and lead to a worse crop of problems.

Brexit, Trump and the spate of nationalist populist movements have marked a reaction to the rapid changes of an elite-led multicultural globalisation. Peacemakers should properly be concerned about those whom progress leaves behind.

Neither can revolution bypass this requirement, because it sets up its own reactionary establishment in its wake. The Iranian or Chinese or Cuban revolution certainly never wanted further revolutionary fervour to topple the regimes that were established by the original revolutionaries. Revolution in and of itself is not perpetually sought by human societies - only when power can be consolidated afterwards. Revolutions can also be cynically manipulated. Western powers encouraged the “Arab Spring” to occur in some Arab countries but not in others when it did not suit their interests. To be a peaceful revolutionary therefore requires one to make peace with reactionaries : were the revolution to get up, one might find oneself in a reaction against those who want to make changes to the changes.

Another condition of peace is the flourishing of an individualism which respects relationships, family, religious and other civic groupings.

When individuals get alienated, it does not bode well for peace. In the worst extreme, they can fall prey to ideologies of terrorism. Neither is it good for communities and nations to become isolated. One of the biggest threats to world peace at present has resulted from the isolation of the North Korean regime. Isolation breeds paranoia. Punishing and threatening the isolated can breed more paranoia. A previous blog post identifies Inclusiveness as one of the keys to peace.

It should be apparent that peace is almost the solution to a maths problem : how do we get one-ness and many-ness both happening simultaneously in the fullest measure without compromise?

We owe our allegiance to legitimate authority, but this authority cannot trample the rights of individuals nor expect them to violate their consciences.

With all this in mind - particularly the coordinates of unity in diversity for building a peaceful, global civilisation - we turn our attention to the conditions of interfaith dialogue and missionary action, in preparation for our annual presentation :

For ICR’s purposes, the phrase ‘belief system’ is inclusive of all faith traditions, spiritual paths, lifestyles inspired by atheistic and philosophical humanism - and any other system of thought and practice that exists. ICR’s 12 Principles affirm that everybody has a belief system, whether held consciously or not, whether theistic, atheistic or agnostic, and whether it is bound up with a strong public organisation or seems like a private concern.

It is our belief systems that generate inner conflict or inner peace which is then externalised in the world.

How much emphasis we give to the commonalities and differences with other belief systems, will determine whether we view them as competitors for souls or as cooperative partners heading in the same direction. For example, the influential Harvard professor of politics, Samuel P. Huntington, wrote that there was a “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West. This influenced former White House Chief of Staff, Steve Bannon, who influenced Donald Trump who influences us all. But in the final analysis, the “clash of civilisations” is a belief, which inevitably bears a certain fruit. To seek another fruit, it is necessary to start with another belief.

Do we feel safe by ‘making everyone the same’? Do we believe there are ineradicable differences between groups which, like sleeping dogs, should be left to lie? Such questions go to the issue of unity in diversity.

Engaging others of different belief systems requires knowledge and skills in interfaith conflict resolution; critically, the know-how to implement and harmonise the four interfaith missionary perspectives. These are the rules of engagement with others of a different belief system.

They apply individual-to-individual, but also community-to-community, religion-to-religion. All missionary activity - the externalising of a belief system into the world - requires for its completion the owning and harmonisation of four perspectives. Without the owning and harmonising, we can deceive ourselves in our interactions with other groups, and move further away from the ideal of peace through unity in diversity.

So what are the perspectives?


The four interfaith perspectives governing the engagement are : exclusivism, inclusivism, relativism and universalism.

(i) Exclusivism means my/our belief system is right and everyone else’s is wrong.

It is an obvious feature of fundamentalist interpretations, but it is also a latent intransigence in any belief system. Every definition of belief, in preserving its specific identity has a limit as to how flexible it can be - how far it can compromise. The line drawn is a battleline in interfaith conflict. Often this line is only discovered through polemic, debate and intense circumstances.

When Myanmar Buddhists find no common ground and are utterly intolerant of Rohingya Muslims, the dispute ends in violence and refugeeism. It is hard to see it ending otherwise unless the parties involved can build into their worldview a common, overarching belief in, say, secular pluralism. If the ISIL ideology is the one and only, then justification for killing members of rival sects is ready to hand. So too is the destruction of Roman ruins in Palmyra, which had been protected by previous Islamic powers; powers that did not regard the pagan worldview that inspired the ruins as locked in a battle-to-the-death with its own.

Another example of exclusivism might be today’s Young Earth creationists, whose battlelines may not have shifted much from the Scopes Monkey Trial, when those who wanted to teach evolution in the schools, and those who wanted to teach creationism, could not find anything worth accommodating in the other’s position.

(ii) Inclusivism means that one’s belief is inclusive and respectful of the truth in other belief systems.

Alternative beliefs may be regarded as embodying portions of the truth; as approaching truth to greater or lesser degree; perhaps a forerunner to or a degeneration from one’s own belief. Inclusivism does not want to “throw the baby out with the bath water”, as it were, and seeks to work with and strengthen the elements of common truth between the belief systems.

Christians often speak of the Jewish covenants prefiguring their own. The Old Testament is included with the New Testament in their version of the Bible, which displays an inclusivist interfaith attitude - at least towards Judaism. Mainstream Muslims adopt an inclusivist attitude towards other “religions of the Book”, that is, Judaism and Christianity. In their respective ways, Sikhs and Baha’is include the truths of previous faiths from which they believe they have developed as subsequent revelations.

To be inclusivist, or under the influence of this orientation, confers a kind of interfaith conservatism. Whereas exclusivism emphasises difference, inclusivism emphasises sameness, continuity and the common heritage. There may be a latent sense of superiority in the inclusivist perspective, which occasionally becomes the target of criticism, as when Hizb ut-Tahrir suspect the interfaith cause as being a covert attempt of Christianity to make converts among other faiths. Whilst interfaith work is distinct from practising any particular faith, the ultimate purpose of inclusivism is to draw people towards the fullest truth possible. In order to draw, one must be prepared to be drawn.

(iii) Relativism is the attitude that there is only ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’, ‘our truth’ and ‘their truth’, but there are no absolutes.

The perspective denies that there could be a dogmatic source of truth whose dictates are binding on all people. A corollary is that access to truth is off a level playing field. No one has a special pipeline to God or insight into ultimate questions. There are only so many opinions which need to be tolerated without pushing for conversions.

Pope Benedict XVI saw the downside of relativism, in a European civilisation falling away from its ancestral Catholic faith. Catholicism traditionally commanded the theological and moral conscience of the continent. Its dogmatic authority was acknowledged as superior to the vagaries of personal opinion. Now people are increasingly exploring their own spiritual paths, some militantly anticlerical. What is the place and appeal of relativism, which is basically a form of anarchy at the level of belief?

There is freedom (or lack of compulsion and conformity), and it certainly gives pride of place to individual conscience, which seems to be universally respected. No matter what authorities or experts pronounce, ultimately each of us judges it right or wrong; and each of us must decide whether to give our allegiance or not.

(iv) Universalism is the perspective that lays claim to an absolute truth applicable to all.

For every human being there is considered to be one right and true religion, one ideal position in the realm of faith. Exclusivism also affirms one right way - which already exists, requiring no further development. Universalism, as the term is used here, holds out the possibility of evolutionary development. In other words, it is the claim that there potentially is a universal faith position; one future world religion. It might be imagined brand new - not yet on the scene; or it might be a reformed, evolved version of one or more faiths as we know them.

One way of approaching the potentiality expressed by universalism is to think of the eschatological scenarios in the faith traditions. Eschatology deals with those final things like the end of the world, the judgment of the living and the dead, and the return of God to earth. The traditions give various names for the divine being who can inaugurate the end times affecting everyone, thereby fulfilling the potential and the promise of universality : the Christ in his Second Coming, the Messiah, the Mahdi, Kalki, the Maitreya etc.

An alternative approach for some is to find God in Gaia, the living earth, and see a radical environmentalism as the new, unifying planetary creed. Fears and notions can run wild, with some believing in a United Nations-led conspiracy to foist one world religion on the unsuspecting masses. Such a creed may marginalise the patriarchal deity in favour of a secular vision, which may be wedded to a form of environmentalism. The planet itself becomes the New Jerusalem. Life itself is venerated through the forms of its evolution on the planet and throughout the universe.

Every tradition is a work in progress. What do you envisage as humanity’s final destination? What will faith demographics look like a few decades hence? Such questions get one reflecting on one’s universalist perspective.

In the formula Peace = Unity in Diversity, the unity derives from the inclusivist and universalist perspectives. The diversity derives from the exclusivist and relativist perspectives.

When exclusivism and/or relativism is exaggerated, societies become anarchic, civil strife abounds, and legal and moral standards suffer. When inclusivism and/or universalism is exaggerated, societies become oppressive, stifling dissent, with elites imposing a politico-religious correctness that permits no ideological “elbow room”. The trade-offs, compromises and balances need to be in our awareness when conducting interfaith dialogue.