January, 2004 Edition
From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism
Affirming Religious Diversity
Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.
Co-witness and mutual mission would replace the literalist approach to religious language by a symbolic understanding of diverse and conflicting symbols and statements. A real evangelist would be one who brings the good news of universal truths as these are glimpsed through various religious symbols and philosophies. Then our perception of the other as a spiritual being will achieve a real depth and we shall apprehend underneath the outer differences and conflicts a shining unity of mystical experiences. Our perspectives will expand: we shall not only notice religious diversity as a spatial fact but also value the coming and going through time of teachers and prophets, religions followed by religions - all calling upon us to wake up and humbly bow in self-knowledge before the almighty source of our souls. Then our conversion will be not to this or that religion but to one God (speaking theistically), All Transcendent-All near, All Freedom-Ever New!
In order to attain this perspective I soon learnt that one had to give up the traditional scholastics and adopt a hermeneutic approach by which a pathway to the fountain itself of such unity and diversity could be opened. There was nowhere to look for its source except in one’s own soul, for nature and culture, art and religion, philosophy and science had emerged from the depths of the soul. Soul is thus the treasure house of all the archetypes from where all our symbols and insights emanate. As I once put it:
Without the unifying reality of the soul we shall be wrecked in the multiplicity and conflict of the forms of life and nature. The soul is the one-multiple being, one and divided at the same time, fully one with itself possessing the vision of what is above. Unless we postulate such a principle and revive the classical discourse on Soul, we cannot rise above our divisions of body, belief and consciousness to a bodiless and non-discursive reality.
Let no one imagine that her or his soul is just her or his corporeal and social identity. Our soul is vaster than our conscious and unconscious psyche put together. Soul is one and many, a universal being. It is in souls of each other that we encounter each other both individually and universally. We surpass the boundaries of our outer identity. We seek our inner connections, as follows:
Know thyself were the words written on the Gate of Entrance to the ancient Temple of Delphi. The prophet of Islam categorically made self-knowledge a pre-requisite to knowing God when he said, Whoever knows his self knows his Lord. As such, the gnosis of our soul and self, our real being, has thus been the goal of all our mystical and religious life. The classical discourse on soul from ancient India and ancient Greece, and from various Gnostic traditions requires to be revived, for it is also the cornerstone of interreligious spirituality. Dialogue becomes a vision of the magnificent utterance, Here I am! Reflectively, we all become co-present to one another - not as one exclusive identity, but as one who says to the other, I am both me and you and you are both you and me, and together we stand on holy ground.
The Christian sponsored interreligious dialogue seems to have failed in all problem areas from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, from Ireland to Central Europe, because, firstly, it has not been accompanied by a clear articulation of the anthropological vision of one spiritual humanity and, secondly, because there had been a gap between interreligious dialogue and society at large. There was no connecting point between the spiritual hope expressed in the movement that promoted interreligious dialogue and the social situations which, at various points on the globe, had degenerated into sheer ethnocentrisms and religious obscurantism. The rising tide of exclusivist doctrines and identities seems to have overrun the complacent confidence of the advocates of democracy and secular humanism. Then there are those who criticise people like me that we do not honour the specificity of each religion sufficiently. To them I would say that without honouring the universality of God and the universality of the human principle as a soul, there remains no grace about the so called specificity of any religion, nor any hope for the survival of humanity.
We can act at least at 3 different levels together:
Before I explain what I have in view by the prophetic role of spiritual humanism let me reflect on the reasons for the current mutation of religious consciousness, which are threefold:
Had we remembered the higher Gnostic grades in our soul, namely the contemplative and intuitive, which bring to us our transfiguration as universal soul beings, we could have given birth to a new humanity through our inner expansion and enlightenment.
Interreligious dialogue urgently requires the revival of the classical discourse on soul.
Only by knowledge of the soul can we know the immortality of our essence, by which we are filled with courage to confront and conquer oppression and injustice - by which our life is both within and beyond bodily limits and by which we are both individuals and universals, residents of both this world and hereafter.
The soul is one multiple being, fully one with herself and also many, possessing in her unity the vision of the supreme one. Unless we postulate such a principle we cannot rise above the divisions of our body, belief and ego, to a spiritual and non-discursive reality. Neither friendship nor love could be possible nor the universal validity of our mystical experiences.
Criteria of Mystical Experience
Experience and guidance to interpret it descend together. The experience itself is on certain occasions a response to prayer for guidance. However neither a mystical experience nor a belief is always an authentic experience or a right belief. Therefore, consultation among seekers and dialogue between different believers should go on in pursuit of truth, our common beloved!
Mystical experience does not entail the suspension of rationality. Nor does it surpass the intellect which is itself a divine light. Let the soul always be lightened by the sun of intellect, the lamp of divine consciousness.
Within our soul are three Gnostic grades Contemplative, Intuitive, and Discursive. What the contemplative eye has seen the intuitive would hold in its cognition, and what the intuition has cognised in all its totality reason would conceptualise and communicate in logical stages, and in such a harmony reason itself will be transfigured, becoming self-luminous as light upon light, as the light of the parable upon the light of our common understanding.
Religious Diversity as Mystical Experience
In order to bring this open-ended and universally harmonising outlook to the world at large we have yet to go a long way. The loss of a sense of transcendence from our consciousness, and the accompanying loss of the gnosis of soul, have led first to the degeneration of religion and eventually to the despiritualisation of politics and science. Hence, there is a prophetic role for spiritual humanism to take a stand against the following three massive threats to the very essence of our humanity:
Racism and ethnocentricism accompany religious exclusivism; absolutisation of ideological divides and the cult of supremacy of power provide the political and psychological bases for the self-destructive militarism of the state, while the selfcontradictory argument in favour of nuclear armament for the sake of national security passes unnoticed with the gravest consequences for the survival of life itself; and the abolition of the spiritual dimension from every walk of life in the name of pragmatism and scientific materialism allows a free hand to the demigods of nationalism, consumerism and sensationalism.
The schools are fast emptying the souls of our children of the light and warmth of universalism and idealism. A hollow functionalism and obsession with mechanical proficiency dominate our school curricula. The soul thus emptied of all vision is dead what is a human soul without its universal stature, and which is the fountain of our ideals and aspirations? Emptied from within, our youth grab their own outer husk to defend themselves against the
The language of critique and protest is replaced by the language of social conformism. The language of socialism is being made taboo by those very people who were until yesterday the leaders of socialist movements. Another wind is blowing and striking at the roots of all idealism: the wind of postmodernism, by which all universalist and metaphysical terms of reference are to be suspected. There is no ideological foothold for our next generation. 150 Years ago Karl Marx gave the call, Let the workers of the world unite! The call meant a universal sense of belonging to the rest of humanity, by which one could transcend religion and race and nation. When there is neither socialist nor spiritualhumanist language made available, under what banner would our youth unite?
The mere rule of law is not enough. The call to democracy requires people who can hope, not just to hear the empty promises of the politicians. The call for more productivity is not enough; more jobs are not the answer. Nor is less inflation the remedy. Those who give such calls know that they stand upon the unstable ground of the global market. They can no longer refuse to see the unruly crowds in their cities which their soulless education and politics have begotten. What we need is not laws. Law, however just, has to punish somebody, lower him in his own eyes. We do not need laws, we need self-realised individuals, mutually forgiving, mutually supportive, mutually educating, who can hold each other, who can rise together hand in hand. So with nations, my dear comrades of the spirit! No cause, no ideology, no national interest, is worth a war that destroys newly born children. As Martin Luther King once said, After Nagasaki the choice is between non-existence and non violence.
We have first to wake up from the spell which our collective identity, whether it be of race or of religion has cast upon us, and see the sun of awareness rising in the horizon of our souls, in whose light the hidden grace in each one of us would become visible to the other. As we bow to each other as soul beings, we bow before God who is both in us and above us. What can then prevent us from saying to each other that my soul and your soul is one soul, that our God and your God is one God? We shall then abolish fear, and then our greeting of peace will be a perfect greeting!
Dr. Hasan Askari is one of the pioneers of interreligious dialogue from within Islam. He has taught and at several universities, including in India, Lebanon, Germany, Holland, Britain and the United States. His book Spiritual Quest: An Inter-Religious Dimension (1991) has been an important text for interreligious thinkers.