Activists and Mystics by Karl Jehoutek

Activists and Mystics by Karl Jehoutek

The panel discussion on ‘Fundamentalism, Extremism and Tolerance’, hosted by the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative in March 2007, provided an opportunity to observe at close range the dilemma always faced by the three Abrahamic faiths when they have to define themselves in relation to others. Panellists from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions tried to get their minds around the topic of how the three rather vaguely defined concepts of dealing with faith in a diverse world could be placed in a common framework.

Unsurprisingly, representatives of any religion easily slip into one of two modes of organising their thoughts: let’s call them the social-activist camp, and the spiritual camp. The social activists are motivated by the search for common ground on which the faiths can meet without offending each other too much. This common ground usually is found in good causes, where the common denominator is the struggle against a clear oppressive enemy, or the push for justice and equal opportunity, or the alleviation of poverty. Much nostalgia for the days of the anti-apartheid struggle is evident, a time when religious differences could be put on the back burner in the interest of a clear common cause. The activists are at a bit of a loss in today’s complex world, in which seemingly religiously flavoured conflicts pit faith against faith. Wherever one turns for conflicts to be settled, one finds Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist religious language employed on opposing sides.

Consequently, activists of all religions bend over backwards to disavow fundamentalism, seen as a potentially extremist vehicle to promote absolute truth vis-à-vis ‘infidels’, perhaps even violently, and align themselves behind a competing concept of tolerance.

The language of discourse becomes more political, less religious, as the common denominator is something uncontroversial such as peace, justice or love. As one panelist put it, ‘in the interest of interfaith cooperation on worthy causes, it often is best to shut up’. Ironically, this may leave the field of religious discourse exactly to extremists who abuse religious language to fan conflict.

The spiritual camp takes a quite different approach. There are no qualms about embracing fundamentalism, defined as a deep commitment to the fundamental tenets of one’s faith, to be employed in one’s own spiritual journey. This, the mystics claim, enables one to exercise true tolerance towards those of other faiths whose spiritual path is defined differently. Moreover, tolerance is not enough – there is an obligation to honour and respect these other spiritual paths. The focus is on the personal quest to live a spiritually sound life in the world, and recognise that others have different ways to do the same thing. Interfaith discussion is conducted from a clear conviction of where one stands, but with a willingness to learn and understand where others are coming from.

In this context, the concept of extremism, the third leg of the evening’s topic, becomes a separate entity. It is a potential negative shadow (in C.G. Jung’s words) that needs to be controlled in order not to invade the positive content of fundamentalism. While the social activists lump fundamentalism and extremism together in order to avoid doctrinal argument with other faiths, the spiritualists thrive on deep discussion of the divine experience. Christian mystics, Sufis and Kabbalists have much in common.

No easy solutions were forthcoming from one evening’s discussion. But it served as a reminder that there are various ways to conduct dialogue and cooperation. Perhaps a judicious mix of the doctrinal caution of the activists and the spiritual depth of the mystics is a good way forward.

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