© Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen 2013

The heart of interfaith

© Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen 2013


The most fundamental recurring fact of humanity and history is faith: the sense of a higher purpose and an encompassing meaning. What this means is that the highest faculty of the human, the most human in the human is the soul. When the human being was fashioned by G-d, it was said, “Let us make the person in our [G-d’s] likeness”. That refers to the human soul, the mirror of G-d, which is the highest faculty of the person, the seat of conscience, meaning and responsibility. That is what the person ultimately is. It is true that the person is also body and mind, but the rider over both of these is the human soul. They are the vehicles of the soul.

Therefore it is not at all strange that the single most salient feature of human history should be religion, for religious is the expression of the human soul. Perhaps the greatest of all sociologists, Max Weber saw that that religion was the clue to understanding social processes and social and organization for it is the master template of human purpose sought out by the soul: the control board, in accordance with which human activity is guided and directed. Even the modern phenomenon which Weber focussed upon most extensively, the “disenchantment” of the world, the process of secularization and “rationalization” of the world, had been set in motion by a particular religious ethic, an ethic of good works, though this had swung back against its original religious fount and desacralized the animus which set it in motion.

The citadels of western society – the universities, the professions, the media and the bureaucratic elites – are today largely in the grip of that spirit of secularization, with a new deeply materialistic and hedonistic twist. The grass roots, however, are not so; in them the human spirit is far more resilient. The reason for that has to do with humility. Humility is the beginning of religious experience, the knowledge that there is something greater than oneself and a higher purpose to which one must tie oneself. Humility is a rigorous requirement. People of intellect and power are easy sticking points for hubris and arrogance. Simple people on the other hand more easily see something greater than themselves. This does not mean that humility and religious experience is mere simplicity; much rather simplicity is a quality which helps us to “grasp” G-d, Who is absolutely “simple” in the sense of being beyond all description. Humility is not in contradiction to intellect. To the contrary, one cannot do better than to marry humility with intellect. But this means opening up the spiritual faculty which can then properly receive from the tradition and guide, rather than being occluded by, intellect with intellect’s own dangerous propensity to vanity and materialization.

The materialistic hedonism which has captured the high places of our society as a world view could be termed an idolatry of the material; indeed it has even sunk beneath the intellectual promethean atheism of Marx to a purely physicalist materialism of Darwin and Freud.


Interfaith: the common core

There are two models of interfaith: an older one, about which I am sceptical, and one which I want to present as the new and the more cogent. The old model was built on a premise of understanding of differences and the hope that this mutual recognition of individualities of faith would relativise a sense of superiority or particularism and so breed tolerance and harmony. The problem with this model is that its relativistic approach could ultimately dampen personal religious conviction. Orthodoxy – which believes in a G-d and in G-d’s teaching – is not going to accept the relativity of standpoints which liberal faith positions, with their greater emphasis on “humanism” and “change”. It is interesting to note the comment of a great modern thinker and psychologist, Viktor Frankl on the concept of tolerance. Frankl said that tolerance should be born not out of a relativism – which reasons who says I’m right? Maybe s/he’s right? The truth is not relative. Rather tolerance should stem from a spirit of love and respect for the other. The truth is the truth, and even if the other is not quite with the truth, still as a fellow human being I must feel a love and respect for this other. Moral relativism is false and it saps the spirit.

The approach to interfaith which I embrace is thus not relativistic. It looks for the common, authentic core, which we can all endorse. This is not hard to find. It is a historical and spiritual reality. These are the faith and laws by which Noah, the ancestor of all humanity after the flood, and later Abraham, the father of a host of peoples and faiths – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and by a circuitous route also Hinduism and Buddhism (via the sons which he sent to the East) – in all 75% of humanity. These laws can be documented and their resonance tested. My study of these laws, called the Noahide laws, goes back now many years. I have written one book on the world view of the Noahide laws called Perspectives on the Noahide laws – Universal Ethics, and I have researched the detail of the practice of the Noahide laws. From our own tradition I knew these to be the universal law of humanity. However, recently I put it to the test before the great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I received a grant from the Federal Attorney General in its Building Community Resilience Program to produce a “Manual of shared values of the world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam”. I held seminars with distinguished religious scholars from the Christian and Islamic faiths to test the resonance of a set of root values. My special collaborators were Professor Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family and Professor Ismail Albayrak, Professor of Islam at the Australian Catholic University. The resultant manual “An education in a shared ethic” which was ratified by each of us corresponds to the Noahide laws, the fundamental code set out in the Bible and elucidated by the tradition of commentary from Sinai. Another, more familiar term for these ethics might well be: “Abrahamic ethics”. This is the true path forward in interfaith, the affirmation of our genuinely shared common belief. It also has – like all by-products of the truth – other good things, of which a sense of fraternity of humanity is one.

…and of all (including “non-religious”) humanity

Having quoted Viktor Frankl on the true meaning of tolerance, I would also like to quote him on human self-transcendence. Frankl has made the extremely important observation, that every person – including the supposed atheist or agnostic – once called upon to transcend his or her “psychophysical” existence in fact unlocks their innate (and often hitherto suppressed) spiritual potential. The meaning of self transcendence is linked to what we called at the outset the essential ingredient of humility. Self transcendence means taking a higher perspective than that of the plane of our psychophysical being. It means asking what it is to which we have been called, what the meaning of our suffering, our circumstances, life – or as the consciously religious person says, G-d, wants of us. When a person humbly transcends his or her own psychophysical being in this way, says Frankl, he or she is in fact on route to G-d, the terminus to which the religious person is fortunate already to have been brought.

I therefore feel much confidence that these universal laws or ethics will resonate not only with those whose faith stems consciously from the Abrahamic tradition, but also with those who are willing to embark upon an honest and integral self-transcendence. For more information about Noahide or Abrahamic ethics access via this website An Education in Shared Ethic and Perspectives on the Noahide Laws – Universal Ethics