Religion today is not perceived as it was in the past. This is true throughout the world, but particularly in the Western world. But despite changing views, religion continues to influence our individual and collective lives, and it remains a powerful force for good. I recently spoke on the ongoing cultural and political impact of religion with Paul Weller, a leading scholar of Religious Studies, at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, where he is a Research Fellow in Religion and Society. Dr. Weller holds additional academic titles: Emeritus Professor at the University of Derby, where he works in the Centre for Social, Cultural and Legal Studies; and Professor in the Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations, at Coventry University. He is also the Director of the newly founded Religion and Belief Research and Training Ltd. Dr. Weller is the Academic Editor of the Journal of Dialogue Studies. As these titles suggest, Dr. Weller has a lot to say on what religion means to us today.
The Fountain: Do you think religion and belief are still relevant in twenty-first century Western society?
Paul Weller: Certainly in terms of Europe in relation to matters of law and public policy, religion and belief are often focused on. In this context, by “belief” is meant nonreligious beliefs that are founded on ethical systems or presuppositions and are included alongside what is more traditionally understood as “religion.” So certainly, at the level of society, state, and law there is a presence and relevance of religion and belief.
In terms of the reality of religion and belief as lived, clearly in many societies the numbers of people who say that they belong to a particular religion has reduced in the Western world compared to what it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. But that of course doesn't always tell you about the nature of their connection to religious tradition. They may have only had a very broad cultural connection rather than one with which they were personally engaged. I think one has to understand what is meant by these terms and how they function in individual lives.
Some tend to call themselves spiritual rather than religious, or faithful in higher values but not in God. Why is religion less appealing to many people, especially the young?
Yes, I think this is connected a little bit with what I was saying in relation to the first question because I think there are indeed many people who do affirm themselves to be “spiritual” but don't want to use the word “religion.” We did some research four, five years ago for the Equalities Challenge Unit that looks at equality issues in higher education. We looked at religion and belief in higher education and very interestingly the descriptor that quite a significant proportion of students wanted to use was not one of the religions, nor that of “no religion,” but was “spiritual.”
In the national census in the UK, where I live, that option is not given: the options are no religion, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, etc. But when we gave the option “spiritual,” a significant percentage of students chose that.
Why is this? I think it's because of a suspicion towards organized forms of religion, partly because organized forms of religion are themselves always ambiguous in terms of the good they do and sometimes unfortunately the not good or the bad that they also do. And this embodies some people’s experience of organized religion... So they distinguish or they start to distinguish between the historical organizational form of a religion that they've encountered and had a bad experience of, and what they think the religion may be pointing towards. Thus they might say “well, I'm a spiritual person” … but they don't want to buy into the package of a historical religion or religious organization because they see mixed things in that.
But there's always this spiritual side continuing…
I think so, yes... But I mean clearly there are people who also would speak against that. So there are also strong atheists – you know that's a position in itself, but I think many people, as I say, when given the option of a choice between “are you religious - Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh; or are you no religion” would say something in between, [like] “I am spiritual, but not religious.”
How were you drawn into religion and religious scholarship?
There are two questions there: one about being drawn into religion and one [about being drawn into] religious scholarship. In one sense, I could say I was born into a religious context because my parents were Christian believers. Indeed, my father was an ordained Christian minister in the Baptist tradition. So I could say I inherited it, but for me that's not enough. That is not a full description because I had to affirm that for myself. Nobody, in my understanding, can be religious for another person. Therefore, while I need to acknowledge what my parents gave me in terms of my religious tradition until I affirmed it for myself, it wasn’t active in my life. It was maybe dormant in my life though.
At a certain point… I was baptized – not as a baby but when I chose to be baptized, to make my own commitment to my Christian tradition. That was at the age of 14. So it was a self-conscious decision, commitment, and choice. …[A]lthough I, too, have a sometimes conflicted relationship with organized religion. Just as some people who stand outside of religious traditions do, it is partly because I can see that many things done in the name of religion seem to be contrary to the spirit of Jesus and so I don’t adopt the word religion unproblematically, even for myself. Rather, I would say that the earliest name given to Christians, that is recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, was of followers in “the Way.” I like to describe myself simply as that – so as one who tries to be a disciple of Jesus, a follower in “the Way.”
In terms of scholarship, where we are conducting this interview now is at a College in Oxford that has a Baptist foundation. I came to Oxford to study theology as an academic subject but also with my personal religious commitment and conviction [in mind]. That was at age 18, and I am now nearly 61. So since then I've been engaged in various ways in academic scholarship around the study of religion – partly from within my own tradition in terms of Theology and how the Christian tradition relates to other traditions; some of the other work I've done has been more sociological or social scientific, looking at how religion functions in the world – not necessarily evaluating it but trying to understand it and describe it... In relation to that, sometimes having a relationship myself with religion as a living tradition is seen by some people in the study of religion, or in the policy world, as being problematic. But for me it's actually a positive benefit because I think that in my more social science research, I can connect with what religion as a lived reality is for the people who live by it and not just [view it] as a set of external descriptions about it.
You have been an active member of the interfaith community for many years. Do you think these efforts have yielded anything? Or is it a fantasy among religious leaders or elites, which does not reflect much in the grassroots? Do you think it has been worth it, whatever the consequences?
Yes, it's a difficult question to answer because clearly there are some initiatives that are more fruitful than other initiatives... I think the effort to engage inter-religiously must be worth it. First of all, it is important because otherwise there are dangers [arising] from the distance between people of different faiths and beliefs. These can lead to conflict. Not always, but it can, and therefore to hear and understand the other as they see and understand themselves is an important thing to do, even if one doesn't get further than that. That is actually a long way to have traveled. So that a Muslim no longer sees a Christian as perhaps more general Muslim populations do, or only as Muslim tradition has sometimes described a Christian, but actually listens to how a Christian explains themselves and vice versa. I think it is very important that people give witness to their own faith and that then the other person has to come to terms with that, which is sometimes challenging…
Sometimes in things like Christian-Jewish relations a number of Christian-Jewish organizations are criticized for being apparently superficial in their inter-religious dialogue and for being just a kind of tea [party]... But if you understand the history – certainly of Christian-Jewish relations in Europe – to actually be doing that is far better and far more important, given the history that resulted in the Holocaust. So, small things that don't appear significant can actually be very significant. There is of course a danger that some inter-religious initiatives can be just talking shops where you go over the same territory again and again, without making progress. And sometimes some of the most profound inter-religious encounters are in normal life, not “constructed” encounters: for example, the neighbor who invites the other person into their home when a relative is ill and says prayers from one tradition to the other, or that celebrates a wedding... I think sometimes those of us who work in academic life focus on conferences and events and such things. But there is also what the American scholar of religion, Diana Eck, a number of years ago called “the dialogue of life,” and I think that's equally important.
With respect to religious communities, is their faith rather traditional instead of conscious? Do the faithful practice as a part of their culture or do they consciously believe and know what they believe and practice?
Yes, this is very important and a very complicated question... This is because on the one hand there is clearly a difference between faith as personally appropriated and culture, but on the other hand you cannot [express] individual faith without it having some kind of cultural clothing because we all live in historical and geographical circumstances…
We don't live in a vacuum; we don’t live in a bubble so inevitably there is a relationship between the two. I think what is important is that faith does not become reduced to culture or culture take over faith. So, there's a dynamic tension between the two. Otherwise what happens is that culture tends to want to defend itself and sometimes to attack others when the lines of faith and culture become confused. This tends towards religions becoming – in a kind of Indian terminology – “communalistic” and setting up barriers against each other. This understanding of religion and culture does reflect my own roots in the Baptist tradition which has always made a distinction between belonging to a civil community and the culture and belonging to a religious community. So this goes back to my biography when I was saying that I acknowledge that I inherit something from my parents. But until I appropriate it, it’s not fully mine, and that part of appropriating it is as an individual who can stay critical of the cultural forms that it takes.
A scholar of religion who was both a scholar studying Islam, but also later of inter-religious things, was Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He used to talk about religion was made up of “personal faith” and “cumulative tradition,” and how one handles that balance is very important for the future of religious traditions in the globalized world. This is because with the globalization of the world, cultures are no longer geographically separated from each other, therefore inevitably the question of sorting out faith and culture becomes stronger than when one lived in an environment where everybody at least seemed to be of the same religion and the same culture. Though of course they never really were because even apparently the same religion or the same culture is never actually singular; it always has lots of sources underneath it, as well as differences.
What is the outcome of interfaith dialogue for you on a personal level? What has changed for you after you started engaging with the “other"? New knowledge? Surprise? Disappointment?
I think a number of things. I can illustrate it by two or three little stories. One was when I was a teenager, I got to know my best friend at school. He was Orthodox Jewish and his family had been in slave labor camps in Poland during the Nazi period. And I remember his mother asking me two questions as a young evangelical Christian. It was already quite strange that as a young Christian, the son of a Baptist minister, I had become friends with an Orthodox Jewish boy – for both sides it was a little strange. Yet we were good friends at school. His mother asked me two questions which have stayed with me in different ways through my inter-religious encounters. One was why did “the Christians” bully my friend? As a Christian who wanted to argue that not everything that’s done in the name of Christian history is really Christian, this question helped me to understand that whether or not I wanted to make that distinction, for others it is a problem. It is just like people who are not Muslim say today, you know, that all Muslims are terrorists and Muslims have to live with that distinction... It's very difficult but at the same time one can't completely cut oneself off from this. So it helped me to understand something about what I would now call the “socio-political” dimensions of inter-faith dialogue in which I can try to do what “I” as an “individual” might want to do, but others around me will see things differently.
The second question she asked me was why do Christians call our Bible “old”? Because often Christian popular understanding talks about the New Testament relative to the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. And at that time, I’d never really thought about that question. And of course for her, that seemed to imply that the “old” was no longer of value and that the “new” had replaced the “old.” So that made me start thinking at a theological level about the relationship between truth claims and revelation in one tradition and in another. And how one has to be careful about the ways in which we express what we believe we have received from God – whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim – and how other people understand what they have received by way of revelation. So, those two stories from my teenage years in many ways have determined my engagements in both the theological aspects of inter-religious engagement and also its socio-political aspects.
On another more personal level, it's profoundly moving when people of other traditions relate to you as a human being. Several years ago, my wife to whom I was married at that time died. But while she was ill in the hospital Muslim friends came and recited the Qur’an and prayed with us and came and spoke at her funeral. These things are often more powerful than many of the international colloquia on inter-religious relations. I'm not saying those are unimportant but I am saying in terms of my own experience, these kind of things make me reflect. I know, for example, that many of my Muslim friends are far more dedicated in prayers than I ever am and that makes me ask questions of myself. So I think where one is open to it, getting to know the other helps you to be more self-critical and also to ask the question of what is it, if anything, that I have in my religious tradition that’s distinctive that I have to offer? This is because there are many things that are shared – but perhaps there are some things that are distinctive, and that actually engaging in inter-religious dialogue with the other helps to sort those things out.
We know your research on Fethullah Gülen, and you call it a “biographical theology.” What do you mean by that?
This is what I'm literally now just beginning on, so I haven't fully worked out my description of what I mean by it. But fundamentally, I think that a body of theology – by which I mean the work of people who write in a disciplined way in their tradition – is not something that only comes out of the tradition as an abstract. I think that while it partly comes out of the inheritance of the wider tradition, it also reflects the way in which an individual appropriates that tradition and also the circumstances in and through which they live. So, to me, in trying to understand something about Fethullah Gülen’s theology, it's something about how that fits within the broader inheritance of classical Muslim tradition, but it's also something about how a person who has so deeply drunk at the well of that tradition, has done so in a [specific] environment. And he did so initially in a particular national environment in Turkey where, among other things, the relationship between religion and the secular took a particular form; and where the flavors of Islam are affected by culture; and his personal biography – having been imprisoned, and [surviving] the context of military coups. To me all of these things are not irrelevant to a person’s theology and thus in trying to understand the theology, one should not seek to understand it just as an historical inheritance or as an abstract set of logical conclusions… but also in engagement with the individual. This doesn't mean that it's individualistic, necessarily. But it does mean that I think that for a rounded understanding of a person’s writing and teaching, one has to understand where they come from, how they've lived, and what has affected their life. Because it's in dialogue with that context that they articulate and develop.
After two worlds wars and the cold war, we have lived through a relatively peaceful few decades... Yet, authoritarian leaders seem to be on the rise, and there is a tendency of polarization which is being openly displayed and expressed. Where do you think we are heading? What will be the role of religion in these circumstances?
In my memory and in my lifetime of course the world was divided into two power blocks, and I was very much engaged in East-West relations in the 80s and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think [after the fall] there were many people who wanted to argue that okay well, everything will be alright now. But yes, clearly there is a rise of authoritarian leaders at present and new polarizations are forming. I think… new polarizations formed – so that in place of the East-West confrontation in the eyes of many (not only in the “Western world” but sometimes in the so-called wider “Muslim world”) the confrontation between Islam and the West or Islam and Christendom took the place of the previous confrontation between capitalism and communism. So that's been there for some time.
I think what's happening now, the so-called “populism,” is very worrying and very dangerous. It's dangerous for religions because there can be religion as a cultural identity which is often invoked by populist leaders. Superficially this can be attractive to religious people who are concerned that the place of their religion has been marginalized and this strong populist leader will come along and bring religion back into its rightful place at the center of their national life. But this is a dangerous misuse of religion. One can't separate religion and politics if one means politics with a small ‘p’ – in other words a concern for the public life – because all religions are concerned for more than the individual. That's part of the nature of religions. But as a writer (Achin Vanaik) on Indian communalism put it some years ago there are politicians who use religion for instrumental purposes and there are religious people who use politics and politicians for instrumental purposes: neither is beneficial and both can be dangerous. There is a proper relationship between religion and politics, if by politics, is understood the 'life of the polis' - in other words of the wider community. This is because religions are not only concerned with the individual, but are also properly concerned with how lives are lived in community. But what can be dangerous to religion, civil society and the state alike, is an instrumentalization either of religion in the service of politics, or of politics in the service of religion, and certainly any equation between a religion and a particular political party. Such thinking is, at least in my understanding, not dissimilar to what I personally see as being one of the most important contributions that Fethullah Gülen’s thinking makes about the place of Islam and Muslims in the various states and societies of the world.
This article has been published on Fountain Magazine, #116, Mar-Apr 2017