Interview with Johnston McMaster and Simon Robinson on the practice of real dialogue.

Recently, we had the pleasure of having a thoughtful conversation with two great thinkers and writers from the United Kingdom. A senior researcher and educator with the Ethical and Shared Remembering Programme 1912-1922, Dr. McMaster directed an Education for Reconciliation Programme with the Irish School of Ecumenics in Northern Ireland for seventeen years. Editor of Journal of Global Responsibility, Dr. Simon Robinson is Professor of Applied and Professional Ethics, and Director of the Research Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility, at Leeds Beckett University. Even these brief highlights from their long credentials and academic achievements tell more than enough of these two great men and their work.

What follows is a journey in the form of an interview across the horizons of deep thought on dialogue, ethics, responsibility, purpose, and meaning in life. They generously shared their views on many existential questions in this interview which we were able to conduct during their tour in the United States for their recently published books: A Word Between Us: Ethics in Interfaith Dialogue (McMaster) and The Spirituality of Responsibility: Fethullah Gülen and Islamic Thought (Robinson).

Conversation with deep thinkers is as difficult as it sounds, for in many cases they turn out to be not only philosophical, but also humorous. This was one such conversation. Enjoy it.


A Word Between Us: Ethics in Interfaith Dialogue
By Johnston McMaster
Centre for Hizmet Studies, London, pp. 192


The Spirituality of Responsibility: Fethullah Gülen and Islamic Thought
By Simon Robinson
Bloomsbury, pp. 224


The Fountain: What does the word “dialogue” mean to you?

Johnston McMaster: First of all, as I understand the meaning of the word “dialogue” it really does mean, literally, “a word between us.” It is about those conversations and the act of speaking and listening. In the case of my recent book, A Word Between Us, was an attempt to bring the thought of Fethullah Gülen to the conversation or [into] dialogue with Jewish and Christian thought – in particular, values. It attempts to explore the ethics and values shared between the three traditions as understood by Gülen, the Jewish thought as understood by former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks, and drawing on my own experience and other theologians on Christian thought. It is an attempt to see if there is a common Abrahamic ethic; if that dialogue could lead us to find a shared set of values and ethics that would contribute towards common good and more flourishing humanity.

Professor Robinson, you also have a recently published book “The Spirituality of Responsibility,” in which you also focus on Gülen. Why him?

Simon Robinson: Because a) I’ve gotten to know him over the past 10 years along with his thinking and followers; b) because he is also an Islamic humanist. I would also go further and say that he is an Islamic existentialist. As soon as someone goes into the idea of existentialism you talk about taking responsibility for your thinking and your practice. Once you look at this work, as I’ve been privileged to do so, in more detail within the past two years, you see how he begins to focus on responsibility. Finally, for me the key point is that you define spirituality in terms of responsibility. I don’t think spirituality is religiosity; it is rather about living out core values, practicing core virtues such as courage, patience, tolerance and so forth, and together having the imagination to find different ways of achieving this exploration, the moral imagination. Gülen is rich in all of those, and it is terrific to compare him with the rest of the Western thinkers. So, we see the humanistic thought that transcends any particular religion.

Do you think that there are many others in the West who sympathize with Mr. Gülen, in a way that you understand him?

Robinson: I think there are a lot of people who sympathize with him, and the conferences, which are brilliantly organized by the Gülen movement over the past decade, have brought these people together. The downside is that these people think alike. It’s one reason that I’m drawn to Gülen, because I think that he thinks like me. All these good humanists are drawn together. The others, and there are a lot of them, most of them just don’t know about him; it is a lack of awareness. The intriguing thing is that he is only talked about by the others because of the accusations of terrorism, which is interesting, because they don’t know the story.

McMaster: As I read Gülen, what I find is that his main message is that what matters most is people’s humanity. That humanity comes before being a Christian or a Muslim or whatever. I think we live in a world where the majority of people within religious traditions even see it that way …  I think we need to keep at it. We can establish the links in between the Abrahamic traditions, and I think that could be extended further and even into the secular humanist world or other philosophical worldviews as well. Let’s keep building and pushing … looking for that common ground. It is imperative that we engage in this dialogue ...

How relevant is interfaith dialogue today, especially in a time when people are less concerned about religious affiliation?

McMaster: I think we’re living in a Western world where there has been what we called the “secularization thesis”; that I think has begun to fade. In some sense religion has not gone away, God has not gone away, but not all that is religious is “coming back” if you’d like. I think we are in an Atlantic Western world where there has been a considerable demise [of] organized religion. For me, a lot of this is from the Christian perspective. I think by the end of World War I, Christianity started to decline, that the war killed off the Christendom model. Churches are not closely affiliated with systems of power or politics, there’s been a demise in practice as well, and that is a reaction to something. It is a reaction to very powerful, controlling, ecclesial institutions and oppressive forms of religion. Now I don’t think it necessarily means that people are without a sense of spirituality. I think spirituality is about meanings and values, and I think most people are still concerned with pursuing these issues. I think an interfaith dialogue that can focus on those profound spiritual issues of values, meanings, purpose, and practices could go a long way.

Can those people, who feel disenfranchised by any religious affiliation, be attracted to interfaith dialogue?

Robinson: To be honest I don’t entirely go along with this idea of “post-religion.” There is an assumption that we (the United Kingdom) were a religious nation until certain events happened. One of the evidences that sociologists used to argue this point is that they would say, “Look at the vast number of churches built in the 18th and 19th centuries!” But it’s a myth. They did build more churches, and they were never filled. The truth is that most of them were empty … The association with the Christian religion, within the UK and parts of the West, actually lead to meaning being hollowed out. There was no real meaning behind it. It was exemplified in some churches where the priest was in charge, and you would do what the priest told you to do. Once you get that dynamic you lose all sense of individual responsibility for your faith. This is nonsense; it’s a childish, not child-like view of reward in relationships, the notion of, “If I do this, then I will have grace.” I see the 21st century as an amazingly exciting time because people are having to take responsibility for their own meaning. This also means that everything religious people say should be interrogated and challenged. I think Gülen fits right into this time because he argues for science, rationality, challenging, questioning, critique, and these are all parts of what it means to be human. This is exciting because he says that you don’t have to be in a tribal situation where you have to defend, his view of responsibility talks about how we co-create God’s will together with each other. This means that we have to talk about it. It means that religions need to be more open, especially to questions, unrehearsed questions. The test of authenticity is answering unrehearsed questions.

You’re referring to a much bigger, deeper sense of being human that goes beyond commonalities.

Robinson: For me the problem in the “old” view of interfaith dialogue is that, we will come together in a nice cozy room and see how much we like each other; but that is not dialogue. That is just “not being hurt.” Real dialogue is practice-centered, in what difference that makes to your community. A long time ago we had an interfaith response to the Vietnamese boat people who had no homes. Together, across the different faiths from a small Yorkshire village, we provided two homes. And that felt really good.

McMaster: [Recently], we had the death of one of the great intellects of our time, Stephen Hawking. One of his great concepts was that we live in a universe without boundaries. He, as a scientist, did not rely [on the] God question because he believed that we are in a universe without boundaries. What I think that means for people of faith and spirituality is that there are no boundaries, there are always questions to be asked, boundaries always to be pushed, horizons before us. The dialogue has to engage robustly with big, hard questions but also to push beyond the boundaries and live in a universe without boundaries. And in that sense, I think, science and religion are two sides of one coin.

Some readers ask us, “Why are you publishing articles on medicine right next to an article on religious thought?” And what we usually say is that they are already interrelated.

McMaster: I think this is because we have gotten ourselves frequently trapped into dualisms and dichotomies. I believe that dualisms are destructive. There is a much more holistic way to do and see things, that things are not all oppositional or in binaries... The very science of ecology ought to have taught us this. We are looking into the interconnectedness and interrelationship of everything.

Robinson: This whole notion of religion being away from scientific thinking is nonsense. It says that “religion is separate from science and that if you follow these set of rules you will be ok, ... It’s assumed that, in academia, this is an intellectual pursuit that is based around theory. But, theory is quite different from practice. But how can that be? Theory explains practice. If there isn’t any practice to explain, then we have no theory. This is another reason why Gülen is so interesting because, if you look at the virtues, that’s very Aristotelian, as you would expect from an Islamic thinker, the intellectual virtues are together with the practical virtues. Aristotle has five intellectual virtues, including the practical wisdom reflecting on the purpose of what we are doing. And when you reflect on the purpose, you are reflecting on the worth of what you are doing. That immediately gives you a critical perspective of everything around you. Every piece of rationality is fueled by your view of the world and what the worth of that world is. Therefore, that has to be interrogated. What is exciting for me is that Gülen is happy to interrogate not just Islamic thinking but also Western thinking and vice versa. 

McMaster: The dualisms also need to be overcome when it comes to discussion of primacy. There is more to us than the rational, there is more to us than the intellectual. There is the imagination; there are the poets, the dramatists, the artists, people who think with the other half of their brains. All of that needs to be held in some kind of holistic approach. Einstein said, “Logic can take you from A to Z. Imagination can take you anywhere.”

You spoke about purpose: are we leading lives with a purpose?

Robinson: Everybody thinks that they have a view of worth, the only question is that will that view be tested. It is so easy to get from year 5 to year 75 and your view of worth has never been tested. That is what I would call a very boring life. Once we have someone ask us what our purpose is, and then we try to articulate it, we discover that many of us do not actually know fully what our purpose is. But this helps us to develop our purpose and justify it.

The issue is not that there are a bunch of people with no purpose or sense of worth; it’s about how we help each other to articulate and question our sense of worth. The final point is that any sense of worth or purpose is directly related to our own sense of self-worth. This forms our identity. Until we say the words, much of that is obscure, we don’t see it. It’s a function of dialogue. Dialectic is about a rational proposition that you are trying to discuss and prove. Dialogue is ontological; it is about your being and my being. That connects directly to spirituality. When you have a dialogue which questions what you view as of worth; that causes dissonance. When you have dissonance, then you begin to approach transcendence. This feels uncomfortable, and you begin to move beyond yourself. Hence, I would argue that spirituality is itself about responsibility, dialogue, narrative, and all those other things.

One time during a family vacation, our grandson sat down with my wife and asked her, “Granny, why do things have to change?” It’s a gentle rawness, because he was thinking about how he would have to go home the next day and leave the beautiful seaside. My wife said, life is about changing. Interfaith dialogue is meaningless, if you are not having that conversation with your grandchild. I think that is the heart of spirituality because it raises an existential question about us and our place.

The real problem is not that interfaith dialogue cannot reach out to those who don’t have faith, or whatever; it’s that we try to run away from those existential moments and questions. Often religion [as generally understood] is complicit because it says, “Don’t worry. You’ve lost your parent, your spouse, whatever, don’t worry; everything will be okay.” I’m not saying that that’s false … But at that existential moment we discover how to work through the pain and suffering, and that is spirituality. The virtue of hope. In that sense, spirituality precedes religion. A lot of people, great mates of mine, are not religious but very spiritual, open to a sense of the “other,” the transcendent other, environment or whatever, in such a way that they begin to come to terms with the very difficult, ambiguous lives that we have. The issue is not religious vs non-religious; the issue is how we enable people from all walks of life to deal with hope and the hardships of life, the reality of creation, creativity, and imagination. That’s what makes you come alive!

What kinds of foundations do people use if they lack spirituality or religion? How do people who deal with great distress find hope? What are the sources of ethics?

Robinson: The development of moral thinking and ethical practice is very complex than having spirituality or religion as the only source of ethics. Because there are several different sources. One source is reason, rationality. If you justify your ethical position with a logical fallacy, there is something oddly wrong. Logical thinking is crucial, so logic is a source of ethics. Empathy, the capacity to see and hear the other, and enter into dialogue with the other in a way that does not make them instruments for you to feel good. That’s a source of ethics. And of course practice. If ethics are not seen in practice, then it is impossible to know what it is. You could read volumes of books of ethics and not know what ethics looks like. We end up shaving bits off, values, virtues, principles to try and look as if we know what they are. Part of the source of ethics is humanity as a rational, feeling, and practical being.

How about technology? We are advancing with incredible speed in technology, but we are not at the same pace in terms of virtues and good character.

Robinson: Why is that a surprise? It was argued, before the first World War, that we had progressed so much as humans, and that we had reached a new plateau. And then, a year later, the War breaks out. After every governance crisis, credit crisis, etc. we go, “Ah, what a shock!” This is just natural for people.

McMaster: I don’t subscribe to the “reformed” idea, and I mean reformed in a Christian sense of a total depravity, that we are all very evil. I think that that is a very dehumanizing idea. But, I think there is something about all of our religious traditions, something that they are trying to say, and it’s part of the grappling with the reality about the human existence. Somehow, at the heart of this, there is a flaw; not total depravity, but there is a flaw. Our institutions go wrong, our systems become corrupt, and the utopia never arrives. I think there then needs to be this constant process of almost “full renewal,” of starting again, transformation.

Robinson: That is where religion can come into conversation with political and corporate institutions. The routine that happens whenever a crisis occurs is, A) we become shocked as if we’re surprised that these things are happening; B) we become very judgmental; and C) we then let out the cry, “This must never happen again!” And how do we avoid that? By becoming patriarchal. We bring in regulations and then say, “If you don’t follow these then we’re going to smack you.” If we as humans have an understanding of our inherent flaws, then we can begin to take steps towards reevaluating how genuine an organization is. As Madison said, as the American Constitution was being founded, no system will ever stop a tyrant from emerging; only human beings with virtue and wisdom can.

And also those with purpose?

Robinson: But my only caveat there is that we cannot give people purpose; they have to find it. They have to discover it.

Let’s finish with the topic of Brexit: what are the short-term and long-term consequences going to be for Europe and the rest of the world?

McMaster: I live in Ireland and Brexit is probably going to have huge implications for Ireland. During the referendum campaign, there was a rhetoric like, “Taking our country back again.” This leaves a person wondering, which country is the Prime Minister talking about? The UK is United Kingdom with no doubt very different regions and very different needs, different cultures, and different possibilities. None of that was taken into account, least of all, I suspect, Ireland. Ireland is only three years away from the centenary of its partition. That constitutional issue and bogey has come roaring back again almost a century on, and I don’t think it is going to go away. It has polarized communities to quite an extent in Northern Ireland. It’s difficult to be hopeful about Ireland. The biggest impact of Brexit may be on our peace process. A lot of it has not yet been completed or been realized, and that could unravel. Worst case scenario, there could be a return to violence.

As for Europe, I think that there is no question … [Brexit] a reform is needed within the EU. I think that the EU will not be the same European Union that it was at the time when the UK decided to leave. There’s a bigger question I think, and that is the bigger global issues; the process of Easternization that is going on; the geopolitical shifts of wealth and power and military might; the emergence of China and where they will be in 20 or 30 years; where this nation (the UK) will be in 20 or 30 years. A recently published book is called, The Dawn of Eurasia, and that may be in a new world order, which very well may emerge. I think there is an opportunity for Europe to be a significant block within that with a strong vocation for peace and peace building.

Some people say, regarding the recent events in Turkey, that there has been a transition of power from those who are pro-NATO to those who are called Eurasianists.

Robinson: For me it is entirely about identity. When we discussed it beforehand we discussed national arguments, “We shouldn’t leave because…”, a lot of economic argues, “We should leave because…”. But what was really going on was discussion about sovereignty and identity of a nation. The majority of those that voted cried out, “We’ve gotten our country back.” That tells us everything, that it is about identity. But the problem is that nobody knows what that means. At no point did we discuss sovereignty, identity, the plural identity of the United Kingdom. No one has talked about our history. Identity is tied to worth and purpose. No one talked about the purpose of these remarkable islands and their sense of worth, it was entirely defensive and negative identity.

We had a situation where half of the country felt bereaved when this happened. We lost something. The other half felt energized but don’t know how to use it. We have so much to do as a country in order to work out how we will step into the future, and we just don’t know. We keep turning to our politicians, asking them for a solution, but they don’t know either. We are in a confused situation because we are not taking responsibility for looking at ourselves and looking at our identity and focusing on worth – worth to each other, worth our nation, worth to Europe, etc.

McMaster: I think a big focus from the onset has been market-driven and materialistic. There has been a failure to recognize that there is a lot more to life and a great deal to our identity than that. Those are some of the big questions again under purpose, identity, and worth that we are not addressing.

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