Sixth Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders

4th-8th May, 2014
St. Ottilien, Munich, Germany

flickr01Memory and Hope – 6th Meeting of Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders
St. Ottilien, Munich, Germany, 2014

 

The Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders held its sixth bi-annual meeting at the Archabbey of St. Ottilien, near Munich. The meeting was preceded by the annual gathering of the Guerrand Hermes Forum for the Interreligious Study of the Mystical and Spiritual Life. The theme of “Living the Spiritual Life in Time: Consciousness of past, present and future” was chosen to complement the theme of the main meeting, “Memory and Hope”.

Discussions of ‘Memory and Hope’.

When member of Elijah meet, the methodology is discussion and engagement, rather than lectures and speeches. Scholars of the Elijah Interfaith Academy prepare, in advance of the gathering, the material to be discussed by participants and a book of essays is published, which participants are expected to study prior to arrival. For this meeting, the topic was ‘Memory and Hope’. We believed that this topic was of significance for interfaith relations. We did not realize just how significant it would be and the depth of discussions that it would generate. It transpired that this was a very provocative, challenging and important topic.

It required much trust and openness to engage in the subject of painful or contentious memory and we were deeply gratified that the community of leaders was able to engage the subject in such an open and frank way. As one newcomer to our forum wrote, following the meeting:

I have participated in many interfaith conferences and dialogues worldwide but the way it was organized and involvement of every speaker from all religious faiths in many intensive sessions was amazing. You made us to occupy since [sic] 9 in the morning till 9 in the evening with deep deliberations on many aspects of the theme. The selection of theme was powerful, thought provoking and exploring new avenues for present and future with the clarity of past. It was completely a new gaining experience of such dialogues (Samani Charitra Prajna, Vice Chancellor of Jain Vishva Bharati University)

The gathering of scholars and leaders accepted the challenge of examining the collective memories held sacred within each of their religious traditions. Where memories have become impediments to positive relations with the other, participants sought ways to heal the pain, either through reframing the memory into a particular context or overcoming the experience through a retelling of the narrative, or finding other tools for transforming memory into hope.

The 45 leaders who participated in the meeting were broken into 3 groups. Most of the time was spent in small group discussion, in order to get the most out of personal interactions and relations. As in all our meetings, there were no lectures. The papers served as background for focused conversation, moderated by the scholars who had authored the papers. In terms of the balance of small group and plenary discussion, this was the most that our balance has ever tilted in favor of small group discussions. Rather than spend time in plenary, we chose several topics that were featured as interest groups, that allowed ad-hoc formation of groups, thereby creating further interaction with the larger forum, without resorting to the plenary format. In addition, consultations took place within each tradition, in which the paper representing that religion was commented upon.

Relationships and Collaboration.

There was a unanimous sentiment that at this meeting, the Board had reached a level of maturity and depth in its relationships that it had not reached previously. There was a feeling voiced by many that this was the best meeting we had ever had. To us, this kind of interreligious friendship and community-building has a value in and of itself. While we also seek to translate it into collaborative action, there is value in the relationships and in how they form each participant.

This can be illustrated by one moving example, shared by an Israeli rabbi. This rabbi, who is a prominent voice in Israeli public discourse, is involved in interfaith relations only through Elijah (this is the only forum where he felt there is a depth of discourse that is worthy of his investing his time). One day he took lunch with the most prominent Hindu representative at the meeting. In the course of lunch, as he later told me, he decided to shift his orientation from that of a colleague sharing opinions to a disciple who seeks the wisdom of the master. Accordingly, the conversation proceeded with him turning to the Hindu master, requesting his advice on key issues that he experiences as part of his own leadership work. One of the questions he posed concerned how to bless people who come to him. People frequently ask him for blessings, and he is at a loss how to fulfil their request and what that means in terms of his relationship with them and in terms of his own self-image. The Hindu master responded: When people ask for blessings, I simply pray together with them. The rabbi found this answer most illuminating and has shared with me how it has helped him in the exercise of his own rabbinical duties. This kind of exchange requires the spirit of trust, openness and friendship that characterizes Elijah and is a typical fruit of our gatherings.

Moving from the more subjective and relational dimensions to the more objective dimensions of community building, this meeting was important in terms of broadening our base of participating leaders. We are always engaged in broadening the base of representation of the EBWRL. The present meeting saw the first time that Jain representatives took part in a meeting, and the first time an Aremnian Orthodox representative participated (sadly, one of our original supporters, Patriarch Mesrob, is extremely unwell and this has hampered participation of his church). We also had more religious leaders from Africa than previously, and welcomed some new women leaders into our group, a challenge we try to address continually.

Engagement of Board members beyond their own community.

During the course of the meeting, our group went on two visits. One was to Munich, where we visited the Memory Institute, a semi-governmental institution that deals with memory in the specific context of events of the third Reich. Its location in Munich is a consequence of the place that Munich occupied in the events of the period.

By common consensus, the most important visit and for many the most important moment during the entire program was the visit to Dachau and especially the visit to the Carmelite Monastery. The visit to Dachau provided an opportunity to confronting painful memories and for exploring how they might be transformed, healed or redeemed. A detailed report of this visit will be included in the next newsletter.

Engagement with Elijah Projects – Center of HOPE and Religious Genius project.

In addition to dialogue on the theme of the meeting, the Board enthusiastically committed itself to engagement with the projects that are going to be at the centre of Elijah’s activities in the coming two years – the establishment of the Center of HOPE in Jerusalem and the development of a new category for understanding significant religious figures, ‘Religious Genius’.

Center of HOPE.

Elijah is currently engaged in creating a first of its kind interfaith center, to be based in Jerusalem, to be called the Center of HOPE, acronym for House of Prayer and Education. A lengthy session was devoted to sharing this vision with Board members. After holding a session on the significance of Jerusalem for all religions, including those not historically associated with Jerusalem, we broke into small working groups that focused on the HOPE vision for Jerusalem. There were some significant insights that have emerged from this consultation, that help us take forward the HOPE vision. It was clear that the vision has strong support and buy-in from the Board.

Religious Genius.

Elijah is about to receive a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study saints and exemplary figures across religious traditions and to explore how they might be inspiring, even for members of other traditions. One of the first stages envisioned in the framework of the 3 year grant is a survey of what religious genius means and who might be considered a religious genius by religious communities. In line with this direction, we devoted a session to consultations within each tradition, wherein we sought to identify who would be considered a religious genius. The results provided important insights for the future of the project. In addition to providing lists that can grow from within each tradition, the consultation made us aware of tensions as to who would be considered a religious genius by the community. The tension pits on the one extreme the great religious figures of a tradition and on the other prominent leaders, who are venerated by their communities. This consultation made it clear that in designing the upcoming project we must allow flexibility for multiple definitions and leave room for community involvement and definition to help shape the concept.

One thing that emerged above and beyond the substantive contribution is the degree of enthusiasm for the project. The leaders were very excited about working in this field and it is clear that they, and their communities, will find the project engaging and a site for future interreligious dialogue. The intuition that this is an important basis for future dialogue received confirmation through this consultation.