Understanding Identity – The 8th Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders

Extremadura, Spain
23rd – 29th November, 2018

Understanding Identity – The 8th Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders
 Extremadura, Spain, November 2018


The Eighth Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders was held in Extremadura in Spain at the end of 2018. Religious leaders from six religions gathered for 4 days together.

The opening day of the meeting began ceremoniously, when the Archbishop of Madrid Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra, hosted leaders in his home.

When the group reached the region of Extremadura, Elijah’s Board of World Religious Leaders was greeted by the Minister of Tourism and other local officials.

The entire event was extensively covered in Spain and other Spanish speaking countries. The coming together of Elijah leaders of such diversity and the reception they received in a predominantly Catholic context is a significant step in advancing interfaith understanding in the Spanish context. Thanks to the efforts of Swami Rameshwarananda, Elijah leaders were featured nationally, received and hosted by the President of Extremadura and the head of the Catholic Church in Spain.

Understanding Identity

For a period of two intensive days of discussion, leaders grappled with the theme of “Identity and Mysticism” based on papers prepared by members of the Elijah Academy.
The discussion was divided into four thematic sessions, the first of which began with an attempt to clarify what “identity” means in the framework of each religion, and how this applies to both individual and group identity.

Each small group discussed the following questions:

How central are concerns for identity in my religion and in my own approach to my religion (inasmuch as not the same)?
How closely is group identity related to personal identity? Which is primary?
What is the relative significance of group identity in each religion and how do the concerns for group identity shape the life of the community, including contemporary issues in the public sphere, that stem from concerns for maintaining group identity?

Many of the authors identified problems with any discussion regarding identity. Sallie King, writing on Buddhism, opened her paper with the following caution:
“Whenever the issue of ‘identity,’ any kind of personal identity, is raised in a Buddhist context, there is certain to be trouble. Buddhism is known for the counter-intuitive teaching, which also runs counter to the teachings of most world religions and philosophies, that there is no ‘self.’ This is the core Buddhist teaching of anātman (Pali anattā). We are psycho-physical organisms made up of five categories of parts, physical and mental (material parts, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and multiple kinds of consciousness). All of these parts are changing moment by moment. They all interact with each other and with the world of sense objects. None endures beyond a moment and none can be identified as the foundation of one’s identity (a self). Thus to say there is no self is not to say that there is no person. A person is present as a kind of chain of events that is always in process. We form a character by falling into certain habitual patterns of thought and behavior. To say that there is no self is only to say that there is no core entity that constitutes ‘my’ identity and endures over time; no metaphysical referent of the word, ‘I.’

In the discussions, it was noted that this shedding of ego was an ideal to which most religious  traditions aspired. It was not only Buddhist participants, including Jinwol Lee, who spoke about his own process of reaching a spiritual state whereby he was able to let go of his ego but Hindu leader, Swami Atmapriyanda, also spoke about the realization of the fact that we are all connected – not separate, independent beings but small parts of the greater whole – as one of the most important concepts for the religious personality to recognize.

Jewish and Christian leaders asserted that the realization of the unity of everything was also an important concept in their traditions and, like Muslim participants, discussed the yearning to unite with the Creator as a factor in the spiritual life.

In speaking about group identity, Hinduism presented the greatest challenge. Neelima Shukla-Bhatt wrote, “In the absence of a single founder, a single deity, a single sacred text, or a single religious belief uniformly embraced by all Hindus, definition of an overarching ‘Hindu’ identity is a complex issue from a historical perspective. It is certainly not a term that people belonging to communities that now identify as ‘Hindu’ have used since the early development of their tradition.”

She continued, “The processes of both deduction and integration have made it impossible to arrive at a precise definition of Hindu identity in a purely religious sense.” Hindu participants agreed and felt that their identity was more correctly connected to their particular branch of Hinduism than to an over-arching generalization that may describe something more geographic than theological.

Other traditions had a clearer sense of what constituted their group identity, although each was quite distinct.

For Muslims and Christians, group identity is primarily about a shared belief system. In each case accepting some key religious concepts is the factor that binds the individuals to the group.
Vince Cornell explained that in Islam, it is a belief about the relationship of the individual to the Creator that creates the common bond between members of the group. He writes, “Because the human being owes a debt to God that can never be repaid, the Qur’ān portrays the individual believer as the “slave of God” (‘abd Allāh).  This term, in its masculine (‘abd Allāh) or feminine (amat Allāh) form, is traditionally considered to be the most honorable name that a Muslim person can bear and is the most important marker of Islamic identity.  Because the individual owes her very existence to God, she knows that she, herself, is the substance of her own debt.  Thus, the only way she can repay God is by giving herself over to the service of her Creator and submitting to God’s commands.  This act of submission is what is meant by the term Islām.  The person who submits to God is called a Muslim (fem. muslima).”

Writing about Christianity, Piotr Sikora felt that Christians are united in their identity by their fidelity to the person and teachings of Jesus but showed that within the commonality of belief, there was also diversity. He wrote, “[Such] a conviction, that the Christian identity of a community is strictly connected with the rootedness of its beliefs and practices in the apostolic teaching (i.e. ultimately in the teaching of Jesus), is shared by almost all branches of Christianity, even if in each of the branches it has a particular form. For ‘Protestants’ (except Quakers) nothing can count as genuinely Christian if it is not found in the Bible. ‘Orthodox’ .. them as the authentic interpretation of the Scripture and apostolic tradition. Even in Catholicism, where there is a powerful institutional office responsible for defining the boundaries of orthodoxy, this office – Magisterium Ecclesiae – claims that it does not invent any new teaching, but only preserves, reformulates or deepens the understanding of the Truth which was revealed at the beginning of the Church.”

The emphasis on sacred texts was reflected in the discussions by Christian leader, David Ford, whose own religious identity was informed by his appreciation of the wisdom from his tradition and whose claim was that it is through the analysis and sharing of sacred texts, people of faith can best engage in dialogue and reach understanding.

Jewish identity differs from other traditions in that the identity of the individual as “Jewish” does not necessarily describe a set of religious beliefs, commitment to rituals or any other aspect of the religious life and although the religious leaders all exemplified a compatibility between their personal identities and Jewish religious life, there was a recognition of the problematics of Jewish identity.  Meir Sendor described the tension in Judaism, saying, “There is dynamic tension at the core of contemporary Judaism regarding the interplay of collective and personal religious identity. Some of the complexity is intrinsic to the nature of Judaism itself, while other aspects are a result of responses to historical circumstances.”
In the discussions, some Jewish leaders emphasized their spiritual lives while others chose to make a distinction between spirituality and the ritual life, emphasizing the sense of obligation to particular practices above the search for spiritual or mystical engagement. Awareness of these two aspects of the religious life was not unique to them but making the distinction was more prominent among Jewish leaders than others.

Another element of the discussions was about how one acquires their religious identity. One of the most interesting comparisons was about the way an individual might join the community. In some cases it is about acceptance of creeds or practices; for others, it is more about a birthright. Meir Sendor wrote, “Judaism as a religious nation is not limited to an endogenous hereditary base, [however], and admits converts through a judicial process similar to the naturalization of citizens found among political nations, in which candidates receive instruction and are tested for their knowledge of the legal and cultural principles of the nation, pledge their allegiance in the presence of a duly authorized court, and undergo identity-transforming rituals. Converts are considered to become full-fledged members not only of the nation and the religion, but even the family: they receive new identities signified by Hebrew names, officially designated as sons or daughters of the original patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah, and welcomed with affection.”
The idea of adopting a new identity – a transformation of identity – was discussed also in connection with the meaning of “mysticism” and the impact of a mystical experience and will be discussed in future newsletters.

Leaders Discuss an Invitation to Friendship

During the second part of the meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, participants analysed the text of the first draft of “An Invitation to Friendship – Towards a Covenant of World Religions.”

The exercise was in two parts: first, together with members of the “Transcendence” group of Spanish religious leaders, a new interfaith body formed in Spain in conjunction with the Elijah meeting, studying sources from six traditions on the concept of Friendship; secondly, critiquing the draft of the Covenant from the perspective of their own religion.

Our host for the Eighth Meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders was Swami Rameshwarananda, the Founder and President of Fundación Phi, dedicated to favouring and strengthening the development of human potential and to harmonizing body, mind, spirit and environment. The impressive campus, built with sustainability and compatibility with nature as a priority, is devoted to research and technological development projects in the field of Environmental Sustainable Development, as well as meditation and interreligious understanding.

Members of the campus Phi community joined Elijah leaders and scholars in an intensive cross-religious text-study session. Sources included discourses from the Buddha from the Samyutta Nikāya and the Bhikkhu Bodhi, quotes from St John Chrysostom and Aelred of Rievaulx, Jewish sources from the Mishna, Zohar and a Hassidic master, excerpts from the Quran and Hadith,  poetry and texts from the Hindu tradition including Tulasidasa and quotes from the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev. (See the Sharing Wisdom section below for some examples of the texts studied.)

Differences between the texts and the different religious traditions were noted but overwhelmingly clear was the wisdom they had in common. In all cases, friendship was regarded not only as beneficial for its utility, enabling as it does cooperation and support for matters of mutual importance, but also as a value that transcended any particular functional purpose. In many instances, the depth of friendship is brought out in the recognition that God is a friend, impacting human friendship relations.  In all traditions, the qualities of friendship are associated with values and ethics such as generosity and empathy. Participants in the discussion groups shared their own experiences of friendship and  distinguished between those people in their lives with whom they shared some experiences and those who were genuine friends, bonded by mutual understanding and the willingness to sacrifice for the other.

After the text-study, leaders from each of the religious traditions represented at the meeting met in focus groups, with members of the same religion, to examine the first draft of  “An Invitation to Friendship – Towards a Covenant of World Religions,” one of Elijah’s flagship projects. Despite the fundamental commonality noted above, there are differences of nuance and understanding that must be ironed out as we seek to develop a declaration of friendship that members of all religions can sign on to.

Particularly important are the sections of the document relating to “The Practice of Friendship” and the “Commitment.” Once the wording is in place, reflecting and respecting the diversity of traditions, religious leaders are asked to commit themselves to model friendship across religion and to provide teaching and activities that will enable their communities to join them.

David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity emeritus at the University of Cambridge and one of the authors of the draft of the Friendship Declaration, chaired the final discussion in which all groups offered their feedback. It was evident that there is still a lot of work to be done but there is great enthusiasm for the principle of religious leaders committing themselves to modelling and teaching friendship across religions.
One of the recommendations included in the Declaration is that each tradition offers resources for the cultivation of friendship. Signatories are asked to commit themselves to establish and support educational frameworks and programs within their traditions and institutions that will provide opportunities to enhance genuine understanding of the religious other and the cultivation of friendship.