Sound and Silence

when necessary, use words

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 4

Reason 4: We can no longer ignore “the other” in our pluralist world.diversityinclusion

We are more in contact with a wider range of people than ever before. If we deny this reality our religions will wither and die. And more than that, like Bede Griffiths, we begin to sense the call of the “other half of our souls” which often lies beyond our tradition.

One of the major themes of the consciousness emerging at this time is that we come to terms with our “shadow” selves. We can no longer hide from Life by projecting onto and then rejecting the “Other”, that which we do not accept about ourselves. We can no longer justify this lack of responsibility, this willing ignorance,  via our traditional moralities which create and maintain an evil or enemy “out there”.

We need to decommission words like “heathen”, “heretic”, “kafir”, “infidel” and “unbeliever”, words which institutionalize our denial. As Koos Kombuis, Afrikaner bard sings,

“Ons is almal kaffirs (We are all infidels)”.

If we don’t whole heatedly engage this “heart” work, this painful humbling, this acknowledgement of our addiction, denial and darkness, mutual destruction is guaranteed.

There is no choice in a pluralist world to but to face ourselves and our others with a new story. And I believe that our religious traditions can give us this story, if we read them intelligently, humbly and with fresh eyes, especially those of another.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.


5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 3

Reason 3: We are all called to be more open, curious and generous.

curious-childRegardless of our specific beliefs, spiritual people really ought to at the very least be cultivating the virtues of curiosity and generosity, becoming more selfless, compassionate, and childlike.

Religious scholar and “freelance monotheist” Karen Armstrong has shown us that every major religious tradition teaches at its heart, the “Golden Rule”. For example, Leviticus 19.18, the Hebrew book of law, and Matthew 22.36-40, the Christian gospel, say

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Is Islam, the Hadith of an-Nawawi states

“Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”.

Of course, let us remember that Confucius was a very early teacher of this truth – Analects 15:23 states

“Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”

There is always something to learn, but our dogmas can blind us to this. We are called to be open, but are often closed. We are called to be generous, but sadly the most religious can become the most mean hearted, closed minded, and judgmental, of all.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. Still places open, especially to Christians. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 2

Reason 2: It’s time to move from interfaith dialog to inter-spiritual practice.

Interfaith dialog is viewed by many as a political necessity in today’s interconnected world. And so we often let our respective leaders do the talking, and just get on with our own traditions without taking on the radical challenges of loving and living with those with “opposing” views.

The great treasure that interreligious dialogue among the world religions could unlock is to enable people to get to know and love other religions and the people who practice them.
― Thomas Keating, Consenting to God As God Is

But while dialog is always good, it cannot be the end goal. It can become a game of comparing your ideas and my ideas, without sharing life. It can get stuck in the head, and focus on difference and dogma, and the lowest common denominator. Mere talking even risks devolving into conflict. Compared to talking, practice is more of a challenge; talk is cheap, but experience is costly.

interspiritual-meditation-sideInter-spiritual practice is about doing things with those different to you, openly and non- judgmentally. It is about encounter, hearing the heart, feeling the pain, and deepening experiential knowledge. There are inevitably aspects of other religions we find hard to accept. But if we focus on what is common, we might be surprised. Take the “petals” of the flower from the book “InterSpiritual Meditation” (right) – even the most traditional religious people would agree on most of these. We might even find that we are in denial about things the “others” can offer.

In fact, inter-spiritual practice is an exciting, cutting-edge creative act. It means we are all in the same “boat of unknowing”, it levels the playing field to a space with no “experts”. Every religious tradition started somewhere, with a great deal of unknowing, and this fact, this “genesis”, gets forgotten, lost in the mist of myth, where we start developing attachments to some supposed and certain past.

We are called, like Abram, to be ever beginning, and the participation in a “third space”, neither wholly yours nor mine, is profoundly creative.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.

5 reasons why I am retreating with Muslims, Jews and Christians: 1

Reason 1: We all come from a common root.

Christianity and Islam, despite their general claims to exclusivity, both emerge from the Jewish faith. Jesus was not a Christian, and Abraham was not a Jew. The traditions we tend to hold as absolute always have roots that precede the traditions.

Actually, all religion stems from earlier practices that have changed via the process of “civilising”, by agricultural, industrial, technical and cultural progress.

And less obvious is that mankind has emerged from a very much longer tradition – the natural evolution of Earth, itself part of an even more immense cosmic drama over billions of years.

It would be great if we were awed and humbled by this, accepting that “We are the universe made conscious of itself” as Thomas Berry observed. But many religious people hold stubbornly to stories which keep them inside small boxes, driven by pride and fear.

Any progress always requires us to gain fresh insights into our roots.printofahand Bede Griffiths tells us that the religions are like the fingers. To the quick observer, they appear as separate. But as we deepen we find they are all part of the hand.

There is a path of deepening in every tradition. In Christianity it might be called the contemplative, in the Jewish traditions, the Kabbalah, and in Islam, Sufism. If one studies these mystical traditions, their similarities become clear. But if we insist on adhering to the outer, obvious orthodoxies, we will get caught up surface differences.

We must never forget our root. Remembering will allow us to move forwards.

Why I am “retreating” with, not from, Muslims and Jews.

In the Christian tradition I come from, the “retreat” was considered a high point of the spiritual life. To retreat was to withdraw from busyness and normality and seek God wholeheartedly, either alone or together with others, with the purpose of refocusing on what was important and redefining my identity as a Christian disciple.

A big part of this re-definition was to create a strengthened distinction between “us” and “them”. The more “Christian” I became, the less “worldly”. This move called “sanctification” is important for growth, but eventually presents it shadow side – exclusion. Words like “unbeliever”, “Gentile”, “heathen”, “heretic”, “infidel” and “kafir” testify to monotheism’s darker undersides.

And so I am rising to the challenge and joining the Open Mosque’s Interfaith Retreat for Christians, Muslims and Jews. The “retreat” is being radically revamped, and no longer retains its exalted and often excluding position. Instead, in a bold move, we are invited to a “third space”, the exact meaning of which is unknown. This, at least to me, is exciting.

And to my dear not-monotheists friends, don’t feel left out, you have a huge role to play; please bear with a bit of Abrahamic housekeeping.

The Open Mosque Inaugural Interfaith Retreat will take place between the 16th and 18th September 2016, in Greyton, Western Cape, South Africa. Still places open, especially to Christians. To take part, see the website of The Open Mosque.


Frank Schaeffer in interview with Brian McLaren

“In the end the only book that matters to me is what I see in the eyes of those who know me best”.
Frank Schaeffer in interview with Brian McLaren, 2014.

“Valley of the Shadow: Rites of Loss” is now available.

I’m very happy to announce the album that’s been a long time coming: “Valley of the Shadow: Rites of Loss”.

This eclectic, classical crossover suite for strings, voices and sound design explores the universal narratives of loss through moods like denial, bargaining and anger. It prominently features string quartet, but incorporates solo and choral voices and a wide variety of genres and instrumentation.

You can hear it online, and it is available on all major digital platforms including iTunes. My hope is to create a space for conversation and contemplation around issues so often shrouded in obscurity, so please get involved, comment, share, and enjoy.

Book review: The Jihad of Jesus

The Jihad of Jesus by Dave Andrews

Dave Andrews’ “The Jihad of Jesus – The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice” is a brave, compelling, succinct and yet accessible entry point into one of the most critical questions of our age, that of the relationship between Islam and Christianity.41nwlifu4il

Andrews’s book tackles head-on many core issues arising from this ancient and mostly bitter rivalry with their competing truth claims: intolerance of the other, the constraints of thought and action, and violence, precluding a truly mutual co-operation between those deemed to be different.

The Quranic and Arabic term jihad as he explains means at its core, “struggle”, (and not “war” which is qital), despite its common contemporary usage. Jihad comprises a greater aspect – the inner struggle of the believer to submit to God, and a lesser one – the outer struggle of the righteous community for justice. 35 of the 6000 verses in the Quran use the term jihad, 11 unambiguously in terms of peace, 4 unambiguously in terms of war, and the remaining 20, ambiguously. (And when used in terms of war, strict rules of engagement apply).

Now, over half (54.7%) the worlds people are either Muslims or Christians. Together these traditions have contributed directly to centuries of division, suspicion, domination and violence; the key to overcoming these dark pasts must lie in a transformation from within of both, a revisioning of their God images, their interpretations of their texts, a new understanding of belonging and belief systems, and an active, generous openness between “believers”, and attitude towards “unbelievers”.

Key to Andrew’s success is his thoroughly pluralistic, and painstakingly fair, co-evaluation of the evil pasts of both blocs. He asks a “Life or death” question:

“Are the atrocities that are done in the name of Christianity or Islam true indicators of the nature of Christianity or Islam, or not? If [no] then we have nothing to fear from the continued expansion of Christianity or Islam. But, if … these cruelties are true indicators—and inevitable consequences—of the way we have constructed our religions, then we have everything to fear from Christianity or Islam in the coming millennium.”

He goes on to analyse these “constructions”, exploring fear of exclusion, avarice, power, authoritarianism, and blind obedience.

A Dave+meme+5key tool he provides is the idea of “closed (bounded)” and “open (centered)” perspectives (which he attributes to Paul Hiebert). In a closed perspective, a boundary creates an “in” and an “out” group. These boundaries are defined by dogma/sunna and defended by war and violence if necessary. The Quranic kufr (unbeliever) and the Biblical “heathen” are well used closed-set words. A main advantage of the closed set is its simplicity.

But the disadvantages are pernicious. A closed set “creates no room for diversity, dissent or disagreement.” (p 72). While most adherents of Islam and Christianity so take for granted their “special” and “chosen” status that they are unable to question the nature of these boundaries and their implications for the life of faith, let alone for the future of the planet.

People committed to “closed set” religion tend

“to be dogmatic and judgmental and, consequently, quite intolerant of political dissent. They have constantly been shown to be more egocentric, more ethnocentric, and more uncharitable towards disreputable minorities than their nonreligious compatriots.”

Ultimately, it is the religious, “devoted to our mutually exclusive, inevitably conflictual, collision-bound bounded sets, that are directly, or indirectly, moving millions towards a [global militant] jihad of violence everywhere…”, be they medieval Crusaders or 21st Century organisations like the Islamic State.

dave+jihad+jesus+quote+meme+2So Andrews proposes an open perspective, in which belonging to a religious set means not defending the sets boundaries but choosing and striving to overcome these very boundaries. It is the guiding spirit of both the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) and the Bismillah (Quran, Surah 1 Al-Fatihah) that provides hope of an overcoming compassion and a way forward for religions deeply in need of their own redemption. And he admits the problems with such an approach, including the challenge of knowing who is “in” and who is “out”.

Breaking down the psychology of killing is an important aspect to revisioning nonviolence. Towards this he quotes extensively from “On Killing” by US military psychologist Dave Grossman, who shows that the vast majority (98%) of people including conscripted soldiers, are not “born killers”. He explains the mechanism by which killers are created, in both regular military and terrorist programs such as the Jemaah Islamiyah (based in South East Asia). This includes for example framing killing as saving lives, portraying the enemy as sub-human, and developing each unit’s capacity for collective violence.

But the main focus for Andrews, as a Christian, is Isa / Jesus. For him, Jesus embodied jihad, a struggle to live a righteous life in community in an unjust society. He points to the fact that Jesus was not a mystic like Buddha, a Scholar like Confucius, a Lawgiver like Moses, or a warrior like Mohammed. This difference can only make stronger that which might emerge from a thorough interreligious dialog. It is his view that

“It was never Jesus’ intention to start a religion—still less a monopolistic religion that saw itself in competition with other religions for people’s allegiance. Jesus said he simply came “to bring life and life in all its fullness” (see John 10:10). Thus, he would affirm all that is life-affirming and confront all that is life-negating in the world’s religions—especially in the religion that now bears his name.” (p. 121)

If there is anything missing in Andrews’s thesis, it would be to account more thoroughly for the intensely dualistic nature of the Quranic text. My bias notwithstanding, I am unsure of how it is possible to derive a systematic theology of tawhid (oneness) or of nonviolence based on its structural dualism and (largely) punitive God image. But I’m very open to ideas. For this, we might have to rely more heavily on the Hadith or second-tier Islamic writings. In comparison, due to its wider sources, the Bible gives us far more room, (even in the light of much which is unacceptable or outmoded) to construct an integrated theology of peace.

Dave+Meme+6+(1)Having said that, it is the heart that will lead to tawhid and unity. Dave Andrews finishes his book with 4 powerful stories of nonviolent jihad of compassion from Muslims and Christians past and present: St Francis of Assisi, the Pakistani Badshah Khan, the Nigerian Muhammad Ashafa, and the Liberian Leymah Gbowee.

These stories of peace from within both traditions give immense hope to those of us who might feel there is no real way to overcome the burden of history.

“The Jihad of Jesus – The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice” is a contemporary toolkit for Christians, Muslims and everyone who cares enough to summon the patience/sabr and compassion/rahman to make a start in their own jihad/struggle towards tawhid/oneness, however small or seemingly insignificant that start may be.

Dave Andrews’ website
The Jihad of Jesus website
The Jihad of Jesus on Facebook

The most skilled healer

According to an old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his physician, a member of a family of healers, which of them was the most skilled in the art.

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied:

“My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name does not get out of the house.

My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name does not get out of the neighbourhood.

As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

[From Thomas Cleary’s introduction to Chinese classic “The Art of War” (Sunzi Bingfa)]

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