Sep 4 2017

Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century

What is interfaith leadership?

At the start of an exciting new academic year Dr James Walters, Director of the Faith Centre, reflects on what is required for effective interfaith leadership for our time. 

The LSE Faith Centre’s mission is to promote interfaith leadership for the 21st Century. But what kind of leadership is this and who is it for?

Misconceptions about what “interfaith” means lead many to conclude that interfaith leadership would not be for them. Non-believers or agnostics feel that you have to be a committed religious person to qualify. But equally the religious can be suspicious of the interfaith agenda because they think it will involve compromising their beliefs. These fears are not without foundation. Towards the end of the 20th Century, many in the interfaith movement dreamed of a single “world religion” that distilled the common values of all the world faiths, values that (unsurprisingly!) seemed to reflect the liberal Western values of the movement’s leaders.

But in the 21st Century the world looks very different. Religion is resurgent in many forms, including fundamentalist expressions across all faith communities that are deeply hostile to other religions and interfaith initiatives. So our approach to interfaith is more pragmatic and more modest. LSE students come from 150 countries around the world and we want to resource them with skills and insight to counter the climate of hostility to religious difference that is growing in virtually every corner of the world. To do that, our understanding of interfaith leadership has three strands:

Leadership for Imagination

We view interfaith understanding less as a matter of gaining knowledge and more as a shift in imagination. In the religious literacy programmes that we run we are concerned that students don’t just learn what other people believe but rather how different religious believers imagine the world and their place within it.

Imagination is important in everyone’s worldview. No one sees the world purely empirically; we all hold beliefs, assumptions and ideals that frame our interactions with others and our shared quest for meaning. In the Western world, we have overlooked the predominance of religious narratives in this kind of imaginative framing and forget how much religion has shaped our own imagination. To address the challenges of religious conflict today, interfaith leaders have to make these imaginative leaps and empathise with worldviews very different to their own.

Leadership for Dialogue

Our view is that interfaith dialogue is not something a small group of religious people get involved in. As global citizens we are now all already engaged in complex religio-cultural dialogues about values and meaning. The question is how effectively and constructively we want to contribute to those conversations. Are we prepared to hear views that disturb or offend us and still consider them thoughtfully? When we disagree with people, are we prepared to engage in a respectful dialogue of persuasion rather than exclude them from the boundaries of acceptability that we have set? Everyone needs to be involved in these dialogues: the religious, the non-religious and all shades in between. And we seek to give people the interfaith leadership skills to make these dialogues inclusive, meaningful and effective.

Leadership for Transformation

We can learn more about religion to understand people better. We can learn more about religion to facilitate dialogue between different peoples. But maybe learning more about religion could also be a source of wisdom to address the intractable problems we face in today’s world. That would be a long way from the deeply ingrained Western perception that religion is simply a private matter that can only lead to division when it comes into the public sphere. But we believe our political culture could be deeply enriched, even transformed, by greater religious understanding. Think of the contribution that faith leaders have made to the climate change debate, such as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. Or consider the way in which a better understanding of religious motivations can transform situations of conflict. That’s why the Faith Centre is also currently working with the UK Foreign Office to develop their understanding of the kind of interfaith leadership that can be taken by British diplomats around the world.

So what is interfaith leadership? It is skills and insight to enable the imaginative understanding of others, to contribute to the kind of difficult dialogues that the world needs, and to bring the resources of religious understanding to address today’s problems. And who is it for? It’s for you. It’s for all of us.

If you are interested in finding out more about the LSE Faith Centre interfaith leadership programmes and activities, take a look at our Programmes page for more information.

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