Why Should People from Other faiths Visit Cathedrals?



from Multi-Culture? Multi-Faith? The Pilgrims Association Conference Report 2002 pp. 22-32


This morning we are talking about why people from other faiths should come to Cathedrals, what people from other faiths have to learn from the Christian Faith, and how people from other faiths can learn from the Christian faith. I would like to approach this subject from two directions: firstly from the point of view of the religious systems, and secondly from that of the life-world


Religious systems and life-worlds

 When I speak of the religious systems I am referring to such world religions, as we call them, which we put under generalised titles such as Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity itself. When we approach this problem from the point of view of the systems, we are dealing with these generalised conceptual realities, in which huge tracts of time and hundreds of millions of human beings with their lives, attitudes and problems are summed up under what we might call umbrella expressions.  That is the systems approach and I will come back to that in a minute because it is the one I will deal with first.


 The second approach I will take is quite different. It is the life-world approach.  The life-world is a concept which is used in sociology and in the psychology of the individual, and is used increasingly in education. The concept comes from the work of the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) whose work was followed by a number of others who developed certain skills of studying the interior life of people.  The life- world means the world as interpreted and seen by individuals. Every one of us has a distinct life-world.  It is the way that the intentions and the ways individuals perceive meaning, the way people create senses of purpose in their lives, the way people draw up priorities, the way that certain features of the life-world become relevant while other features sink back into irrelevance.  All of those are aspects of what is sometimes called the study of the life-world.  The technical name for this is the phenomenology of the life-world and it  means the study of what it is like to be in the life-world, what it is like to have those perceptions, those intentions,  to experience those meanings. To study that phenomenon logically, means that you are seeking to obtain objective insight into the subjective, if that is not a contradiction in terms.  Of course, it is difficult for any of us to really understand the life-world of the other and we all have the experience, I am sure, even with those whom we know most intimately and perhaps have lived with for years, of those certain moments when you suddenly feel, ‘Who is this person? I feel I don’t really know you after all because our life-worlds are continually migrating, evolving and changing’.


So these are the two perspectives from which I would like to invite you to consider our problem.  Problems look very different according to the perspective with which you approach them.


The religious systems approach

 Approaching our problem of inter-religious learning through the character of the religious systems is more difficult than it seems.  First we have to consider the legacy which the historical development of these religious systems has left us - the historical residue, if you like, or the map which records the changes. I am thinking of the model of the geographical map of Britain and how on that map of land use you find traces of earlier generations and earlier cultures which for thousands of years have inhabited these islands.  So it is with religious systems. When we come to examine them we find that they are like vast geographical maps of human habitation where elements once significant have faded and other elements have become more prominent.  So we have to consider that the systems, a little bit like the life-world, only in a far larger and more systematic way, are also evolving. They are mobile; they don’t stand still. Of course there are continuities but there are also discontinuities. When we ask ourselves about inter-religious learning we are in a way talking about how one system can learn from another.  This immediately presents all sorts of intriguing difficulties.  The very fact that the religion is a system suggests that it has autonomy and a certain independence. That is what a system is: a self-perpetuating organisation of beliefs, emotions and structures which is a whole. It has a certain integrity as a totality. It satisfies through the way it comprehends so much. Therefore the question arises: when any system makes contact with another system, what happens to their self sufficiency? The systems, it would seem,  have no motive to learn from each other, no reason why they should or need to learn from each other, because they are so satisfying to be in. Readiness to learn implies a deficiency.  You learn when you feel humble, when you have a problem, when you feel a deficiency that you need to overcome, but when you are within the all embracing totality of a religious life-world, the sense of completion is so strong that the need to interrogate other systems seems minimal.


  Moreover, the nature of a system is to include other elements. The system grows.  It grows a bit like a snowball. It rolls along and picks up other ingredients and incorporates them into itself.  In other words the religions devour each other.  The systems encroach upon each other; they continually assimilate one another.  This creates all sorts of new situations - religions become afraid of losing their own identity as they see other religions encroaching upon them. At the same time religions can become grandiose in their ambitions and can even seek to completely absorb other religious systems. The fear of that happening, and the desire that it should happen, create all sorts of dynamics of aggression and insecurity. 


Archaic, pre-archaic and post-archaic religion        

I would like to make this a bit deeper by considering the history of the systems. Let us distinguish three stages, each of which will help us to see more clearly the nature of inter-religious learning. The stages are the pre-axial religions, the axial and the post-axial.  This series of historical periods is used quite extensively today by historians of religion. The axial stage was a period of religious creativity which began about a thousand years before the Common Era and saw the appearance in Asia and other parts of the world of extraordinarily creative individuals from whose inspiration and revelations new religions sprang.  This is the period of Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao Tzu and the Hebrew prophets such as Amos.  That period, between about 1,000 and 400 BC is called the axial period because it seems to constitute a period upon which the religious history of our species turns.  The axial period produced the great world religions.  It is easier to say when the axial period began than when it ended. There are still individuals of great creativity from whose lives and revelations new religious movements are appearing, but some people say that the end of the axial period was with the coming of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th and 7th centuries of our Common Era.  Certainly that would be a convenient point in which to sum up the axial period although it is true that it does continue. We have, for example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and many examples of such creative figures from our own generation could be referred to.


 The axial period can be distinguished from the pre-axial period in a number of ways.  Pre-axial religion is sometimes called primal religion.  The old fashioned word for it was animism but that is not used much today.  Primal or primary religion is the more usual way to describe these religions. They are pre-literate; verbal life styles without written compositions of holy scripture.  There are very few, if any, known individuals associated with them. They are characteristic of regions and are traditional systems which exist in certain tribal areas. Sometimes they are called tribalistic religions. When the axial religions appeared all sorts of things happened to the religious sensitivity of human beings. When the writing of religious revelations took place, it was possible for religions to spread and to become coherent. It was possible for laws to become codified and beliefs to be stated and systematised. Moreover, it was possible for conversion to appear.  It is hard for us today to realise what an impact upon the ancient world the appearance of conversion had. In pre-axial religion there is no conversion and there is no missionary work.  A feature of axial religion is missionary work because these religions are in competitive relationships with each other. They evangelise each other and it is possible to transfer from one to the other because they are not national but international. Hence the phenomenon  of conversion arose.


 The axial period can be contrasted with the post-axial period, which is the one we are living in now. The competitive relationship between religions is diminishing. At the same time there is resistance against that and in some ways the competitive relationship is increasing. So we are in a sort of a crisis situation where on the one hand relations of mutuality are appearing between the religions but also there is reaction against that and there is a more hardened form of self-contained axial religion present in our contemporary cultures.  The religions today are mixing with each other in a new and previously almost unheard of way. This is partly due to mobility, to information and to higher levels of education around the world. Communities of religions are no longer only in little ghettos in the major cities but are distributed all over the world. Post-axial religions are also in the presence of secular forces and secularity. That is again a new situation for the religions which now face a common threat, if that is what it is, from secularised media and from the collapse of values due to the growth of financial norms of behaviour where everything is reduced to the pursuit of money. Factors like that give the axial religions a certain common interest and fellowship in attacking or resisting those trends.


Inter-religious learning would be different according to whether one is talking about the pre-axial, axial or post-axial stage.   In pre-axial primal religion you would simply learn by being absorbed into the life structure, the life-world of your local village.  In primal religions there are no schools, no curricula, no choice or competition between religions. You are simply nurtured into a taken for granted world of religious reality.  Therefore the character of inter-religious learning is quite different. Strictly speaking, there cannot be any. Inter-religious learning takes another form in the time of the axial religions.  Here the learning experiences are motivated mainly by the desire for missionary conquest because one learns in order to understand, and in order to evangelise.  Therefore in the axial period genuine bona fide religious learning was rather limited. True inter-religious learning is a characteristic of the post-axial stage. That it is why we are concerned with it today and why it has become such a prominent feature of religious education all over the world. How do we help our young people and ourselves to cope with difference? How do we help each other to recognise otherness or to grasp the quality of strangeness?  How do we help the religious systems to abandon their competitive relationship with each other and enter into a genuine experience of mutual learning?


 In making that kind of distinction between those periods I come back to the image of a map of land use in which various periods are still evident.  As we consider the religious world of which our cathedrals are a prominent part we will find that elements of these three stages all exist in the religious map of our country.  There are elements of primal religion in the sense that there are people who grow up, even today, within a religious life that they accept more or less uncritically.  That is, however, less and less normal because our young people encounter other religions on the media, in the street and at school.  Therefore primal religion is rather hard to find these days. But we do find a great deal of competitive relationships between the religions still and we find, of course, increasingly genuine desire for inter-religious learning, which can only take place when axial religion gives way to post-axial religion.


Coming to cathedrals

I would like to say a word or two about the question of people from other religions coming to cathedrals in the light of this analysis of religious types that I have been describing.  My first comment is ‘Why should they?’  In so far as their systems are satisfying and complete, and are experienced as such by the people that are in them, there is no need for them to seek elsewhere. Secondly, there are de-motivating factors in people coming to visit Christian places of worship when they belong to other religions.  These lie largely in the residue of the axial period.  In other words if, as is the case, people from the Asian and African traditions have largely experienced Christian faith within the context of a dominating imperialism, if they have had to protect their own religious traditions from the extraordinary powerful surging forward of the Christian civilisation of the West, and that has been their experience over the past 400 years, it is not surprising that they have developed a certain caution in approaching us.  I learnt this very vividly from one of my Muslim friends, Umar Hegedus, who runs an Islamic consultancy in London. Some years ago, when the model syllabuses were being  created in 1994, a group of people from various religions were active in trying to create greater equality between the religions in the curriculum. They gave a letter to the Secretary of State signed by a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Buddhist.  I telephoned my friend and said, ‘There is no Christian signature – why not?’  Umar said, ‘I don’t like to say this because I know you are one but every time I see a Christian I just want to hide under the table’. That experience of encountering Christian aspirations of domination, and the sense that there were attempts being made to exclude and marginalise him and his colleagues runs very deep.  In all of the non-Christian religious traditions this is a factor when we think about coming to cathedrals. After all, although the positive side of the cathedrals lies in their majesty and beauty and the sense of worship which they purvey, the dark side is that they are emblems of power; they are huge and they dominate. In a number of our cities they stand fairly near to castles.  The castle and the cathedral were the twin features of domination in medieval England and the cathedrals tend so easily today to inspire, not sensitivity towards the sublime, but a terror of power. That brings us to the theme of terror.


Religion and terror

I spoke about how the inter-religious learning of the time we live in today is both more open to others and yet at the same time there is a hardened sense of competition which also appears. That produces the link between religion and terror.  Ever since September 11th this link has become headline news; almost every day in the media we find examples. Indeed, the list of terrorist organisations drawn up by the United States government shows that the number and the proportion of terrorist organisations with specific religious links have been steadily increasing since 1980. A favourite target of the religious terrorist is the religious place of worship, and we need to understand why that is, if we possibly can understand such a strange and terrible thing.  Have you noticed that religious places of worship are rarely attacked when they are empty?  I think of the bombs thrown through the door of the black peoples’ church in the southern states of the United States of America, of Goldstein, the Jewish fanatic, who in 1994 entered the mosque in Hebron, dedicated to the memory of the prophet Abraham, and sprayed the worshipping crowd of Muslims with his machine gun and killed nearly 30 people. I think of the attacks upon Jewish synagogues which have taken place in Europe. I think of the situation in Northern Ireland - the Catholic children going to the Holy Cross Primary School through lines of hostile Protestant parents shouting abuse and spitting at them.  I think of the recent case when the funeral arrangements inside a church in Northern Ireland were disrupted - the place was fouled up and the coffin was besmirched.  Christian places of worship in Pakistan have been attacked by Muslim terrorists. These are dreadful things to think about but we have to ask why they occur-   not only are places of worship the object of terrorist attacks but they are attacked whilst the worship is in progress.  How can we understand that?  People say the same thing about the attack upon the Twin Towers.  Why was it carried out in the morning when the office workers had gone in?  Why could they not have done it in the late evening when people had gone home?  The answer is that it would not have had the same impact. It would not have made the same point.


 We must face the fact that many of the religious terrorist groups are indeed profoundly religious - when you study the lives and attitudes of some of them, be they Christian, Sikh or Muslim, you find that they are characteristically embedded in a certain interpretation of their religion. They regard the mainstream of their religion as having betrayed the faith -  as having become compromised by secularism or whatever, and they themselves are the pure remnant, fighting the last divine battle, and they interpret their terrorist actions in an eschatalogical way.  The bomb will be the spark which will ignite a protest which will spark off the last day and so on.  It is instructive to study the mentality of these religious terrorist groups and then ask ourselves about cathedral visits. Of course these things come from such vastly different worlds. Yet to see that they are also strangely connected is an important part of our understanding of our mission and our relationship with people of other religions. The cathedrals in their sheer dominating power and in their so evident lack of humility must be seen in the light of their history to pose a kind of a threat.  They make people from other religions shudder.


How can we overcome in the presence of people from other faiths this tradition of grandiosity, of domination, of which they have been the victims and still today they feel the threat? We must also recognise  that in Britain today these religions are enclaves of great significance and growing power. Nevertheless, they are still minorities and they feel themselves to be embattled. One thinks of the phenomenon of Islamaphobia and as long as people feel themselves to be embattled, and are marginalised or excluded, then they will hesitate to enter the most powerful symbol of the religion which, in their experience, has oppressed them, namely the cathedral.


History of Christian faith

 I now present a second example from the history of these systems.  My first example was the axial distinction.  I now turn more closely to our Christian tradition. I would suggest that this can be distinguished into three periods and that inter-religious learning and the attitudes of people to cathedrals will depend to some extent upon which of these periods is alive in the life-world of the visitor and the cathedral.  Let us distinguish Christendom from Christianity and from Christian-ness. Christendom is the integrated unity of territory, law and religious belief which was typical of medieval Europe.  Its relationships with other religions were territorial, there was a frontier, a borderland along which war was waged for a thousand years.  There were Christian countries and there were Muslim countries and the relationship between them was one of military warfare. That lasted for a thousand years. As late as 1688 Muslim armies were at the gates of Vienna; for a thousand years Christian Europe perceived itself as being under attack.  There were a thousand years of Christian vulnerability before the one thousand years of Christian power.  Indeed, you can understand to some extent the one thousand years of Christian power by contrasting it with the one thousand years of vulnerability which preceded it. The Christian movement came out of a persecuted period under the Roman Empire.  It was not until the conversion of Constantine (A.D.312) that Christian faith came into power, but it only lasted for five hundred years or so and then we came into the relatively small world of Christendom in the Middle Ages surrounded like a vast pincer movement by the Islamic world which pressed in upon it from the Mediterranean, from Sicily, from Spain, and from the Balkans. These memories are part of the archaeology of consciousness which we have to consider when we think of the nature of inter-religious learning today.



The second stage is that of Christianity, which has a history that is shorter than the history of the Christian faith.  Christianity as a concept has its own history. After all, it is unknown in scripture. We talk about Christianity in Europe but neither Europe nor Christianity are ideas known in the Bible. For a thousand years the Christian tradition managed quite happily without the concept of Christianity.  This emerged in the early modern period as European traders and explorers encountered religious buildings and behaviour in the other continents. These seemed somewhat similar to their own and yet were very different. The European theologians turned to ideas of idolatry to explain these discoveries, and gave them generalised names such as Hinduism and Buddhism to summarise them.  Christianity emerged at this time as a systematic expression of worldwide competition with other religions. That is the essence of Christianity.  We must distinguish sharply between the nature of Christianity and the inner spirit of the Christian faith, which was alive before Christianity appeared, and which will survive its passing.  Christianity is indeed passing away because it is essentially an axial concept but in the post-axial world, where we seek to overcome the competitive relationships between the world religions, Christianity has no place.



 What will succeed it, we do not yet know but some people call it Christian-ness. This means the quality of being a follower of Jesus Christ.  Christia-ness means that Christians no longer regard each other as a Christian, with the implication that being a Christian is not being a Muslim or a Sikh. We should drop the article and say that we are Christian.  We seek to be Christian, we seek to have the qualities of a disciple of Jesus Christ within the tradition of Christian faith.  In that sense we seek to be Christian.  That way of looking at it helps to overcome the sectarian, tribalised nature of the great religious traditions with their competitive relationships. The axial period, formative though it was, must now be transcended.


Now we can look at our cathedrals and ask if they represent the residue of Christendom. Do they represent in our own subterraneous consciousness and in the minds of those people who come to visit us,  particularly from other religions, that totalitarian unity of territory, law and theology which once characterised our faith?  Are our cathedrals the last refuges of Christendom? On the other hand, are they places where Christianity survives and is virulent, Christianity in its systematic, competitive mode? Are our cathedrals exclusively places of Christianity in that self-conscious aggressive mode or are they places where Christian-ness can appear and flourish? Do the words of Jesus apply to the cathedrals?   ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ (Mark 11:17). ‘People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 13:29). When they told Jesus that his mother and sisters and brothers were waiting to take him away he looked around at the crowd and said, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?… whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:33,35). Is not this the very spirit of Islam? He that seeks the will of God and does it is my brother. Although it would be misleading to say that Jesus was a Muslim, he certainly was Muslim.


  Take the music which we use in our cathedrals.  Is it the music of Christendom, the music of power and nostalgia the old time religious music hall where people like the way it was supposed to be, music that offers that security of infantile unquestioning faith which was Christendom? Or is our music that of Christianity, the aggression of pomposity, the grandiosity of empire? Or is our music the music of Christian-ness, the music that speaks of the humble and sometimes painful path of discipleship of Jesus, calling us to take part in the mission of Jesus? Up to a point, every cathedral  should include  elements from  all periods of Christian history.   There are diverse needs and diverse gifts. Let us not abandon Elgar, but let us also  examine our choice of liturgy with a critical mind, using the criteria I have suggested, if my arguments are convincing to you.


The life-world approach

 Now it is time to consider the other approach- through the life-world. Some use has already been made of this, in showing how within the life-world of the individual Muslim, or Sikh or Hindu there are traces of all of these remnants of the heritage of the religious past. However, we can make one or two new points. First a characteristic of our time is that the homogeneity of religions is diminishing.   Not only is the homogeneity of Christian Europe disappearing since we must recognise the plurality of European religions, but even within each single religious tradition homogeneity is disappearing.  After all, there is no such thing as a dialogue between Christianity and Islam.  There is only a dialogue between Christians and Muslims and each Christian lives in his or her own life-world in which all of the traces, the relics, the archaeology, and the history I have been describing will be present. Its interpretations, its spiritual memory, the things it loves, the things it does not love will all be in a sort of jumble of semi-consciousness within the life of any Christian believer, and the Muslim will be the same.


 What are the other traces within the life-world which give us hope of inter-personal contact and understanding?  I have said rather a lot about the difficulties but I would like to point out that within the life-world there are also many signs of hope that we can build upon. Some studies of European religious education today explore the encounters between young people of different religions.  These lead to two conclusions. First there is the sense of strangeness, the curiosity with which friends discover that really their traditions are quite different. The word that is most frequently used in describing this is perplexity.  Second there is the way in which friendship overcomes the perplexity by a renewal of common ground.  There are several recorded dialogues between young people in which these two phases of the dialogue are apparent.  The strangeness - it might be as simple as, ‘We go to church on Sundays.’ ‘Oh but our mosque is only for prayer on Fridays.’  ‘Our holy book is the Bible.’ ‘Ours is the Qur’an.’  ‘We worship Jesus Christ.’ ‘Oh no, we think that is wrong - you shouldn’t worship any human being.’


The perplexity and the strangeness of that encounter but then the renewed confidence of the unanimity indicate promising features of the life-world. ‘We can still be friends can’t we?’ ‘Of course we can - after all we all worship somewhere, we all believe in God, we have so much in common.’ And so the strangeness passes into the affirmation of the familiar.



I would like to apply those things to visits to cathedrals.  First there is the strangeness.  I have said a lot about that strangeness and how we might explain it, its psychology and its roots in our world religious history.  How can we turn that strangeness into a sense of communality into a sharing of the common life?  How can we preserve the distinctiveness of our Christian tradition while at the same time fulfilling the vision of Jesus who saw in all those who seek to do the will of God his brothers and his sisters?  How can we do those things? How can the cathedrals of our country become truly open in the spirit of humility, to be houses of prayer for all people? How can we turn strangers into friends?   What would you think about having a little prayer room for Muslims inside a cathedral?  That would be an interesting thing to explore. Would Muslims come and pray? Perhaps not, in view of the fear of the assumptions that such a location for prayer might arouse, both in their communities and in ours. But why should not there be shrines for the special worship of other people within the great house of God which is the people’s cathedral?  Did not Jesus say, ‘[It] becomes the greatest… and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’ (Mark 4:32)?   In our greatness we have tended to push the birds off the branches but perhaps we could envisage ways of dedicating the cathedrals to a new sense of openness and welcome so that they do become houses of prayer for all people.


 I am not suggesting a mixture of the symbolism of traditions that are different, and I do not suggest that the Qur’an should be placed on the altar next to the Bible and the cross. Each religion possesses an integrity and completeness, as I emphasised in my earlier remarks. Nevertheless, nearness does not necessarily involve confusion, and mutual hospitality only serves to deepen the awareness of uniqueness.  The borders should be maintained but the strangeness can and should be overcome within the framework of friendship.


© John M Hull 2002-11-06