Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: The Heroic Quest for a Common and Inclusive Identity

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

The paper is a revised version of a paper entitled “Identity and Dialogue: Spiritual Roots and Educational Needs” first presented at the 10th International Conference on Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child (Faith, Feeling and Identity) at the University of Surrey Roehampton, UK, 26-28 June 2003.

Beyond Polarity

In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, among the greatest dangers faced by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece were the Clashing Rocks, or Symplegades, which guarded the entrance to the Black Sea like a gigantic pair of sliding doors, smashing together and crushing ships between them. Ananda Coomaraswamy (1946) tells the story like this: “As the Argonauts rowed along the Bosporus, they could hear the terrifying clash of the Rocks and the thunder of surf. They released a dove and watched it fly ahead of them. The Rocks converged on the dove nipping off its tail feathers, but the bird got through. Then, as the Rocks separated, the Argonauts rowed with all their might. A well-timed push from the divine hand of Pallas Athene helped the ship through the Rocks just as they slammed together again, shearing off the mascot from Argo’s stern. Argo had become the first ship to run the gauntlet of the Rocks and survive. Thereafter the Clashing Rocks remained rooted apart.” (p. 463).

I could have chosen many other examples of the same motif from many other cultures and traditions – that is, the motif of the “Active Door” dividing the known world from the unknown Beyond, and through which the hero or seeker must pass to succeed in the quest, which is none other, in essence, than the return to his or her original home. For example, there is the motif of the revolving castle with perpetually shutting doors through which the hero has to time his entrance exactly or risk being cut in half by the moving barrier. It is such a castle which the knight Gawain has to enter to recover the stolen bridle, after crossing the Perilous Bridge of Dread (Brown, 1903, p.80). To pass between the Rocks is to pass through the “strait gate” or the “needle’s eye” between the pairs of opposites and beyond the polarity and division which necessarily characterises the conditioned world. It is to be guided by the lamp “lit from a blessed tree – an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor the west” (Qur’an 24:35). It is to follow the Middle Way, to find the Truth which, as Boethius puts it, is a mean between contrary heresies.

I chose the Greek version of the story because the image of the Clashing Rocks has a startling relevance and resonance at a time when we are being assailed with much rhetoric about a so-called clash of civilisations, an ideological war between the radically opposing worldviews of a supposedly monolithic Islam and the West, or, in more focused terms, between a theocratic Islam and the modernising and secularising aspects of Western civilisation. Mutual hostility and suspicion have been fuelled by the rhetoric of self-righteousness and rage, the psychological exploitation of fear, insecurity and patriotic fervour, and even full-scale retreat into defensive isolation and identity crisis. Many would characterise this adversarial process not as a clash of civilisations but as a clash between secular and religious fundamentalism, or even a war of barbarisms. The story of the Clashing Rocks show us, however, that the true hero is not the one who takes up an adversarial position on either side but the one who passes beyond the opposites to the essential Unity which is both our original identity and our ultimate goal as human beings.

The Limitations of Polarised Thinking

The underlying elemental polarity in the whole of creation is the most obvious expression of divinely ordained diversity, for, as the Qur’an says, “everything have We created in pairs” (51:49) and “We have created you all out of a male and a female…” (49:13). The dance of this polarity is the excitement we call “love”, for “among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are signs for people of insight!” (30:21).

In another sense, however, it could be said that the very duality and polarity underlying the fabric of the created universe is a handicap because it has given to mankind a chronically divided nature, a tendency to see reality in black and white, in competing paradigms, and at its worst, a propensity to see the world in terms of mutually hostile and competing civilisations. At its very worst, this divisive mentality gives rise to an us-and-them ideology which self-righteously attributes rightness and goodness only to its own perspective. The problem is that the tendency to dichotomise reality in this way appears, to some extent, to be inherent in the way the brain works. Polarised thinking typically empowers decisive action, in antithesis to the stereotype of the armchair philosopher so entangled in arguments and counter-arguments, ambiguities and uncertainties that he is never able to come to a decision about anything.

Lower and Higher Levels of the Intellect

The attraction of simple, polarised thinking is actually an outcome of the lower level of the intellect. The word ‘aql in Arabic has the sense of ‘binding’ and ‘withholding’, that is, the faculty of judgment, discrimination and clarification and the intellectual power of speech (nutq) which enables man, the language animal, to articulate words in meaningful patterns. To Adam was imparted the Names of all things (Qur’an 2:31) and in one sense this knowledge confers on man the faculty of clear-cut logical definition and the making of distinctions which underlie abstract, conceptual thought.

At its lowest level, however, the capacity to make logical distinctions, to separate and divide, is also, in lesser minds (or I should say in those who lack the unifying and reconciling quality of ‘heart’) the basis of separatism and divisiveness. It is important not to reduce and restrict the meaning of ‘aql only to its lower level of logic or rationality, for it organically combines reason and the higher intellect. The latter can be equated with the notion of nous in Orthodox Christianity (Hesychasm). This tradition defines nous or intellect as the highest faculty in man, to be distinguished from dianoia, the faculty of mere discursive reason. It is through the intellect, if purified, that man knows God or the inner essence or principles (logoi) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Again, this system equates the higher Intellect with the faculty which dwells in the depth of the soul and constitutes the innermost aspect of the Heart, the organ of contemplation. This higher function of ‘aql can also be defined, in the words of Titus Burckhardt (1995, p.94), as the “universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind”. We have largely lost any understanding of the higher function of the Intellect (“seeing”, not merely “thinking”) in Western culture.

Rhetoric versus Dialectic

It is of the greatest importance to realise, especially at this moment in world history, that polarised thinking is not only an aspect of the lower level of the intellect, but that it is also encouraged (or I should say, aggravated) by rhetoric. The Greeks understood well the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language and the fierce debates about the role of rhetoric were most notably expressed and distilled in Plato’s affirmation that philosophical dialectic (that is the testing process of critical enquiry through discourse, dialogue and discussion) is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which, if not firmly subordinated to knowledge and reason, is roundly condemned as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation. It is this legacy which has ultimately ensured that “in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages, outside the specialized vocabulary of certain antiquarian and literary critical coteries, the word rhetorical is unfailingly pejorative. Rhetoric now roughly connotes the dissembling, manipulative abuse of linguistic resources for self-serving ends, usually in a political context.” (Wardy, 2000, p. 465)

Whether we describe it euphemistically as “the strategic deployment of language” (Silberstein 2002, p. xiii) or wrap it up in the warm glow of patriotic sentiment, the abuse of language through manipulative rhetoric is not only an affront to what the Greeks understood to be the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language, but it is also an affront to the sacred status accorded to language in all spiritual traditions. I have drawn attention elsewhere to the abuse of language in Islamophobic discourse, a persistently topical phenomenon since the events of 11th September, 2001. (Henzell-Thomas, 2001)

The Need for Education in Higher-Order Thinking

One of the most pressing needs in modern education is to lift so-called “thinking skills” education beyond the level which merely develops prosaic logical and “critical” thinking skills for utilitarian ends, to a level which takes account of the higher level of the Intellect, or the Heart. It is only at this level, a level which is expansive enough to reconcile opposites and hold paradoxes, that the habit of resorting to polarised debate, simple-minded dichotomisation, competing paradigms and clashing ideologies can be transcended.

In the field of developmental psychology, Klaus Riegel (1976) identifies the ability to accept contradictions, constructive confrontations and asynchronies as the highest stage of cognitive development, and James Fowler (1975) associates dialectical thinking with the development of faith. It goes without saying that the dialectical process is not one either of compromise, syncretism masquerading as synthesis, or loose relativism, but one of creative tension which ultimately transforms contradictions into complementarities, releasing the open-minded thinker from ingrained habits and conditioned patterns of thought, established affiliations, fear of change and instability, and reluctance to approach anything which may be threatening to one’s sense of “self”.

The Unchallenging Mediocrity of Mere Tolerance

I believe that nothing could be more important for educators at this moment in world history than the cultivation of an expanded sense of “identity” that enables us to challenge the closed and exclusive mentality (whatever its cultural affiliations or ideological roots) which holds us back from the heroic quest of passing between the Clashing Rocks. There is a profoundly urgent need to reach beyond differences and develop our outlook beyond the unchallenging mediocrity of mere “tolerance” by engaging actively with people of all faiths and cultures in such a way that we discover our shared identity at its deepest and finest level. As Diana Eck, Director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has passionately argued, true pluralism is an active process of engaging with diversity and plurality as a “truth–seeking encounter”, not merely passively acknowledging or tolerating the existence of plurality or cosmopolitanism or even “celebrating” it, as the cliché would have it (Eck, 1993, p. 198). Eck is surely right that as a style of living together “tolerance is too minimal an expectation.” Indeed, it may be an “expression of privilege” for the majority, or even a “passive form of hostility,” a kind of “shaky truce.” Furthermore, “it does not require us to know anything new, it does not even entertain the fact that we might change in the process.” (Eck, 1993, p. 192)

Omid Safi (2003, p. 24) agrees: “I don’t want to ‘tolerate’ my fellow human beings,” he says, “but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human, through both our phenomenal commonality and our dazzling cultural differences.” Safi’s etymological analysis of the negative connotations of the word ‘tolerance’ is revealing: “The connotations of ‘tolerance’ are deeply problematic…the root of the term tolerance comes from medieval toxicology and pharmacology, marking how much poison a body could ‘tolerate’ before it would succumb to death. Is this the best that we can do? Is it our task to figure out how many ‘others’ we can tolerate before it really kills us? Is this the most sublime height of pluralism we can aspire to?” (Safi, 2003, p. 24)

Expanding our Own Perspective

First and foremost, this search for a more spacious self which can accommodate many perspectives has to be a personal quest, because we cannot presume to lead others to an expanded sense of identity if we are unable to embrace it ourselves. As an example of limiting assumptions based on a restricted perspective, Haydon (2003) describes a number of studies on bilingual and trilingual children which attest to the fact that while new research demonstrates that children who speak at least two languages do better at school than those who speak only one, many teachers still see multilingualism as a problem rather than an asset, and even in schools where there was a positive attitude, there could still be considerable underestimation of the skills of multilingual children. In fact, the skills needed for language acquisition are transferable to other subjects, and in the best schools multilingual children tend to be in higher ability groups.

The Sanctity of Diversity

I come back to the Qur’an, because it so important at this time to bring to light the humanity and universality of its message. No other world scripture is so insistent about the sanctity of diversity. According to the Qur’an, diversity is divinely ordained: “the variations in your languages and colours” are “among the signs of God” (30:22), and we have been made into “nations and tribes” so that we “may come to know one another” (49:13). The injunction here is not merely to respect and tolerate, but to learn about (and from) each other. Lack of knowledge and understanding of other ethnic groups and cultures amongst teachers is clearly going to restrict the extent to which they are able to implement the diversity strand of the new Citizenship programmes of study (DfEE/QCA 2001), in the same way as there has been concern about the quality of religious education taught by those whose knowledge of world faiths, even on a conceptual and theoretical level, is severely limited and whose commitment to spiritual practice in any faith tradition may be non-existent. How many science teachers doubting the validity of the scientific method and lacking in any experience of actually doing science are employed in our schools?

It also needs to be said that an essentially mono-cultural outlook may persist even amongst those who appear to subscribe enthusiastically to the idea that bilingualism is actually a prerequisite for developing the cognitive and affective flexibility which enables us to cross cultural frontiers and enhance inter-cultural sensitivity and empathy. Speaking not just two, but any number of European languages does not necessarily help us to be any less Eurocentric or “Western” in our worldview. On the other hand, I know others who speak only their native language but whose hearts are open to all the peoples of the world.

The Education of Heart and Soul

In my view, it is not ultimately the “brain” which needs to be “hard-wired” for “inter-cultural competence” through bilingualism (to quote an advocate of language learning at a recent international seminar for school leaders in Paris) but the heart which needs to be awakened. This does not in the least negate the fact that learning languages may contribute much to the process of “crossing frontiers”, and may confer distinct educational advantages. What we have to resist is the over-emphasis on “competencies” and “tools” – the language of technology, military strategy, corporate efficiency, quantification, target-setting and managerialism which increasingly dominates our view of things in the West, and which is taking the heart and soul out of the educational process in the same way as it is contaminating the psychic health of our whole society. Is it any wonder that people feel increasingly demoralized and dispirited?

We should also resist the kind of language which equates education with the postal service. Are teachers only there to “deliver” programmes of study, as if they were pre-packaged one-way parcels, mere items of content to be transmitted into letter-box brains? In authentic spiritual traditions, the teacher is not only responsible for the instruction and training of the mind and the transmission of knowledge, but also with the education of the whole being. Such traditions never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul. In the Islamic tradition, for example, the teacher is both a muallim (a transmitter of knowledge) and a murabbi (a nurturer of souls).

Our Core Identity: The Roots of Some Key Words


I have discussed in fairly general terms the importance of an “expanded identity”, but now I would like to try and define what this means by looking closely at the term identity itself. Everyone seems to be talking about identity, and, indeed, struggling with this concept. Many people are agonizing over their identity, trying to discover who they are. Others are attempting to defend a threatened fixed identity.

The original meaning of identity is best preserved in the related word identical from Latin identitas, literally ‘sameness’, derived from Latin idem, ‘same’. The sense of ‘individuality’ or ‘set of definitive characteristics’ arose from the notion of something always being the same or always being itself (rather than something else).

In the light of this revealing etymology, it might be said that to gain identity is simply to be oneself all the time. We tend to accept unquestioningly the truism that to ‘be yourself’, to be the ‘real you’, to be an ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ person is a good thing. The question is, which self? What does it mean to be oneself? Are we describing the false self of egoism and solipsism or the essential Self recognised by all religious and spiritual traditions? Are we describing a constricted self, identified with a narrow, parochial, exclusivist perspective, or an expansive self which, though fully committed to a particular path, is able to ‘cross frontiers’ and actively engage with other perspectives in the spirit of a truth-seeking encounter?

Let us look again at our definition of the word identity. Identity is the state of always being the same, or always being oneself rather than something else.

Now, from a certain perspective this definition seems to have positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, it seems that constancy is an accepted virtue, and ‘being oneself’ rather than something else is an acknowledged sign of integrity and strength of character. On the other hand, “always being the same” might suggest a state of being which is either very boring and sterile, or monolithic and absolutist, a fixed, rigid and immutable condition impervious to change and unresponsive to context. We could associate this mentality with the unyielding dogmatism of fundamentalist ideologies, whether religious or secular, although it is important to distinguish between fundamentalism as a limiting ideology and the belief in certain fundamental truths which are integral to all authentic spiritual traditions and which are also intuitively recognised by the primordial human intelligence.

From the standpoint which critiques fundamentalist ideology, the one who is not always the same (that is, who lacks identity in the terms of our definition) is the flexible and progressive one, able to apply underlying principles to changing circumstances and contemporary needs, and able to interpret text in the light of context. Such a person will also be open to creative irregularities and unpredictable outcomes.

It is important to recognise that the label ‘fundamentalism’, if it must be used, should not be confined to religious indoctrination. Fundamentalist ideologies of various kinds permeate the Western secular education system, notably that of materialistic scientism with claims that the only reality is that which can be observed and measured, that the sacred signs of Nature are mere phenomena referring to nothing outside their own self-sufficient laws and mechanisms, and that there is no conscious design, purpose, significance, or ultimate meaning in the life of man or the universe.

Another dogma of secular fundamentalism is, of course, that religious faith is a “construction” of the human mind, a superstitious crutch for people of undeveloped intellect. But as Grace (2002, p.14, quoted in Best, 2003, p.5) has written, “Secular schools as opposed to religious schools are not ideologically free zones. Secularism has its own ideological assumptions about the human person, the ideal society, the ideal system of schooling and the meaning of human existence. While these assumptions may not be formally codified into a curriculum subject designated ‘secular education’ as an alternative to ‘religious education’ they characteristically permeate the ethos and culture of state-provided secular schools and form a crucial part of the ‘hidden curriculum’”.

But there is a way to resolve the tension here between the positive and negative aspects of being “always the same”. The mistake is to confuse mere conformity and homogeneity with the positive concept of “sameness” which underlies the meaning of “identity”. To be always the same in the sense of conforming to a stable inner self is not the same as the conformity which denies uniqueness, individuality, originality and creativity. This latter kind of conformity is related to the agenda of social control and the production of human cogs for the industrial machine, as set out, for example, in the educational priorities in the White Paper, Schools: Achieving Success (DfEE, 2001). These are made clear in the first paragraph of the Introduction (Section 1.1, p. 5): “The success of our children at school is crucial to the economic health and social cohesion of the country, as well as to their own life and personal fulfilment” (my italics). It is not difficult to identify other forms of control, such as the authoritarian religious control exercised by religious bigots, whatever their faith, or the more psychologically astute (but equally binding) forms of control exercised by corporations which promote the lie that one’s very identity is intimately bound up with products or logos. This is not conformity to the original nature at the core of the human being but slavery to external controls which actually destroy the true freedom within that inner core.


I have linked the word original a number of times to the concept of identity which I am trying to bring to light. The original Greek sense of originality was “in accordance with our original nature”. Originality was an ordinary, innate capacity common to all human beings, such that, for the ancient Greeks, even a “simple” illiterate person was imprinted with an innate understanding of the universal principles represented, say, by geometry. Etymologically, the word simple itself denotes “same-fold” - that is, not multifarious, exactly what is denoted by the original meaning of “identity”. It goes back ultimately to a prehistoric Indo-European root which was the source also of English same, similar, and single. This passed into Latin as simplus, ‘single’. The “simple” person is a “single” undivided person, a person who is always “the same”, true to himself or herself. Simplicity is like a mirror which reflects the divine unity at the core of every human being.

As with so many words in the English language, there was a shift in the meaning of the word originality in the eighteenth century with the consolidation of the Age of Reason, the so-called ‘Enlightenment’. This began with a shift from the sense of a universal human capacity to the sense of an “extraordinary ability”, rather like the notion of “genius” which arose in the 17th century. Later, the sense shifted further to that of ‘inventiveness’, ‘innovation’ and ‘individualism’, to the extent that the modern-day connotation can even encompass the bizarre and the abnormal, or, as Martin Lings (1998, p. 189) has noted, the “divergent or even the grotesque”.

The historical trajectory of this term is itself a fascinating commentary on how, as a result of the erosion of traditional wisdom, the outermost sheath of the human psyche (the conditioned individual “personality”) has gradually taken precedence over its innermost core. By the phrase “traditional wisdom” I mean the sophia perennis which is the timeless primordial wisdom underlying its various expressions in the form of different religions at different times and places to meet the specific needs of different communities. The Qur’an explicitly confirms that God makes “no distinction” between any of His apostles or messengers (Qur’an 2:285). There is a connection between the innate capacity common to all human beings and the faculty of “common sense” which is often underrated, and even despised, by those supercilious intellectuals who wrongly imagine that their over-refined and labyrinthine niceties of thought are necessarily superior to the simpler insights of ordinary people.


Another word we can associate with the idea of identity is authenticity. To be oneself, to be true to oneself, is to be “authentic” or “genuine”. Now, the word authentic comes from Greek authentikos and its essential meaning is “having the authority of the original creator”. Its original meaning in English was “authoritative”.

There is a clear intersection between the underlying Greek senses of authentic and original. The authentic person is authoritative (which is not to say authoritarian) only because he or she is stamped with the attributes of the ultimate authority, the original Creator. This accords completely with the Islamic concept of the human being as khalifa, ‘vicegerent’ or ‘representative’ of God.


The etymology of the word character in English also reveals its close connection to the idea of an original identity common to all human beings. It meant a sign, a brand or a stamp. We were ‘stamped’ with our true character, identity or nature before we were ever born; our job is to develop, to actualize, that essential, innate disposition. In Arabic, the word for character is khuluq, and is related to the word khalq, creation. Character is the form in which God has created us; our responsibility is to live up to it—to conform ourselves, in time, to the shape in which we were originally moulded.

Our Essential Nature

It will not have escaped anyone familiar with the core principles of the Islamic faith that the concept of identity which is emerging from these forays into the etymology of English words can be distilled into the key concept expressed by the Arabic word fitrah. This can be translated as the “primordial nature” or “original disposition” with which every human being has been invested by his or her Originator (Fatir), and which is essentially good and noble. It is the human being’s inborn, intuitive ability to discern between right and wrong, true and false, and, thus, to sense the existence of the Supreme Power.

It is of the utmost importance to realise that I have derived the concept of fitrah not from Islamic doctrine but by way of the origin of certain English words in ancient Greek or Latin, which of course pre-date Islam. This underlying convergence of key semantic networks across time and space gives credence to the idea of a perennial wisdom, or primordial religion, which has been re-confirmed by a succession of Prophets throughout human history. The idea of the human being created “in the image of God”, with the potential to embody the totality of divine attributes, is an article of faith which is not of course solely Islamic, but is enshrined in the common Abrahamic tradition represented by the “People of the Book” (Jews, Christians and Muslims), in the identity of Atman (the Self) and Brahman (the Absolute Reality) in the Vedanta tradition, in the doctrine of the unity of the microcosm and the macrocosm (expressed by the famous dictum, “As above, so below”) in various esoteric traditions, and, I am sure, in many other religious and spiritual traditions.

This is the essential nature and true identity of the human being. And when I refer to this as an “article of faith”, I use the term “faith” to encompass different levels of this faculty, from the lower level of an unexamined and culturally conditioned belief system to higher levels in which faith is increasingly an outcome of knowledge. Ultimately, faith turns to certitude (yaqin) through “tasting” or “spiritual savouring” (dhawq). This is the activation of the primordial capacity to perceive the truth intuitively and the internalisation of the forms of religion as direct spiritual experience. The same connection between wisdom and direct experience is preserved in the origin of the English word ‘sapience’ (wisdom) and the related ‘sapiential’ which are derived from Latin sapere, to taste.

Our Common Identity: Insights from Science

The nature of our identity, essential nature or fitrah is beautifully illustrated by the discoveries of the Irish physicist John Stewart Bell. Bell’s Theorem, first proposed in 1964, and now supported by numerous experiments, shows that, contrary to Einstein’s golden rule that nothing can travel faster than light, things have “non-local” effects that stretch out instantaneously through infinite distance. The movement of one atom in this galaxy can immediately affect one in another galaxy, as long as they began by being associated in a way called “entanglement”. Bell showed that this action at a distance is not just an idea, but an essential aspect of reality.

There are profound philosophical and spiritual implications arising from this discovery, which has been called the most important discovery in science. Every particle in the Universe was once entangled because they all came out of the Big Bang together and share identical origins. Every particle retains a “memory” of every other particle in the Universe, and thus every particle in a profound way “knows” what every other particle is doing at all times. In his holographic model of this interconnected Universe, the physicist David Bohm (1983) shows that each bit of the Universe – including each of us – contains the entire Universe, so that Blake’s notion of seeing the world in a grain of sand is not at all a poetic fancy but an accurate observation.

We too, like every particle, share identical origins. This is precisely where our identity lies, in that primordial nature which originates from the divine singularity. And because it originates from that singularity, in which everything is entangled, our identity is in essence the same as everyone else’s, even though the diversity of forms is infinite. It is only our forgetfulness of our essential nature and its divine origin which causes us to stray from our fully inclusive human identity. Brian Thorne (2003) eloquently reminds us that we are so accustomed to associating the deadly sin of sloth with laziness and idleness that we forget that it really means forgetfulness, that blind slumber increasingly ingrained in the lives of modern Western men and women, which is “fast becoming the collective neurosis of our contemporary culture” (p. 51). It is as evident in the frenetic hyperactivity which characterises modern life as it is in its more obvious manifestation as blank inertia.

Identity and Pluralism

Once we understand that we all partake of the same essential human nature (and, again, this is confirmed by recent biological science, which finds that we all share 99.9% of the same genetic material), exclusivism, mono-culturalism, and of course racism, are totally discredited. We all share a common identity as human beings, and, beyond that, a common origin within the source of all Creation.

Commitment versus Exclusivism

I distinguish here between exclusivism as an isolationist, divisive and potentially hostile mentality and the validity of an exclusive commitment to a particular faith community which by no means prevents active engagement with other faith communities in the spirit of true pluralism.

I am not saying here that we should gain no sense of meaning, pleasure or worth from belonging to a group of people, whether that group is bound together by faith, culture or ethnicity, or indeed, by other more immediate adhesives such as family, age, and occupation. And I am most definitely not saying that we cannot find universal truth or discover our full humanness through commitment to a particular faith community. Quite the opposite. I am not one of those “universalists” who believe that adherence to a marked out path and its formal requirements limits our ability to grasp universals, for I follow what is actually a deeper esoteric tradition which upholds that it is only through the mediation of forms that the human being has any access to the Essential Truth. Neither am I one of those “syncretists” who believe that new paths can be manufactured by cobbling together the bits of other paths which we like and ignoring the bits that we dislike, as if we can make up an artificial language, a kind of religious Esperanto, from words and grammatical structures gathered from a medley of languages. As I have suggested elsewhere, “Made-up languages of this kind never seem to work. Apparently there are more people with an interest in Klingon, the made-up language developed for the Star Trek television series, than Esperanto, because Klingon is a language which dynamically and organically expresses the character of a particular community, completely fictional as it is.” (Henzell-Thomas, 2002, p. 16) True pluralism is not a “global shopping mall where each individual puts together a basket of appealing religious ideas,” flattening out differences and reducing every tradition to “the lowest common denominator” or “the nicest platitudes.” (Eck, 1993, p. 196)

But what I am saying is that if we derive the totality of our identity from belonging to any group, if our sense of identity is totally determined by our identification with that group to the extent that we lack any sense of self apart from that group identity, then we are in danger of forgetting the common origin which we all share with all humankind. This is the way to the isolationism, intolerance, prejudice and self-righteousness which fuels the clash of civilisations, or rather, the war of barbarisms. This is the way to the hubris which dares to claim a monopoly on truth or goodness, and which condemns all those who follow a different path. And this applies to all fundamentalists and ideologues, whether religious or secular, who seek to imprison the human spirit by claiming sole ownership of the truth. As Farid Esack points out, the Qur’an explicitly denounces those who commit “crimes of arrogance” in “desiring to appropriate God for a narrow community.” (Esack, 2003, Conclusion)

Let me offer another nuanced distinction which might provide us with another useful rudder to help us steer in the right direction. This is the distinction between identification and commitment. Identification is the limiting process by which our essential nature becomes subsumed and imprisoned by a narrow identity; commitment is a liberating process which enables one to engage one’s whole being with the particularities of a chosen way in order to find, through the orientation provided by that way, the universal and essential realities of which that way is an expression. I associate “one’s whole being” here with the Heart, in the sense denoted by the Arabic word qalb. This is not the heart of sentiment or emotion, but our innermost core, the organ of spiritual perception.

Following a path exclusively is totally reconcilable with the search for a universal identity, and, indeed, the means to its attainment for countless spiritual seekers and spiritually developed beings from all religious traditions, but the exclusivism promoted by a defensive, backs-to-the-wall religiosity, which misappropriates God for a narrow community and denies that other paths are also expressions of the Self-disclosure of God is necessarily a constriction of the heart, and is therefore incapable of encompassing divinity.

Dialogue and Active Engagement

To believe that dialogue and engagement with other perspectives compromise one’s identity is a grave misunderstanding. The opposite is the case, for the progressive deepening of one’s faith and self which comes about through the process of engagement is also a progressive expansion of one’s identity into that universal space occupied by our essential, primordial nature. Depth is not sacrificed for breadth; the openness to alternative expressions of truth does not undermine the sense of commitment to a particular faith. Paradoxically, each nourishes the other, and this process of mutual enhancement based on a deep respect for the sanctity of different perspectives is utterly different from that variety of bland multiculturalism which, committed to nothing, actually gives us the worst of all worlds.

Spirituality: Expanding Hearts and Extending Horizons

I believe that the size of people’s hearts is directly related to the breadth of their horizons. The most constricted and stony heart is the one whose horizons extend no further than himself and the satisfaction of his own needs and desires. As the human being develops, his or her horizons progressively extend from self to family, from family to social circle, from social circle to class to tribe, from tribe to nation state, and beyond.

Other people define themselves according to their occupations, or sometimes, sadly, in today’s world, according to their designer labels or, as a recent survey revealed, by their mobile phones. This survey, referred to on the Today programme of 10 May 2003, found that many people in England draw their sense of identity and self-worth from their mobile phone, to the extent that they feel depressed when separated from it. Many people find it difficult to progress further, and are forever confined by their tribal, nationalistic, occupational or “life-style” perception of themselves. I saw a television programme recently about a couple on holiday who decided who was worthy of getting to know by the shopping bag they carried. Someone with a Marks and Spencer bag was avoided, but someone who carried a Gucci bag was actively sought out and cultivated as a social contact. This is the ultimate reduction of the human being, an identity defined no longer by the old questions, “Where do you come from and what do you do?” but by the pressing modern question: “Which shopping bag do you carry?”

The trajectory of the person of goodwill is the widening of horizons to fellow human beings, first to family, then to friends, and ultimately to all human beings and all life on earth, no matter what they do or where they come from. The Prophet Muhammad said: “All God’s creatures are His family; and he is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.”

Wonder and Mystery

For people of faith and spiritual insight, there is a further horizon too, beyond that of the earth, which takes in the whole universe, and which all young people, if given the opportunity, always respond to instinctively with wonder. Direct observation of the night sky ought to be on every science curriculum, not simply to satisfy curiosity about the workings of the universe (as if the universe can be reduced to self-sufficient laws and mechanisms or bizarre and inexplicable phenomena), but as a means to evoke wonder and holy awe.

That sense of wonder and unfathomable mystery, and the humility that it inspires, is a vital dimension of spirituality. The ninety-first chapter of the Qur’an (Ash-Shams, “The Sun”) calls us to reflect on the inexplicable grandeur of the universe - so far as it is perceptible and comprehensible to man – as compelling evidence of God’s creative power. As well as the night sky, it could be any experience of that sense of limitless multiplicity which anyone who looks at nature with an open eye can perceive, but whatever it is, it is a point of reference with something infinite, unfathomable and limitless, which is far beyond the practical, and even the moral dimension of human affairs. Albert Einstein said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Honouring the Spiritual Needs of our Young People

Last year, when there was much discussion and controversy about the role of faith schools, I heard a discussion in the BBC radio 4 “Moral Maze” series about the advantages and disadvantages of faith schools in which a well-known atheist philosopher said that he thought religious education in schools was “intellectual abuse”. I would say that the real abuse is to deny to young people the spiritual dimension in their lives and the source of meaning and meaningfulness this provides, to disconnect them from their essential nature, to give them no means of expressing the natural wonder they have in their souls and no means of activating and developing their highest spiritual capacities. We only have to look around ourselves to see the consequences of this deprivation in our contemporary culture.

The assertion of the atheist is also contradicted by research by the UK Professional Council for Religious Education published in September 2001. This showed that among secondary school students aged 11 to 18, those who enjoy religious education (RE) and see positive benefits for their own lives from studying religion outnumber by four to one those who are negative about RE. The report also gives examples of statements by students which show that many students also like RE because of the opportunities it gives for expressing opinions, improving communication skills, acquiring knowledge of other faiths, developing inter-cultural awareness and sensitivity, developing the skills of philosophical enquiry and reflection, and pondering the meaning and purpose of life.

A Concluding Plea

We need to listen to what young people are saying, to feed their hunger to connect with an expanded sense of identity which seeks relatedness with all human beings and recognises and values the contribution of all civilisations and cultures to the development of mankind. We need to guide them through the Clashing Rocks, beyond the fragmented and polarised thinking which sustains prejudice, limiting ideologies and exclusivism of any kind, to a level of awareness which is not simply personal, social and moral, but spiritual, for ultimately only the spiritual dimension is spacious enough to encompass what our young people are reaching out for. In the pervasive climate of nihilism, teachers who can awaken and nurture in these hungry souls the search for meaning which is embedded in their essential nature and in their original, authentic sense of Self are true heroes and heroines.


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