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The CIP Approach to Inter-faith Encounters

The Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme is dedicated to learning about, learning from, and learning between religions as they interact within a secular and religious world.

What does it mean to be religious in the 21st century? How should people from different religious traditions engage with one another, and with the wider religious and secular world? How should the importance of those traditions, and their power for good and ill, be acknowledged intelligently within secular institutions? What can we learn from history about how religions have interacted and shaped one another, and together shaped the public sphere? What are the resources within different religions for promoting peace and contributing to human flourishing? 

In our world, it is ever more important to create spaces in which people can study and explore these questions, and for creative dissemination of discoveries throughout the public sphere.

The Cambridge Inter-faith Programme:

  • Pursues academic research into Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and their interactions with each other and with the wider secular and religious world, historically and today;
  • Provides and facilitates high-quality education in this area for a wide variety of audiences at every level;
  • Shapes debate about and between the religions nationally and internationally.

The Cambridge Inter-faith Programme was born in 2002 with the aim of promoting high-quality engagement between Jews, Christians and Muslims, and deeper understanding of the role that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can play in a complexly religious and secular world. Since the outset, it has worked in partnership with the Coexist Foundation to provide high quality education about religions to the widest possible public audience. 

As part of the University of Cambridge, CIP aims to transform both the academic environment and public consciousness, shaping the way that religion is understood and related to today.

Of the many different ways of approaching encounters between people of faith, CIP offers a distinctly in-depth, reverent and scholarly perspective.

We pursue forms of inter-faith engagement that embody what we call the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme ‘DNA’:

The engagements we pursue involve:

  1. participants’ critical love for their own traditions;
  2. partnerships of difference between participants;
  3. a commitment to long-term apprenticeship and collegiality;
  4. a constant pursuit of deeper understanding within and between traditions; and
  5. work done both for its own sake and for practical benefit.
  6. Abrahamic faiths and beyond...

1. Participants’ critical love for their own traditions

The most important resources for inter-faith engagement are people who

  • appreciatively inhabit their own tradition or community, whether religious or secular, whilst
  • recognising that it, together with the whole ecology of traditions or communities, is not free from problems.

CIP relies upon the participation of people who are captivated by a tradition’s complexities and possibilities, to the point where they devote years of their lives to exploring and inhabiting it.  We rely upon people who have a sympathetic understanding of a tradition from the inside: the sense that it makes, and the ways that it shapes imagination and practice, its complex entanglement with other traditions, and the problems that it faces – internally, and in its relations to numerous other traditions in a secular and religiously plural world.

This is why CIP favours engagements that involve participants each of whom is primarily (and deeply) immersed in a single tradition.

2. Partnerships of difference

The most fruitful inter-faith engagements, in our experience, occur amongst those

  • seeking in their own tradition resources for the healing and transformation of that tradition, of relations between traditions, and of the whole ecology of traditions; and
  • committed to explore partnerships of difference with other traditions for the sake of such healing.

CIP is not only interested in understanding the history and current interrelations of the religious traditions, but also in understanding the contribution they can make to the flourishing of a religiously plural and secular world.  But this is not simply a matter of understanding the contribution that each distinct tradition can make, or the transformations that it can or should undergo, but a matter of exploring the partnerships that become possible when members of differing traditions interact in their pursuit of flourishing for their traditions and their world.  Those partnerships are always particular, and always unpredictable: they emerge from the specific ways in which the complexes of imagination and practice of one tradition interlock with the complexes of imagination and practice of others, and produce forms of partnership of which no neutral overview is possible.  These are partnerships in which genuine common action turns out to be possible, even though each participant understands the nature and goal of that common action differently, from the point of view of his or her own tradition.

This is why CIP favours projects that involve multiple participants, immersed in different traditions, exploring what has been, is, and might be possible as their traditions interact.

3. Apprenticeship and collegiality

Such engagements cannot simply be produced according to a recipe.  In our experience, they emerge from long processes of learning

  • in apprenticeship to others already in partnerships of difference, and
  • through various forms of mutual hospitality, including studying and sharing the texts, practices, arts, sciences, celebrations, food, institutions, places and people that mean most to each. 

To pursue partnerships of difference is itself a long-term discipline – one that requires its own kind of immersion.  CIP is dedicated to exploring the forms of life that can nurture such partnerships, and sustain them over the long term that they require.  We understand this in the first place as a matter of apprenticeship: just as with immersion in an individual tradition, it is not a matter of easily graspable techniques, nor of easily transmissible information, but of learning a craft over time at the hands of those already immersed in it.  We also understand this as requiring forms of intense collegiality: carefully tended contexts in which the immersive interaction can take place.  The long-term disciplines of apprenticeship and collegiality that make 'partnerships of difference' possible are ones that each participant will understand differently, from the point of view of their own tradition – but CIP has emerged from the experience that they are nevertheless possible as shared projects.

That is why CIP has been secured long-term endowment for its work, and has established core practices of reasoning together as a foundation to more visible academic and public education work.  If such work is to be truly transformative, it needs to emerge out of genuinely long-term engagement.

4. Deepening understanding

Such engagements can lead to a fourfold deepening, as participants are drawn

  • deeper into their own tradition,
  • deeper into the traditions of others,
  • deeper into the common good of creation and humanity, and
  • deeper into partnerships of difference.

CIP does not see the immersion required for inter-faith partnerships of difference as competing with the immersion that membership in or devotion to an individual tradition requires.  CIP emerges from the experience that there can, instead, be a virtuous circle, in which these four deepenings feed one another: deepening immersion in one's home tradition; deepening discovery of the tradition in which one's partners are immersed; deepening discovery of the contribution that each of these traditions can make to the flourishing of our secular and religiously plural world; and deepening discovery of the unpredictable partnerships of difference that are possible between these traditions in their pursuit of such flourishing.

This is why CIP can reach out for the involvement of people suspicious of some more familiar modes of inter-faith collaboration or dialogue, which appear to require that participants’ energy or focus is shifted away from the distinctive depths of their own tradition.

For more detail on the CIP approach to inter-faith encounter, see our Academic Profile

5. Work done for its own sake and for practical benefit

Such engagements should be pursued

  • first of all for its own sake,
  • and secondly for their practical benefits.

CIP's experience is that the four ‘deepenings’ take place most fully when they are not immediately instrumentalised: when they are done first of all in open expectation, by participants intent upon letting themselves be caught up in the process, discovering what is made possible by such engagement  – and not knowing in advance what such discoveries will be.  We say that such engagement is first of all done ‘for its own sake’, even though members of different traditions understand, practice and express that 'for its own sake' in different ways.   It is also our experience, however, that it is precisely when this engagement is pursued in this open way that it becomes most practically fruitful – even if sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways.

This is why CIP continues to engage in and support the practice of Scriptural Reasoning as a core practice of our whole Programme, and regard it is justified in its own terms even before it is justified by its contributions to our academic and public education activities.

6. Abrahamic faiths and beyond...

The Cambridge Inter-faith Programme initially grew out of the textual practice of Scriptural Reasoning, which started with Christians and Jews, and then expanded to include Muslims; and it draws on the rich and complex history of interactions between those three faiths.  We are, however, exploring various ways of expanding further, where our growing circle of relationships brings us into contact with other traditions and communities. We are doing this where we can begin to envisage rich practices of engagement that extend, parallel or supplement Scriptural Reasoning, and that will allow us to begin exploring the equally rich and complex history of interactions that connect this wider circle of faiths.  We deliberately take this process of exploration very slowly, though, because it is important to us to put down deep foundations that can underpin long term, fruitful engagement.

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