The opening IRS meeting of 2021 went all the way back to our origins, with discussions on the nature of creation in the Abrahamic traditions. In addition to important theological questions about the source of creation and how it relates to contemporary scientific knowledge, there is also a growing concern for the environment and religious duties towards God’s creation. As such, the meeting covered both creation and the environment in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with presentations from Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton, Sister Isabel Smyth, and Shaykh Riaz Walji.
Rabbi Michael began by explaining that the exchange of ideas on foundational issues amongst the three faith traditions is not a novel occurrence. Whilst in the past forums like the IRS which bring together intellectuals of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism for scholarly discussions did not necessarily exist, reading and replying to the scholarly works of other faiths was not uncommon. Thus, IRS continues a tradition of debating and learning from one another. His presentation comprised of two parts; firstly, analysing texts such as the Genesis which talk about creation, and secondly, discussing texts through which duty towards creation can be understood. Whilst there are a multitude of Jewish texts that address environmental concerns, Rabbi Michael picked out four key themes: stewardship, preservation of species and prohibition of waste, pollution, and the green belt.
Currently, Michael is Rabbi Emeritus of Kol Chai, Scholar in Residence of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue London, a governor and Senior Lecturer at Leo Baeck College, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester. Rabbi Michael has been involved in leading interfaith weeks since 1986, mainly at the Ammerdown Centre near Bath, and is the Jewish team leader for Oxford Three Faiths Week.
He is the author of The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism (1988), The Christian Effect on Jewish Life (1994) and Bar Mitzvah: A History (2014), detailing the origins and development of bar mitzvah (for boys) and bat mitzvah (for girls). His current research is about the influences of Islam on Judaism.
Watch Rabbi Michael’s presentation here:
Sister Isabel focused on the Catholic perspective with an analysis of Pope Francis’ letter, Laudato si that sets out the Pope’s care for creation using the theology of creation as a motivation for believers. It reflects a change in the theology in response to changes in the society, as is the ongoing process within Catholicism. The initial understanding of the Genesis was that nature was created for the ease of human beings, however, due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, humans were left on earth to suffer in their sinful state. This reading had far reaching consequences in Christianity including implications for the treatment of women. The changes in Laudato si came about as a recognition that the chapters of Genesis contained truth but were written as myths. The changes also reflect our evolving knowledge of science and cosmology.
Sister Isabel is the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Secretary for Interfaith Relations, secretary of the West of Scotland Council of Christians and Jews and a member of the UK Churches Committee for Interreligious Relations. In 2007 she was awarded an OBE for her work in interfaith relations.
She taught for over twenty years in the religious education department of St Andrew’s College of Education and has long standing experience in interfaith work and has served on a variety of interfaith and religious education bodies including the Churches Agency for Inter Faith Relations in Scotland and the UK Interfaith Network.
Watch Sister Isabel’s presentation here:
The closing presentation of the symposia from Shaykh Riaz who gave a thorough analysis of the Quranic verses on the origin and purpose of creation. He emphasised that the objective of the verses was to remind people of the majesty of God as the universe is the manifestation of God, often described as the ‘face of God’. Shaykh Riaz enumerated verses alluding to the creation in conformity with the scientific knowledge of existence such as the occurrence of the big bang and the expansion of the universe, which he supported by hadith literature. He concluded with discussions on the environmental crisis, quoting scholars who consider it to be indicative of a spiritual crisis arising from the misconception that the cosmos is lifeless unconscious matter.
Shaykh Riaz is a lecturer at Al-Mahdi Institute. He teaches Islamic philosophy and Mysticism, Theology, and Usul al Fiqh. He has an MA in Islam in Contemporary Societies, University of Warwick, and is a graduate of the Institute’s Hawza programme. He currently serves as research assistant to the Director of the Institute, helping with educational projects and papers with contemporary relevance for Muslims.
Watch Shaykh Riaz’s presentation here:
Shaykh Riaz’s PPT can be found here