How can interfaith help when tragedy strikes?

“It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit’s grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the days. The government’s counsel – that an attack in a European or American city is an inevitability – isn’t only a disclaimer of responsibility, it’s a heady promise … Just as the hospitals have their crisis plans, so the television networks stand ready to deliver, and their audiences wait. Bigger, grosser next time. Please don’t let it happen. But let me see it all the same, as it’s happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first to know.”
                                                                                                    Saturday, Ian McEwan

I picked up Saturday by Ian McEwan over Christmas. It’s a book that I have been meaning to read more or less since it was published, but for one reason or another had never got around to it. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I certainly hadn’t expected to find the extract that I have quoted above.
2015 was a pretty dreadful year in many ways. Terrorism, war, disease, it felt as if 2015 dealt out the full range of human tragedy and suffering. And after every event, every tragedy, it felt to me like there was a lingering question in my mind – what, if anything, does interfaith have to say, or to contribute to where we are now? How is the work that I am doing making anything better?
That second question caused me particular discomfort because if I am not contributing to processes and activities that are trying to make things better, then why do I, and other professionals around me feel the need to contribute when terrible things happen? Why say anything when tragedy strikes? (Indeed, what is the point of interfaith at all, but that feels like a question for another blog.) The question still troubles me, and I expect that it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
I had been turning this question over in my mind throughout 2015, and then I picked up Saturday.
While I am not writing a book review, I should say for the record that I really enjoyed the read and would recommend it. In fact, I would encourage people who have already read it to pick it up again and have another look, it felt to me like an important book for our time.
The book draws heavily on a poem by Matthew Arnold, On Dover Beach. I want to end this blog with the final stanza of that poem. On Dover Beach is an endlessly studied poem but it speaks to me now, as it did the first time I read it, and when I read it while enjoying Saturday, about the importance of the individual relationships that we have with each other. That to me seems to be at least part of the answer to my question – how am I making anything better? I believe that I am making things better by enabling people to have those relationships and to learn to share and live together. It’s about having a positive vision for the future; a vision that I have in spite of the tragedies that define our age, and not because of them. And that is why I feel we as an interfaith community have to speak when tragedy occurs, but when we do, it must be with a vision for the future which is positive, and inspiring and open to all.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:
And we here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
[This piece was originally published on the 3FF blog]
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