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Sikhism COLE SAHIB - Story Of A Multifaith Journey

Discussion in 'Book Reviews & Editorials' started by Admin Singh, Sep 29, 2009.

  1. Admin Singh

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    COLE SAHIB - Story Of A Multi-faith Journey
    A Review by Gurmukh Singh

    A Short Review
    Link to Buy the Book: Sikh Philosophy Network Book Store - Cole Sahib: The Story of a Multifaith Journey

    This book is based on intensive first hand teaching experience from primary school to the university. It is about the evolution of Religious Education (RE) over the last 50 years in an increasingly multifaith Britain. It gives useful policy guidance regarding the future direction of RE.
    The author, Dr W Owen Cole is a highly respected figure in multifaith education circles. He is a strong believer in teaching religion as a “broad study of beliefs and values” so that by the time the student has completed education he or she is not only literate and numerate but also “religiate”. He has written many well researched books and, even after retirement from service, continues to be an authoritative commentator and adviser on RE issues.

    In the preface he tells us that, deep interest in RE from the age of 23 years (1954), his “multifaith journey” from 1968, and his own “spiritual pilgrimage” are the three “intertwining strands” of this religious autobiography.
    According to the book cover note, he started as a “very conventional Christian” and his dogmatic approach changed to pragmatic exploration through experience. However, despite his upbringing in a manse (clergyman’s house), there is no doubt that his father’s liberal approach to matters of religion, did influence his own approach in later life. As he says, his religious upbringing was not “fanatical”.

    His early life, studies and early teaching experience is covered in the first 5 chapters. It is interesting to note that he was moving around in towns with growing multi-religious communities like the Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in addition to the earlier Jewish settlers. His was the ideal environment for learning about new religio-social groups and he made full use of the study opportunities on offer.

    When time came to register for National Service he decided to be a conscientious objector and joined the Quakers’ Friends Ambulance Service (FAS). He came into contact with Quaker belief that God is in everyone, which “explains why Quakers sit in a circle or square facing each other during their meeting for worship. That is where God is, in all other people besides themselves. Hence too their opposition to slavery, war, gender discrimination, and an organised ministry.” A Sikh would read the above with much appreciation as part of his or her religious belief also. For Owen Cole that also “meant that feminism was not new when its time came”.
    He gained experience of teaching children from diverse ethnic backgrounds and problem children. He had his first experience of visiting a mandir, gurdwara and mosque at Newcastle and realised that the sort of RE he had in mind would require satisfactory teaching literature and translations of scriptures from other religions.

    He attended a lecture on the Sikh religion by John Hinnels which stressed that it is not a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam, that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a “militant faith”, it believes in gender equality and rejects caste. At Leeds, Owen Cole met Piara Singh Sambhi “who remained a close friend until his death in on 20 November 1992”. They co-authored a book: “The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices” (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1978). Based on mainstream Sikh ideology, the book is perhaps the best RE publications in the UK.

    A “most precious memory” for Owen Cole is to do with the need to promote pride in self-identity in a multi-ethnic society. On one occasion he told a mixed class of 9-year olds the story of the Sikh Good Samaritan, Bhai Kanhaiya. To quote, “what amazed me was the response it drew from the eight or nine Sikhs in the class, Not only were they attentive, sitting up straight, but I swear they each grew by about a foot. They looked around the class at their peers with pride. Someone had told a story about them!”. He is believes in community identity as well as being responsive to British citizenship.

    A large part of the book is devoted to getting to know the diverse faith communities through first hand experience of their religious places, practices and social life. His visit to a gurdwara in Leeds is described in some detail. Extended family system, relationships and responsibilities, the concept of “izzat”, arranged marriages etc are discussed with appreciation from within.

    In February-March 1973, Owen Cole had his first experience of all aspects of life in India and Pakistan. He made extensive and detailed notes of what to us are familiar scenes, social situations and way of life on the sub-continent. He was well received wherever he stayed, mostly with Sikh, Hindu and Muslim families. He fully participated in the way of life, gave talks, got used to Indian time keeping – time waits for the audience and not the other way around – bribery in officialdom and so on.

    From Chapter 11 on Owen Cole discusses the future of RE. He argues strongly that there is need for a national curriculum which should include RE. Children moving from one locality to another would come across, not only Christians from diverse ethnic backgrounds but also other religious groups. Local syllabus catering for local needs cannot be justified, and, in fact, RE should have “a global perspective and context.”
    The final Chapter 15 sums up where Dr Owen Cole, the multifaith teacher and the spiritual pilgrim, stands today.

    Men and women of faith should assume that, provided they accept the essence of their own religion, then that is the “authentic” path for them. Other doubts, they should be able to cope with by reading between the lines of religious allegory and idiom.

    His frustration with the lack of vision and adequate response by the UK’s religious and political establishment to the RE needs of a rapidly changing population mix, comes through. The establishment is still “clinging to the world of yesterday” by marginalising other faiths, treating them as “guests” and expecting them to “soon go home”! He writes, “This tokenism is unacceptable and dangerous as it can result in alienation, especially of the young. A social and spiritual revolution is required.” His views call for a major review of the UK RE system.

    I had difficulty following the first few chapters due to long paragraphs and sentences, UK educational jargon and acronyms, absence of dates to follow
    order of events, and informal use of names without any introduction.
    A thought provoking publication for those interested in Religious Education in UK schools and for policy makers in the field of multifaith education.
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