Professor Joe Goldblatt, current chair of Edinburgh Interfaith Association
“Put on your best clothes. Tonight you are speaking to the Baptists.” With that order I had my first introduction to the world of interfaith over fifty years ago. I grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas in the USA where we were the only Jewish family in a neighbourhood of over 40,000 protestants. Whilst I experienced very little anti – semitism directly as a child, I do recall my parents whispering in the kitchen about bomb threats, a cross being burned in our front yard, and men wearing Nazi Uniforms marching in front of my father’s small hardware shop.
Perhaps this is why my father arranged for my sister and I to visit local churches every Wednesday night to tell children of our age about the experience of being Jewish. The Christian children found this to be very interesting because their religion was developed from the precepts of Judaism. They also liked it when we told them that on Chanukah we received a present every night for eight days and we ate donuts to remember us of the oil that somehow miraculously continued to illuminate our eternal light 3000 years ago after the holy Temple had been attacked.
That is why when I learned of the sad loss of Professor Dr Frank Whaling, founder of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association and emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Edinburgh, a flood of memories returned to me. Although I never had the privilege and honour of meeting Professor Whaling, his contributions to our city, country and to the academic study of world religions is simply legendary.
As he once wrote in an academic journal where he explored the history of religion “Perhaps only a Yorkshire Professor in a Scottish University would be brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to take up the challenge!” And take up the challenge he did over and over again.
In 1983, Frank and others decided that Scotland’s Capital City needed an interfaith association to promote understanding, tolerance, and compassion for all religions and none. His ingenius idea was that anyone and everyone who wished to promote these values could sit around the same family table in harmony and instead of ringing their hands about all the troubles of the day, they would together roll up their sleeves and work together to make Edinburgh a better place to live, work, play, and yes, sometimes pray.
According to Margery MacKay, a Unitarian and honorary president of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association (EIFA), “Frank Whaling was unassuming and welcoming of everyone. He was a great scholar of world religions and also had a good sense of humour and a deep love of people emanating from his faith and experience.”
Iain Stewart, Executive Director of EIFA recalls that “Frank was a beautiful human being who believed that all the great world religions, at their roots, are committed to compassion and building a culture of peace. A true pioneer in Interfaith Relations in Scotland, he strived to share his academic knowledge and experiences of faiths living in harmony in India to model a culture of peace here and globally.”
Professor Whaling completed his undergraduate studies in history and theology at Cambridge and then a Master of Arts there as well. He then went on to earn two PhD’s, the first in Philosophy also at Cambridge and the second in Theology at Harvard University in the USA. As a Methodist minister he served communities in England as well as in India. He lectured all over the world and his pulpit extended throughout the world through the airwaves of the BBC.
During his long life, the Edinburgh Interfaith Association (EIFA) that he founded has grown from strength to strength. It is now Scotland’s oldest continuously operating interfaith association. Each year EIFA faith leaders along with their partners in Police Scotland visit dozens of primary schools to demonstrate that we may all live in harmony and also answer any questions to promote greater understanding and tolerance. EIFA also works closely with all faiths and none to promote peace and harmony in our city through an annual Peace Walk that visits many places of worship, workshops in local neighbourhoods, and hundreds of online programmes featuring wise and wonderful speakers from all faiths and none. These programmes reach thousands of people all over the world each year.
There is an ancient tale of two brick layers who were toiling away to build a wall. One brick layer was perspiring heavily and when asked what he was doing said “Ugh. I am building a wall.”
The scond brick layer when asked what he was doing, looked up from his work, smiled and said “I am building a monument to the almighty!” Interestingly, both workmen were building a new place of worship in their city. I believe the second brick layer shared the same vision, inspiration, and determination of the late and great Professor Whaling.
Now, each time I see a wall I shall think of Professor Frank Whaling who was a builder of monuments. I shall also remember that as Frank taught his students and indeed all of us, a wall shall not divide us so long as their are people of hope, kindness, compassion and love who are willing to see and appreciate what is on the other side.
EIFA and indeed a grateful City of Edinburgh offers our heartfelt condolences to his family and our gratitude for his long life of 88 years during which thanks to his genius for interfaith relations, we continue to grow closer, more tolerant, and more compassionate toward one another. I believe that this is Professor Frank Whaling’s precious legacy in our city and far beyond.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Chair of the Edinburgh Interfaith Association and Emeritus Professor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. To learn more about EIFA visit www.edinburghinterfaith.com