Interfaith Action In A Tumultuous World

Interfaith dialogue and action is populated with ideas, institutions, and events.
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<p>Celebrating Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations</p>

Celebrating Interfaith Harmony Week at the United Nations

UN Photo Library

What more can those who live by their religious beliefs do to turn dreams of peace and justice into realities? A remarkable array of interfaith organizations and initiatives share the conviction that one answer lies in forging peace and cooperation among religious communities. Their goal may be to address tensions that have specific roots in religious beliefs or practices or to show common purpose in the face of a crisis that jolts the community overall. Interfaith initiatives often seek to build on shared values to address the daily challenges of living together fairly, with the benefits and without the frictions that come with today’s plural societies.

The rather bewildering array or organizations involved in interfaith work approach the challenges from many directions. To “map” this complex landscape, the GHR Foundation supported a World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) report published last week. Some initiatives start with theology and the clash or resonance of ideas while others look to practice as a way to forge relationships through tackling common concerns together. Some institutions have a truly planetary reach with a vision not far off the aspirations that underlie institutions like the United Nations. Others (the far larger number) are very local. Interfaith tensions and solutions can start within a family.

Religious leaders and communities promoting interfaith work point to important achievements that result from working together. Religious communities find ways to live together harmoniously in tough situations, respecting and honoring their similarities and differences, for example celebrating holidays and achievements together. Crises are defused, problems headed off. Communities work together to reconcile angry groups and to address trauma. Examples? Some that stand out are the interfaith work of Habitat for Humanity following the “theology of the hammer” and diverse Muslim leaders who agreed to address tensions around religious minorities last year in the Marrakech Declaration. Religions for Peace, an ambitious global body that sits right by the United Nations, takes on issues ranging from mid-east peace to climate change and HIV/AIDS.

“There’s work to be done to build better foundations for respectful and productive understandings.”

Not everyone is persuaded that interfaith action can make much headway. For a start, it’s rarely clear how far a problem really has religious roots (as opposed to economics, culture, or, the most common villain, politics). It’s almost always a complex brew of different factors. This is obvious in passionate arguments about the true, root causes of extremist religious ideas and movements. It is also true in everyday life, say in how men and women relate or how they discipline children, where religious values and practices often take form alongside other kinds of influence.

And there’s a current of skepticism about dialogue as a meaningful path to solutions. Dialogue, as understood by interfaith advocates, means far more than simply talk nor does it mean winning debates. The core idea is openness to transformation. Sometimes that transformation comes from knowing and understanding someone personally and from working together to solve problems.

Three hopeful ideas, areas where action is both possible and vitally needed, illustrate hopes for interfaith work.

Today most thoughtful observers realize that religious beliefs and institutions play vital roles in most parts of the world. This may seem obvious reading today’s news but for several decades in several regions, it was assumed that the influence of religious institutions and beliefs would fade as societies modernized. An implication of the new consensus is that understanding religious history, institutions, and core beliefs should be expected of all citizens. It is sometimes called basic religious literacy.

Interfaith dialogue and action is populated with ideas, institutions, and events. Likewise, there’s little doubt that engagement among different understandings within, for example, Christian or Muslim traditions (intrafaith) is needed. What is less appreciated is the need for dialogue and understanding between religious and non-religious approaches. There’s obviously no single “religious” view any more than there is a common “secular” approach but it often seems that the preconceptions and emotional and intellectual barriers are higher here than they are between very different religious perspectives. There’s work to be done to build better foundations for respectful and productive understandings.

Finally, among the countless issues that confront American and world citizens, one cries out for engagement of religious actors: the crises of refugees and migration. Religious traditions have countless teachings about welcoming “the stranger”. There is rich experience of religiously organized support for humanitarian action that includes creative problem-solving approaches as well as compassionate and caring acts of welcome. Religious communities can be especially well placed to address real fears and misconceptions. It is heartening that Princeton University’s Office of Religious Life is hosting a conference on “Seeking refuge: faith-based approaches to forced migration” this week. This is just one example of an outpouring of religious reflection and action worldwide.

Here, as on countless topics, a common reflection that links ethics and practice, beliefs and action, offers a path to healing pain and looking towards solutions.

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