Sacred Ground: The Interfaith Triangle

One of my greatest joys in working with Eboo Patel is watching him think. He is the sharpest wit in most of the rooms he enters, and if you manage to catch him with a surprising or unusual question after a public talk or small-group gathering, you can see his mind whirring as he finds not only a meaningful answer, but also a more compelling framework for your question.

In Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, Eboo gives us all the gift of seeing him think. It seems apparent that he is in the process of re-framing not merely a question, but the premises of the entire interfaith movement, of which he has long been a key part.

The core of his new thinking comes out in his chapter, "The Science of Interfaith Cooperation." Reflecting humbly on a moment when he found himself unable to respond adequately to a funder's request for measurable outcomes, he poses a set of questions that the Interfaith Youth Core has already begun answering, and to which all members of the interfaith movement must attend: "How do we measure effectiveness in interfaith work? How do we track progress? What outcomes are we after, and how do we know we are reaching them?"

In response to this question, Eboo looks to quantitative, rather than qualitative evidence -- a major shift not in his own personal research and reading, but in his description of the interfaith movement and why it counts. Therein lies a gem, which may in time spawn a transformation within the interfaith movement and how it understands itself: the interfaith triangle. Says Patel,

The more I studied this area, the more I started to see attitudes, knowledge, and relationships as three sides of a triangle. If you know some (accurate and positive) things about a religion, and you know some people from that religion, you are far more likely to have positive attitudes toward that tradition and that community. The more favorable your attitude, the more open you will be to new relationships and additional appreciative knowledge. A couple of cycles around this triangle, and people from different faiths are starting to smile at each other on the streets instead of looking away or crossing to the other side.

The question truly, in my mind, at the heart of the book is how to encourage people en masse to go around the interfaith triangle in the right direction. The absence of movement could lead to indifference or even mutual suspicion. Going the wrong way (and learning inaccurate and negative things about a given tradition) could lead to the singling out of religious communities, as we saw of the Muslim community over the otherwise uncontroversial issue of a community center at 51 Park Place.

The genius of Sacred Ground is not merely this central idea or very important chapter on quantifying outcomes for interfaith cooperation. It is in showing how this new "science" meshes with the powerful narratives that Eboo has long used to inspire leaders and shape the interfaith movement. What counts is not merely how many people we get to go around the interfaith triangle, but what that experience is like for them -- and whether they will tell others to join them on the trek.

Sacred Ground clarifies our path as a movement with robust data. But it also shows that what creates a movement goes far beyond the data itself. Our stories are at the center of the interfaith triangle.

This article was originally published on the blog of the Interfaith Youth Core.