Since the evolution of the world, and as far back as antiquity, religion has been a powerful contributing factor in how different civilizations have come to understand themselves. Further, for some, religion has been a vehicle through which people have achieved liberation, and for others religion has served to create violent conflict between groups of people, civilizations, individuals, and institutions. Regardless of what era one is from— one cannot escape the hellishness hounds of religion. Religion continues to shape the understanding of how people feel they should relate to one another in the world. Although the word interfaith maybe considered a relatively new phenomenon for many in our society prior to September 11th, its age-old roots stem back over 120 years in the United States; and perhaps even longer in other geographical regions across the globe.
Therefore, it is helpful to trace the earliest (documented) origins to interfaith dialogue to give the reader greater insight into its evolution. The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions was the largest and arguably—the most influential interfaith event to happen on American soil. This hallmark event gave new meaning to religious inclusivity/diversity in its attempt to properly recognize and inject other brands of religion and faith traditions into the American ethos. Though some might suggest that the 1893 World Parliament was wildly unsuccessful in providing a rubber stamp in eradicating religious bigotry, I would contend that leaders from this movement had their thumb on the pulse and have reshaped the interreligious landscape and successfully changed the tenor of interfaith dialogue around the world.
For me, this singular event, was the real start of religious freedom or at least allowed the idea of religious freedom to be fully incarnated in the flesh. This event, I believe, was God’s way of sharing God’s self with the world to demonstrate God’s universal humanity. For instance, when Charles Bonney rang the liberty bell to the parliament, Diana Eck says, “he saw the Parliament as evidence that," the finite can never fully comprehend the infinite. Each must see God with the eyes of his own soul. The fraternal union of the religions of the world will come when each seeks truly to know how God has revealed himself in the other." This statement is so provocatively true—that it encapsulates the essence of interfaith work.
Moreover, the heart of interfaith work includes a multitude of different types of conversations. It is not an all-amassing concept. Rather it is intended to be a rigorous exchange of ideas, goals, philosophies, and thoughts, that seeks to crack us open and avail us to perspectives and viewpoints outside of our own. It is about coming to a mutual understanding, and does not seek to compete for who’s right or wrong. Thus, it is not about proselytizing the other, but rather honoring and respecting one’s commitment and/or fidelity to one’s religious or theological conviction.
Gustav Niebuhr asserts, what lies beyond tolerance? “is respect and recognition- not just for individuals but also for the faiths to which people are committed.” Niebuhr further asserts that “society must find a way to move beyond “tolerance,” which implies a certain degree of inequality and unwilling coexistence. Niebuhr calls for unrelenting dialogue. Niebuhr believes that it is through dialogue that relationships are sustained. Hence he says, “dialogue provide(s) the glue that nourishes social relationships.” Much like I believe, Gustav Niebuhr also believes, that dialogue should lead towards concreate actions.
For example, he lifts us Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core as a model organization that brings people of wide interest and religious persuasions together to create and foster a more inclusive community—engaged in the process of social action. He also points towards another interfaith group in Louisville, KY., the Festival of Faiths, which invites people to experience other world religions through experiencing the arts, culture, and distinct lifestyles and other related religious/interreligious traditions.
These events, I believe, are the cornerstone to our democracy. America is not a melting pot, but a salad bowl, and people come from all walks of life, with various religious and non-religious flavors, that makes up who they are. Hence, we are a land of immigrants. We are multicultural and multi-religious, and we are different in all of our variety. Eck says, “the question of difference is not only a cultural, social, and political question. It is also a theological question, as people in each religious tradition think about what it means to embrace a particular faith in full recognition of the power and dignity of other faiths in the lives of their neighbor.”
As we wrestle in this diverse pool of variety, we cannot afford to drown and suffocate the other, but we must learn to swim alongside each other--- offering space and support to each other as we try to navigate and negotiate our shared existence. Dovetailing off my previous statement, Eck ask an important question that speaks to the reality of religious diversity/pluralism. She says, “will it arouse new forms of pluralism, a positive and interactive interpretation of plurality? Or will people cling to an identity that isolates and sets them apart from one another or whether they value a broader identity that brings them into real relationship with one another.”
In other words, Eck, seems to be suggesting that people throughout the world are increasingly recognizing the need to better understand people, groups, and faiths other than their own. In addition, Eck argues,” the encounter of people of differing faiths in the world today, for better and for worse, is one of the most important facts of our time." Therefore, interfaith work allows us to deepen our faith through encountering the other. The reality is that we are in relationship (to some degree or another) and our relationships impact each other—for better or for worse. Interfaith work is to build bridges of opportunity and not walls of everlasting brick and mortar that isolate but rather it should integrate our eclectic experiences.
Abraham Heschel asserts that “No Religion Is an Island.” Thus, we learn from each other’s religious traditions, faiths, and experiences. He argues, “Energies, experiences and ideas that come to life outside the boundaries of a particular religion or all religions continue to challenge and to affect every religion” Eck says, “we are keepers of one another’s images, and of one another’s rights—what impacts one faith will impact all faiths, and we must work together to honor one another’s ability to follow God.” I would argue that the goal of interfaith work is to bear each other’s truth in love and with mutual regard for the sanctity of one’s truth without feeling the pressure to give up one’s personal convictions. Interfaith work requires that we learn to read, listen, and interpret the past through the lens of others—instead of squarely through our own lens. Interfaith work should enhance our sensitivity and make us compassionate stewards to those professing their relationship to God. Finally, it is about being gentle with each other’s differences, without being vehemently disagreeable.
All in all, we must come to understand that the world is changing and no religion can exist in splendid isolation and blatantly ignore the other. Having conversation across the aisle of religious difference is life or death and crucial for survival. In a rapidly growing religiously diverse society, discussion is paramount in creating peace—and we must find better ways to effectively communicate with each other regardless of difference (be it religious, racial, cultural etc.). Interfaith work is at the heart of our democratic democracy and is the pulse that brings us closer to the heart of God, which allows us to share in the stories and experiences of our neighbor’s faith. Interfaith work should move us beyond tolerance, and into respectful relationships that seeks the best for all parties involved. To conclude, interfaith work should disrupt us at our core, awaken our consciousness to see our neighbors as ourselves, and remind us that we do not live in isolation but rather in community with others and with God.