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Interfaith America

Gustav Niebuhr reviews the history of the interfaith movement in America in this article for the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

By Gustav Niebuhr

Viewer's Guide Religion & Ethics Newsweekly;
Reprinted with permission (via Worldwide Faith News). May 19, 2003

PRINCETON, NJ - More than a decade has passed since the end of the Cold War, and the world has abruptly entered a new era in which religious belief can seem distressingly linked to acts of terrible violence.

Assorted terrorists, sometimes acting as mobs, sometimes working alone as suicide bombers, often cite religious beliefs to try to justify murder and mayhem.

On one hand, this means that religion must be regarded with the utmost seriousness in the 21st century, for the world cannot be fully understood otherwise. But should these events also impel believers of different faiths to work together for understanding and harmony?

An answer might be found in the words of the eminent Swiss theologian Hans Kung, who once wrote that peace among nations will be impossible without peace among religions. And there could be no peace among religions without dialogue, he said.

That's a tall order. It demands that members of different faith groups speak with one another as equals, discussing their religious beliefs, discovering common ethical ground, while also recognizing their theological differences.

The problem is that doing this involves overcoming centuries of suspicion and mistrust that often divide faith groups. In addition, the differences between major religions are momentous, distinguished by claims to absolute truth that cannot be ignored.

Against these odds, however, a trend toward interfaith dialogue has emerged, gaining steam in the late twentieth century, especially in the United States and Europe. Those involved call it a movement. It's possibilities for peace have been hailed by some major religious figures, notably Pope John Paul II and the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

At a multifaith gathering in Assisi arranged by the Vatican in 1999, the pope called dialogue among religious people a sign of hope for collaboration against social injustices. “Greater mutual esteem and growing trust,” he said, “must lead to still more effective and coordinated common action on behalf of the human family.”

It's not surprising if all this seems new to some people. Efforts to build ties across religious lines may amount to a movement, but it is a much decentralized one. Furthermore, interfaith work rarely makes the news. In that sense, it would seem to be at a distinct disadvantage compared with its opposite, the use of violence either on behalf of or against a religious group.

But, as shown by events in 1965 and 2001, there can be a link between these two tendencies.

It was the terrible legacy of the Holocaust that gradually forced major Christian churches to confront anti-Jewish elements in their traditions. In 1965, at the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church produced a document - the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions - which, among much else, deplored anti-Semitism and rejected the idea that the Jewish people could be blamed for the death of Jesus.

Since then, the Church has gone considerably further, building closer ties with the world's Jews and affirming that their covenant with God was never revoked.

After September 11, 2001 interfaith activity in the United States increased. In the wake of the murderous attacks on New York and Washington by the al-Qaeda terrorist network, people of different faiths sought each other out, arranging joint worship services to share their common grief.

In addition, a number of Christians and Jews were moved to help their Muslim neighbors, concerned that Muslims risked falling victim to a violent backlash against Islam and to vandals who would seek out Muslim property and people. In many cities and towns, non-Muslims reached out in small but meaningful ways, standing vigil outside mosques and Islamic schools or offering to go shopping for Muslim women who feared harassment if they left their homes.

At the same time, churches, colleges and civic groups began turning to Muslims who felt sufficiently articulate and acculturated to speak about Islam to non-Muslim audiences that might know nothing of the faith beyond the fact that al-Qaeda's terrorists claimed to act in its name.

Last Spring, I met one imam, the spiritual leader at a major urban mosque, who said he had accepted nearly 100 speaking invitations within seven months of the attacks. In an outreach of their own, many mosques flung open their doors, holding open houses to allow non-Muslim neighbors to visit, ask questions and learn about Islam.

The speeches and open houses amount to a basic level of interfaith dialogue. How long they will continue is an open question. But their cumulative effect has been to raise the public profile of Muslims in the United States, making their inclusion in interfaith organizations appear all the more necessary.

Finding a Way

Still, even the simplest interfaith activity can be controversial. President Bush's statements that Islam is a peaceful faith have met with criticism by some conservative Christians.

Beyond that, Christians in general are divided over how they should respond theologically to other religions in a world where immigration and new communication technologies have brought people so much closer.

In a recent book, Catholic theologian Paul F. Knitter identifies at least four major approaches by Christians to understanding other faiths. These run the gamut from a theology of “replacement” (Christianity is to replace all other religions), to one of “fulfillment” (Christ fulfills and brings to perfection other religions), to one of “mutuality” (Christianity and other religions are mutually respectful), to one of “acceptance” (other, different faiths must be accepted).

While it may be possible to count different theological approaches to interfaith understanding, the number of interfaith organizations is far harder to estimate. One list offers a “sampling” of 26, many carrying the word “international” or “world” in their titles, but it is far from complete. Some interfaith dialogue takes place under the authority of large Christian organizations. The Vatican, for example, has a staff specializing in inter-religious affairs, as do the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches.

But a great deal of interfaith work goes on outside such circles, occurring instead at a local level, which lends the movement an energy and staying power that come from grass roots enthusiasm. Local work, often enough, occurs when interested people from different religious groups decide they ought to meet to build closer community ties. Their events may occur in living rooms, in church or synagogue halls or at retreat centers.

Some months ago, I dropped in on one such gathering held at a Catholic retreat center in suburban Seattle. About 20 people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, were getting together once a month to talk over religious issues as a way to become better acquainted.

That day, one man brought up a biblical story - Jacob wrestling with the angel - that touched off a lively discussion about what different religious traditions have to say about a believer's right to challenge God. The discussion ran well over an hour but ended civilly. Later, one participant told me the sessions worked because everyone kept away from politics.

What brought that particular group together was a desire to talk about religious concepts. But it easily might have been a social issue that united them. Interfaith organizations have been formed to work against homelessness, to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to promote peace, among many other causes. The pope's 1999 speech at Assisi talked about how dialogue can lead to social action. But for some, it can be the other way around. Practical collaboration leads to theological conversation.

The Rev. Marcus Braybrooke, co-president of the World Congress of Faiths, based in Oxford, England, has written that what makes the interfaith movement distinctive is the desire of participants to encourage religious people to be respectful and cooperative, rather than competitive with one another.

But being cooperative does not mean trying somehow to create a new religious faith. Indeed, many who have participated in interfaith dialogue report that by talking with people of other faiths, they gain a greater knowledge of and commitment to their own, if only because they are forced to think deeply about what they believe.

Openness to Other Traditions

Joseph C. Hough Jr., the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, has called recently for Christians to adopt a new theology of other faiths, one that does not fear that openness to other religious traditions will compromise their own faith.

“What is essential for Christian faith is that we know we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is not essential to believe that no one else has seen God and experienced redemption in another place or time,” he says. “For my faith, Jesus Christ is decisive. But I am a Christian who strongly believes that God has always been and now is working everywhere in every human culture to redeem the world. I believe that there is ample evidence in the best of the world's religions, including our own, that God's work is effective. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others have been and are being transformed by a powerful vision of god that redeems them with hope and infuses their religious practice with compassion, justice and peace.”

A respect for religious differences, in fact, was a ground rule at a remarkable conference that many regard as the first great interfaith meeting, the World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1993 [sic, 1893]. Among the conference's stated objectives was a call for fostering “good understanding” among different groups of believers, but without encouraging indifference to dogma or trying to create a false unity.

Although organized largely by Protestants, the parliament provided a platform for other speakers, most notably from Asia. One man, the Hindu Swami Vivekananda of India, made an extraordinary impression, was lauded by conference delegates and was given enough news coverage to make him an international figure.

In his opening speech, Vivekananda offered a vision that continues to inspire some in the interfaith movement in its hope that believers across religious lines may make a positive difference in the world's condition. Referring to the ringing of the bell that opened the conference, Vivekananda expressed his great hope that the sound would toll “the death-knell” of all fanaticism and persecution.

Gustav Niebuhr, a Presbyterian and former religion writer for The New York Times, was named Distinguished Writer of the Year in 2000 by the Presbyterian Writers Guild. He is currently writing a book on contemporary religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly is produced by WNET in New York and telecast on PBS. Check local listings for airtime in your area. (Jerry L. Van Marter)

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