From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
[PCUSANEWS] Interfaith America
PCUSA NEWS <PCUSA.NEWS@ecunet.org>
20 May 2003 11:15:36 -0400
Note #7692 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
May 19, 2003
by Gustav Niebuhr; Viewer's Guide
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly; Reprinted with permission.
Editor's note: 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)
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
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
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
But, as shown by events in 1965 and 2001, there can be a link between these
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
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
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. 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
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
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