Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Celebrating our Commonalities; Respecting our Differences

[As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan comes to a close, I am offering one more essay on the value of interfaith dialogue. - CK]

In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, C.S. Lewis stated that “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.” He was talking about how Europeans had for so long seen their history as divided into two eras, pre-Christian and Christian, but that today we must acknowledge a third, the post-Christian era.  Lewis was speaking in 1954 in England, and his view was understandably quite Eurocentric. 

Today, we live in a world that is far more diverse and less Eurocentric.  Moreover, we of European descent find ourselves in a world that is not only post-Christian in terms of culture, but also multicultural in its diversity. In fact, both Christian and post-Christian cultures are, depending upon your point of view, either in decline or awakening to find themselves as one among many viable communities.

From my perspective as one who tries to champion interfaith dialogue, C.S. Lewis’s observation that Christians and Pagans had more in common than either has with the modern world is an excellent starting point for dialogue. As one who regularly participates in Christian worship and tries to be a practitioner of faith, when I see Muslims gather at the mosque, Jewish friends meeting on the Sabbath, or Hindus meeting for worship, I see fellow travelers and pilgrims who, like me, are attempting to connect with the divine realm in order to bring meaning to their lives.

Those of us who seek peaceful dialogue with other faiths, however, too often focus only upon the things we hold in common. In actual fact, we cannot simply look at our similarities, have a kumbaya moment and go in peace. We must acknowledge that there are indeed differences that cannot be glossed over. There are a number of resources that I have found which can help those who wish to become more engaged in interfaith endeavors.

Resources I have found helpful

I. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter, by Stephen Prothero.  In Stephen  Prothero’s book he argues that we are not advancing toward a better world by claiming that all religions are essentially the same. He opts for realism over idealism and says we do more good by a healthy understanding of the differences found the world’s religions.

Prothero’s point is well taken, that we cannot just gloss over religious differences and think that all religions are the same. It is also true that what a person believes about God or ultimate reality will affect how that person engages with others in society. Prothero uses a sports analogy to drive home his point. You cannot say that baseball, football and basketball are the same, because they have different goals and rules. You cannot say that baseball is superior because it scores more runs, when the other sports do not even have scoring runs as a goal. I have a clergy friend who was telling me about an interfaith group she was a part of. There were Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Christians in the group, and they did not try to say that they believed the same things. What they were trying to do was to find ways to live together and projects in which they could cooperate. So I can agree that all religions are not the same.

Prothero uses the sports analogy. I might use a different analogy, though. People throughout the world speak different languages. Even though these languages are not the same, and often concepts are lost or diminished by attempts at translation, each language has grammar and syntax, and each language has communication as its purpose. So in some sense, languages are the same even though the words, sounds and structures are completely different.

II. The Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. Goldman. Goldman’s approach is different from Prothero’s. Goldman is a journalist and an observant Jew. The book is about his experience taking a year’s leave of absence to study at Harvard Divinity. He states that his preconceived notion was, “If you know one religion, you know them all.” Diana Eck, professor of World Religions at Harvard, gave him a wake-up call on the first day of class when she said, “If you know one religion, you don’t know any.” Goldman came to understand that “It is unfair and unwise to understand one religion by the yardstick of another.” The author came to appreciate other faiths in the course of his studies by seeing them from the inside.

On passage in particular illustrates Goldman’s intent in writing the book: “I am sitting in a black Baptist church and feel swept away by the incredible combination of pain, joy and music ricocheting through the building. I am sitting in a Russian Orthodox Church surrounded by statues and icons, and feel a sense of mystery and transcendence. I am sitting among Quakers at a Friends' meeting and feel a serenity I have never before known. In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in the richness of my own faith but nourished by the faith of others.”

III. When Faiths Collide, by Martin Marty keeps the reader firmly planted in the real world and calls for active engagement, not simple tolerance in interfaith matters. Those who advocate tolerance usually hold matters of faith and religion lightly and think everyone should do the same so that we can all “live and let live.” In reality, however, there are many for whom religion is central to their identity and world view and they will not relegate it to a lesser role. For Marty, hospitality is what is called for in dealing with religious conflict. Marty goes to great pains to describe the culture that dev eloped in the United States as we moved toward a more pluralistic society. Using the terms “belongers” and “strangers” Marty illustrates how attitudes develop, misunderstandings arise, then suspicion and conflict ensues. 

In terms of interfaith opportunities Martin Marty prefers the term “conversation” rather than “dialogue,” adding that no one ever comes away saying “I won that conversation.” He advocates telling stories since stories are important to everyone and they are more open-ended than doctrinal statements. He also advises the reader to expect conflicts but to realize that conflict can lead to more creative interaction. 

Martin Marty makes no claims to having a solution to the problem of belongers vs. strangers, but hopes to “present readers with some understanding of the zones where the religious meanings and intentions of strangers have become confused and heated” so that we can begin to “explore understandings, options, and alternatives that we may have been overlooking before.” The key lies in overt acts of hospitality in which one can welcome the stranger without denying one’s own faith or attacking the faith of the other.

IV. Beyond Tolerance by Gustav Niebuhr is a very hopeful and helpful book, in my opinion. It is written by the grandson of Richard Niebuhr (and great nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr).  In his role as journalist, Gustav Niebuhr gives accounts from across the country of ordinary citizens engaging in meaningful communication and collaboration with people of other faiths.  This short and readable book offers a basis for a true regard for the faith practices of others and actual examples of interfaith dialogue.

V. The Jew in the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz is a fascinating account of a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism. It offers an example of purposeful interfaith dialogue.  The effect upon Kamenetz was a rediscovery of his Jewish roots.

The Global Village

The global village is becoming more and more evident as we find ourselves living in close proximity with people from other cultures. This proximity is more common today than it has been in the past. We are seeing more bilingual communication on road signs, in community flyers, and on food labels in the supermarket.  For those of us accustomed to being the “belongers,” we can find ourselves becoming irritated that “strangers” have come into our midst. Those societal and cultural bearings that were our center may not feel as secure as they once did. Unfortunately,  the response of the dominant culture (the belongers) is often to redouble their efforts in keeping the past alive and to do all manner of things to make things more difficult for the immigrant, the newcomer, the Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu (the strangers).

For those of us in our respective faith communities, we have an opportunity to practice hospitality in order to learn from our neighbors and to help in building a pluralistic society that benefits the common good. We can show by example how to welcome the stranger and how we can be true to our own faith and culture while listening to the stories of those from different faiths and cultures.  It requires listening with true regard for the other as well as a concern for the well-being of all of society – not an uncomplicated task or an easy one, but a task well worth taking up.

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Note: Some sections of this essay were taken from previous blog posts:


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