Monday, June 14, 2010

When Faiths Collide

[The following is a book review I did last year for The Oasis Newsletter. I thought it could serve as a companion piece to my previous posting about the Dalai Lama's call for peaceful coexistence among different faiths. Martin Marty, like the Dalai Lama, states that we must be able to affirm our own faith while also respecting and affirming another's faith. Marty's book makes it clear that reducing religious conflict will be no easy task, but offers some constructive ideas about interfaith conversation and dialogue.]

When Faiths Collide
By Martin E. Marty
Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2005, 193 p.
ISBN 1405112239
Reviewed by Charles Kinnaird

When Faiths Collide offers the reader insight on a number of issues regarding faith and diplomacy within a pluralistic environment. Martin Marty draws upon the contributions of scholars in sociology, history, and biblical studies as well as his own expertise in public religion. He also readily draws upon his own faith experience to provide practical guidance in interfaith relations.

One thing is clear, this book is not about tolerance, nor is it about some hopeful liberal intellectual view of a better world through education and technology. 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.

Before I read When Faiths Collide, I must confess that my ecumenical hope was tolerance and understanding. After reading Martin Marty’s book, as synchronicity would have it, I came across a sermon by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs in which he stated, “Once, tolerance was the highest goal of Inter-religious Dialogue and interaction. Once, our highest goal as Jews was that the rest of the world would simply stop persecuting us…These are the goals of religious dialogue today – acceptance and affirmation – not mere tolerance of the value of diverse religious beliefs.” (From “Pope Benedict XVI: Preliminary Hopes and Fears,” delivered April 24, 2005. Retrieved from

A History of Conflict

There has been conflict and turmoil from collisions of faith throughout the world and for a period of time we in the United States were comfortable in the illusion that such collateral damage could not happen here. Since September 11, 2001, that illusion of security has been shattered, making it all the more important that we find ways to reduce the conflict. Using the terms “belongers” and “strangers” Marty illustrates how attitudes develop, misunderstandings arise, then suspicion and conflict ensues.

The author shows how culture and society developed in the U.S. with white European Protestants establishing themselves as the belongers and all others as strangers. He also demonstrates how the concept of pluralism came into play in the newly developing American republic.

In colonial Virginia there was debate as to whether non-Christians should be allowed full participation. Efforts of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped to prevent exclusions in drafting the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. As a result, the bill protected, as Jefferson stated, “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” So the American stage was set to be a place for pluralism to flourish. Even so, living out the concept of pluralism has not been a smooth ride. Marty points out that “the very notion of affirming or celebrating pluralism is appalling to many belongers.”

Faith conflicts can occur at the family level, the community level, the national and international level. On the family level, conflict may occur when a student from a liberal Christian family goes to college and becomes a fundamentalist or charismatic Christian. Intermarriage between faiths can cause conflict within extended families. With changes in immigration laws in 1965, many communities found themselves confronted with ethnicities and faiths that they would not have imagined before. Situations like these may find the “belongers” longing for life the way it used to be, and being suspicious and resentful of the “strangers” in their midst

The Common Good and the Risk of Hospitality

The need to provide for the common good within the context of pluralism has brought about “a reservoir of goodwill” in our country. While pluralism is necessary, it is not sufficient to address the problem of faiths in conflict, according to Marty. What is needed is for us to engage in “the risk of hospitality.” Here in the South, we may not readily catch on to what this means, since we are so accustomed to the term “Southern hospitality.” According to the author, “a key signal of hospitality appears when groups begin to regard each other with civility.” It is at that point that community effort as well as individual work must come into play. Marty describes public efforts at promoting civil discourse, welcoming diversity, and engaging in conversation. He also states that “most activity toward overcoming strangeness will occur away from cameras and reporters.” It will happen in local communities and through individual effort.

The author 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.

Examples of Hospitality

As an example of hospitality, Marty states that if he invites someone of another faith into his home, he will respect that person, but will not feel the necessity to remove all religious images and artwork from his home. Likewise, he would not expect a Jewish friend to cease from his traditional observances if he visits in his home on a Friday evening.

A much larger scale of hospitality at the interfaith level is in the example of Pope John XXIII at Vatican II. The pope heard Mass being celebrated on Vatican radio during Holy Week and heard the prayer referring to “the perfidious Jews.” He was sensitive to that because he knew some Jews personally and regarded them positively. He had the authority to say that that prayer would not be prayed again. Moreover, he offered hospitality to the Jews when he invited representatives from Judaism as well as other faiths to sit in on the proceedings at the Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII not only welcomed the stranger, he also did some self-examination as well to repair his own house, as Marty points out.

I am reminded of the time Pope John Paul II decided to visit a synagogue in Rome in 1986 over the objections of then Cardinal Ratzinger. It was the first time a pope had ever visited a synagogue. Here again, John Paul had known Jews personally since childhood and had suffered with them in Poland, first under Nazi Germany and then in the post-war Soviet Bloc. His historic visit to the synagogue in Rome was a milestone in ecumenical/interfaith relations. No effort or advancement can be seen as permanent, however. When Cardinal Ratzinger later became Pope Benedict XVI, he would reinstate the older Latin rite (Tridentine Mass) as an option, along with its Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews, causing much consternation in the Jewish community as well as among many Catholic faithful.

Perhaps we can all listen more to Martin Marty and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs so we can move closer to acceptance and affirmation of our neighbors and fellow sojourners in their respective faiths. Admittedly, this will be no small feat, but necessary in an insecure world where fires of faith are burning on all sides. When Faiths Collide is a serious call to greater interfaith involvement and is a great resource for anyone interested in interfaith endeavors.


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