Coexist. If you’re from the West, you will likely have seen this slogan adorning bumper stickers, pamphlets, t-shirts, key chains, and possibly even church sign boards. If you’re in my generation (under 30s) you probably have also grown up hearing logic like this:
- All religions are equal, there are many paths to God and our role is simply to respect and learn how to COEXIST with one another.
- Truth is relative. What works for me, might not work for you, but we can still COEXIST, mutually loving one another even despite our apparent differences.
- “The truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” (Hindu Expression)…Therefore the wise COEXIST with one another, whereas the unwise bicker and dispute.
- Or in slightly more sophisticated language (in the words of Professor Ali Assani of Harvard University: “The divine purpose underlying human diversity is to foster knowledge and understanding, to promote harmony and co-operation among peoples. God did not create diversity to become a source of tensions, divisions, and polarizations in society. Indeed, whether humans recognize it or not, human diversity is a sign of spiritual genius.” (http://www.twf.org/Library/Pluralism.html). Therefore, COEXISTING is a sign of our increasing intelligence, maturity, and desire to learn with and from one another. Whereas failure to COEXIST is a sign of close-mindedness, rigidity, and disrespect.
At the surface, this all sounds rather easy in a hippy sort of way. Sure, let’s just get along, respecting one another, and seeing the value in the various viewpoints people espouse. But is it really so simply to act out in our day to day living?
In the West, we are fast becoming more and more multicultural, multiethnic, and thus multi-religious. Due to factors such as immigration, cross-cultural communication, and emigration of our own peoples, we are no longer a mono-religious society, nor will we likely be one ever again. On any given day, I engage with and walk past people who identify as Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, New Ageist, spiritual but not religious, Agnostic, Atheistic, and those who do not yet identify as having a religion. There are, of course, various levels to which these people practice their faiths from very strict and religious observers, to nominal church goers, to secular Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and to cultural devotees who do not agree with their religion’s core doctrines. Furthermore, among the various people groups I encounter, there is a wide range of beliefs surrounding interfaith. Some are more than happy to build friendships with people outside of their tradition whereas others prefer to keep connections only with those similar to themselves. Some are interested in exploring other religions (possibly going to a temple, church, synagogue, or mosque despite it not being their tradition), and others warn against such “evils.” Therefore, the possibility of interfaith dialogue is not always an apparent opportunity.
Yet, because of shifts in socio-cultural and religious understanding, it is important for us to become more aware of the differences and similarities other people groups bring to our country and our world. Below I’d like to suggest a few key points for making interfaith dialogue more readily accessible to all:
- Being Aware of Our Own Prejudices and Ideas
Let me begin by asking you a few simple questions: What makes someone a Christian? A Jew? A Muslim? A Buddhist? An Atheist?
Do you think it is more meaningful to belong to a certain religious group or can one also engage in a meaningful life by being spiritual but not religious, not identifying with any specific group, or even being an atheist?
Can someone who is an atheist still have a deeply spiritual life?
Think about your answers. Where do they come from? Did you yourself grow up in one particular tradition? Who were the people you were exposed to from your earliest childhood memories? How did your parents shape and inform your religious views and identities (or did they)? Were your parents adamant that you follow one specific tradition, or did they allow for exploration, open-mindedness, and dialogue ultimately letting the decision fall on you?
There are no necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions, but being aware of how we would respond to them helps create a good basis for where our interest in multi-faith relations comes from.
Additionally, we need to be reminded of how our culture and church shapes our views of other religions. For example, it is an unfortunate reality, but many children today are growing up with a rather Islamophobic understanding of the world because of news reports and media coverage about extremist groups such as ISIS or Hamas. This attitude sadly even extends into some churches which may become saturated with Zionistic tendencies, even using unfair examples to portray what they believe to be End Time prophecies. Whereas, someone who grew up in the WWII era in Europe would very likely have been exposed to Anti-Semitism. Certain Americans (though certainly not all) may be exposed to white supremacy and come to wrongly associate white religious expressions as more valid than those that people of colour follow.
It is also important to note that within each religion there are a multitude of different opinions regarding gender roles, sexual identity, political viewpoints, dietary restrictions, and many other topics. This is because each religion is internally diverse. For example, in Christianity we see male headship, but we also see feminism. We see Christian arguments for vegetarianism, but also arguments against. We see Christian groups which do not readily seek converts (such as the Amish), and we see evangelical groups who believe in street and door-to-door evangelism. In each of these cases, the people who make up the group are still Christian, are likely very sincere in their approaches and their faith, but also are extremely different from one another.
- Understand the Reason For Your Dialogue
People engage in inter-faith dialogue for a variety of reasons and with many different motivations. For some it is simply a means of seeking out evangelistic opportunities. They may believe that by attending these groups or making friends with people outside of a different faith that they may be able to help the other person see the need to join their specific group. This is especially true of many Evangelical Christians. At the very least, even if the person does not convert, they still look forward to at least sharing their own beliefs and stating their own opinions (check this out for more reasons people engage inter-faith: https://western-hindu.org/2012/02/18/importance-of-dialogue-a-hindu-perspective/). The Bible certainly DOES encourage us to engage with people of other faiths, to go into the world and share and testify to our relationship with Christ, and to disciple one another, but it all depends on our motivation for doing so. Creating friendships and building bridges with the intent of truly getting to know the other person, forming a loving relationship, and striving for peaceful conversations are all good reasons to do so. Excessive arguing, shaming, belittling or even attacking the other person’s viewpoints are not a good way to go about it. Instead, we should be open-minded, trying to find level-ground, and willing to learn from the other person. If you’d like to read my experience of spending time with a Muslim colleague who has become a very dear friend to me over the years and how we maintain strong ties without letting our religious viewpoints get in the way, please read this article: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/5-things-having-a-muslim-friend-taught-me/.
Furthermore, some people engage in inter-religious dialogue because they are interested in clarifying their own convictions or learning how to articulate them more clearly. But the ultimate best reason to be part of the inter-faith movement is to break down barriers and grow in multiculturalism.
- Be Aware Of Your Religion’s Own Short-Comings
In his book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Rule the World, author Stephen Prothero explores how Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Yoruba Religion, Daoism and Atheism have all succeeded as well as failed at various points in their history. Prothero also blogged about how it can be easy to display our religion’s best against the backdrop of another religion’s worst, but this is neither fair nor helpful (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/07/16/hinduisms-caste-problem-out-in-the-open/). Each religion has at times floundered and been re-routed from their original founder’s viewpoints and ideal. Each religion has been responsible for great acts of social justice and human dignity, but also for wars, division, and disunity. It is therefore a gross injustice to make sweeping generalizations like “all Muslims are extremists and terrorists” or “all Christians are welcoming, nice, and friendly.” It may sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many people do this (consciously or unconsciously). Even though people might never say these words out loud, they might often think them in their head, which can be just as dangerous and destructive. Protero also rightly notes how easy it is to justify our own religion’s misdeeds while not offering the same level of forgiveness to other people groups. For example, we might say, “the Christians involved in the Holocaust were not true Christians. True Christians love people and always do what is right because they are following Jesus. The people who did such atrocious acts simply paid lip service to God without a change in their heart or soul.” We then may turn around and make sweeping generalizations of other groups we deem to be violent or dangerous. Instead, we should humbly ask forgiveness for the things our religion has done that has harmed others and take responsibility rather than shifting the blame onto another.
Professor Assani once again gives some good advice on this topic “for in the end, a struggle against the flaws of the ‘other’ is worthwhile only if it is coupled with a struggle against the flaws of one’s own tradition.” (http://www.twf.org/Library/Pluralism.html)
Dr. Shaye Cohen (director of Jewish studies at Harvard) gives a similar statement when warning against the proof-texting that so often accompanies these sorts of discussions: “We don’t take the Bible out and put our finger on the page and say, ‘you see, look what it says.’ To which my response is always, ‘yes, but what does it MEAN?’ You have to interpret it and you have to see what the interpreters have said and then we can talk about it.”
- Learn All You Can About Other Religions
I recently completed a 6 month certificate course through Harvard University Online (HarvardX) called “World Religions Through Their Scriptures.” This course has been an invaluable tool for me and has opened up my mind to all sorts of new possibilities. Previously, I hardly knew anything about Hinduism or Buddhism, but now I am beginning to see how to have a much more fruitful dialogue with people in these faiths. The certificate included courses on: Religious Literacy – Traditions and Scriptures, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism and was taught by a superb teaching staff including professors who practiced the religion themselves. When I first started, I was nervous. I actually thought I might struggle in my own faith because Harvard is a rather liberal and secular school, so I asked some of my Scottish friends to pray for me about it. Instead of decreasing my faith, though, it actually had quite the opposite effect. I constantly was making new discoveries into what I personally believed, was seeing more and more of a need for these types of dialogues to happen across religious boundaries and barriers, and oftentimes came to many spiritual encounters which only confirmed and strengthened my own faith. I think this is the key to beginning these types of dialogues – we need to be willing to learn and grapple with as much of a different religion as we can. We also need to be humble and ask people what they believe and think, we should not solely rely on our own experience, education, or opinions to guide us. Even if we believe we are experts in a certain religion, we still need to realize that everyone will follow their beliefs and practice their faith in a slightly different way because each person’s experience is unique. If you would like to learn more about this course, you can access all of the materials for free indefinitely at: https://www.edx.org/xseries/world-religions-through-scriptures#courses (You may also want to check out this site for more information: http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/how-think-about-religion).
So…what’s a Christian to do with Interfaith? It ends up a whole lot. Our responsibility as believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to flee from challenge or to deny our rapidly changing and expanding world, but rather it is to engage and engage in love. In our quest to do Kingdom work, we are to find ways to share our faith with others, but also let them share their faith with us. We are to dialogue rather than debate, to actively seek peace rather than to create hostility. We are to promote unity within diversity rather than ignore the wars and strife that religions can sometimes create. When we put forth this effort, when we share in a cross-cultural meal joining hearts and hands with those much different than ourselves, and when we truly believe that global harmony is possible – we are bringing about God’s Kingdom. I’m not saying to lay aside evangelism completely, not at all. I’m not saying to hide your faith, but I’m actually saying the opposite. I’m saying: be bold in your declaration of the Gospel of Christ, share it freely, but do it in love. Do it in service. Do it with sensitivity and compassion. Do it in the spirit of inter-faith.
If you are interested in having a meaningful inter-faith dialogue here’s a great website that might aid you in your discussions: http://www.scoutinterfaithworship.org/ten_suggested_rules_for_interfai.htm
These pictures represent just a small fraction of the books I have in my personal library on multi-faith. It is fascinating to see the role religion plays in our daily lives: from children’s Bibles to Bible trivia to joke books. It is also interesting to see how we can truly co-exist with one another. Just like the books are each their own unique entity, but they live on the same book-shelf, we can do the same in our relationships with people of other faiths.