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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Interfaith studies in an era of religious conflict.

In his introduction to a special issue of CrossCurrents focused on interfaith work, Eboo Patel writes:

In the rush to denounce Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis, progressive religious intellectuals forgot that, at bottom, Huntington was repeating the argument that we have been making for decades. It runs like this: What matters most to most people is religious identity; people who share religious traditions have, over the course of history, grouped together to form cultures and civilizations; different cultures and civilizations are now in more frequent and intense contact than ever before; the nature of these interactions will play a decisive role in shaping our future. It was Huntington's conclusions that we took issue with—namely, that civilizations are inevitably at odds with one another and that the only chance for a stable and liberal world order is the continued domination of the West. The problem of our historical moment is that the corridors of power are filled by people who have downplayed the parts of Huntington's theory that we agree with and are mobilizing military power behind the parts we disagree with.

Aha! A light goes on!

Patel suggests that the emergence of an academic discipline of interfaith studies could help address two pressing needs. First, people trained to understand more than one faith tradition and how they interact could help resolve intergroup conflicts:

Not unlike a masters in urban studies or community development, these practitioners would play a crucial role in religious, nonprofit and governmental institutions worldwide, doing everything from strengthening civil society by creating interfaith councils to advising immigrants on how to build religious institutions to resolving conflicts between faith groups.

But religious groups themselves need people who understand other religious groups:

The first institutions who should hire interfaith specialists are faith communities. Not only as staff members who know how to relate to other religious communities (many religious institutions currently have an 'Interfaith Officer' on staff), but also as people who can help Lutherans or Catholics or Jews articulate their religious identity in a world of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (and vice versa). In other words, people versed in interfaith studies are not only useful at the boundaries between faith communities, but within them as well, helping those communities develop identities that are rooted in their own distinct histories but in relationship with those who believe, behave and belong differently.

Since there isn't yet a discipline of interfaith studies, we amateurs must make do through all manner of formal and informal interfaith partnerships. In a followup essay, Patel describes a real-world dilemma he confronted in his work with the Chicago Youth Council's interfaith work: Should the group pursue the common vision its small and not fully representative participants agree on, or should they invest more time first trying to bring other groups to the table before picking a common goal? He asks the question this way: How can interfaith organizations pursue inclusivity and justice at the same time, since different religious communities will opt out of participation if the group welcomes too broad a spectrum of faiths or if it adopts a goal that runs contrary to some of the group's moral or political commitments?

Being practically inclined myself, I'd suggest that any interfaith cooperation a religious community can do with another represents a meaningful beginning. And since much interfaith cooperation is motivated by each group's interests rather than by any magnanimous commitment to pluralism per se, I'd hope that liberal religious communities think of long-term as well as short-term goals in their interfaith work.

Patel points out that minority faiths often make controversial interfaith partners. (Who invited the Scientologists? Or the Wiccans? Or even the UUs?) Individual Unitarian Universalist congregations will fall in different places along the ecumenical and interfaith spectrum: Some Massachusetts congregations actually participate in local councils of Christian churches, whereas in other parts of the country UU churches are explicitly disinvited. Some goals might be meaningfully accomplished in groups made up of the minority faiths excluded from ecumenical organizations, but other goals might require participation with Christian communities.

One of my Harvard Div School dorm-mates was an AME woman minister who had led her southern California congregation in interfaith work with a Mormon congregation and, if I'm remembering correctly, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. That's interesting! The partnership grew out of communication among the communities' leaders, who found that they enjoyed each other's company and thought their congregations could learn a lot from each other. The AME congregation distrusted the Mormons, who had doubts about the UUs, who were excited about interracial cooperation but had "issues" with Christianity. And yet she reported that the congregations had several meaningful interactions. It's a start.

There's never just one approach — and since few religious communities are likely to participate in interfaith work simply for the sake of interfaith dialogue, you might as well start by finding some common interest with a handful of religious neighbors and see what happens and what you can learn. Pending the arrival of professional interfaith workers, of course.

("Editorial," Eboo Patel; "The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Interfaith Work," Eboo Patel, CrossCurrents Spring 2005)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 11 May 2005 at 7:08 PM

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Jeff Wilson:

May 11, 2005 09:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

That's an interesting article. I guess in a way I'm being trained as a sort of de facto interfaith scholar right now, since I study the historical encounter between American Christianity and Asian Buddhism. In fact, I tend to take the civilizations approach, viewing Buddhism not simply as a practice, philosophy, or religion, but rather as a civilization. In many cases, as it spread through Asia Buddhism was far more than just a religion: it carried medical and scientific knowledge, alphabets and literature, music and cuisine, social theories and moral proscriptions, altering each new society it encountered. Likewise, American Christianity carries not only Bible and creed, but also American cultural values, political ideals, English, and innummerable commercial commodities as it spans the globe. The encounter of these two forms of human civilization, both in Asia and North America, is a fascinating and complicated story.

Who gets included in interfaith efforts often has to do with who started the local group, I think. If UUs or other liberals start an interfaith effort, it's more likely to include liberals and non-mainstream religious groups. But if relatively conservative Christian groups started the interfaith push, it is less likely to be broadly welcoming. I know this is kind of obvious but its always worth taking into account when trying to figure out whether UUs should make a push to join local interfaith efforts.


May 12, 2005 12:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff makes a great point about the nature of a group, Interfaith or otherwise, usually being quite dependant upon who starts it. As an atheist person who enjoys information exchange with people from all walks of life and places of origin, I often find it, not difficult but tricky to join philosophical discussions with people of faith and I attribute much of that difficulty to norms of speach.

For example, I just used the phrase "people of faith" where I would normally say theist as a contrast to my atheism. I see in a very personal manner how the norm must be for the minority, or less powerful person, to be more cautious in their approach than a member of a majority POV might find necessary. The latter group or person need show as little caution even when approaching another that is a relative equal in power or status. Caution and acute self-awareness of presentation, while ridiculous compromises to some folk, are actually a small, and I believe self-beneficiary, price to pay for the reward of finding common ground.

The advantages for a minority person to take this view seem self-evident to me. What might motivate a person, or more relevantly, a cultural group, a Civilization in Huntington's terms, which is in a position of relative power to accept these terms for itself as well?

Or are we still in the Might is Right age of our evolution so this question is effectively moot?


May 12, 2005 05:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

There is a postgraduate in interfaith relations at the University of Birmingham, England, in cooperation with the UNESCO Chair for Interfaith Studies.


The first person who told me about it was one of the students, a young Japanese man from the Shinto tradition, who was active in the IARF Youth network and came to the Parliament of Religions in Barcelona last year.

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