Harvard scholar Diana Eck calls the United States the most religiously diverse nation in human history. This is a remarkable fact — more people from more different religious orientations have settled in this political entity than in any other political entity, ever.
Amid such diversity, religious identity can become many things. It can be a bunker of isolation, a barrier of division, a bludgeon for domination or a bridge of understanding and cooperation.
The Benefits of Interfaith Cooperation
The benefits of the bridge option are manifold. It means we reduce prejudice and increase understanding. We strengthen social cohesion and minimize the possibilities of violent conflict. It helps grow our social capital because so many faith communities are involved in civic efforts. By teaching the next generation an interpretation of our faiths in which engaging with diversity is considered sacred, we maximize the chances that our children remain part of our particular religious community. And we create a narrative for a diverse society in which everyone feels they belong — part of the larger “we,” in “we the people.”
But bridges do not fall from the sky or rise from the ground. People build them.
I believe people who make a commitment to building the bridges of understanding and cooperation between people who orient around religion differently deserve a title, an identity category. After all, we have identity categories for those who care about stewarding the precious resources of the earth (environmentalist), and those who are committed to ensuring that governments protect the inherent dignity of all people (human rights activists).
Let’s call those who are committed to the endeavor above interfaith leaders. What does it take to be an interfaith leader?
Let’s begin with vision. Interfaith leaders need to see in their mind’s eye a society in which people who orient around religion differently (by which I mean everyone from Catholics to Protestants, Muslims to Hindus, atheists to spiritual seekers to orthodox believers) are building pluralism. Let me explain what I mean by this word.
Diversity is just the fact of people from different identities living in close quarters. As I suggested before, such diversity can turn many directions, from isolation to violent conflict to inspiring cooperation. Pluralism is the achievement of living well together. I believe pluralism is characterized by three things: respect for diverse identities; relationships between different individuals and communities; and a commitment to the health of what we hold in common. Having a clear picture of this goal — of a society building pluralism — is an essential part of being an interfaith leader.
Interfaith leaders also need a knowledge base. They need to know something of the history of interfaith cooperation, especially in a world where so many people are convinced that people from different faiths are fated to fight because of the false belief that they have only always ever fought. The fact is that there are many inspiring examples of interfaith cooperation over the course of history. No doubt there is a history of violence between Christians and Jews, but there is also the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together for civil rights in Selma, the Rabbi remarking afterward that he felt like his legs were praying.
No doubt the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were terrible. But there is also the example of Swami Vivekananda giving a rousing speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago calling for an end to religious violence. The year was 1893; the day was 9/11.
Knowing something of the history of interfaith cooperation is not the only knowledge base necessary for interfaith leaders. We also need to know something of the theology of interfaith cooperation in our own traditions. What is it that our own sacred texts and great sages say about the importance of cooperating with those of other faiths? Could it be that building positive relationships with those who believe differently is actually a holy endeavor? It certainly is in my tradition, Islam. After all, the Quran says that “we were made (different) nations in tribes that we may come to know one another.”
Finally, interfaith leaders need a skill set. We need not only to know something of the history and theology of interfaith cooperation, but also the skill to then communicate that knowledge to others in a way that they find inspiring. We need the skill of organizing — the ability to bring other people into a space where they might begin to build respect, relationships and a sense of the common good with those who are different. And we need to learn the skill of facilitating, how to direct the flow of a conversation among people who orient around religion differently so that it highlights what they have in common rather than making monsters of their differences.
Chautauqua Institution is an ideal place to have this conversation because so many people here are already interfaith leaders and are committed to honing the vision, expanding the knowledge and strengthening the skills I speak of above.
Moreover, Chautauquans are pastors, college presidents, mothers and fathers, entrepreneurs, poets. In other words, people who help to form the character and vocation of other people.
Finally, Chautauqua is a model of pluralism. A “city upon a hill” that exemplifies the best in the American tradition, a space that nurtures interfaith leaders who can go forth into the wider land and nurture even more.
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (ifyc.org), an organization that works with college campuses on interfaith programming. He is the author of three books: Acts of Faith, Sacred Ground and Interfaith Leadership.