The New Century of Interfaith Relations
We are moving toward a new phase in interfaith relations, at least among people who are learning to become more open to such matters and, according to recent studies, particularly among college students.
I have been involved in theological dialogues with Muslims and Jews for years now, and also spent a number of years in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. The main result is a deepening of both my understanding and my appreciation for my own tradition of Christianity. I am not threatened by other traditions, I have not sought to convert to other pathways, nor have I spent time lamenting any shortcomings in my own tradition. The incredible gifts received have been in expanding my own understanding of the world of faith without any sense that I must agree with another tradition lock, stock, and barrel in order to appreciate its gifts for its adherents.
In conversation with others I see that new pathways must be followed if we are all to survive into the future as faith-traditions. Interfaith relations are central to the movement forward. We cannot afford any longer to act as if our world does not contain Buddhists, Pagans, or Native American religions, let alone the “big three” – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Half a century ago, the sociologist Will Herberg could sum up United States religion as Protestant, Catholic, and Jew (the title of his book), with no glance in other directions. This is no longer possible without putting on blinders.
The issue is how to go about negotiating this new interfaith milieu. Specifically the question that arises first and foremost is: how can I show respect for another tradition, even if I don’t agree with it, or I find its understanding of God inadequate or, by my standards, simply wrong?
Most religions make truth claims. If my religion is true, the issue becomes: how can competing or other religions be true? Doesn’t a truth claim cancel out the option for other religions to be true? Can we affirm “multiple truths” and if so how? What are the criteria we can use?
The Abrahamic traditions not only believe in special revelation (the idea that God has communicated to us in actual ideas and/or words beyond the silent witness of the creation and its workings), but they have particular interpretations of overlapping traditions of revelation. Christians interpret some Old Testament texts differently from, and even contradictorily to, Jewish interpretations; Islam’s rendition of Old Testament history and the story of Jesus is different from either Judaism or Christianity. How do we deal with this?
Does the mere act of granting respect to another tradition in some way nullify your own? Do we feel awkward about the activities – especially the prayer – of another religion if we feel that it is bogus?
Then there is the matter of etiquette: If I visit another religious group what are the pitfalls to be avoided? Do I have to do everything the other people who are members of that group do? What is expected of me? What can I expect of others?
This last question may be easiest to answer. But it assumes that you will visit the houses of worship of others, and that may be the principle hurdle to overcome. Most places, however, have people who are more than willing to help you not put your foot in your mouth, religiously speaking, and they offer guidelines and pamphlets to help the cause.
You must work out the answer to the other questions I posed in this article, and I invite you into the process of doing so. Your life will be the richer for it, I promise, as we enter further into this century of interfaith relations.