Towards a Religion of Nonviolence:
A Personal Reflection from the Hickey Center’s Training on Understanding World Religions
by George Payne
Since 2005, the Brian and Jean Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College has energetically helped students, faculty, religious leaders, and other working professionals to better understand the world’s great faith traditions. Under the creative and compassionate guidance of Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, the Hickey Center has become an exceedingly valuable resource for our community.
So it was with high expectations that I enrolled in the Center’s 2012 Train the Trainers: Understanding World Religions and Interfaith Relations week long course. Before the program commenced, participants were prepared to learn some necessary tools for respectful interfaith communication, to hear about people’s own religious experience, and to visit local places of worship. The presenters included a Hindu professor of physics, a liberal and orthodox rabbi, followers of Sikhism, a Muslim Imam, Protestant ministers and Mormon laity. Sites of worship included a Hindu temple, Sikh gurdwara, Mormon chapel, Jewish synagogue, and the Islamic Center of Rochester.
After completing the week long training I gained a deeper appreciation for the flourishing diversity embedded in Rochester’s religious community. I concluded that religion is indeed a precious gift to individuals, and that each religion makes a unique contribution to social justice and spiritual enlightenment. However, I also noticed how easily religion can become exclusive and intolerant whenever devotees are encouraged to believe that their form of religious experience is more truthful or divinely inspired than someone else’s. I also learned that interfaith dialogue is the most effective way for our traumatized planet to progress in the direction of a nonviolent future. Among the most basic benefits to healthy interfaith dialogue is the promotion of sympathy, increased admiration for cultural differences, growing mutual awareness, and the revelation that we are bound by love and compassion more than by class, race, and nationality. In the wake of the bloodiest and most ecologically depraved century in human history the skills of interfaith dialogue should not be viewed as academic luxuries. On the contrary, if the world community is to courageously face the epic challenges of nuclear proliferation, peak oil and climate change, and the threat of global terrorism, it is vital that the skills intrinsic to interfaith dialogue be understood and utilized by as many people as possible.
Problems with Interfaith Dialogue
There are of course major problems that escort the complex and volatile practice of interfaith dialogue. There are numerous pitfalls and stumbling blocks that inhibit people from genuinely relating to each other in a manner that does not provoke bad memories and moral repugnance. The philosopher Voltaire wryly observed that “if you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they dwell in peace.” Voltaire’s learned opinion does not lack veracity if we consider notorious cases like Europe during the Reformation, Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” and Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; yet if one earnestly appraises the annals of American history, they will find that even religiously pluralistic societies spawn an alarming degree of violent prejudice. Interfaith dialogue can be a powder keg even in liberal democracies; for when people openly discuss the merits and demerits of religion, they often resort to unwarranted stereotypes and nasty accusations. This custom unfortunately contributes to the propagation of many of the world’s most crippling social diseases. Even the most casual pundit of religion will have little difficulty identifying its most blatant and damaging abuses. The Jesuit scientist Pascal put it this way: “Humans never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it with religious conviction.” Pascal is right that almost every major religion has embraced and promulgated the justification of war, the oppression of women, anti-intellectualism, the division of families and other social groups, as well as the reckless distortion of historical fact. Being aware of these abuses and defects, it can be understood how the unwillingness of many religious devotees to sincerely value diversity is a major problem that can only be addressed through a dynamic communicative engagement based on the virtues of respect, fairness, humility, and genuine curiosity. Having said this, given religions penchant for intolerance and even barbarity and in light of its vast potential to provide spiritual comfort and intellectual exhilaration to believers, it is absolutely crucial that interfaith skills be taught, developed and honed as vigorously as possible.
The Significance of Visiting Sites of Worship
Now that the urgent need for active interfaith dialogue in all types of societies has been explicitly called for, it can be noted that one of my chief discoveries during the training was to recognize that verbal communication between people of different religions is not sufficient to foster mutual respect and learning. To simply intellectualize about different methodologies in prayer and meditation is far less impactful than to physically witness devotees worshipping with other followers in a space designed to mollify their most incapacitating existential fears. To merely theologize with a devotee outside of this context removes the sacred dimension of religious experience that actually has the power to animate and sustain their joyful allegiance. Just as no television show or magazine article can visually and aromatically encapsulate the phenomenon of people praying together there is no conversation that accurately reveals the raw emotion present in a house or site of devotion.
The qualitative difference between actually doing religion rather than talking about religion was summarized by the brilliant English writer C.K. Chesterton, who advised us to “let religion be less a theory and more of a love affair.” In order for religion to be an authentic love affair, the lover must not hoard or dominate the primal source of his or her love. Religion will remain a priceless gift to individuals so long as the recipients of this gift do not believe that they deserved it in the first place or that they were the only one to receive it at all. The first delusion is an artifact of arrogance and it has many subtle manifestations. The second delusion is a product of envy and it inflames the disputes over dogma precipitating real acts of violence. Without probing this psychological insight any farther suffice it to say that as soon as devotees shun these two modes of self-delusion they will begin to make progress towards promoting sustainable peace both in themselves and in the world.
Interfaith Dialogue and Sustainable Peace
Turned our attention towards sustainable peace, the Catholic theologian Hans Kung has warned us that “there will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and there will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.” If sustainable peace is to be achieved in the world, it is imperative that religious devotees honor the uniqueness of their own tradition while being open to celebrating the traditions of others. Without this charitable exchange devotees will continue to be manipulated and misguided by an irrational hostility that unjustly diminishes the worth of other people’s ideas and passions. With the stakes being so high it is uplifting to know that thousands if not millions of responsible men and women are taking the charge of interfaith dialogue seriously. For example, since the 1960’s there have been many Roman Catholics invested in reforming the Catholic Church’s archaic policy towards non-Christian religions. On October 13, 2007 many eminent Muslim leaders announced their commitment to interfaith by endorsing and contributing to the manifesto titled, A Common Word Between Us and You. And as recently as 2009 there has been a major interfaith dialogue conference held in Spain that brought together leaders of different faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, Native American Spirituality, and Baha’i. These prominent examples supply only a minuscule sampling of interfaith initiatives occurring all over the world.
Towards a Religion of Nonviolence
In addition to clarifying the connection between peace and interfaith dialogue, the training also highlighted the essential quality of ahimsa, a Sanskrit word that means non-injury in thought and deed to any living being. Although the concept of ahimsa originated in the Indian religion commonly known as Jainism, it has been interpreted and applied by spiritual geniuses throughout history including the Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, St. Francis, Rumi, M.K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa. Describing the mysterious allure of ahimsa, Mohandas Gandhi wrote:
Total non-violence consists in not hurting some other one's intellect, speech or action by own thought, utterance or deeds and not to deprive some one of his life….Ahimsa cannot be dismissed as lightly as you think. Ahimsa is the strongest force known. But if all can use the strongest force with equal ease, it would lose its importance. We have not been able yet to discover the true measure of the innumerable properties of an article of our daily use like water. Some of its properties fill us with wonder. Let us not, therefore, make light of the strongest force like Ahimsa, and let's try to discover its hidden power with patience and faith.
After receiving communion at the Hindu Temple of Rochester, meditating with a teacher from the Rochester Zen Center, eating sweets at the Sikh gurdwara, hearing the Orthodox Rabbi recite from the Torah at Beth Shalom, and praying with Muslims at the Islamic Center, it became apparent that all of these rituals are symbolic representations of ahimsa. As a result of the training the ideal of ahimsa now appears to me as a marvelous synthesis of everything noble and veritable about pure religious experience. In a new way I am beginning to see how ahimsa causes the sinister characteristics of religion to simply melt away. In other words, as soon as devotees choose to stop giving refuge to harmful intensions towards other persons, animals or even insects, they can live freely in the world without the shackling constraints of invented dogmas, contrived notions of personal superiority, or other debilitating self-delusions that prevent us from truly embracing our neighbors. Conversely, religion without ahimsa becomes just another vehicle for hate, intolerance and jealously. Stated in even starker terms, a religion that is afraid to make ahimsa its most central doctrine becomes one of the most proficient mechanisms for disseminating hate, intolerance and jealously; for any religion deprived of the unifying life-force of ahimsic love is merely a spoiled form of anthropomorphism spread as propaganda by the morally malnourished.
As a final thought I want to reiterate my gratitude to the Hickey Center for crafting this soul fortifying training. Far from being a leisurely pastime suited only for intellectually curious academics, interfaith dialogue must become a required skill for every citizen living in every nation of the world. Let’s pray that courses like this one become more prevalent in the days ahead.
1. The criterion that determines what constitutes a world religion is debatable. Is it number of followers? Is it the character of ritualism? Is it related to foundational status? For centuries the classical study of religion was limited to Christian scholarship. As a result, religious traditions like Jainism and Sikhism were discounted as mere sects. In this reflection I am including these two faith traditions in addition to other commonly excluded faiths such as Zen Buddhism and Mormonism.
2. Principles of respectful communication range from speak softly, smile and laugh gently to more practical advice like avoiding selective use of scripture, tradition, and history when discussing issues.
3. Morley, J., The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (21 vole 1901), online edition
4. Blaise Pascal, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed 2012-07-30)
5. Eboo Patel has referred to the interfaith movement as the 21st century’s civil rights movement.
6. M. K. Gandhi. An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (1929)
7. Perhaps the novelist Anne Lamott articulated this sentiment best when she said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.