I met Dr. Muhammad Shafiq for the first time on January 7, 2013. He happened to be the first person I interviewed for a book and film project where I am learning about different religions, the stories of how people came to find their faith/religion and how they are practicing their faith in today’s society. I will admit that I hadn’t done my homework prior to the interview with Dr. Shafiq. Walking in, I was ready for him to talk with me about Islam. Instead, he introduced me to a term and subject I had never heard before: Interfaith.
Fast forward six months to June 23, 2013 and I found myself parking my car at Nazareth College to attend the Sacred Texts and Human Contexts Symposium put on by Dr. Shafiq, The Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, and Peace Islands Institute. I had some butterflies walking in to the Shults Center. I was about to spend three days with 120 religious academics. I should clarify that I am a writer, business person and while I was raised Catholic, I am now a Seeker looking for my proper religious fit. Therefore, I am not exactly a religious expert or an academic.
But the butterflies went away soon after sitting down at the first roundtable. Our group started a little quiet but as we opened up, I knew I was in a good place. Geographically, we had people from Indonesia, Newfoundland, Alabama, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio and Rochester. Religiously, we had a mix of Muslim, Jewish and Christian. The Seeker in me had open eyes and ears as I soaked up the different stories and interests.
As the opening remarks began, my blank sheets of paper began to get filled with notes. I had not previously heard of Peace Islands Institute and enjoyed their video. Then Dr. Shafiq spoke about his objectives for the conference.
- The blending of globalization and interfaith studies
- Increase interfaith literature in academia and in the general public
- Proposing naming Departments of Religion and Interfaith Studies
(Note: As I refer to speakers and their quotes, I am going off of my written notes and my Twitter feed, not their exact words)
I thought the opening plenary panel was great. Rachel Mikva from Chicago Theological Seminary started things off and explained the difference between the written Torah and the oral Torah. She also said that sacred texts can divide us, and that is not a bad thing. The goal of the conference was to be a celebration of difference, which decreases division.
Leonard Swidler from Temple University was next and posed an important question, “Religion. What’s the purpose?” I loved his answer, and still do. The purpose of religion is to help human beings become good human beings. Religion and their sacred texts provide an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, a code of behavior, and a community structure.
Last but not least was Muzammil H. Siddiqi from Fiqh Council of North America. I was intrigued as he described that no texts contain all the words of God, but each contains some words of God. God revealed to human beings at a culture and a time for them and for the future. We need to understand each text in its own context. He called for peace and tolerance in our global village.
The opening address was given by Thomas Michel of Georgetown University. I liked his comment that interfaith dialogue is the pilgrimage of the 21st century. He also shared the story of a good host, who is gentle, has compassion and often turns to God. He described how in the material world, we can see and touch, but not everything; that there is a deeper reality and that religion should not be a divider. For peace, there are two pillars: justice and forgiveness. My final note from my sheet on Michel is a powerful one. Religious conviction gives us hope.
The Monday and half-day Tuesday of paper presentations were interesting and educational. I marveled at the intellect and passion of everyone I listened to. We all had our own experiences in the presentations and I am not going to recap each one that I attended, but I learned about many topics including Scriptural Reasoning, listening, Charles de Foucauld, how to preach sensitive sections of texts, the subjects of Zualaykha and Aseneth, the world’s second oldest Hadith collection and Waki, the Book of Esther, the story of Cain and Abel and its impact on determining if brutality is human, and a historical perspective on the role of theological language in interfaith. The paper presentations left my interfaith-beginner brain very full, but very happy.
Monday’s dinner keynote by Katherine Rhodes Henderson of Auburn Theological Seminary included a sentence that resonated with me, “What you’re doing here is countercultural.” She also stated that as a group, we are facing wicked problems (those with no straightforward answer). One of those wicked problems is that of demographic diversity. An interesting statistic is that the “Nones,” those with spirituality but not a religion, is the world’s 3rd largest religion and the fastest growing in the United States. A great quote that Henderson shared was from Hillary Clinton and applied to what was taking place at the conference, “A new architecture for a new world.”
As I listened to Henderson discuss her childhood accompanying her parents in the United States civil rights marches, the novice in me couldn’t help but feel like a child myself, sitting with 120 parents who are part of the academic interfaith movement.
By the time the concluding plenary dialogue was upon us on Tuesday afternoon, my mind was almost to capacity. That means my notes aren’t as good at this point, but a quote from Leonard Swidler jumps out at me (it also could be that he did a good job of leading us in a mantra). He said, “Nobody knows everything about anything.”
When I look back on my three days at the Sacred Texts and Human Contexts Symposium, I will remember how I felt at Nazareth each day: filled with positivity and hope. The world can be a crazy place and we can hear many negative things in regards to religion, but when people (especially intellectual and passionate ones) come together with an open mind for a united cause, they can accomplish great things.
In this case, I think the conference adds momentum and size to the interfaith movement. A new architecture for a new world was being created because the conference attendees were open to learning new things. This celebration of difference helps move society away from division and violence towards unity and peace.
I felt great energy from the 120 people at the conference. It is now our job to act. We can’t leave our ideas, passions and positive energy inside the Nazareth College classrooms or on the tables at the Shults Center. Large acts or small ones, we must act to move interfaith forward. The world needs it. Society needs it. Religion needs it.
I will close with a quote from Mohandas Gandhi that I was exposed to a few months ago, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” To me, this quote applies to all of us who attended the conference and to the growing field that is interfaith.