A Time for Enterfaith:
Reflections from a Symposium on the Role of the Sacred Texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Uniting and Dividing Humanity
By George Payne
Over the course of three balmy days in late June, on Nazareth College’s serene and hospitable suburban campus in Pittsford, NY, the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue hosted an international symposium on the role of the sacred texts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in dividing and uniting humanity. Nearly 150 people attended the “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts” symposium including the President of Nazareth College, representatives from peace and justice institutes, directors and employees of non-profits, Imams, rabbis, pastors, theologians, religious studies scholars, and members from the public. I was privileged to attend the symposium as part of an internship offered through the Center for Teaching and Learning at Finger Lakes Community College, where I teach philosophy as a visiting adjunct professor.
The term interfaith was coined sometime after 1980 as a deliberate attempt to go beyond Christian ecumenism, interreligion, multi-faith tolerance, and isolated dialogues between two traditions (e.g., Buddhism and Taoism). Interfaith implies a broader approach that includes both intra-religious and inter-religious engagement, a hermeneutical commitment substantiated by the scholarly virtues of honesty and sincerity, and a heartfelt desire to bring people of faith together in a common struggle to overcome the many social problems threatening the survivability of our shared planet.
There are several important principles which characterize genuine interfaith dialogue. First and foremost, it is important to avoid coming to dialogue with pre-assumed and fixed points. In order for conversations to flourish, it is necessary for participants to bring an open mind.
Another virtue intrinsic to genuine interfaith dialogue is humility. Participants must be at least minimally self-critical of themselves and their own traditions. Having said that, the goal of interfaith dialogue is not to justify, condone, or embrace other faith traditions. If interfaith has a purpose, it is to draw empathically closer to people in a spirit of compassionate wonder. Furthermore, since dialogue must take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust, it is crucial that people of good faith be willing to have their presuppositions challenged or even changed.
One personal highlight from the three day event was Dr. Katherine R. Henderson’s keynote address entitled, “Our Lives as Text and Context: Building a Multifath Movement for Justice.” In her address, Henderson articulated how the world is facing colossal social problems such as human trafficking, global poverty, diminishing supplies of fresh drinking water, massive deforestation, the near extinction of bee, frog, and butterfly populations, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These crises plague human beings regardless of race, income, intelligence, or nationality. In the words of educator and social activist Pummy Kaur:
Nowhere on this plant is anyone safe from nuclear fallout. Nowhere on this planet is anyone safe from the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Nowhere on this planet is anyone safe from air, land and water pollution. Nowhere on this planet is anyone safe from epidemics such as H.I.V./ A.I.D.S. Nowhere on this planet is anyone safe from the newly, human created epidemic of extreme weather, and the not- so- natural natural disasters. At present there is no bank account large enough, no mansion grand enough, no island remote enough, no current faith system strong enough to protect the human race from itself.
According to activists like Kaur and scholars like Henderson, in order for the interfaith movement to help solve these problems, it will need to go beyond refractive listening, scriptural exegesis, and similar modes of theological discourse. Dr. Henderson made it clear that what we need is for people of faith to come to together with their unstoppable zeal, boundless creativity, and substantial material resources to meet the needs of a suffering planet. After hearing Dr. Henderson’s impassioned plea for humanity, I realized that now may be the time to start using the term enterfaith rather than interfaith. The former has the advantage of implying authentic social collaboration whereas the latter merely promises the facilitation of conversations which investigate theological points of convergence.
In other words, if the interfaith movement will help solve the world’s most challenging problems, it must go beyond the act of bringing people together to discuss common beliefs and shared values. These interactions are undoubtedly valuable but they can also be temporary, haphazard, and even misleading. What is needed is for devotees to not only agree that service, love and compassion are essential components of their faith tradition, but to activate these virtues in the arena of social justice. In the words of M.K. Gandhi: “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”
As a support person for Hickey Center Director Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, one role that I happily accepted was to pick people up from the airport and bus station. The first person I picked up was a Coptic Christian from Egypt currently studying theology at a seminary in Philadelphia. After speaking with him, I learned about the impending demonstration in Cairo (the one which would ultimately lead to President Morsi’s removal from office six days later), as well as the situation minorities are facing in Egypt. He asked me a very poignant question: “Does it matter that the concept of justice is similar in Arabic, Hebrew and Greek when people are getting beat to death in the streets?”
The next person I picked up was an Islamic scholar from Morocco currently living and working in Central New York. One of the main reasons I wanted to attend the conference was to learn more about Sufism. Not wanting to forfeit such a precious opportunity to hear her perspective on the mystical poet Rumi, we ended up chatting about the ways diversity sponsors unity, and why it is important to appreciate Rumi as a Muslim grounded in the wisdom and worldview of the Koran.
Finally, I picked up a prolific author, civil rights activist, and former pupil of Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Driving away from the airport towards the skyline of Rochester, the rabbi shared memories of Dr. King during the march on Washington in 1963.
Each conversation left an indelible impression on me. In a short span of time I was able to connect with their deeply held beliefs about religion. When presented with such encounters, it is impossible to overlook the fact that we have so much in common. One person may read the Torah while someone else finds inspiration in the New Testament. Yet both individuals have an insatiable drive to find truth in sacred literature. What is more, one person may pray five times daily while someone else meditates only once a day. Yet both individuals are motivated by the need to observe a time of reflective silence. And some people may worship one God while others acknowledge the reality of multiple Gods. Yet both view the cosmos within a theological framework.
To conclude, I am confident that the symposium met my personal and professional expectations. I definitely learned more about the interplay between people of Abrahamic faiths and their sacred texts. But perhaps the most important lesson that I will take away from the symposium goes beyond the scope of the event itself. After attending the presentations, picking speakers up from the airport, and interacting with passionate people in the hallways and dining rooms of Nazareth College, I came to the realization that religious beliefs become most dangerous when they are assigned significance apart from their human signifiers. There is no such thing as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam apart from people loving God, reconciling with their enemies, giving charity to the poor, denouncing violence, and choosing to suffer in order to redeem self and others. Furthermore, I was reminded that we don’t belong to a faith tradition because we are faith. Put in slightly different terms, we don’t perform rituals because our lives are the very source of ritual. When religion is abstracted from the lived experience of the people who infuse it with purpose and vitality, it becomes an incontestable belief that inevitably leads to violence.
This leads me to reference the insights of two nonviolence heroes forever linked in history. Both Gandhi and Tolstoy emphasized the need to live virtuous lives without allowing those virtues to become justifications for intolerance and vengeance. Gandhi once said, “I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.”
Stated with equal force and clarity, Gandhi’s most famous correspondent Leo Tolstoy wrote:
Then I understood it all. I am searching for faith, for the force of life, but they seek the best means for fulfilling what people consider to be certain human obligations. And in meeting these human duties they perform them in all-too-human fashion. No matter what they may say about their compassion for their brothers and sisters who have gone astray or about their prayers for those who will come before the judgment seat of the Most High, human duties can only be carried out by force; and force has always been implemented, is now being implemented, and always will be implemented. If each of two religions believes that it alone abides in the truth while others lives in a lie, they will go on preaching their own doctrine. And if a false doctrine is preached to the inexperienced children of the Church that dwells in the truth, then the Church cannot help but burn books and banish a person who is leading her children into temptation…
After attending the symposium I can better understand how a lived creed of nonviolence causes the more sinister elements of religion to simply melt away. What is more, I am beginning to understand how religion without nonviolence becomes merely another vehicle for hate, intolerance and jealously.