Living in Haunted Houses -- Future of Faith

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 9: Living in Haunted Houses:
Beyond the Interfaith Dialogue

As someone who has been actively involved in interfaith conversations for sometime, I would agree with Harvey Cox that it’s easier (and a lot more fun) to talk with more liberal-minded members of other faith communities than it is to talk with more conservative members of my own faith community. It is important to note that these days interfaith dialogue goes beyond Protestants talking with Catholics and Jews. Interfaith dialogue is important to the future of our world, although Eboo Patel has pointed out in Acts of Faith that too often high level interfaith conversation leads to little more than talk. That is why the Interfaith Youth Core has taken a different tactic – putting more focus on doing things together rather than talking about either commonalities or differences.

The reality is that the world has grown smaller and that what was once exotic and far off has moved in next door. This has led to tensions and even violence in some places. Indeed, as Cox notes, proximity has at times, “spawned suspicion and contempt, and just has religion has become more rather than less of a force in our time, the relationships among the different traditions have reached a new moment of crisis” (p. 128).

If we’re to deal with this crisis, we need to understand our own roots and deal with our co-religionists in a constructive way– that is, engage ones we would rather not engage. Cox made this point earlier in the book – that knowing one’s own faith tradition is essential if one is to truly engage with people of other faith traditions. As he explores this idea further here, he points out that even atheists and converts to other religions are influenced by the traditions into which they were born or raised. Thus, an atheist raised in a Christian environment is likely rejecting a different God than one raised in a Hindu or Buddhist environment. And, more to the point here, Christians or Jews who convert to Buddhism, for instance, “suffuse their Buddhism with Christian or Jewish overtones” (p. 129).

We are a people who seem to need faith, but the way we live out this need differs from faith to faith and community to community. Still, we live in a shrinking village, with separate houses. There’s conversation going on, but perhaps the conversation partners are the wrong ones, which is why, despite the growing number of interfaith organizations, the level of interfaith violence is growing. We can’t avoid each other, but if our conversation occurs only with those who share values of tolerance and cooperation, we’ll not get very far.
There are, according to our author, two wings in each religion – the dialogue wing and the fundamentalist or “circle the wagon” wings.

Whatever else they may disagree on, fundamentalists in every tradition concur on one thing: they vociferously oppose interfaith dialogue. They see it as a clear evidence of selling out. Their refusal to come to the table is aggravating to anyone trying to build peace among the religions. But the response to their refusal is also disappointing. Most of those participating in interfaith dialogues – although there are a few exceptions – are content to stay with the easiest elements of the conversations. (P. 132).

Thus, we need to talk with our fundamentalist wings, as well as try to engage with other religions, if we’re to move to the next level of cooperation.

Cox tells the story of his decision to extend an invitation to Jerry Falwell, inviting him to speak at Harvard. He notes that many students and colleagues at Harvard opposed this invitation. While the meeting bore little real fruit, it did prove that such conversations could be had. Indeed, that conversation was followed up by one involving faculty from Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

The point here is that intra-faith dialogue may actually be more difficult than interfaith dialogue, but without the former we will likely make little progress in the latter. The good news is that there are signs of a thaw between parts of the conservative/liberal axis. There is a growing concern for justice in parts of the conservative religious community that bodes well for future engagement. There is the realization among some that faith might be more important than belief. Thus, it’s time to seize upon this opportunity.

In considering the next steps, Cox says that future conversations will need to take place along three trajectories. First is the one that goes on between differing religious traditions. Second is the conversation with the other wings of our own traditions. Finally there is an engagement with “the complex political context of our fractured world.” This last trajectory is a reminder that there are strong political entanglements to our religious relationships and conversations.

Thus, the question before us is this: Are we ready and willing to engage each other, even when the conversations are difficult? Are we willing to take the more difficult path?


Patrick Mead said…
Good thoughts, Bob. I'm learning, as I grow older, that the very people I don't want to talk to might have something to teach me. I have learned so much from my brothers to my right and to my left!
Anonymous said…
"...religion has become more rather than less of a force in our time"

You're kidding, right? Or do you mean force as in "more violence"?

Perhaps we all need to suspend our beliefs, as atheists or agnostics try to do, at least when trying to find a common ground. The reason is, there is always the suspicion that the other is trying to "convert" you. Just a respectful thought- David

Cox's pointis this. In the 1960s it was assumed that religion would disappear in the face of science and other social forces. That has not proven true. For good and/or for bad religion has not only continued to exist, it seems to flourish.
Anonymous said…
Okay, I'll put it another way. Perhaps we should suspend our disbelief in order to understand those of other faiths. It works for me, so far. If their professed faith is to be believed, most should be able to relate well to another’s supernatural faith. David Mc
Anonymous said…
Flourish? Not all who have a need to know agree- David Mc

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