Finding Our Religious Voices
I have been involved in interfaith work for much of the past 15 years. I am currently in a leadership position with a local interfaith group, and have done so for other groups. I believe that conversation and work among people of different religious traditions builds relationships and overcomes fear and anxiety about the other. At our base we are all human beings with similar desires and needs. I think we all want to live in peace and have at least some sense of prosperity in our lives. At the religious level there are elements that overlap and are held in common. In my house and in my office are posters that were developed by the student group at the University Religious Center at UCSB. These posters offer a concept and then quotations from different religious traditions. In doing this the students wanted share that we do have much in common.
I believe that we do have much in common, but we also have differences. Sometimes we want interfaith relationships to be based on sameness, and therefore we're uncomfortable with our differences. I am a Christian. I'm a follower of Jesus. I believe in the Trinity. My Muslim friends honor Jesus but reject the Trinity, and their understanding of Jesus is different from mine. My Jewish friends honor a set of books they call Tanakh. Christians have traditionally called these books the Old Testament. Whether we call it Old Testament or First Testament or even Hebrew Bible, these books form a section of the Christian Bible. The New Testament, those books that were written by Christians have no foundation outside the earlier texts, and so a Christian Bible has both parts to it.
The Abrahamic religions do overlap at many points. The overlaps with Eastern Religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are fewer. The way we view the world is different. Many Buddhists don't believe in a God, and while some Hindus are polytheists, others I'm assuming are not. But we can find points of contact, that allow us to have conversation and work together for the common good.
Christianity and Islam are not at heart ethnically based religions. Islam has an Arab beginning, but it spans the globe and it has inculturated itself differently in different parts of the world. Islam is not, as many think, monolithic. The same is true of Christianity. It was born in Palestine among Jews and expanded across the Roman Empire, taking on Greek elements as it did so, and it expanded east into Asia, taking on elements from those cultures. Both of these faiths are conversionary. They seek out converts, which is why they have crossed cultural/ethnic lines.
In reading Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith, I found myself agreeing with his assessment of the pluralistic view of religion. Volf believes that the key to living together as different traditions is to maintain a politically pluralistic environment, but he's not so sure that the pluralistic program of religion works. That's because it tends to force faith traditions into boxes that are too confining. So what is the solution? Volf suggests that we find our own voice and speak from it. As a Christian, Volf says that he speaks from two primary convictions:
That God loves all people, including the transgressors, and that religious identity is circumscribed by permeable boundaries. Everything else that is said about every topic should be said informed by these two convictions. When that happens, the voice that speaks will be properly Christian but might contain nonetheless the echoes of many other voices, and many other voices will resonate with it. Of course, sometimes the voice will find no resonances, only contestation. That's the stuff good arguments are made of, in personal encounters as well as in the public sphere. (p. 133).
I invite you to share your sense of how we might engage one another with respect and grace and love, while understanding that we're not all the same in our religious professions.
Update: I have just discovered a recently published document entitled "Christian Witness in a Mult-Religious World: Recommendations for conduct." This document is the work of the World Council of Churches, Pontifical Council for Interrelgious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance. I'll be commenting later, but check the link.