The tragic events of September 11, 2012, now eleven years in the past, still resonate in the hearts and minds of many Americans. That day has proven to both bring people together and divide them. For me, it was a moment of clarity that cemented my own commitment to working across religious lines to build bridges to the common good. I was then the president of the local interfaith clergy association, and therefore was required to address the situation. Through it I made new friends and gained new opportunities to grow in my own faith and to grow in understanding of the faiths of others. That process continues to this day. One of the figures on the American scene today who has gained my respect for his work in building these very bridges is Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. Sacred Ground follows up on his previous book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, (Beacon Press, 2007), in which he shared his own journey toward creating this most important interfaith effort, an effort focused on reaching younger adults, including college students with a message of interfaith cooperation.
In Sacred Ground Eboo Patel takes us deeper into the cause. As with Acts of Faith this is a deeply personal book, as the author tells his own story of engagement. He speaks here as a Muslim as well as an interfaith leader. His message is clear – there is room for both holding strongly to one’s own faith tradition and building bridges of cooperation. The point here is not that we’re trying to figure out a common path to heaven nor is it simply a call to live and let live. Instead, this is a book about overcoming the barriers that keep us, especially those of us living in America, from creating religious ghettos. He speaks near the end of the book of moving out of a monocultural situation, where we simply don’t ask questions of our own identity, as well as the identity of others.
The book begins with the story of Cordoba in Spain. In the medieval period southern Spain was under Muslim rule, and for its day, this Muslim community was awash in cross-religious interaction. This was a time and a place where fruitful conversation existed that enriched the world of its day. Bringing up Cordoba is important, because that was the name given to a new Islamic Center to be built in Manhattan, near the site of the 9-11 tragedy. Instead of this new mosque and religious center becoming a place of peaceful conversation, it would become a point of great contention. Critics called it the “Ground Zero Mosque and people across the country railed against its being built there, in spite of the support of the mayor of New York.
The controversy over the mosque highlights the residue of bitterness that colors our attempts to reach across faith lines to build community. Patel speaks eloquently of experiencing prejudice against Muslims in America. He tells the story in a compelling way that draws us into the conversation and moves toward cooperation. Something that Patel says in the introduction, a statement that defines for us the meaning of the title of the book, should cause us to stop and ponder its meaning. As a person who struggles with the idea of American exceptionalism, it is good to hear how a Muslim American of Indian descent sees this country. He writes:
I believe every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. I believe we make it holy by who we welcome and by how we relate to each other. Call it my Muslim eyes on the American project. “We made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another,” says the Qur’an. There is no better place on earth than America to enact that vision (pp. xxvii-xxviii).
Thus, not only is "Ground Zero," sacred ground, but all of this American ground, is sacred. Thus, in spite of the prejudice that Muslims and other religious minorities experience here in the United States, this land offers an opportunity to create something special. Thus, he writes:
Pluralism is not a birthright in America; it’s a responsibility. Pluralism does not fall from the sky; it does not rise up from the ground. People have fought for pluralism. People have kept the promise. America is exceptional not because there is magic in our air but because there is fierce determination in our citizens (p. xxviii).
If we believe in any form of exceptionalism, surely this is the best definition of what it means.
The book breaks down into three parts. Part one focuses on the struggle surrounding the Cordoba House or “Ground Zero Mosque,” the idea of a Muslim menace, and the shifting role of evangelicals in this conversation. In the chapter on the evangelical shift, Patel notes the parallel between an older Protestant/Evangelical anti-Catholicism and the current view of Islam. He notes that just as the relationship between Catholic and Evangelical has thawed, we’re seeing a similar move on the part of some Evangelicals, giving hope to greater interaction and cooperation, as well as ending the current anti-Muslim culture in America.
Part two of the book focuses on the “science of interfaith cooperation” and the “art of interfaith leadership.” These two chapters are more focused on process and development in the interfaith world. He notes the importance of creating programming that leads to greater “appreciative knowledge” of other faith traditions. He has been a strong proponent of creating interfaith projects, where people work together and thus build relationships that further conversation. He continues to remind us that especially among the young, the old methods of simply talking, and moving toward living into relationships. The goal in all of this is making “interfaith cooperation a social norm.” That requires the training up of a critical mass of interfaith leaders – the focus of the next chapter. One of the things that Patel focuses on is building relationships and developing a strong interfaith literacy (a focus of the work of Stephen Prothero). In an important statement, he reminds us that effective interfaith leadership isn’t going to be expressed at the macro level with people like the Dalai Lama or himself, but among those who catch the vision of cooperation and begin to tell their story.
Part three of the book focuses on Patel’s own area of work – on college campuses and with seminaries. The future of interfaith cooperation depends on helping young adults catch a vision and develop interfaith literacy. One of the key points that he makes in the chapter on working with colleges, is the frustrating lack of vision of college administrations about the importance of religious diversity. Multi-cultural literacy is a focus of campuses, but it focuses almost entirely on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and rarely with religious diversity. This is, of course, the focus of the Interfaith Youth Core. So the question he raises is – what would happen “if colleges took religious diversity as seriously as they took other identity issues?” He asks us to imagine the impact that a critical mass of interfaith leaders might have on America’s future. He notes that there’s clearly interest on the part of college students, but a lack of interest (or perhaps fear) on the part of college administrations – especially secular ones. It’s not hostility, it’s discomfort that comes from a lack of knowledge.
But it’s not only colleges – what about seminaries? Here Patel is focusing primarily on those institutions training Christian pastors and leaders. He shares his own encounters teaching at various seminaries, helping future pastors understand their own role in facilitating interfaith cooperation. The key here is understanding how one appreciates the faith traditions of the other person, while staying faithful to one’s own traditions. It is creating the framework for living faithfully in an increasingly diverse religious environment, so that we needn’t shy away from using religious language and imagery in our conversations, but rather understanding how they interact with that of others. Interestingly, he engages (in conversation with Princeton’s Kenda Dean) the topic that is on the minds of many – the prevalence of a “moralistic therapeutic deism,” where God is seen as nice, and as a result we need to be nice to each other. Religion minus dogma may sound good on the surface, but does it have value without substance? Patel writes:
The heart of the matter is how to articulate religious identity in a world of diversity in a way that affirms particularity and builds pluralism. . . . I think the place we want to get to is this: “Because I am a Christian, I have formed a friendship with a Muslim.” In other words, “It is precisely the values that I derive from Christianity that attract me to a person as righteous as you.” Here, faith and friendship are connected, mutually enriching instead of mutually exclusive. (pp. 141-142).
This requires developing a theology of interfaith cooperation. It requires that we view our relationships through the lens of faith, not by discounting that lens. Yes, there are texts and stories in our faith traditions that undermine such a reality, but there are also many stories such as the parable of the Good Samaritan that allow us to develop this vision. There are other stories, like Muhammad’s engagement with Christians that helped him understand his own visions, and that of Gandhi, who learned from Jesus, and Martin Luther King who learned from Gandhi.
In the final chapter – before his conclusion and Martin Marty’s “Afterword,” Patel speaks of raising a child to be a faithful Muslim while appreciating the faith of his neighbors. How do we nurture faith and respect? He tells a very personal story of the influences of a devoutly Catholic nanny, attendance at a Catholic school, as well as Jewish and Hindu friends. His son was learning of other traditions, which meant that he had to find a way of honoring this new knowledge with stories of his own faith tradition that paralleled the other. Thus, even as he learned the story of Jesus at school, Patel found it wise to help his son know the story of Muhammad – not as a rival, but as a means of understanding his own story. In a closing story of a friendship with a Hindu neighbor, Patel notes the impact made on his son by the knowledge that a birthday gift, a book about Muhammad, was given to him by his Hindu friend. Nothing seemed to catch his son’s vision of his own faith, as much as the interest taken in him by a friend from another faith. There is power in nurturing both one’s own faith and one’s appreciation for the other.
We live in interesting times. There is much work to be done. There is significant angst and apprehension, often born of a lack of knowledge and a lack of relationships across faith lines. We need to create this critical mass of interfaith leaders. It’s hard work, and therefore, it is good to have before us guides like Eboo Patel. This is a book that speaks to our times. It is a book that I think Christian leaders especially need to read as we seek to navigate a world of religious pluralism in a way that enables us to affirm our own faith and respect and appreciate our neighbors and our neighbors’ faiths. It is the key to ending prejudice, and enabling America to fulfill it's promise -- that is, it can live into it's promise of being a truly sacred ground. This is definitely a must read book for day!