Is an Interfaith Future a Possibility in Our World?
John Shelby Spong June 20, 202
Recently I was part of an intensive two-day “think tank” experience on “The Future of Interfaith Cooperation,” which asked the question as to whether the religious violence that marks so much of our world can ever be overcome and be replaced with interfaith understanding and cooperation. This “think tank” was sponsored by the Chautauqua Institution located in Western New York about an hour south of Buffalo. For those of you not familiar with this institution, let me give you some background that will reveal their interest in this particular subject.
The Chautauqua Institution is a vacation community made up of both owners and renters that draws into its planned programs some 170,000 people each summer. Chautauqua began in 1874 as a Methodist training camp, but it has grown since then into being one of the most impressive intellectual and interdisciplinary centers in America. Over the years to its grounds have come speakers drawn from the ranks of American presidents and presidential candidates, U.S. senators, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, novelists, scientists, poets and even entertainment celebrities. Every morning there is a public lecture in the amphitheatre by someone at the top of his or her field followed by questions from the assembled audience that numbers as many as 5,000 a day. In years past, I have attended lectures here given by the poet John Ciardi, the scientist Buckminster Fuller of geodesic dome fame, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the best known commentator on world religion in our generation, Karen Armstrong, as well as a host of best-selling novelists, noted historians and top tier scientists. The conversation at meals and on the campus is rich because new ground is always being broken and lives are always processing and interacting with new ideas.
At 2:00 pm each day in an open space called the Hall of Philosophy, which with special chairs added across the spacious lawn can accommodate over 2000 people, there is a “religion” lecture given by top theologians, biblical scholars and even critics of religion. Frequently the religion lecture will interact with the lecture given in the morning, making the dialogue rich indeed. Though this center began with quite specifically Christian roots, over the years a significant Jewish population has come as both owners and renters, giving the community a quality that is always missing in a monochromatic world. Recently, Muslem, Hindu and Buddhist people have begun to discover this place. During the nine individual weeks of the summer program, as many as 7,500 people will be on the grounds at a time.
To complete the daily experience, in the evening, once again in the large amphitheatre, there is an event that will draw people not just from the Chautauqua community but from a wide orbit of Western New York and Western Pennsylvania. This event might be a Broadway play, a symphony, an opera or a ballet. It might feature famous acrobats, popular vocalists and even Country and Western stars. I have met there entertainers like the flutist James Galway and Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in the “Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland. I have also met Alan Alda, the star of M.A.S.H., who played Hawkeye, Jim Lehrer the long time anchor of the PBS news hour and many others. It is a very rich intellectual diet.
The religious aspect of Chautauqua life has always been central, but it has also been directed by those willing to walk the frontier of religious thought, drawn by the intellectual power of this community. The pressure to explore the interfaith area comes from the increasing religious pluralism that already marks this community and from the anticipation that this trend is not likely to diminish any time soon. How various religious traditions can live together in mutual respect is a question that is also increasingly being asked in world at large. It is driven by the fact that the vast distances that once marked our world are shrinking rapidly caused by such things as increasing air travel, by the instant communications of the Internet and quite frankly by the fact of the destructive tensions that always seem to mark those places where competing religious convictions have collided in the past and still collide today. One thinks of the violent anti-Semitism that has been part of the Christian West since the first century of Christian history. Reaching a crescendo in the Holocaust of 20th century Germany, it was presaged and predicted by such historical events as the Inquisition and the expulsion from or the ghettorization of the Jews in almost every nation in Christian Europe. It was present in the call for the burning of synagogues by no less a Christian figure than the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, and by the acquiescence to the Nazi agenda by both Pope Pius XII and the German Lutheran Church in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, collisions between Christianity and Islam shaped world history and created the Crusades. Led by the Vatican, the Crusades were aimed at the destruction of the Muslims and their removal from Christian holy places. Islam was defined by Christians as evil and its members as “infidels.” In the first years of the 21st century, that hostility was reversed. The anger, long brewing in the victims of the Crusades, has helped to fuel the fury of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Members of a branch of this movement known as Al Qaeda, saw themselves as vindicating Islam and its “one true God, Allah” against the “infidels” of the West in their attacks on September 11, 2001.
Interfaith awareness was enhanced for most Americans during the Vietnam War when this nation found itself confronting a Buddhist culture and we watched as Buddhist monks immolated themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the war. Later in the two wars in Iraq, the people of the West suddenly confronted the heretofore little known division of the Sunnis and the Shia in Islam that added a dimension of civil war to those conflicts. Why that was such a shocking surprise is hard to understand since for 400 years we have watched Ireland being torn apart by violent, hate-filled and destructive religious bitterness between Protestants and Catholics.
For these reasons the need for interfaith dialogue and cooperation has been growing for some time. This is what motivated the leaders at Chautauqua to convene this “think tank.” They are aware of the bitter history of religious wars and religious hatred. They are also aware that the seeds of intolerance are present in every religious tradition. They began to ask whether an interfaith future for our world was possible if it were intentionally encouraged. The leaders of the Chautauqua community, specifically Thomas Becker, president, and Joan Brown Campbell, the head of the Department of Religion, decided to assemble the “think tank” to see if the Chautauqua Institution could make a contribution to an era of genuine religious peace and good will in an increasingly interrelated and deeply pluralistic religious world.
To this interfaith gathering were invited Catholic and Protestant professors and pastors, Muslims imams and academics, national interfaith leaders, Buddhist monks and nuns, Hindu scholars, rabbis and Jewish academics, as well as representatives from the National Council of Churches of Christ in America. They also tapped the resources present in various colleges and universities that already deal with multi-faith realities. Some journalists were also in attendance. The gathering opened with great hope, but it did not take long to see that good will, high hopes and even cross-cultural friendships are not enough to bridge the religion gap.
Interfaith dialogue cannot occur as long as any single religious perspective claims for itself a corner on ultimate truth. No one can say or think “My religion is the only true religion,” “My church is the only true church” or assert that one religion alone controls the access to God. Yet at some point, no matter how camouflaged or perfumed, in some form those claims are made by almost every religious system, and it is powerfully present in the thinking of almost all forms of Christianity. These attitudes were certainly articulated at this meeting.
Those advocating this point of view felt this discomfort, but found themselves caught between the twin terrors of total relativity and triumphalism. They tried to remove the offense with pious words, calling for love and forgiveness and even suggesting that while ultimate truth is claimed in their faith tradition, that truth is never fully understood. So flexibility in understanding is allowed, but only to the degree that the ultimate truth they claim for themselves has not yet been fully worked out. This provided a facade of openness that attempted to escape relativity on one side and triumphalism on the other. It was an argument that represented a stretch for those who presented it, but it also showed how difficult developing interfaith cooperation really is. If the doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, is the lynchpin that protects Christianity from meaningless relativity, there is no way that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus will ever be more than tolerated partners in a meaningless interfaith dialogue, while the secret agenda will remain to convert everyone else to another’s religious “truth.”
Until these difficulties are recognized and dealt with, no progress toward an interfaith future seems possible. We are left to enjoy friendships and to articulate unrealistic hopes. Unless we find a new way to relate to the world’s religious pluralism we will have only the two choices of the acceptance of continuing religious violence or of watching benignly as all religious systems as we now know them die. Unity might be found in our common humanity, but that does not appear to be possible unless we can develop a common religious understanding.
I think there is another possibility to these two fairly dreadful and certainly stark options. This possibility will, however, require that religious people think differently from the way we have been taught to think before. I will try to spell that possibility out next week in this column.
~John Shelby Spong