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Where do we go from Here?

June 18, 2018

This article first appeared at The Interfaith Observer and is republished with permission.

As a kid growing up in Punjab, India my first formative engagement with interfaith understanding was with a high school friend who was Muslim. When he came to my home, he would refrain from eating non-halal meat, and when I visited his home, I refrained from eating halal meat. Little did I know at the time that we both were learning how to negotiate religious boundaries.

Khanda, symbol of the Sikh faith
– Photo: Wikimedia

My second formative experience occurred when I came to the U.S. almost 30 years ago as a student. I approached a local Catholic clergy to convert to Catholicism, but his response was for me to go back and study my own faith seriously. If I still wanted to become a Catholic after that he would help me, but I had to make a promise – I would study the Sikh faith deeply before I came back to him. I think he knew I would not come back to him. This example of honoring the holiness of the religious other has been critical to my own faith formation as a Sikh and hence has become so ingrained in me that is an integral part of who I am – a gut feeling.
As someone who has worked on interfaith affairs at the local, national, and international level for over two decades, I still consider myself a grassroots interfaith activist focusing on building relationships and communities of trust.
Despite my life-long commitment to interfaith engagement, some issues within the movement keep me awake at night. As an insider, I think I can have the audacity (or rather foolishness) to express them here. No one can claim to have the all answers. My intention in raising these issues is not to provide definitive answers but rather to help further conversations about these critical matters. For this reason, I am thrilled to be a part of the upcoming Reimagining Interfaith conference to be held in Washington, DC.
Multi-faith interfaith dialogue and engagement across nation-state boundaries was initiated at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, and since then the cat has been out of the bag. The last 50 years or so has seen a significant increase in interfaith engagement in communities across the globe. However, despite this, the interfaith movement is still on the periphery of most religious traditions. Is it an issue of timing, tactics, approach, or something else? The interfaith movement, in my opinion, does not seem to have a clear consensus on what its purpose is just yet and often seems to me to be a diffused movement.

The interfaith table is quite diverse. It includes individuals with a) single religious identities, b) multiple religious identities, and c) spiritual but not religious affiliations, all of which want to understand and/or be understood. Each of these groups has a different vision for what interfaith means to them which can lead to friction between them. A fundamental motivating question for religious adherents to ask themselves is “What theological need do I have for the religious other?” This question goes to the heart interfaith work.
Some minority religious traditions come to the interfaith table to be understood but not necessarily to understand the religious other. It has also been my experience that many of the Christians and Jews who engage in interfaith work are left of  center in their faith traditions, while those of other religious traditions tend to be more right of center in their traditions. Understanding why we need for religious other and why we don’t feel a need for them is essential for resolving religious conflict and fostering interfaith relationships.
Two Interfaith Pitfalls
I am particularly concerned about two matters. The first is the rise of professional religious leaders who through their philanthropic activity or charisma yearn to become the face of their faith community in the interfaith world. The second is Kumbaya – holding our hands publicly with little or no real action afterwards. It is important that we show public solidarity, but it is also important that we work collaboratively in an interfaith spirit on an everyday basis to make real change in our communities, especially on matters dealing with social injustice.

Critical Moment in
Interreligious Dialogue conference
– Photo: Berkeley Center for
Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

In June of 2005, I participated in a conference titled “Critical Moment in Interreligious Dialogue”  organized by the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. At the conference, while moderating a panel discussion on dialogue and action, it was observed that dialogue does not need to be a pre-cursor for action. In fact, many interfaith coalitions on social justice act together first and the dialogue happens in the process.
Each religious tradition calls upon its followers to uphold righteousness and morality. Historically people of faith have taken inspiration primarily from their own faith. This can give rise not just to a sense of righteousness but sometimes a sense of self-righteousness, as in ‘I am better than others because of my faith.’ In the interfaith arena, there can also be a strain of self-righteousness: ‘I am better because of my commitment to interfaith understanding, and others need to be converted to my viewpoint.’ Such othering of those who don’t agree with our view of interfaith limits the work we do.
The upcoming Reimagining Interfaith conference provides us the opportunity to bring our deeply held commitments and concerns to a common table so we can collectively review them and chart a pathway forward that is inclusive and strategic. The conference has been designated as a Pre-Parliament Event, and we hope to take the learnings from this conference to the 2018 Toronto Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Please join me this summer in DC to take another look at the movement we so deeply admire, and work with others to reimagine a better future for it. Are you ready to dream with your feet on the ground?