FAITH AND INTERFAITH: FROM GRASSROOTS TO THE GLOBE

This address was given live by Dr. Robert P. Sellers at the November 2nd plenary on "Faith and Interfaith: From Grassroots to the Globe" at the 2018 Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto, Canada. 

Photo Credit: Steve Rohrbach


Good evening, friends! Three years ago, in my acceptance speech as the Chair Elect of the Parliament, I addressed the audience in Salt Lake City, saying:

[M]ay I congratulate us all on a most thrilling, inspiring, challenging, and rewarding week together as we have lowered the barriers that so often separate us, raised our eyes to new horizons of harmony, tuned our ears to hear one another’s truth, opened our arms to embrace new friends, and reclaimed the heart of our humanity!

That was an optimistic prelude to a very eventful and exciting three years working in the interfaith movement alongside my fellow Trustees and the Staff of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I can testify that it has been a wonderful opportunity and, at times, a sobering challenge to express my faith and interfaith commitments at both the grassroots level and also in some the world’s most fascinating locales. Time and again—in places as diverse as Lubbock and Marrakesh, Vienna and Edmonton, New York City and Guadalajara, Durban and Phoenix, Chicago and Jakarta—I have observed that it is “the promise of inclusion” and “the power of love” that call forth the highest qualities of our humanness and provide the best opportunity to change the places where we live.

On these journeys I have met large numbers of people who long for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. They are offended by rampant and shocking injustices that target the weak or vulnerable; frightened by rage and acts of violence that perpetuate global tribalisms; and confounded by thoughtless or calculated disregard for our earthly home. These are people of good faith, of many different faiths, or who follow no one particular faith, or no faith at all. Yet they are all people who might be described as “religiously” following their consciences or sacred traditions as they try to turn their dreams into reality.

No matter their religious identity, however, some of these individuals, in fact, hold more tightly to their own ideological Self-understanding and less tenaciously to interfaith belonging. They can function well within a multi-faith world but believe that the answers to the world’s problems lie within their own spiritual or philosophical traditions. Even those who do not identify with an evangelizing religion may still feel as if their own faith offers the best way or the correct path for achieving meaning and fulfillment in this life. Without necessarily understanding the classic definitions, they think and act more like exclusivists than pluralists. All of this is to say, they can be quite admirable—pious and moral, warm-hearted and level-headed—yet people who prefer their personal beliefs and harbor some real doubts that any religious perspective other than their own can really contribute significantly to the solving of global problems.

It’s not that such people are unkind, nor that they are not fascinated by difference. They appreciate the fact that there are distinct religions in the world, and may be curious to know more about those spiritual paths. On the other hand, a lot of them sincerely believe that the kindest thing they can do for persons of other faiths is to convert them to become just like themselves.

Now I have a hunch that I am not describing any of you who have chosen to attend the Parliament, so this explanation may seem unnecessary. But I stress this point because we who are here—we interfaith souls and committed idealists—we have the ability to go back to our homes, places of work, schools, and communities to tell family, friends, and fellow students or workers that faith must be linked, incontrovertibly, to interfaith! In a world such as ours, we no longer have the luxury of staying safely within our own religious siloes. We can no longer pretend that one and only one religious path promises hope for the future. We should never again make the mistake of thinking the Divine favors some people over others, or condemns certain people because they strive to live a good life and make a better world, yet do so outside the parameters established by our way of believing.

Our opportunity is enviable. We have the privilege to depart from this conference committed to sharing the relevant messages of our own particular prophets and teachers—those who promoted attitudes and behaviors consistent with today’s interfaith movement. It was the ancient prophet of Israel named Amos, for example, who said, “[L]et justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Lord Krishna identified a life of justice with the way one demonstrates compassion that exceeds self-interest, explaining: “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.” The Buddha associated justice with peace, noting, “Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” Jesus tied justice and peacemaking to love by admonishing, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Sikhism’s Guru Nanak saw equality as a sign of such love, when he intoned: “I am neither a child, a young man, nor an ancient, nor am I of any caste.” Mahavira, of Jainism, lifted up this equality, by teaching, “All souls are equal and alike and have the similar nature and qualities.” Prophet Mohammed couched equality in practical terms, teaching, “[Y]ou should show courtesy and be cordial with each other, so that nobody should consider himself superior to another nor do him harm.” Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith, made the connections between different people even closer, when he insisted: “You are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” While an American Plains Indian asked the Great Spirit for the wisdom to grasp his connectedness to all living beings, when he prayed: “Give me knowledge, so I may have
kindness for all.”

Linking devotion to one’s personal spiritual path with commitment to interfaith relationships, regrettably, is not as simple a process as going home to repeat profound quotations from spiritual leaders. As many of us know, making that shift from the identification we have had with our own religious Way since early childhood has required considerable time and serious effort. Our experience is consistent with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained, when he said: “The problem to be faced is how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with reverence to different traditions.”

For many of us, an openness to a more pluralistic perspective was a step-by-step process—beginning with our first experience of becoming friends with someone of another faith. That friendship perhaps led, logically, to sharing one another’s sacred spaces or participating in each other’s religious rituals. Once trust in and care for the Religious Other was established, we no doubt began to ask and answer increasingly important questions about our faith differences. We probably were struck by the moral uprightness and personal integrity of our friends, which made it difficult, if not impossible, ever again to exclude them, or assign to them any label used to designate a state of spiritual hopelessness. Perhaps as we observed, celebrated, and learned from the genuine piety of our friends, we found that our own ethical lives were challenged and sometimes shamed by the moral goodness of these who were spiritually different from ourselves. And so, gradually yet convincingly, some of us have let go of narrower faith commitments and embraced a broader interfaith identity.

But the truth, my friends, is that we do not have to water down our own beliefs or deny our personal experiences in order to accept the validity of someone else’s beliefs and experiences. As the Sufi poet Rumi reminds us, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

My wife Janie and I spent one day of our honeymoon 46 years ago touring the vast Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, USA. With other guests, we rode an elevator 800 feet into the ground, exiting into a massive room in the cave system. That’s where we visitors could buy snacks, lunch, or souvenirs, and it was the point from which all tours, or any duration and distance, departed. There were multiple passages snaking off into the darkness, along which guides would lead adventurers, turning on sections of lights and explaining various cave anomalies to excited, amateur flash photographers from many parts of the world. More recently, I have wondered whether Carlsbad could be a metaphor for the religious complexity we experience today? As fellow humans, we are all in that massive central location, it seems to me, seeking a passage that leads from the Darkness to the Light. We choose our different religious pathways and follow a guide as we journey, winding round and round, up and down, pursuing the Way we feel is best. Now suppose, after considerable time, the passage we are following deposits us at an opening to the cave, sunlit and inviting. And suppose, further, that human kindness then compels us to turn and go back toward the global space where we began our journey, calling out, “We’ve found the light, We’ve found the light.” But suppose, further, that when we reach the cavern below, we encounter other pilgrims who have traversed different paths, and they say to us, with enthusiasm and conviction, “No, we have also found light on our Way.” Now, what are we qualified to say to them in return? Can we honestly claim, “Your way is wrong. Your path is a dead-end. Only our way is the true way that leads to life and
light”?

I can unequivocally say that we may not and must say such a thing, for we probably have never walked another person’s path. What we can say, with honesty and compelling earnestness, but with humility, is “We cannot make a judgment on your journey, but can only give witness to the place we’ve walked. We have experienced light, and that light has given us hope and purpose. Please, tell us about where you have found light, and as we become friends, perhaps one day we may tell you about our path.”

Dedication to our own spiritual tradition does not give us the authority or ability to denigrate someone else’s journey. We can only testify about what we have seen and experienced, but we must be humble, curious, and non-dogmatic about what we have not seen nor experienced. To be clear, we can profoundly affirm the path we have chosen for ourselves, while at the same time respecting and honoring others who have sincerely followed another Way. In keeping with this maxim, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned: “Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”

One of the things we noticed in the depths of Carlsbad was how similar the hundreds of us tourists looked—with our Instamatic cameras, backpacks, lightweight wraps, and wide-eyed wonder. We were more alike than different, despite the diverse paths we chose to follow. That similarity is true of our spiritual, fellow travelers, as well. I suspect that if you sit down with someone of a different faith every day this week, over coffee or lunch, to share your stories, reveal your distinctions, and discover your commonness, you will be reminded that you both are members of one Human Family. And I am also convinced that while our religious traditions—so often determined simply by the place of our birth—may greatly diverge, we share more spiritual DNA and life experiences than we might suspect. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Christian icon, Nobel Laureate, and Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the fall of apartheid, linked his ability to forgive even his worst enemies with the kinship we all share, by admitting: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Our acknowledged common humanity with one another this week should not only compel us to listen attentively and share honestly, but also motivate us to work together cooperatively, post-Parliament, to address the problems our world faces. Our faith expresses itself in respectful conversations, to be sure, but even more so in radical partnerships working for change.

I was reminded of the power of interfaith cooperation when I visited the Mennonite Peace Institute at Duta Wacana University in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. Java lies along what’s called “the Ring of Fire,” a 40,000 kilometer horseshoe-shaped deep basin in the Pacific Ocean where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are prone to occur. Not long before my visit to the university, another devastating earthquake had struck the region and destroyed hundreds of tiny houses in scores of villages through Central Java. For months, prior to that natural disaster, the leaders of the peace movement had been trying to communicate the truth that the Muslim majority and the Christian minority among the rural Javanese could live together peacefully. When the tragedy took place, the Institute’s creative leaders developed a wonderful plan. They hired 100 Muslim carpenters and 100 Christian carpenters. They put them together in teams of four—two Muslims and two Christians—and sent them out to repair damaged dwellings all over the countryside. What those innovative peacemakers reported was the amazed and appreciative response of the Javanese villagers, who couldn’t believe that Muslims and Christians were working side by side to rebuild their houses and their lives. “We didn’t have to speak a word about interfaith or peace or neighborliness,” stressed my hosts. “All that was necessary was for people who follow different religious paths to partner for the welfare of others, so the message of peace was caught, rather than taught.”

To summarize: it is possible not to diminish one’s own faith loyalties and at the same time not to dismiss the religious rights of others. It is possible to be both deeply devoted to one’s own spiritual path, yet profoundly respectful of the faith tradition of one’s neighbor. And it is possible, as people who walk distinct sacred Ways, to meet at the crossroads of sacred commitment and human need to work together for the betterment of our world. This is truth—truth that can lead us into the future—and this truth can set us free from the bondage of tribalism and exclusivism. That was the experience of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu monk from the East who charmed the West during his appearance at the very first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Vivekananda could have been commenting on the wonder of faith and interfaith in today’s world, for in a statement in which he connected God, human beings, reverence for others, and freedom, the respected Swami said: “The moment I have realized God sitting in the temple of every human body, the moment I stand in reverence before every human being and see God in him—that moment I am free from bondage, everything that binds vanishes, and I am free.”

“Faith and interfaith, from grassroots to the globe”: the links are strong and meaningful, so that during this Parliament week, as well as in the years to come, the beauty of harmonious friendships and partnerships among people of good faith will set us free!

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