What's At Stake in Interfaith Gatherings

This address was originally drafted by Dr. Larry Greenfield for the Parliament's 2019 Chicago Interfaith Breakfast Celebrating World Interfaith Harmony Week but was cut from the program due to time.

What's At Stake

Thanksgiving, I’ve come to understand, is at the core of what it means to be human. Giving thanks, that is, is the acknowledgement that none of us are self-sufficient and that all of us are alive by virtue of our dependence on and our relationship with others—other humans, other animals, other parts of the creation, and that Sacred Other upon which all us, inclusively, depend for our thriving.

Feeling and expressing gratitude is the human way of acknowledging that profound truth.

I also believe that thanksgiving is at the core of what it means for a human being and a human community to be an integral part of a vibrant interfaith reality in the world.

I will not use this occasion to defend those claims, but please understand that they are foundational to what I want to address this morning.

And I hope you can see that my thanking you for being here this morning to celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week is anything but perfunctory, but rather that it is deeply felt in terms what we are called to do together here in Chicago and around the world.

This United Nations initiative is indeed being celebrated across the earth this week, this month, and beyond, as an incentive to make interfaith harmony become operative throughout the year…throughout the years.

But it is particularly appropriate that this effort be celebrated here in Chicago, for it was here in Chicago that the modern interfaith movement had its birth.

That was just over 125 years ago, when people of faith in this city determined (in 1893) that a World’s Fair here would be incomplete if there weren’t a large part of that Columbian Exposition devoted to the religions of the world.

And it was nearly a century later that, again, some Chicagoans believed that the original World’s Parliament of Religions ought to be commemorated and began planning for another gathering of the world’s religions right here—well, only a few blocks away from where we are meeting this morning.

What they planned twenty-five years ago, however, was not just a centennial commemoration of an event in the past, but a rebirth of religions of the world coming together to accomplish at least two things as a new century was approaching: to invigorate the spiritual dimensions of the world, as that dimension found expression in so many diverse ways and forms, and, second, to explore ways in which this spiritual dimension could have a constructive impact across the earth.

They were inspired, too, because in the late 1980s this city was experiencing deep and persistent social unrest and a group of Chicago religious leaders believed that faith communities and their leaders needed to work together to address and have an impact on those social issues. Thus the formation of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago at that same time.

So, our gathering here at the Chicago Temple this morning has a history, a history that needs to be celebrated and that can serve as an inspiration for interfaith harmony in our city, in our nation, and in our world.

Thank you for being here.

We also want to thank the John Templeton Foundation for making this breakfast – and events like across the world – possible.

It came about because the foundation gave its prestigious Templeton Prize in 2018 to Jordan’s King Abdullah II for his peacemaking work, especially in his outstanding efforts to have religious communities be a part of that peacemaking by seeking peace among themselves…that is, between ourselves.

I can remember when I was a member of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago devoting time at each of its meeting over a whole year to engagement with the document, A Common Word, developed by Muslim scholars at King Abdullah’s urging and support. It was one of the important times when we as religious leaders in this metropolitan area worked at identifying areas where we agreed and disagreed religiously and thus where we could appreciate the distinctive contributions of each faith tradition as a basis for our being and working together. The conversation was rich and exciting, and the consequences were profound.

And then in September of 2010 King Abdullah proposed to the United Nations General Assembly that it adopt a UN World Interfaith Harmony Week to be observed each year. A month later, on October 20th, his proposal was unanimously adopted.

The Templeton Prize was awarded to him for these and similar efforts, recognizing the power of religions working together to bring about world peace.

The Prize carries a large monetary award, and the King directed that this be used to promote the World Interfaith Harmony initiative. The Templeton Foundation, following the King’s directive, chose the Parliament of the World’s Religions, headquartered here in Chicago, to implement this global promotion.

This week and in the coming weeks events like this will be taking place, and we can thank the Templeton Foundation and the King for making this possible.

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But what’s at stake in these gatherings? What’s at stake for our gathering here this morning?

Is it just to be nourished together with food and conversation? Is it just to widen our circle of friendships? Is it just to commemorate our past and celebrate what is happening now as a result of that past? Or is something more at stake?

I want to propose that something greater is at stake for both religions and the world in which they are a part if it is the case that the fundamental nature of reality is interconnectedness, is interrelatedness, is the interdependence of all things, including religion and spirituality, is harmony in all of its complex and ever-changing possibilities.

I can only be suggestive this morning, but I want to identify four areas where there are challenges to be met if interfaith harmony is to truly flourish and be increasingly generative.

The first challenge has to do with the purpose of the interfaith movement in our world: is it  an end in itself (faiths becoming harmonious for the sake of harmony within the sphere of religion) or as a means to something else (faith working together harmoniously to the degree possible so that something harmonious can happen in the world of which religions are a part.

I think a strong case can be made for the interfaith movement being primarily a religious means to a worldly end that is not restrictively religious. And I think there is a positive and negative rational at stake here.

Put negatively, it goes something like this: Religions by definition make ultimate truth claims about the meaning of existence and what follows from those truth claims in terms of the right way of the living. In many cases, these truth claims are not just different but conflictual. Why then waste time trying to find agreement among these religious traditions and communities at this ideational or ideological level? Instead, isn’t it better to set that aside and see where there are enough similarities in terms of objectives in worldly spheres to justify serious efforts of cooperation in achieving those worldly ends that are consistent with most religious teachings?

The positive way of putting this might go something like this: look, we have reached a point in both human and natural history that life itself on the planet is under threat: climate change, nuclear weapons, injustice in the form of inequalities, etc. All (or most) of the world’s religions have teachings that support and advance life, and working together they can use their power to make a huge difference in heading off global disaster, so forget the interfaith dialogue part except to the degree that it strengths cooperation in the challenge for the earth’s survival, the earth’s flourishing. Work for interfaith harmony that makes a real difference for individuals and communities and the whole world.

As powerful as both of these rationales are, however, there is an equally strong case to be made for interfaith harmony taking place at the level of fundamental truths and beliefs.

One way of putting this is to acknowledge that religions, despite their ultimate and comprehensive claims to truth, do themselves change. And most often they change because the context in which they exist changes in fundamental ways, requiring religions to recast the way they approach how their beliefs and practices address the contextual changes and seek to have, as well, an impact on that context.

Furthermore, if it is empirically true that beliefs really do have an impact on behavior, then changes or modifications in beliefs can bring about changes in behavior and thereby may contribute to cooperation in religions facing the urgent challenges of the world.

To take just one obvious example, our religious contexts around the world are changing because we have moved from rather homogenous cultures in which religions thrive to culturally diverse and socially interdependent societies. Religions can resist that socio-culture reality in order to protect the integrity of their central teachings but they also can benefit from being in dialogue with other traditions about how to maneuver in this new context. And they may have much to gain by being attentive to the ways in which, together, they can address these issues and, at the same time, gain mutual understanding, mutual appreciation, and some mutual appropriation. There will be other religious communities that will be more open to rethinking central concepts and teachings, and, I acknowledge, some who will choose isolation. Those, however, that chose (and, for some, risk) mutual engagement have the potential for renewed vitality and relevance both for their members and the worlds in which they are situated.

My point here is to suggest that framing the issue of interfaith dialogue and cooperation as either an end in itself or as a means to other ends is shortsighted. The better framing of this matter is to recognize that serious dialogue and active cooperation are interdependent and neither can be sacrificed for the other and that seeking interfaith harmony can benefit both the life of the spirit and the life of the world.

That’s really what’s at stake.

A second challenge facing the interfaith movement is determining where interfaith harmony ought to occur…where it ought to be promoted.

Sometimes the interfaith movement is most visible and shows the greatest promise at the national or global, while at other times these desired results seem more real and lasting near the ground in regional and local associations. It is a classic case of whether the advancement of interfaith harmony should be primarily top-down or bottom-up.

Should the discussions and the cooperative actions be led by national and global organizations that concentrate exclusively on interfaith issues, based on the questionable assumption that defining and organizing at this level will filter down to local and religious communities of faith and interfaith? Or should those national and global leaders of the interfaith movement put their ear and sights on what is happening in those local and regional communities where questions of interfaith dialogue and cooperation compete with a complexity of different religious and civic loyalties and conflicts?

I speak from personal and professional experience here.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions convened for the seventh time in Toronto this past November. Much attention was given to assemblies and plenaries, where internationally-recognized speakers held forth on the conference themes and emphases (“The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change”).  But most of the interactive and lively discussion took place not in these huge sessions but in hundreds of breakout sessions on a host of issues, most of which directly related to interreligious issues on the ground in local communities. That is where interfaith harmony was to be questioned, explored, and envisioned.

As a former denominational executive, I was painfully aware of how little of my denomination’s decisions on important and less-important matters actually took hold at the local levels. And I suspect that is true not just about ecumenical and interfaith discussions. Part of that has to do with weakening conditions of denominations (or their equivalent) themselves, but it is important to recognize that similar discussions take place among religious groups at neighborhood levels, where a new kind of multiculturalism and social interdependence is lived out daily, weekly, monthly.

The issue here is really not between the global/national vs. the local/regional but how they are interconnected. I believe more fervently than ever that the fundamental principle of interrelatedness must become much more operative on this issue as well. And I recognize how this matter is connected to the matter of dual purposes of ends and means.

A third and related issue that applies to “interfaith harmony” has to do with whether it is helpful to talk about “harmony” in the singular or the plural. I mean that for both descriptive and prescriptive purposes. The question is, should we think about interfaith harmony primarily as a broad ideal to be pursued or should it be sought as a kind of thousand points of potential?

We know that harmonies are not all the same. Like their musical expressions, harmonies come in very different forms and serve different purposes. Melodies, to be sure, carry only some of the load in beauty, creativity, and, yes, novelty; but most often that happens at the point where harmonies are able to establish mood, tension, resolution.

My point here is that both the interfaith dialogue and interfaith actions will be enriched and made more relevant to the degree to which we encourage and explore multiple kinds and forms of “interfaith harmony/harmonies” and avoid assuming that there is a confining and normative way of proceeding, especially when culture, ethnicity, age, sexuality, class, and political and economic ideology into the mix. The principle of interconnectedness, yes, applies here as well.

A final challenge for the interfaith movement and the goal of interfaith harmony can be identified with the testing of how religiously inclusive can the interfaith movement aim for and thereby enriched by?

It may be an overstatement but one that many feel applies generally: that interfaith dialogue and cooperation attracts religious individuals and communities that are more open to change and progressive on a variety of fronts, including religious beliefs and practices in distinction from those religious individuals and communities that resist change and are more conservative on those many fronts. To the degree this is true, those committed to the interfaith movement constitute a broad religious cohort themselves, and virtually by definition fail in their goal of achieving the goal of interfaith harmony.

It may be true that successfully overcoming this challenge might, in fact, make it more difficult to achieve authentic mutual understanding and effective cooperation. But in the absence, if this kind of religious inclusion, the interfaith movement is less rich in its religious texture and less credible as a unified voice and agent in the world.

I very much doubt that those of us who are devoted to interfaith harmony and committed to organizational forms in which that can be an exercise in thought and action would be willing to give up our own core beliefs about seeking mutual understanding and cooperative action.

Perhaps the best we can do is continue to be inviting to those who are, for their own defendable reasons, harmony-resistant in their faith. But along with that invitational posture, it may be incumbent upon us to find new ways of being inclusive of and loving toward those who otherwise will separate themselves from us.  Let us acknowledge that the responsibility for this outreach occurring falls upon us. A commitment to the fundamental principle of interconnectedness demands no less.

What’s at stake?

Certainly, the viability, visibility, and vision of the interfaith movement as it wrestles with these and other questions for religions themselves and for the world in which they live.

Certainly, the essential role that religions and communities of the spirit, working together at local, regional, national, and global levels, can fulfill to save the life of the earth and make life on our earth more just, peaceful, and flourishing for all.

Certainly, living our lives with thanksgiving for the all that sustains us, and making good on the opportunity to contribute to the lives of all other forms of life.

And yes, giving thanks through the way we live our lives to that sacred reality that sustains us and allows us all to flourish.

 

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