The Evolution of Interfaith Consciousness and Its Impact on Religion

WE LIVE IN A world of near boundless new opportunity. Information and communications technology continue to develop at a dizzying pace. Yesterday inside of seven minutes I “Skyped” Jerusalem and then New Delhi for a couple of quick pieces of necessary information, talking to colleagues as though they sat with me in my living room. Travel for tourism alone was slated at nearly a billion and a half travelers annually as far back as 2001. Such massive and rapid development requires deep reflection about life and human relations.

One of the most pressing and important areas to reconsider has to do with the world of religion. Billions of people live their lives, and seek to understand the most important things by following systems that arose thousands of years ago!

The added complication for reconsidering religion in this time of overwhelming change is the fact that the very change itself has one foot in a non- or anti-religious context. Today’s phenomenal technological advances have roots in part in the post-enlightenment rationalism that has flourished for the past 400 years, a mind-frame often suspicious or condescending toward religion and religious life.

Thus, as our world hurtles into realms utterly unknown, the dominant interpreters of the changes we necessarily must make are those who swim unawares in an unexamined non- or anti-religious way of being in the world. This, of course, is dangerous. If anything, it is precisely in the world of religion that these developments can tend to be most unsettling. In earlier times people tended to live in situations where they might well encounter people only from their own religion. Now things are entirely different. It is virtually impossible except in rare cases to go through life meeting and knowing people only of the same religion as your own.

This fact of constantly meeting ever more people of ever greater religious diversity happens not only through travel but by the increasing relocation of people. Now a vast number of us have friends, colleagues, and social contacts with people from a wide variety of religions. These neighbors and people whom we meet while traveling seem every bit as good as our own best practitioners, and every bit as committed and comforted by systems of faith with metaphysics and theological positions that seem to contradict our own. This experience in the modern world can be genuinely disconcerting and disconfirming. Evidence of these challenges is seen everywhere in the chaotic and often violent reality of the religious landscape today. It is plain to see that the people who dominate our resources and occupy positions of authority over thought and interpretation are woefully inadequate to the task. The fact that we are embroiled in international warfare with religious subtexts is tragic and shameful. We are in desperate need of confident intellectuals who understand and appreciate religion and religious life.

For this reason we at Dialogue and Alliance are not only proud of what we offer in this issue, but we feel that this ongoing work is ever more vital in our time. Someone must step up and begin to explain the implications of the changes through which we are living not only for all life but especially for religious life. Intellectual and spiritual leaders must provide for modern believers the way in which we can retain our passion and our loyalty to the paths of our elders while simultaneously finding ways to fully affirm the legitimacy and the divine origins of the traditions of our friends, neighbors, and those whom we meet in our travels.

Please read the following essays with seriousness, with engagement, and with gratitude that we have in our midst people such as these who are helping to define healthy and positive horizons and directions for religious life in this time of great change.

The first essay is by professor Martin Forward, the Executive Director of Aurora University’s Wackerlin Center for Faith and Action and the Helena Wackerlin Professor of Religious Studies. The essay is entitled “Clash of Civilizations, or Dialogue of Heart.” Here Dr. Forward establishes a persuasive counterpoint to the popular habit of thought that religion by nature inclines toward conflict. He notes that the great holocausts of the twentieth century transpired under essentially secular visions (Hitler, Stalin, Mao), while the icons of goodwill justice, and liberation were often religious figures (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and others). He concludes with a well integrated extension of these observations, arguing that a dialogue of heart, mind, and spirit can help to avert the dire predictions we hear under the rubric “clash of civilizations.”

The second essay is by Claude Salhani, author of Black September to Desert Storm: A Journalist in the Middle East, and foreign editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, D.C. Salhani’s essay, “Using the Abrahamic Religions to Fight the Rise of Politicized Islam” might seem a touch secular in tone and analysis for these pages. Yet clear geopolitical data is crucial to understand the challenges and conflicts in the Middle East. Salhani suggests that Islamist ideologues use Palestinian issues to fund militant, and extreme ideologies. In response, Salhani argues that Abrahamic religions can be utilized as the basis for resolving the Middle East conflict.

Our third essay in this issue, “The Spiritual Basis of Interfaith Work” is by the renowned inter-faith activist Reverend Marcus Braybrooke, a person with a long history of inter-faith activity best known perhaps for his work as founder and leader of the World Congress of Faiths. Braybrooke in his inimitable style reflects on elements of dialogue vital to daily life since 9/11. His brief and readable essay includes such observations as “Discussion of different doctrines should not be a competition, but an attempt to discover the life experience, which lies behind the words,” and, “For some people this sharing with members of other faiths is a daily experience, perhaps at work or maybe in the home.” Here he removes the assumption that inter-faith dialogue is an activity of a small elite group. He calls us to think about it in ways more related to daily life.

The lead article of this issue is by Sister Lilian Curaming of the Maryhill School of Theology in the Philippines, entitled “Interreligious Dialogue and the Mission of the Catholic Church.” It is a genuine tour de force, and a truly significant article for our time. Dr. Curaming’s article is a must read. While her starting point and enduring home of thought is Catholic theology, her reflections are vital for believers in all traditions. Here she renders an enormous service in redefining the theology of mission in such a way that dialogue and inter-faith outreach are woven into the very fabric of the Church’s mission. This direction was endorsed by Pope John Paul II. “For most,” he says “Interreligious dialogue for most is a dialogue of life.” Curaming’s essay resonates with similar ideas from Braybrooke. Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue described it as, “walking together toward the truth.” Articles such as this one from Curaming are precisely what is most needed in our time.

The second article by Professor Martin Forward is entitled, “A Global Ethic.” This too is an enjoyable and in many ways important read. Following the centennial celebration of the Chicago Parliament of 1893, there arose a fascination and fixation over the Hans Kung proposal promoting what he dubbed “The Global Ethic.” For many reasons this project attracted the devotion of inter-faith activists, religious scholars, and even extended into the rhetoric and sometimes funding universe of the social and political sphere. Dr. Forward does an excellent job to trace the history of this initiative, to examine its strengths and weaknesses, and to lead the reader once again to a well developed conclusion in which he argues that The Global Ethic, for all of its benefits and strengths, clearly lacks qualities necessary to harmonize religion when the full force of religious life and belief is taken seriously, rather than when diluted to accommodate modern, secular definitions of religiosity.

The next two essays reflect a related educational brief of this journal. As part of our commitment to advance the avant garde of interfaith reflection and relations we regularly publish articles designed to inform and enlighten our readers about particular religions, and their current evolution and development, and they manifest in the modern period. It is crucial for those concerned with religion and peace to understand the histories and contemporary manifestations of the religions we encounter day to day. We often harbor caricatures and misunderstanding of our fellow religionists. Often these mistaken views are just what can lead to misunderstanding or hurt.

The first of this type article is that of Professor David O. Ògúngbilé, from the Department of Religious Studies Obafemi Awolowo University (an important and progressive institution in religious studies). In his essay, “Ìjèsà Cultural Factors and the Growth of Christianity in Nigeria in the 20th Century,” he offers a far reaching inquiry and analysis into the social and political history of the Ìjèsà people and looks into those aspects of their culture that encouraged the planting, spread and pattern of Nigerian Christianity. This level and degree of understanding is what sincere inter-faith minded people must reach in order to engage our dialogue partners intelligently and productively.

Swami Chidanand Saraswati wrote the second essay of this type, called “Shiva the Destroyer.” He helps bring our understanding of Hinduism up to date. Hinduism, its images, and its pantheon of deities is often misunderstood by secular minded Western intelligentsia. The steady public education of Swami Saraswati, is most helpful to improve our grasp of Hinduism and to recognize it as a penetrating, insightful, and modern ground of interpretation for personal social and political life.

Jon Phelan’s “The Face of the Figure: An examination of the central metaphors in Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption” takes up yet a third format commonly found in Dialogue and Alliance, dialogue at the bilateral level. Phelan seriously and extensively examines promising horizons for the future of Jewish-Christian relations, which according to some are a linchpin around which the future of inter-faith relations lie.

My own essay “The Future of Religion,” is a review article. I have endeavored to fully appreciate yet fully critique the philosophical impulses of Richard Rorty and Giani Vattimo as laid out in their brief but haunting exaltation of the anti-essentialism and anti-foundationalism that glistens on the face of post-modernism.

I trust this issue will be edifying and worthy of further dissemination among your students and colleagues.
Thank you for your continued support of Dialogue and Alliance. Please spread the word. Have the libraries of your institutions subscribe, and your friends too!

Frank Kaufmann