Interfaith Understanding, Peace, and Justice

Fear and prejudice breed ignorance about religion

Fresno Bee, April 9, 2016

  • Ignorance about religion is a problem
  • Fresno’s 19th annual Interfaith Scholar Weekend attempts to bridge gaps
  • Peace and justice result from education, dialogue and interreligious education

Education about religion leads to peace and justice. But religion education is not easy. Fear and prejudice get in the way. We are afraid to examine our own assumptions. And we are often ignorant about religion.

Stephen Prothero spoke about religious ignorance last month at Fresno’s Town Hall Lecture Series. Prothero is a religion scholar from Boston University who is the author of a widely used “religious literacy” test and a book explaining the need for education about religion.

We know very little about religion, including our own religions. Prothero explains, “Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels, and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.”

d601cc7fdde819c4f5c5fa91f7bb25b0Prothero inspires us to learn more about religion. This weekend, there is an opportunity to do so. Fresno’s annual Interfaith Scholar Weekend features a famous religion scholar speaking at a Sikh gurdwara in Selma on Friday night, a Jewish synagogue in Fresno on Saturday and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Clovis on Sunday.

Jim Grant, chair of the Interfaith Scholar Weekend committee, described the event as a chance to explore religious meaning by “joining with diverse others in diverse settings.” Grant said that there is something amazing about “being exposed to experiences that are foreign but which resonate with our spiritual yearnings.”

Grant suggested that we all have a common spiritual yearning. Human beings look for meaning and purpose. We value community, love, peace and justice. And we benefit from education.

Grant also is director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. He pointed out that interreligious dialogue and education about religion are dear to the heart of the Catholic tradition. He explained that Pope Francis began 2016 with a prayer that “sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.”

The Interfaith Scholar Weekend has existed since 1998. The weekend typically involves Jewish, Muslim or Christian scholarship and communities. This year is the first time Sikhism has been featured. Grant noted the growing importance of the Sikh religion in the Central Valley. He expressed thanks for the enthusiastic support of the local Sikh community.

This year’s invited scholar is Professor Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh from Colby College. Singh is the author of an important and accessible introduction to Sikhism. She explains that Sikh monotheism focuses on the oneness of God, which encompasses everything, including diverse religious traditions. She writes: “Everybody is welcome to perceive that One in their own way.” She explains that this has the potential to end conflicts over our interpretations of God.

This vision of oneness is inspiring, as is the pope’s idea that interreligious dialogue may produce peace and justice. When we listen to one another, we avoid violence and condemnation. When we open our minds to inquiry, we realize how little we know and how much there is to learn. Through listening and learning, we forge friendships that transcend our differences and discover all that we share in common.

PEOPLE UNDERSTAND VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEIR OWN RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. WE KNOW EVEN LESS ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S BELIEFS.

But we often fail to engage in sincere dialogue. Perhaps we are afraid. Perhaps we are too busy. Perhaps we just don’t care. Or perhaps we have grown accustomed to a culture in which insults pass for arguments and ignorance is viewed as a virtue.

Whatever the reason, the result is disheartening. People understand very little about their own religious traditions. We know even less about other people’s beliefs. We are also often ignorant about the First Amendment and the importance of religious liberty in a pluralistic democracy.

The Sikh scriptures begin with the assertion of one God and one truth, which is beyond fear and hatred. The Catholic pope urges us to talk to one another about our religious differences in order to produce peace and justice. And here in Fresno, a growing interfaith community is actively engaging in the kind of inquiry that is needed to cure hate, prevent prejudice, overcome ignorance and build a better world.

Religious intolerance: Politics is the problem

Religious intolerance: Politics is the problem

Fresno Bee, March 24, 2012

Is there one true religion or any reason to tolerate people from another religion?   I discussed this question with Professor Yehuda Gellman the other day in Jerusalem.  Gellman is a Jewish philosopher who defends the idea of “religious exclusivism.”

If you believe that your religion possesses the true and only path to salvation, then you are an exclusivist.  The opposite of exclusivism is “pluralism.”  Pluralists think that the world’s religions are each aiming in the same direction.  Pluralists want to include diverse religions rather than exclude them.

One of pluralism’s greatest defenders was John Hick, a theologian who died just last month.  Hick thought that the world’s religions had common “spiritual and moral fruits.”  He denied that any single religion had an exclusive claim upon truth or salvation.  Instead he thought that each religion approached God in way that is colored by local culture and tradition.

Hick quoted the Sufi poet Rumi to make his point: “The lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond.”  In Hick’s own words, there is a “rainbow” of faiths, with each religion refracting God’s divine light in its own way.

Professor Gellman understands Hick’s pluralist ideal; he knew Hick personally.  But Gellman believes that the Jews have an exclusive relation with God as the chosen people.  Gellman surprised me, however, by arguing that exclusivists can be tolerant.

He argued that there is no necessary connection between exclusivism and intolerance.  An exclusive commitment to a loving and gentle religion can lead to peaceful interfaith relations.  If you believe that your religion is the one true religion, but you also believe that your religion commands you to tolerate others, then you should be tolerant.

Gellman embodies this tolerant and loving spirit.  He is a kind and thoughtful man, who is involved in interfaith work in Jerusalem.

Within hours of speaking with Professor Gellman, I was reminded that many exclusivists are not so generous or reflective, as I saw the video of Pastor Dennis Terry introducing Rick Santorum in Louisiana.  How disappointing that religious intolerance is rearing its ugly head back home, while I am studying it here in Israel.

In case you didn’t see it, Pastor Terry said: “This nation was founded as a Christian nation… there’s only one God and his name is Jesus… Listen to me, if you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I have one thing to say: Get Out!  We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

Terry’s rant shows us the danger of religious exclusivism.  If you believe that your God is the only God, then it makes sense to lash out against religious believers who do not love your God or your idealize image of a Christian nation.

The problem here is not Christianity itself.  There is a tolerant and loving message in Christianity.  Jesus taught: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned.”  The problem is not Christianity but politics.  Politicians have used Christian ideas to suppress unpopular minorities since the time of Constantine, the first Christian political leader.

History shows us the danger of mixing exclusivist religious belief with political power, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust.  Politics and religion must be kept apart.  We should be outraged when a Presidential candidate nods in agreement with a preacher who says to the Buddhist and Muslim citizens of the United States: “Get Out!”

Gellman’s solution to this problem would be to remind us that even Christian exclusivists can find reasons within their tradition to be tolerant. Hick’s solution is to ask us to remember that there is a common source behind the rainbow of faiths.

I’m not convinced that there is anything beyond the rainbow.  And I worry that even tolerant religions easily become intolerant, when they become political.

The solution, then, is not religious.  It is political.  Despite Terry’s rhetoric, the real reason to love America is that it is not a Christian nation. The reason to love America is precisely that you don’t have to “get out” if you don’t like the way other religious people think.

Community service can transcend religions

Community service can transcend religions

Fresno Bee, Oct. 07, 2011

According to Gandhi, “religions are different roads converging to the same point.” This is a nice idea. But it is most likely false. There may be some common values shared by religious people. But the details diverge — often in quite radical ways. Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Jews will never agree about fundamental metaphysical questions: about the nature of God or the soul. And if we include atheists in the mix, it is unlikely that these roads will ever converge.

And yet, there may be a common path that we can walk together for a while, despite our differences. One common path is community service. Most religions stress altruism. And atheists recognize the ethical importance of working for the common good. Although there are different ways of providing service, it is rare to find a person who does not think it is good to help others.

It is important to understanding that despite our differences about fundamental things, we live together here and now. We drive the same roads, use the same resources and make our livings together. And our children will inherit this world from us. Productive relationships among diverse religious people can develop around shared interest in our common world.

This is the idea behind President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative aims to bring people of different faiths together to engage in a joint service project. The White House website describes this project as “an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.”

Fresno State is participating in this interfaith campus challenge. The project will begin with an Interfaith Student Discussion Panel as part of the Ethics Center’s Conference on “Ethics, Religion, and Civil Discourse.” On Thursday, a diverse group of students will discuss how their own religious traditions understand community service, and they will begin brainstorming a joint service project.

This joint service project is being coordinated by the Jan & Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, under the leadership of Chris Fiorentino. According to Fiorentino, a substantial amount of research indicates that service-learning works to promote greater cross-cultural understanding. Fiorentino says that people “find common ground through service.” Fiorentino recognizes that there are some issues that are intractable. It may be impossible for diverse religious people to agree about an issue such as abortion. But he maintains that there is quite a lot of room for consensus around issues such as education, safe neighborhoods and hunger.

A joint service project aimed at one of these topics can help to show that despite our differences, we have much in common. Fiorentino points out that we often over-emphasize our differences. One reason for this is a sort of self-absorption. It is easy to stereotype other people and their divergent points of view, especially when you only associate with people like yourself. Fiorentino argues that working on a joint service project can help people move beyond their narrow perspectives and learn to see “that there is something bigger than their own point of view.” That bigger thing is the community itself.

It is obvious that community service is not a panacea that will cure religious tension. Atheists and theists will still disagree about the existence of God, even if they swing hammers together. And Catholics and Mormons will still disagree about the teachings of Jesus, even if they work together to teach kids to read. But it is important to learn that, despite our deep differences, we can work together on projects of common concern.

Gandhi’s idea that all religions are fundamentally the same is hopeful — but misleading. If religions are fundamentally the same, then it is very difficult to understand the depth of religious conflict. Instead of hoping for a final convergence of religious belief, perhaps the most we can hope for is to learn to admit our differences while focusing on those values we share. The idea of being of service to the community may be one of those universally shared values.