The Need for Interfaith Dialogue
For almost all of us in this room, the religious world today is very different from the world we grew up in. I’m originally from Toronto, Canada, a fairly cosmopolitan city and I recall two Jewish and one Hindu classmate in all my years of school. Many of us grew up in communities where there was not even a Jewish synagogue, let alone a mosque or a Hindu temple. Over the last 40 years, since the Immigration Act of 1965, all of that has radically changed.
In her marvelous study, A New Religious America, Diana Eck, the Director of the Pluralism Project and a Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard, contends that the United States has become the most diverse religious nation in the world. When I teach classes on world religions, I hear comments that reflect this increasing religious diversity everywhere. Folks will say, My son or my daughter has a school friend who is Muslim; one of my co-workers in Jewish; a Hindu family moved in next door and so on.
And yet even with all of this religious diversity, most Christians know little to nothing about what Muslims and Hindus believe, let alone Sikhs or Zoroastrians or Jains. And similarly, many Muslim or Hindu Americans have very sketchy ideas or even stereotypes about Christianity. I remember a new Muslim friend leaning over to ask me, is it true that you Christians are only allowed to pray once a week? I said, yes, and so we have to make it a very, very good prayer!
Beyond our ignorance of our religious neighbors, we are reminded almost daily that the world is in conflict over religious beliefs. And those conflicts bleed over into our own communities in many different ways. Following the Fort Hood massacre, there were some nasty things said about Muslims by a several right-wing commentators. But there are also many shining lights, like Keely Vanacker, daughter of Michael Cahill, a physician’s assistant who was killed in the Fort Hood attack. She said: “"The death of our father or any of these victims shouldn't be an excuse or a reason to begin to hate an entire group of people.”
For all of these reasons and more, religious dialogue is not just an interesting thing to do on a Wednesday night--it’s essential. How are these faiths similar to ours and yet different? What can we learn from each other? How can we build bridges of understanding so that we can work together in our communities to seek peace and to love our neighbor? How can we join forces right here in Corpus to fight the ongoing problems of poverty, racism, homelessness, and illiteracy, just to name a few?
In his article on “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue,” Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, author and poet, states that for religious dialogue to succeed, we must forget all of the arguments and battles of the past and come together on those areas where we agree. I could not agree more. And I look forward to this evening and to future meetings together because I know that through them, I will become a better Christian pastor, a better neighbor and a better human being.
(a talk given at "The Friendship Dinner for Interfaith Dialogue," Omni Bayfront Hotel, Corpus Christi, Texas, November 18, 2009)