The interfaith movement is fairly recent in human history. It has both practical and conceptual roots. At the practical level it arises from the fact that modern nations permit and foster multiculturalism and religious diversity. As a result, many people in the world interact with others from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Those interactions become not only pleasant but also meaningful and enriching if there is mutual understanding and appreciation among groups that come together in the workplace as also in social contexts.
But what is the interfaith spirit? It is essentially an attitude of awakened religious practitioners towards others who are also lovingly affiliated to their religions, and even to those who prefer to be decent human beings without any religious affiliation. The interfaith spirit assumes commitment and loyalty to one’s own religious tradition, but it also calls for genuine sensitivity for the non-hurtful religious beliefs of others. In other words, without diminishing one’s own convictions and practices, one grants that others also have the right and responsibility to engage in their own faith systems.
A doctrinal difficulty may arise here: Does this make the tenets of one’s own religion relative? Does this imply that one has to abandon the absoluteness of the truths of the religion to which one belongs? These are valid questions. For many, such concerns do stand in the way of embracing the interfaith spirit, and this is understandable. But let us recall here that the love one has for one’s parents and family is as real and absolute as any love can be. But does it follow that others cannot experience a similar love for theirs too? That the sun is the central star for us humans is an absolute truth. But this doesn’t mean that there are no other stars in the heavens or that beings in other planetary systems should also regard our sun as central in the universe.
Thus, it isn’t necessary to give up our religious beliefs to embrace the interfaith spirit. We may even try to persuade others to come into our fold. But what is important is to recognize that every religion of the world has significant historical, spiritual, and cultural roots which must be honored, cherished and nurtured, and that in the complex and competing world in which we live it is by cultivating sympathetic understanding for other traditions that we can avert the acrimony that tends to spring from narrow religious totalizing. These are among the conceptual roots of interfaith movements.
God knows humanity is facing countless crises of planetary proportions. Aside from belligerent threats, inter-group conflicts, and endless wars, the world bears witness to malnutrition, health-care needs, and illiteracy among millions, environmental threats, diminishing resources, and more. It is imperative that those who have faith in God join hands as children of the same Almighty, as brothers and sisters in the human family, and strive to combat and alleviate the horrendous problems staring at us all. In this common dedication we must invoke the love and compassion, the caring and sacrifice that all religions teach us. This can be most effectively done by affirming the interfaith spirit that we are celebrating this week in Rochester.
April 9, 2010