Interfaith: An Overview
by Paul Trafford
This is a brief introductory overview of interfaith from a personal point of view. It was originally prepared for those religious organisations new to this area and have growing international presence. The format is mainly in form of Question and Answer.
It is intend that this article be revised from time to time, so comments are welcome.
Q. What is interfaith?
There are many ways in which interfaith may be defined since it operates at many different levels. These days one may say:
This process is often termed interfaith dialogue. The dialogue has a positive and deliberate conotation, a sense of offering space, openness and respect, thereby contrasting with e.g. a dispute or confrontation. It can be informal or formal, internal to oneself, between neighbours, among community groups, right up to large international gatherings. The venue can be a church, temple, mosque, or a house, street, bus, etc. The use of the word faith recognises the personal commitment of the practitioner.
There are some related terms, each with their own emphases:
Many people when studying about different religions in the world, are surprised to find a lot of teachings in common. This encourages them to be more interested in interfaith. It is also interesting to hear what people of other faiths find inspiring about one's own faith.
For instance, it is noticeable how many non-Christians love very much the Beatitudes in Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount. It can make Christians reflect on the qualities of Jesus which they should try to practice in their lives.
A well respected overview of many different religions is called A Sourcebook for Earth's Community of Religions, edited by Joel Beversluis. It is available on-line at: http://www.origin.org/ucs/doc.cfm?fg=3176
There have been some large scale initiatives to publish selections of texts from the world religions to show similarities. In particular, the Unification Church has published World Scripture, a massive undertaking involving many scholars around the world. It is available at http://www.unification.net/ws.
Q. What is the main purpose of interfaith today?
For many interfaith has one over-riding purpose: to bring peace to the planet.
Q. How has it developed over the ages?
Throughout history, whenever people of differents faiths have met and communicated with each other, then there has been implicitly an opportunity for dialogue. This has arisen especially through migration of populations which have led to substantial multi-ethnic communities being established in many parts of the world, particularly in urban areas. Interfaith dialogue is a fundamental part of fostering good relations between the respective communities.
Much of the more formal 'dialogue' in recent centuries has involved followers of theistic religions, particularly Christians who have focused on doctrinal aspects - what has usually come under the heading of theology. The principal player has been the Roman Catholic Church under the guidance of the Pope in the Vatican, whose membership has for a long time been hundreds of millions (and is currently about 1 billion people). The exchanges have had a chequered history, particularly during some of the missionary activities, where historians record that in some instances (e.g. 16th Century Jesuit missions to China), the missionaries sought to assimilate themselves as a means of conversion. In the process they would have had many discussions with local people with some genuine dialogue, but the subsequent ill feelings and disputes indicate that a lot of the activity was inappropriate.
Fortunately, during the past century people of different faiths have come together on more equal footing. One asks why and personally I sense it is because the 20th Century saw so much suffering all over the world that preaching the superiority of any particular faith made a hollow sound. In any case, there has been a sense of urgency for people of faith to work together. Christians have continued to travel all over the world, so they have a tremendous amount of experience of encounters with other religions, perhaps more so that followers of any other religion. Hence, a lot of those involved in interfaith activities these days are Christian, publishing copious literature and founding many organisations. Indeed, most of the large international organisations have strong Christian presence.
It is noticeable that those Christians who work in interfaith have often changed their attitudes. For instance, the Benedictine monk, Ven. Bede Griffiths, OSB, initially went to India with the idea that his religion was very much superior to others, but in time his viewpoint changed to one that was much more appreciative of other religions. Also, the focus has shifted from detailed theological discussions to the critical issues and there is a lot more genuine collaboration. The context for this is very much at the local community level.
Furthermore it is quite common these days to hear the term interfaith movement, reflecting the fact that collaboration has been ongoing for some time. Looking back, one can see that the roots for formal collaboration started in 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This momentous event has been taken as a starting point for Pilgrimage of Hope, a very well informed survey of interfaith activity during 100 years (1893 to 1993). The book is written by Rev. Marcus Braybrooke and published by SCM Press, ISBN 0-334-02500-1. Some other good titles may be found among the World Congress of Faiths' list of publications.
Q. Why should we be Involved?
As a general consideration, the critical isses mentioned above have become so severe that the entire world needs to address them. The most immediate threat is war, and many wars are promoted in the name of religion. Interfaith serves to overcome the religious prejudice in such conflicts by creating the conditions for positive encounter - work that can clear misunderstandings and reduce divisions. It is without doubt growing in importance: the one time World Parliament of Religions has since evolved into the Parliament of the World Religions, which is now being held on a regular basis: the last two have been held in Cape Town (1999) and Barcelone (2004)
As an organisation you may have a lot to offer to interfaith and find other organisations very welcoming and receptive. If your organisation is international, then it is likely that it would be committed to a culture of world peace - which is just how this decade has been designated by the United Nations: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/1998/19981110.ga9500.html If you investigate the aims of interfaith organisations that have already been establised, then you may well find the aims of interfaith compatible and worthy of support.
Religious organisations usually have a lot to offer in terms of ethics and pathways to the development of higher human activities, particularly a deeper and more fulfilling inner life, which in turn reflects in wiser outer conduct. Any programmes that help society in such activities could be of benefit to many and a fine example for others.
Notwithstanding the above, any large organisation with growing international presence, not necessarily religious, needs to get to know about other cultures and, particularly, their religious practices. In some countries governments are issuing legislation that requires particular respect for religious observance on behalf of employees, so the motivation for understanding other faiths becomes even stronger for religious organisations. An interfaith approach seeks to do this through positive engagement.
There are also potential drawbacks in not becoming involved: consider the other organisations or individuals that are involved in interfaith. If there are just a few representing your particular religious tradition, then they carry a great deal of responsibility and have considerable influence. All being well, they will all be examplary and present a fair and true picture. However, if some are not, then they will be doing a disservice and other voices need to be heard. (It is noticeable that the same few figures appear at international gatherings and they are free to express many views.)
Q. How does it work?
Interfaith works through people meeting each other - especially through networks. Its scope sweeps across many aspects of society as can be seen in the following instances, taken from the UK, which indicates that a lot of activity just comes at various gatherings. Although many of the activities may not be relevant to an organisation per se, it may be that many individuals will be participants and thus representatives.
Children are introduced to R.E. from quite an early age, certainly before they reach 10 years old. [There are some wonderful ways for introducing very young children to this area: for instance, I had the chance to watch a professional story teller perform the lives of some of the religions' founders. The costumes and sets were very colourful!]
Whereas until quite recently the syllabus was predominantly Christian, nowadays in all schools it is expected that religion be taught in a plural context - that typically involves the study of the major teachings from several world religions. It is becoming increasingly common, especially in urban areas, for school parties to make visits to various places of worship, to watch, ask questions and even try some practice, thus gaining a quite vivid impression of what life can be like in another faith. It is also becoming common for schoolchildren to send queries to maintainers of web sites on particular faiths!
In higher education (19+), there are more courses becoming available on the study of world religions and quite a number are using the term "interfaith". The syllabuses for such courses use a lot of current material.
The above relate interfaith in terms of an object of study but also, with potentially more far reaching significance, interfaith has a lot to offer education as a whole, particularly regarding the issue of ethics - most notably in the form of the Global Ethic. More about this later.
2. Community Centres
Community centres are becoming more diverse in what they offer. Nowadays people can attend talks about other spiritual paths, try yoga, practice meditation, and join in the celebration of other religious festivals. These gatherings bring together people of different faiths and can highlight shared values leading to new friendships.
It is noticeable how strong is the demand for such activities - there is no doubt that many people are searching in earnest for greater depth.
3. Official co-ordination: organisations and networks
In the UK, interfaith activity has been formally organised to quite a degree: there are local, regional and national bodies that co-ordinate interfaith activity. In the UK, there is the Interfaith Network for the UK; in the United States, there is the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN).
Such bodies maintain lists of events where people and organisations of different faiths will be meeting. They can inform you of what is happening in your local area, often they will know particular contacts, but may not actually host many such gatherings themselves, but rather co-ordinate meetings between representatives of different religious organisations.
On the other hand, there are some centres that are designated as interfaith centres, which may organise seminars, conferences, retreats, projects and other activities in a more explicitly interfaith context. Some of these are bilateral and others multi-lateral. In Birmingham, UK, there is a Centre for the Study of Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations at Selly Oak Colleges, part of the University of Birmingham. There has also been the Multi-Faith Centre, based at one time in Harborne Hall during the 80's.
At the University of Derby, there is currently a fundraising campaign for a purpose-built Multi-Faith Centre.
4. Implicit interfaith activities
There is growing recognition of the potential of project work that involves people from various backgrounds, where religion is not the first item that is brought to attention. Projects have already taken place where essential needs such as housing and land cultivation have led to co-operation. These projects have the characteristics of being locally rooted and emphasising service. It is during the process of working together that awareness steadily increases about the faith of the others and the importance it plays in their lives. In this case, we can refer to implicit interfaith activity.
These projects are particularly attractive to young people - see, for instance, the work being done by the Interfaith Youth Core at http://www.ifyc.org.
5. Other interfaith activities
Compared with even 10 years ago, many of us now have much more opportunities for dialogue with others - through the Internet. It is a technology that is accelerating the sense of a 'global village', enabling us to be in touch with people at any corner of the planet in a matter of seconds.
The fact that you are reading this document, which has been hosted on a web site, is testament to the extraordinary means of communication.
The Internet provides many ways for dialogue: electronic mail, mailing lists, discussion forums, and all of these can be used to sustain ongoing co-operation. As we use this technology from day to day, we can take encouragement as we discover more and more people, from various faiths, sharing many of our aspirations in faith.
Q. How to become involved? Where to Join?
Involvement is done mainly at the individual level - much of the vitality in interfaith comes from the fact the people are there through personal interest which is not dependent upon formal representation. Meetings between organisations require a lot of planning and extra effort and can be highly problematic: when organisations meet formally, the situation can be easily politicised and issues become magnified: Where is a suitable venue? Who should be sent to the meetings? How do we handle the media? How to incorporate the wishes of all the members in this? One has only to consider some large international bodies to realise the immense difficulties and obstacles to progress that arise
A more manageable approach is to attend designated interfaith gatherings where individuals or groups are welcome to represent their organisations, but not in such a wholesale manner as above. In these events, it is common for the programme to include presentations that summarise the aims and activities of particular organisations, to which others may respond and report back to their organisation. Whether presenting or not, there should be ample opportunity for outreach - informing others of one's background, perhaps exchanging business cards and various literature. In due course, there will be opportunities for presentations about one's own organisation.
So a constructive approach is to support individuals in participation at such events and programmes, which in turn may open up avenues not just at the individual level but also at the organisational level. Networking between individuals can lead to collaboration between organisations.
One may learn about such events by contacting some of the co-ordinating organisations, some given below.
However, there are some other ways that an organisation can enhance its visibility to those interested in interfaith. When people of other faiths encounter you for the first time, they will wonder about the role your organisation plays and in what context: As an organisation that represents a particular religion, what is the involvement in that particular religious community?
So, here are a few suggestions to enhance visibility:
1. First check the status of the organisation in one's locality: is it listed in local, regional and national directories? Is it active in these areas?
2. Similarly, check the status of any multifaith directories and initiatives at local, regional and national levels.
3. Find out about co-ordinating bodies (e.g. in the UK the main body is the Interfaith Network for the UK).
Many other organisations will have religious components though they may not make this explicit. Of special significance are those organisations that work explicitly for the benefit of people, often for human rights. Such organisations will play an increasing role over the coming years, whose influence will be accelerated courtesy of the Internet. A few years ago, the Millenium People's Assembly Network (MPAN) was campaigning for a Permanent People's Assembly to be affiliated with the United Nations, which would mean that individuals are more directly represented. Their web site was at: http://www.ourvoices.org, but as of writing it is no longer running. However, this has moved on to a Globabl People's Assembly Movement and if you search the internet, you find many people's assemblies have sprung up around the world
A very useful way to help interfaith work would be to respond to initiatives that have come from interfaith work, especially the Global Ethic and Call to Our Guiding Institutions - see below. These kinds of initiatives are the result of high aspirations and a lot of hard work, so it would be much appreciated if it could be supported and tested out.
Individually, one can attend courses, join mailing lists, listen in and contribute to discussion groups, particularly on the Internet. It is often helpful to identify issues of common concern.
Interfaith Networks: From the Global Ethic to A Call to Our Guiding Institutions
This section is presented as information, not in Q and A format.
In 1893 there was held the World Parliament of Religions as part of the Chicago World Trade Fair. It was motivated largely by theological concerns and had a disproportionately large representation from Christian denominations. However, there were represented a wide range of religious traditions from different parts of the world. An acknowledged star of the conference was Swami Vivekananda.
A hundred years later, in response to requests from people of faith, Chicago was host to the Parliament of the World Religions organised by the Council for a Parliament of the World Religions. The impetus came from identifying that the world was in crisis. The core document was the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic, henceforth simply referred to as the Global Ethic, whose initiator was Professor Hans KŁng of the University of Tubingen in Germany. Professor KŁng sought common ethical principles by which religions could work together for peace and then a means for encouraging its uptake, resulting in the Global Ethic, a document in four parts.
PART 1 asserts:
The following four principles are identified as being held in common:
We are especially called to respect human dignity.
The Declaration is available at: http://www.weltethos.org/dat_eng/st_3_e.htm
Research is being carried out at the following sites:
Stiftung Weltethos (Global Ethic Foundation) at the University of TŻbingen
Center for Global Ethics at Temple University, USA.