The term “interfaith discussions” has been used and perhaps exploited over the years. We hear and read about the subject on numerous platforms from social media to television. Politicians pivot on opening up the dialog between different religions to no avail. Of course this is not a new concept. The gathering together of people from other walks of faiths goes back to 16th century A.D. when Emperor Akbar the Great of India encouraged that a diverse nation was beneficial. The Catholic Church issued a declaration over 50 years ago to establish a relationship between Jews and Catholics. This was administered through the Vatican’s approval of Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), a policy to encourage mutual respect for all religions. Muslim were also included in the declaration. “The church regards with esteem also the Muslims,” it states. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of Heaven and earth, who has spoken to men.”
But the modern day concept of interfaith can be traced back to 1893 where the first formal gathering of various religions took place at the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago. People from the East and West engaged in discussions to help change negative perceptions of various religions. It marked the first official meeting of those wanting to open up dialog with those of other spiritual traditions. What was even more unprecedented for the time was to have a Hindu monk address the country. Swami Vivekananda became a vessel to introduce Americans to Hinduism in a powerful speech that explained the differences of religions, but how we are all the same. He was an example of the beginning of modern day interfaith discussions. The goal still today is to tolerate and defend the rights to worship as people deem fit. People like Vivekananda paved the way for this cooperative interaction between faiths, but it is up to future generations to keep the lamp lit.
There are those who believe that interfaith discussions are a waste of time and dangerous. Some liken it as marriage therapy despite that most threads link us to God. Take the relationship of Muslims and Christians. They are firm in their ideas and stances. Like the couple in marriage counseling, the dialog could be more surface than productive. People who are Christian believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. The Muslim faith believes it is through Muhammad. The commonality is both religions believe love is central to their religion. We are taught to always to find common ground, but during these discussion people are just going through the emotions said one Rabbi.
Rabbi Yoffie, who has been participating in interfaith dialog for over 3 decades, believes that this is not 100 percent true. Meaningful dialog happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences, not from focusing on commonalities. “When we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes, and trivializes — our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing,” the Huffington Post shared.
What if we cut our losses and stop the conversation? Nothing will ever get done. Pope Francis even called an interfaith dialog in Syria and in Iraq to end terrorism in the region. "It is essential that all citizens - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - both in the provision and practice of the law enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties,” Pope Francis said. Pope Francis was correct; if we can get on board we can fight mutual problems. We can solve issues like terrorism, social injustice and cultural issues with engaging dialog. It doesn’t mean we are likely to convert to another religion. We need to swallow our pride and overcome fears. Like Yoffie pointed out, we need to accept our theological differences—then move on.
There are ways to keep the conversation going. We can get involved in service projects and work with religious and non-religious groups. The One Campaign is an international, nonpartisan, non-profit, advocacy and campaigning organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable diseases. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was first launched in 2000. It is another organization that joins hands with others to educate and help people out of poverty and disease. Author Eboo Patel started the #ChangeTheStory campaign to help make interfaith discussions more common through videos, essays and photos to encourage others to fight against religious intolerance on college campuses. He founded Interfaith Youth Core (IYC) on the idea “that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.” Eboo was named in U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009 for his role in promoting diverse religious and non-religious identities and finding common ground for people to start. Eboo explained that interfaith leadership in the 21st century needs to be a collaborate effort. This means bringing atheists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all religions to the table on how to make progress as a society. When we tackle a common problem we are stronger and volunteering with other people with a religious background or not will make us better.