The Three Faiths exhibit at the New York Public Library (through Feb. 27, 2011) is sponsored by the Coexist Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. We asked the director of the Coexist Foundation James Kidner, to tell us about the foundation and how this exhibit can promote better understanding.
Why did Coexist decide to sponsor this exhibit? How does it fit in with the organization’s mission?
Coexist was proud to sponsor the British Library’s “Sacred” exhibition in 2007, which in many ways inspired “Three Faiths”. Our hope, with both exhibitions, was to inspire the public to take a closer interest in these three faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which have done so much to shape the world today, and which remain so precious to more than half the world’s population. By seeing the ways in which, over the centuries, these traditions have influenced one another – their theology, their culture, their art and their customs – we hoped to promote better understanding: not just between Jews, Christians and Muslims, but between these faiths and others. That is absolutely Coexist’s purpose – to educate people about what it means to be Jewish or Christian or Muslim today, and to build bridges between these faiths and others.
Can you tell us a bit more about the foundation—what is its purpose? The who/what/why of its creation?
Coexist was set up in 2005 – a charity, based in London but serving the world, which aims to promote understanding and respect between Jews, Christians and Muslims, and between these faiths and others, through education, dialogue and research. The projects and programmes which we support around the world are all aimed at widening knowledge, building trust, and inspiring respect for these different faith traditions. In a globalised and increasingly secular world, too often the Media see religions as liabilities on the balance sheet of society. And yet, for most people in most parts of the world, religion is the most precious thing in their lives. Helping people to understand more about these faith traditions – their commonalities and their differences – is what Coexist works to do.<.>
Our founding Trustees exemplified the diversity of our mission – the Bishop of London; Lord Janner, who is one of the UK’s pre-eminent Jewish Parliamentarians; and Professor Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel-Prizewinnning Bangladeshi economist. These work alongside businessmen, lawyers, educational specialists and others to promote our ideals, and have recently been joined by the Grand Mufti of Egypt and Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Earlier this year, we were very proud to register Coexist Foundation USA as a US 501c3. For more information on our projects and partnerships or to see how we may be able to work together, please visit our new website www.coexistfoundation.net.
As the exhibition came together, were you surprised or struck by any aspect of it? (for example, the number of materials to draw from, or the variety and size of the library's collection or similarities or differences among the items included)?
The NYPL has an extraordinarily rich and varied collection of manuscripts from each of the three Abrahamic traditions. It is a treasure-trove of not just beautiful and precious objects, but surprising and sometimes very touching ones too.
Their curatorial team have done the most fantastic job – bringing out not just the commonalities between these three faith traditions (you may remember that the by-line to “Sacred” was “Discover what we share”) but also their distinctiveness and differences. That’s where Coexist hopes to have a particular impact in education about religions around the world. Instead of simply extolling the common ground which the three faiths share, we are also about exploring the differences – not to build barriers, but to learn more about our own traditions by respectful engagement with the other. The fabulous documents on display at the NYPL – their richness and their diversity – never fails to inspire, however many times you visit the exhibition.
Why does this exhibition matter—what does it contribute to the current public discourse?/p>
I hope it will help to dispel some of the myths and mischief which so often grab the headlines, and instead inspire a more reasoned discussion about the role of religion in public life today. We saw this with another project we have been proud to support at Coexist – the Gallup “Muslim-West Facts Initiative” which, through detailed polling across more than 100 countries, helped to puncture many of the misapprehensions about Muslims in the world today.
Until Gallup’s work showed the nuances and complexities of attitudes towards Muslims, and of Muslims, the tabloid media could report nonsense as fact. Afterwards, those sloppy headlines were harder to write. With “Three Faiths” we hope more and more people will see the ways in which our different traditions have influenced and inspired each other through history. We hope they will be encouraged to learn more about other people’s traditions as well as their own. And we hope that the excitement, the beauty and the challenge of this fantastic exhibition will encourage a more respectful, more nuanced, more educated debate about religion in the world today.
What are some of your favorite pieces in the exhibition?
Among so many treasures, it’s very hard to choose the best. That extraordinary 40-foot scroll, running from Adam and Eve through Abraham and the Prophets right up to the French Kings and our own Henry IV? The magnificently-decorated Korans from Iran? The Torah Scroll through the Book of Ruth, with its wonderful calligraphy and the grisly story of the sons of Haman? The maps of Jerusalem, showing its centrality to these faith traditions, and reminding us of the urgent need to address its challenges today?
If I had to choose just one, it would be the Gospel lectionary, with Clovio’s picture of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a transcendent painting of that defining moment in the world’s history. And it reminds me of the night “Three Faiths” opened, when it and other pictures were projected onto the front of the NYPL, and so many passers-by stopped to capture the image on their cameras. I hope they and many others get to go inside that great building, and share these and other delights in the months ahead.