A Personal Reflection from the Hickey Center’s Summer Course on Understanding World Religions
Since 2005 the Brian and Jean Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College has energetically helped students, faculty, religious leaders, and other working professionals to better understand the world’s great faith traditions. Under the creative and compassionate guidance of Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, the Hickey Center has become an exceedingly valuable resource for our community.
So it was with high expectations that I enrolled in the Center’s 2012 Train the Trainers: Understanding World Religions and Interfaith Relations week-long course. Before the program commenced participants were prepared to learn some necessary tools for respectful interfaith communication, to hear about people’s own religious experience, and to visit local places of worship. The presenters included a Hindu professor of physics, a liberal and orthodox rabbi, followers of Sikhism, a Muslim Imam, as well as Christian ministers and Mormon laity. Sites of worship included a Hindu temple, Sikh gurdwara, Mormon chapel, Jewish synagogue, and the Islamic Center of Rochester.
After completing this training I gained a deeper appreciation for the diversity in Rochester’s religious community. I concluded that religion is indeed a precious gift to individuals, and that each religion makes a unique contribution to social justice and spiritual enlightenment. However, I also noticed that religion can become exclusive, intolerant, and can produce arrogance in its followers whenever devotees are encouraged to believe that their form of religious experience is better than someone else’s. I also learned that interfaith dialogue is the most effective way for our traumatized planet to progress in the direction of a nonviolent future. Among the most basic benefits to healthy interfaith dialogue is the promotion of sympathy, increased admiration for cultural differences, growing mutual awareness, and the revelation that we are bound by love and compassion more than by class, race, and nationality. In the wake of the bloodiest and most ecologically depraved century in human history these skills are hardly luxuries. On the contrary, if the world community is to courageously face the epic challenges of nuclear proliferation, climate change, and global terrorism, it is vital that these skills be developed by as many people as possible.
There are of course major problems that escort the practice of interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue is a complex and volatile enterprise. There are numerous pitfalls and stumbling blocks that prevent people from genuinely relating to each other in a manner that does not incite bad memories and moral repugnance. The philosopher Voltaire wryly observed that “if you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they dwell in peace.” Voltaire’s learned opinion does not lack veracity if we consider isolated cases like Europe during the Reformation, Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” and Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, yet if one earnestly appraises the annals of American history, they will find that even pluralistic societies spawn an alarming degree of violent prejudice. Religion can be a powder keg even in liberal democracies; for when people agree to openly discuss the merits and demerits of religion, they often resort to unwarranted stereotypes and nasty accusations. This is an unfortunate custom that contributes to the propagation of the most despicable social ills plaguing the world today. Even the most casual pundit of religion will have little difficulty identifying its most blatant abuses. The Jesuit scientist Pascal put it this way: “Humans never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it with religious conviction.” With Pascal, I contend that almost every major religion has embraced and promulgated the justification of war, the oppression of women, anti-intellectualism, the division of families and other social groups, as well as the distortion of historical fact. In light of these abuses and defects, the failure of religious devotees to sincerely value diversity is a major problem that can only be addressed through a healthy communicative encounter based on the virtues of respect, fairness, humility, and genuine curiosity. Given religion’s penchant for exploitation and cruelty, it is absolutely crucial that interfaith skills be taught, developed and honed as vigorously as possible.
Now that I have alluded to the importance of interfaith dialogue in all types of societies, it should be noted that one of my chief discoveries during the training was to recognize that mere communication between people of different religions is not sufficient by itself to foster mutual respect and learning. It is one thing to simply intellectualize about different methodologies in prayer and meditation, but it is a far more influential experience to physically witness devotees worshipping with other followers in a building designed to mollify their most incapacitating existential fears. To simply theologize with a devotee outside of this sacred context removes the dimension of religious experience that actually has the power to animate and sustain their joyful allegiance. There is no article in National Geographic that can substitute for this full bodied immersion experience, nor is there a documentary or television show that can visually and aromatically encapsulate the phenomenon of people worshiping together. The significance of doing religion rather than merely talking about religion was summarized by the brilliant essayist C.K. Chesterton, who advised us to “let religion be less a theory and more of a love affair.” But in order for religion to be an authentic love affair, the lover must not hoard or dominate the primal source of his or her love. Religion will remain a priceless gift to individuals as long as the recipients of this gift do not believe that they inevitably deserved it in the first place or that they were the only one to have received it at all. The first delusion is an artifact of arrogance and it has many subtle manifestations. The second delusion is rooted in envy which inflames the disputes over dogma precipitating real acts of violence. Without analyzing this psychological problem in more detail suffice it to say that as soon as devotees shun these two modes of self-delusion they will make tremendous progress towards promoting sustainable peace both in themselves and in the world.
Having turned our attention towards sustainable peace, the Catholic theologian Hans Kung has warned us that “there will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and there will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.” If sustainable peace is to be achieved in the world, it is imperative that religious devotees honor the uniqueness of their own tradition while being open to celebrating the traditions of others. Without this charitable exchange devotees will be controlled by an irrational hostility that diminishes the worth of other people’s ideas. This being the case, it is uplifting to know that thousands if not millions of responsible men and women are taking the charge of interfaith dialogue seriously. For example, since the 1960’s there have been many Roman Catholics invested in changing the Catholic Church’s policy towards non-Christian religions. On October 13, 2007 many eminent Muslim leaders expanded their commitment to interfaith by endorsing and contributing to a manifesto titled, A Common Word Between Us and You. And as recently as 2009 there has been a major interfaith dialogue conference held in Spain that attracted leaders of different faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. These prominent examples supply us with just a minuscule sampling of interfaith initiatives occurring all over the world.
Finally, I want to add that as result of this training I have gained a more profound impression of ahimsa, which is a Sanskrit word that means non-injury in thought and deed to any living being. Although the concept of ahimsa originated in the Indian religion commonly known as Jainism, it has been interpreted and applied by spiritual geniuses including Jesus of Nazareth, the Buddha, Rumi, M.K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa. After taking communion at the Hindu Temple of Rochester, meditating with a teacher from the Rochester Zen Center, eating sweets at the Sikh gurdwara, hearing the Orthodox Rabbi recite from the Torah at Beth Shalom, and praying with Muslims at the Islamic Center, it dawned on me that these rituals are all symbolic characteristics of ahimsa. Because of this training, the ideal of ahimsa is beginning to appear in my life as a marvelous synthesis of everything noble and veritable about pure religious experience. Once ahimsa is adopted as a personal lifestyle, the sinister aspects of religion begin to disintegrate. In other words, as soon as devotees choose to stop giving refuge to harmful intentions towards other persons, animals or even insects, they can begin to live freely in the world without the shackling restraints of invented dogmas, contrived notions of individual superiority, or other debilitating self-delusions. Conversely, religion without nonviolence becomes just another vehicle for hate, intolerance and jealously. In starker terms, a religion that is afraid to make ahimsa its most important doctrine becomes the most efficient way to disseminate hate and jealously; for religion without ahimsa is merely a spoiled form of anthropomorphism. Perhaps author Anne Lamott articulated this best when she said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
As a last thought I want to reiterate my gratitude to the Hickey Center for crafting this soul-fortifying training. Far from being a leisurely pastime suited only for intellectually curious academics, interfaith dialogue must become a required skill for every citizen living in every nation of the world. Let’s pray that courses like this one become more prevalent in the days ahead.
 The criterion that determines what constitutes a world religion is debatable. Is it number of followers? Is it the character of ritualism? Is it related to foundational status? For centuries the classical study of religion was limited to Christian scholarship. As a result, religious traditions like Jainism and Sikhism were discounted as mere sects. In this reflection I am including these two faith traditions in addition to other commonly excluded faiths such as Zen Buddhism and Mormonism.
 Principles of respectful communication ranged from speak softly, smile and laugh gently to more practical advice like avoiding selective use of scripture, tradition, and history when discussing issues.
 Eboo Patel has referred to the interfaith movement as the 21st century’s civil rights movement.
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