The Art and Science of Interfaith Cooperation

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December 1, 2012
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In the following interview, Or Rose speaks with Eboo Patel about building an interfaith movement and its implications for American civil life.

Or Rose: What is your definition of religious pluralism?

Eboo Patel: Drawing from Harvard scholar of comparative religion Diana Eck, I understand religious pluralism to be the active engagement of religious diversity to a constructive end. Diversity is a mere descriptive fact; pluralism is, as Eck notes, an achievement.  At Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC.org), we break down this definition into three essential components: First, respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity; second, mutually inspiring relationships; and finally, common action for common good.

It’s important to point out that this is a civic definition — an articulation of how people and communities who orient around religion differently ought to live together on earth — rather than a set of theological claims.

Or Rose: How does IFYC translate this vision into building an interfaith movement?

Eboo Patel: We are trying to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, in a way similar to how multiculturalism, volunteerism, and environmentalism have become social norms. Our strategy at Interfaith Youth Core is threefold. First, we want to advance a discourse about engaging in interfaith cooperation in the broader culture. That happens through books, public talks, media interviews, and the like; second, we want to partner with higher education to help campuses embody and model interfaith cooperation, in the same way that they have embraced movements like service-learning. And finally, we want to inspire, train, and network a critical mass of interfaith leaders. We do this by running interfaith leadership institutes for college students, and support those students as they run campus interfaith “Better Together” campaigns, and then work with them as they graduate and take their interfaith leadership skills into the broader society.

Or Rose: In developing a theory of religious pluralism, you speak of two foundational concepts: “the science of interfaith cooperation” and “the art of interfaith leadership.” Please briefly explain what these mean.

Eboo Patel: The image we use for the science of interfaith cooperation is a triangle, the sides being attitudes, knowledge, and relationships. We know from recent social science data on religious diversity that these three are closely linked. When people have a positive, meaningful relationship with someone from a different religious community, their attitudes toward that whole community improve. And when they have some appreciative knowledge of another religious tradition, their attitudes toward that whole tradition improve. An effective interfaith program, then, is one that facilitates positive, meaningful relationships between people from different religious backgrounds and teaches the participants appreciative knowledge about different traditions.

Good interfaith programs depend on leaders who value interfaith work. And interfaith leadership is developed through transformative and engaging personal experiences.

Or Rose: In your efforts to help build an interfaith movement, you have chosen to focus your energies on the American college campus, why?

Eboo Patel: In founding IFYC, we looked at the history of social movements in this country and saw that college students and college campuses have played profound roles in making positive societal change, from civil rights to environmentalism. We want to tap that youthful energy for the interfaith movement. I think all sectors of society — from preschools to neighborhoods to hospitals — are ripe for building interfaith bridges. And different organizations should emerge to start such efforts. We have found that we are a much better organization when we focus on a particular population.

Or Rose: Part of the motivation for writing your new book was your experience of the controversy around the building of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”). What did that episode teach you about the ongoing project of building the interfaith movement in this country?

Eboo Patel: I learned that my initial anger and despair about the Islamophobia of that particular moment was not helpful. It’s much better, when faced with a burst of outspoken prejudice, to focus on the long arc and to mobilize the forces of pluralism to bend that arc toward justice.

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Eboo Patel, a Muslim of Indian heritage, is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC.org). He is author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press).

Or Rose, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, is the founding director of the new Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, and a co-editor of the volume My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis).

1 Comment

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on the interfaith movement and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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