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.email print