We Are Winning: Interreligious Respect and Friendship on the Rise

11.26.17 BlogCambridge, MA. It is hard not to be depressed at the constant flow of bad news, from the latest phobic utterances of Donald Trump and his friends, to chants at hate-filled rallies in Charlottesville (where I just spent three months), to anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media, to the slaughter of over 300 men, women, and children of the Sufi community in the Sinai. Violence in thought, word, and deed leads to more violence, as usual. In the context of our increasingly individualistic society, it can seem that any sense of mutual respect is being lost, and the battle for decency a losing cause. But hopelessness is no way forward, for those of us trying to remain committed to fostering racial, interreligious, gender, and simply human mutual respect. But the dour headlines-narrative of loss and decay is also not accurate. In fact, more is happening to bring people together than ever before in human history. We need to look at this larger and positive story.

Our interwoven lives are making us more mindful than ever of our neighbors. Almost all of us now think of ourselves in light of our near and far others, and in a way that raises consciousness rather than creating fear or divisions. Even the most devout Catholic, for instance, is mindful of Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and with a vividness never before seen recognize that we have sisters and brothers in new places. People in every part of the globe know about the religious practices and beliefs of people thousands of miles away; we see something of the leading wise figures of different traditions; we know when our neighbors are marking other holy days, by other calendars.

I have been thinking about this because of a number of recent interreligious events that come to mind, small signs of hope of the kind that tend to proliferate. Consider a few: In October, an amazing seminar took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, sponsored by the Gregorian Centre for Interreligious Studies (CSIG), the Italian Bishops Conference, Italian Hindu Union. It was on, of all topics, ‘Enlightenment and the Tantric Path – Christianity and Hinduism in Dialogue’. (You can find the program, among many others hosted by CSIG, here.) That this took place under the auspices of the Catholic Church is amazing, unexpected: tantra is an ancient and complex system of worship, visualizations, ascetic disciplines, found in both Hindu and Buddhist contexts. It aims to uncover and intensify human bodily and spiritual experience of the human and of the divine, even to the point of merging the two. Some tantric practices can be controversial, and some are considered dangerous, taboo. Who would have imagined that a seminar on tantra would occur in Rome, with ecclesial support?

In the United States, institutionally supported progress is likewise occurring. I was happy to participate several weeks ago in the third Hindu-Catholic dialogue gathering supported by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the World Hindu Council of America, and other organizations. It took place at the Sri Siva Visnu Temple in Lanham, Maryland. The theme was “Love of neighbor in the Catholic and Hindu traditions: reflections on nationalism, war and poverty.” The main speakers were Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Papal Nuncio (Vatican Ambassador) to the United States, and Swamini Svatmavidyananda, Spiritual Director, Arsha Vijnana Gurukulam, Maryland and Oregon. In the afternoon, Sri Brahmachari Sharan, the first full-time Hindu Chaplain at Georgetown University (or any Catholic institution), Mr. Fred Stella, Outreach Minister for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, and myself spoke on the future of Hindu-Catholic relations, with a particular emphasis on deeper education, each of us in our own tradition but also  with respect to the other tradition. (See Fr. Tom Ryan’s write-up for the Boston Pilot here.)

Only a week ago the American Academy of Religion, the largest association of scholars and professors of religion in the world, met here in Boston. (You can find the program book here.) Even aside from the regular interfaith seminars connected with the AAR, such as the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and the Dharma Association of North America, the substantive academic panels of the AAR’s annual meeting occasioned innumerable papers and conversations about religion and religions across disciplinary and religious boundaries. Some were strictly scholarly, as if detached; many showed the deep-felt care and devotion of scholars devoting their lives to learning religions in detail, as they happen today. Consequently, professors, their students and their readers, are increasingly thinking across religious boundaries, and (in the best scholarship) doing so without conflating things or ignoring differences. Among the panels I participated in, were a session on the use of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with non-Christian retreatants (a panel occasioned by Professor Erin Cline’s new book, World on Fire), and a book discussion of Teaching Interreligious Encounters, which includes 22 professors’ experiences in the multireligious classrooms of American colleges and universities today. A similar book could be written on high schools too.

There is movement at the grassroots level too. Many communities around the country have just witnessed interfaith prayer services before Thanksgiving, as local churches and synagogues, temples and mosques have worked together as good neighbors, to give thanks in harmony. In Sharon, MA, where I regularly help out with Sunday Masses, the Catholic pastor was the main speaker at this year's pre-Thanksgiving interfaith gathering, a group that included Christians of many denominations, Hindus and Muslims, and a number of rabbis and leaders from Sharon’s many Jewish communities. My own sister reports to me that just last week she attended a fine interfaith gathering at the Hindu temple near her home on Staten Island, NY – a gathering that many cannot imagine ever happening in that conservative, old-fashioned borough! Next week, I will be part of an interfaith gathering at Harvard, that seeks simply to bring people of different traditions together for a meal, that they may come to know and trust one another a bit more.

And so on. All this is, of course, anecdotal evidence, and my (Jesuit, Catholic, professorial) examples cannot be hastily employed as if to disprove the horrid instances of interreligious violence and hate speech occurring every day. But examples can be multiplied, and I am sure that readers of this blog can come up with their own list of instances showing that interfaith understanding and respect are increasing, not declining.

I do not mean that everything is easy, optimistic, on an easy course. But it is crucial to keep remembering the myriad good that is being done, and the connections being made. These far outnumber the desperate efforts made by a powerful, violent, and ignorant minority scattered across the world, which thinks itself great but is in fact weak and waning in power every day.

Yes, there is an enormous amount of work to be done, but we need to have our minds focused clearly. We need to see ourselves in light of the much larger picture, not as bravely trying to slow an inevitable disintegration, but as on the side of history - a providential history, I would say - and as working for the emergence of a new, more just, and respectful human community, no matter what trouble the haters among us keep trying to provoke. Faith endures; hope has good reason; love conquers.

(This is the fifth of my posts in my new On the Inner Edge series. You can find the previous posts here.)