The Interfaith Movement: An Incomplete Assessment *

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

This article aims to do two things. First, it presents a brief survey of interfaith work worldwide, as a sketch for a more detailed and complete inventory of the extent and types of activity now being carried on. Second, it offers an analysis of some of the most critical issues at present in the interfaith field. What follows is not one more theological statement on the relation of religions or a reflection on why interfaith understanding and cooperation are needed but, rather, a descriptive report followed by evaluative comments. As this is a large agenda, this account is a preliminary one.

The interfaith movement is growing rapidly. New expansion was already occurring before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks of that day and ensuing events have greatly intensified awareness of the necessity to work toward better relations between religious communities. While the nature and goals of ongoing interfaith work have not in themselves changed, many have grasped in a new way what the stakes are in this undertaking and the price to be paid if it fails. Others have had dramatically confirmed their already existing conviction of its importance. The pace of interfaith activity seems to be accelerating. This is happening not only because of greater appreciation that it is needed, but also because those wishing to develop interfaith programs now have much precedent and know-how on which to draw. Over a century of interfaith activity has provided a reservoir of established methods, well-known organizational patterns, and acquaintance with the issues. The maturing of the movement and the course of events have intersected. As interfaith work today seems ready to become more mainstream than at any previous time, an assessment may be useful.

A. Motives for Interfaith Work

One may distinguish three main motives for interfaith work, which influence the creation of different kinds of programs: (1) to live together harmoniously, mitigate tensions, and resolve conflict; (2) to engage a "common task"; and (3) to search for truth and understanding in the context of religious plurality. These motives are not mutually exclusive and in practice are often found together. An outline of them will serve as a frame of reference for the descriptions to follow, as will a brief consideration of terminology.

The first motive is most familiar. Interfaith workers very often say that the purpose of what they do is to enable better relations among religious groups at all levels, from knowing one's neighbors in the local community to reducing violence such as hate crimes or acts of terrorism, even to ending civil or international armed conflict and achieving post-conflict reconciliation. The operating premise is that direct personal encounter, more accurate knowledge of the other, and an exchange of views, stories, and experiences can lessen tensions, dispel misunderstanding, and build trust. As Diana Eck has put it, "Being judged as a group, not as an individual, erases the human face and is the first step toward dehumanization that gives rise to hate crimes." (1) Conversely, the face-to-face meeting of unique individuals from different groups is a step in the opposite direction toward amicable relations. It is not naively supposed that mere contact will lead to better attitudes but that interaction organized according to certain requirements is needed. Research in social psychology supports testimony from the interfaith arena that, under specific conditions, face-to-face encounter can dispel stereotypes and foster harmony. (2)

It must be remembered, however, that much as religious divisions are a source of tensions, they are not the only fault lines along which conflicts occur. Factors other than religious ones may cause or contribute to conflict, and there is thus a significant overlap of the aims and methods of interfaith work as such and other work also concerned with inter-ethnic, "inter-group," and inter-cultural relations, as well as various kinds of peacemaking, conflict resolution, and the reconciliation of groups with a history of violence. …