Friday, January 7, 2011

Bumps on the Road to Interfaith Cooperation

Terrific piece on interfaith cooperation from evangelical pastor Skye Jethani. According to Jethani:
As America has become more diverse, young people are encountering and befriending people of different faiths, and the church (still clinging to the illusion of cultural privilege) has ignored this reality. When it is acknowledged, the church often presents young people with a false dichotomy. The fundamentalists say we should condemn those of other faiths and be careful that they do not cause us to stray from the truth. This is a recipe for either isolation or conflict. The liberals, on the other hand, invite us to put aside our theological differences and find what we hold in common with other faiths. But this "all paths lead to God" approach results in denying the unique claims of Christianity.

Jethani hits the nail on the head with his closing remarks:
In my view, interfaith cooperation is no longer optional. The realities of globalization and struggling communities mean that people of faith must learn to work together. At the same time, as a Christian, I do not want to deny my theological convictions or have to suppress them in order to engage meaningfully in the world. Instead, I want my interfaith work to be driven by my Christian identity and not in spite of it. And I believe learning to do this will bring strength to the church struggling to find its way in a rapidly changing culture.

Jethani is addressing a very real and very problematic temptation for progressives seeking to do interfaith work: the “identity-erasing approach” of watering down the beliefs and practices that distinguish different traditions in an effort to find some chimerical nugget of sameness at the heart of all religions. The hope behind this sort of reasoning is that if we can just uncover some unifying quality present in all faiths, the differences between religions might finally be recognized as cosmetic variations on the same cosmic theme.

This well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed approach to interreligious cooperation presents a recurring problem for progressives, as the sort of voluntary reductionism it entails weakens the normative potential of the traditions. By sacrificing what it means to be what you are, you can no longer use what you are as a means of promoting how things should be. Pluralism is a messy business, and the challenge, as Jethani so rightly notes, is not to agree to look past our fundamental differences, but to come together strengthened in our shared values because of our abiding commitments to the beliefs and practices upon which those values are founded.

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