Posted on February 23rd, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics
The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of Nehemiah. He was engaged in a building project when his enemies called for a meeting in the plain of Ono. Nehemiah sensed that this was a ploy and that they wanted to do him harm. He replied: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?”
When an invitation to participate in some sort of inter-religious activity presents itself, a number of conservative believers have reacted similarly to Nehemiah, thinking, “What I am doing with my own community is very important -- do I really have time to be with people who do not believe as I do?” Progressive believers, on the other hand, all too often assume that their conservative counterparts will not be interested in dialogue and do not bother inviting them to inter-religious events. Religion, therefore, reflects one additional area in our society where we are fractured into binary camps of “us” versus “them.” Yet there are at least five major reasons why both conservative and liberal religious practitioners should become and remain involved in inter-religious activities.
1. Love of one’s neighbor: In my Evangelical Christian tradition, great value is placed on the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus referred to this as the second most important commandment, after loving God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. In what is known as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” Jesus makes it plain that loving one’s neighbor is not dependent upon who one’s neighbor is, in a broader call for people to act in a neighborly fashion with one another. Inter-religious service projects and interchanges provide good opportunities to come to know our religious neighbors.
2. Understanding: Misunderstandings are all too often the norm. It is easy to vilify people who hold positions different than ours. People of faith have a religious obligation to step beyond their own tribe and affinity group to care for the other. A significant part of this involves listening and asking questions. It includes finding out what is important to another person or group and why. All of us want to be understood. All of us want to be heard. Appreciating what someone else thinks and believes is not the same as agreeing with him or her, or believing their thoughts yourself. It is, however, a genuine way to affirm the value and dignity of another person. Few people are willing to open up and share their most profound, personal beliefs. When someone does, it is a sign of trust and an invaluable moment of connection.
3. Clarity: Most people, whether religious or secular, hold to a particular belief because they like it. They think it is the best position to hold, and whether secretly or not, would like others to share their beliefs. In the context of inter-religious exchanges, we also come to better understand our own beliefs. When we engage people of other faiths, we are forced to clarify our language and meaning and inspired to restate our thoughts in ways we may not have previously considered.
4. Voice: I often hear conservative Christians complain that what they see written in the newspapers and blogs, or communicated on the radio or on television, does not reflect their views. Sometimes, however, these same people choose not to attend gatherings where the opinions of the media are formed -- or are not invited to the gatherings at all. If we are not present with people of other faiths and those who have no faith, we cannot truly expect to have a voice; and if we do not invite those of other perspectives to the table, we cannot truly ask for reciprocity. We need to be present to both represent and clarify what we think and believe – an essential course of action if we want our positions recognized. In my community, I have heard many statements made about Evangelical Christians that I thought were unkind misrepresentations. If someone from the particular church in question had been present for the discussion, however, he or she might have been able to change that false perception.
5. Service: Community service often has a religious motivation. Our religions call us to care for the needy and less fortunate. Community service represents a place of shared values for people of all faiths. We can come together in this area to be even more effective in our service, rather than producing parallel structures for different faith traditions. We are more efficient as individual religious communities when we collaborate in service for the common good.
The aforementioned five principles – love of neighbor, understanding, clarity, voice and service – provide compelling reasons why liberal and conservative believers alike should be involved with people of other faiths. Inter-religious engagement, even on a limited basis, can do much to tear down walls of misunderstanding, reduce friction and forge bonds of mutual respect and value. The question, however, remains how to engage in such important work.
When envisioning any inter-religious involvement, three specific principles come to mind, as represented in the acronym, RAM. First, RESPECT should characterize our interactions with other faith traditions. We should take the posture of being a learner and listener rather than simply promoting our own perspectives. Second, we should be AUTHENTIC within our own faith tradition. This means that while maintaining respect for the beliefs of others, we should not do anything that we believe compromises our own faith. We need to be honest not only to people of other traditions but also to ourselves. Third, inter-religious involvement should be MEANINGFUL. Such involvement does not need to be frequent to be significant. One should preserve adequate time in one’s own religious community to develop the language of faith and exercise spiritual practices. A clear and specific purpose should direct all Inter-religious involvement.
With use of RAM, conservative and liberal believers should feel assured that their religious practices will but benefit from inter-religious work. When collaborating, they may even find that their political and faith perspectives are bolstered as well.
The Reverend Dr. Paul Sorrentino has served as the Director of Religious Life at Amherst College and advisor to the Amherst Christian Fellowship and Amherst College Multifaith Council. He is ordained with the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (4Cs) and works for Amherst College and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC). His areas of interest are broadening the tent for religious pluralism to include more conservative and moderate religious groups and multiethnic ministry. Paul is a member of the the Journal’s Board of Scholars and Practitioners.
 Nehemiah 6:3 (New Revised Standard Version).
 This phrase appears nine times in the Bible. First in the Hebrew scriptures (Lev. 19:18) and eight additional times in the Christian scriptures (Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:30, 12:33; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:15; and James 2:8).
 Matt. 22:39 and Mark 12:30.
 Luke 10:25-28