The Future of the Interfaith Movement

9600 participants from 80 countries and 50 spiritual or faith traditions gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the World Parliament of Religions October 15-19. This is the first time the Parliament has met on U.S. soil since 1993, when it was held in Chicago. There have been intervening meetings in South Africa (1999), Spain (2004) , and Australia (2009). 

Under the theme of “Reclaiming the Heart of Humanity ” this year’s Parliament sought to bring global wisdom and practice to three critical issues: climate change and care for creation; income inequality and wasteful consumption; war, violence and hate speech.

In addition, an historic Inaugural Women’s Assembly took place on the day prior to the Assembly’s opening in which women from all the world’s faith traditions called upon religious leaders to fulfill their moral responsibility to uphold the dignity and human rights of women.

In one of the numerous Parliament workshops, a group of religious leaders looked at the future of the interfaith movement with its growing numbers and impact.

Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, a United Church of Christ/Disciples minister who directed the U.S. National Council of Churches of Christ for 14 years, recalled “how we grew up in a time when we were lucky if Christians talked to one another. We had separate seminaries for African Americans, for Catholics and Protestants. Chatauqua, a summer center  in northwestern New York that encompasses the arts, education, religion and recreation, began over 200 years ago as a Methodist institution. Today it is interfaith. Before, we didn’t need to know about the world’s religions. Today we do,” she said.

Dr. Larry Greenfield, President of the American Baptist Theological Union and Vice Chair of the Parliament’s Council,  observed how the new world we live in is one of diversity and multiplicity of religious traditions. “The interfaith movement creates a difficulty for itself,” he said, “when it tries to move at the doctinal level looking for a common understanding of truth. Where I find it more effective is at the activist level--our willingness to start working together and through that, discovering some common understandings.”

Greenfield noted three different responses to the interfaith movement today. “Firstly, there will be religious traditions that will strongly resist it—and for defensible reasons on their part. Secondly, there will be an interfaith reality that will be fairly lukewarm, of people simply responding to the culture in which they find themselves, content with just ‘getting along’. And thirdly, there will be a fervent interfaith movement of people who see the possibility of a new way of living, practically, religiously, ethically.  This is not the easiest path to choose in life, but we will find it helps us deepen our appreciation for both other religious traditions as well as our own. We need to listen and learn from people who live the interfaith reality daily.”

Greenfield acknowledged that leaders of the different religions are generally beholden to their people, and this makes it more difficult for them to step beyond just getting together occasionally for lunch.

Further, said Greenfield, “Some are afraid to be involved for fear it compromises their own faith. There is no threat to opening your mind to what is part of your own history. What is being asked is not that they give up their faith, but that they expand the narrowness of their present understanding of its meaning.”

 Kiran Bali, Hindu, and Global Chair of United Religions Initiative, identified four challenges we are facing. The first is worldwide conflict, the cruelty we see happening worldwide. “In these situations we must be taking action. Are the bridges we’ve built strong enough to weather the challenges we’re facing today?” Bali asked. 

The second challenge is gender inequality. She described various “gender-biased traditions of the religions”and observed how equality “often stops at the door of the synagogue, mosque, church, and temple. We must let women open new doors for everybody,” said Bali.

A third challenge is participation of young people. “The young are often feeling very disconnected. But if they are the future, we must listen to them, promote them with formational opportunities, helping them to see that they can become leaders,” she said.

And a fourth challenge is individual introspection. “Are our morals and ethics in line with the world we wish to see?” Bali asked. “We need to have sincere aspirations to make this world a better place. We need to have the bravery to speak up. The work we have to do goes beyond meeting and eating. We need more collective work, and as we move into the future, we’re going to have to make every effort to be more inclusive.”

Joan Brown Campbelladded that “we’re not called to protect ‘our’ way of thinking, but to expand it in a variety of ways to include resonant understandings from other traditions. Every religion has a right to teach, preach, be known. The future of  the interfaith movement depends on radical humility, getting out of our own ego in order that others may join us in circles of compassion and peace.”

Dr. Greenfield shared that the Parliament’s Council is deciding to hold a Parliament gathering every  two years to help support the interfaith movement.  “We are developing ‘Best Practices’,” he said,  “and the Parliament itself can be one of the ways that Best Practices surface. They also need to emerge, however, from local communities and what works best there.” 

Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, chair of the Parliament’s Board of Trustees, concurred: “All interfaith is local,” said Mujahid. “Instead of trying to ‘sell’ your religion to us, let us share with one another the challenges we are facing. If we are able to respect one another and work together in responding to the needs around us, it would be a positive way forward. We have some real tasks before us—climate change, inquality, war, violence, hate speech—and if we are to succeed in meeting these challenges, we must act together. Interfaith brings the best out of the faith communities.”

October 2015

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC