by Project Interfaith Summer Intern, Dustin Moretz
Whenever we think of particular religions, we almost automatically think of the most commonly-held spiritual beliefs of those major faith traditions – such as the divinity of Christ in Christianity, or polytheism in Hinduism. We attempt to find some sort of baseline set of beliefs that define our own faith, or maybe the faith of others. Unfortunately, the world is not this simple, and neither are its religions. Some Hindus would object to the notion that their faith is polytheistic, and some Christians would scoff at the assertion that Christ is actually God incarnate. No matter how hard we try, religions escape the neat, defined boxes we try to place them in, eluding our heuristic attempts to pin them down and defying all expectations about what common ground is actually held within a particular faith tradition. Understanding the undeniable fact of diversity within religions, I think, is imperative if we are to succeed in promoting real interfaith dialogue to bring people within and without our respective traditions together.
I suppose that one reason I feel passionately about this particular topic is that it is exemplified within my own spiritual journey. As someone who considers myself a Christian, I am entirely comfortable with the realization that my own brand of Christianity deviates from what individuals may perceive as “mainstream” or “commonly held” Christian beliefs. I am eager to explain to someone that I try (and often fail) to follow in the footsteps of Jesus with every fiber of my being and yet enthusiastically deny any notion of the Trinity (the concept of there being a three-in-one Godhead made up of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit). I ardently use the Bible as a guide to spiritual fulfillment while emphatically denying Biblical infallibility and take a skeptical view of its formation by the early church. These hardly even begin to touch the surface of my theological divergences from “traditional” Christian doctrine – ones that many people, even within Christianity, take for granted and often assume that all Christians come to a consensus on. By just looking at the thousands of Christian denominations across the world, it is evident that consensus on anything hardly seems to be a norm in Christianity! It was personally experiencing many overgeneralizations about my faith that made me sensitive about making sure that inferfaith work included all people within a faith tradition – including those who are minorities or whose beliefs maybe deviate from doctrinal norms.
In many cases, it is these divisions within the world religions that have caused some of the most heated conflicts – big and small alike. In Islam, for example, conflict continues to exist between Shi’as and Sunnis, two of the major denominations of Islam that divided initially over the succession of Muhammad after his death. To this day, mosques of either denomination have been vandalized or destroyed by the other across the Middle East during sectarian conflicts. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Sunni Bahraini royal family blamed the revolutionary furor on the Shi’a majority, attempting to rouse suspicion and incite division within the Bahraini citizenry – many of whom were protesting against the regime. Shi’a homes and places of worship were destroyed or desecrated by the government in response. Let us also not forget the current divisions in Christianity, especially in this election year when Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon, is running for president, stirring up much anti-Mormon sentiment from some Christians. From my own personal experience, even, I continue to hear some individuals distinguish between “Christians” and “Catholics” as if Catholicism is its own religion rather than a perfectly legitimate brand of Christianity. Additionally, after helping to create a progressive Christian group on my college campus, I was shocked and disappointed by many of my own friends choosing to disassociate themselves with me – from an individual who believed differently than they did.
After hearing about and even experiencing such intolerant behavior, I began to realize that interfaith dialogue should not only be between members of different faith traditions, but within them as well –
intrafaith dialogue. In other words, we must attempt to understand and respect the religious beliefs of individuals within our respective religious traditions. In Christianity, this is often called ecumenism – promoting Christian unity throughout the world through interdenominational dialogue and cooperation. A similar emphasis on intrafaith dialogue is needed, I think, throughout all world religions, in a broad movement to promote unity over division. Through such a movement, I hope that there would be fewer instances of violence, prejudice, and ignorance within faith traditions about the diverse identities of their adherents. Diversity of beliefs should unite more than it should divide, especially when we consider just how much such diversity enriches our respective faiths, rather than inhibits them, by promoting healthy conversations and expanding the possibilities of our faith’s past, present, and future. It’s through this dialogue that we can not only make people of all faith traditions feel welcome in the world, but hopefully make people of all diverse theologies feel welcome and valued within their own traditions as well.
Dustin Moretz is the Development Intern for Project Interfaith. He is currently double majoring in Religious Studies and Anthropology/Sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, with a concentration in Public Policy and Service. He hopes to eventually get involved with interfaith relations on a national and international scale, and is studying abroad fall of 2012 in India to study Buddhism and Christian-Buddhist dialogue. He is passionate about social justice, and the necessity for members of all faith communities to unite to create a more just, prosperous, and safe environment where all individuals feel valued. He enjoys running, kayaking, reading, video games, and all things interfaith.