Pluralism and Interfaith
Bridging religious difference starts with being honest about those differences
One of the things I most appreciate about my friend Eboo Patel and his colleagues at Interfaith America (where I serve as a Senior Fellow) is that they take seriously the religious differences that divide us. I remember the interfaith movement when I was in college in the 1990s. It was pretty soupy—with a kind of vibe that made it seem like religious differences didn’t really matter, all roads pointed to the same God, and we could do great things together if only we stuck to the lowest common denominator about our faiths.
That’s not how religion works for most people. It’s not how it works for Eboo or me. A genuine interfaith effort takes seriously our differences and works on relationships across those differences.
In the News
Interfaith America has been in the news recently after rebranding from its earlier incarnation, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Here is Kelsey Dallas interviewing Eboo a couple of weeks ago in the Deseret News:
In announcing the new name, Patel emphasized that the phrase “interfaith America” casts a vision of what the country could be. He and his team are calling for a kind of national rebranding, an embrace of religious diversity.
“The mission of Interfaith America the institution is to help build interfaith America the nation,” he told me in a phone interview last week.
Part of that effort will include ushering out the phrase “Judeo-Christian nation” in order to usher “interfaith America” in. The former served a valuable purpose in the mid-20th century, Patel said, but it’s no longer serving us well today.
I’ve always been more skeptical than Eboo about the “valuable purpose” of the term “Judeo-Christian.” As I noted in my contribution to his 2018 book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise, “the category of Judeo-Christianity obscures the particularity of religious traditions in a way that risks promoting a civil religion ultimately beholden to the state.” Neglecting religious particularity not only enables an instrumental civil religion but also undergirds the kind of vague religious unity from 1990s’ interfaith efforts.
I’m sympathetic to Eboo’s shift to “interfaith America,” a phrase with far better adjectival accuracy than either “Judeo-Christian America” or “Christian America.” Still, this new name leaves me wondering how Eboo’s message and organization will appeal to the growing demographic of nonbelievers.
In my Head
Last month, I shared some brief comments at an event celebrating Interfaith America at Georgetown’s Center on Faith and Justice. I suggested that the reality of an interfaith America provides an opportunity for Christians like me to engage with confidence and compassion in a world of difference. This opportunity is captured in the verse that Tim Keller and I selected as the epigraph for our book, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference. In Ephesians 4, verses 1-2, the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love.”
Paul’s charge to Christians can also instruct anyone seeking greater empathy and understanding without minimizing significant differences. As I wrote in my contribution to Uncommon Ground:
Many of our differences matter a great deal, and to suggest otherwise is ultimately a form of relativism. But we can still choose to be gracious across those differences. When we demonize the other side, we miss important insights that can only be learned through charitably understanding a different perspective. We lose the possibility of finding common ground.
Seeking common ground not only advances common interests but also bridges relational distance, a lesson that I have learned through my friendship with Eboo Patel. Eboo and I speak, teach, and write together. We talk about each other’s backgrounds, families, and dreams. We debate theories of change and great books. We laugh at each other’s jokes—at least the first time we hear them. And we mourn together. After my father was diagnosed with cancer, Eboo checked in regularly with phone calls and texts. And when my dad died, Eboo was one of the first people to reach out to me. Eboo’s prayers are quite different from mine, but I am grateful when he prays for me.
My friendship with Eboo is one example of how we can find common ground with others even when we lack a shared understanding of the common good. My hope is that in the years to come more of us will also continue to pray for one another as we find common ground together. I am grateful for Eboo’s example, and for Interfaith America’s ongoing leadership as we work to live faithfully across our differences.
In the World
Today is a good day to highlight Eboo’s new book, We Need to Build.
This book has lots of insights about pluralism, difference, and interfaith work, all grounded in engaging stories (including the story of Eboo and me being protested a few years ago as we were talking about the importance of religious diversity on college campuses). I think you’ll find Eboo’s writing accessible and his ideas inspiring.
One More Thing
The careful reader of this post might be troubled by my expression of gratitude for Eboo’s “quite different” prayers. Indeed, I was asked this question by someone who read my chapter in Uncommon Ground (where I originally make this assertion). Is it theologically sound for me to do so? Does it undermine my claim at the beginning of this post that interfaith pluralism must not be relativistic?
As a Christian, the prayer that I understand to be “powerful and effective” (James 5:16) is that which is directed to God the Father (Matt. 6: 6-13) in the name of Jesus (John 16: 23-24) and for which Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:34) and the Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27) intercede. I’m quite confident that Eboo rejects this Trinitarian framework for prayer. So why I am I nonetheless grateful for his prayers?
First, I know that Eboo is sincere when he says he will pray for me, and that he does so because he cares about me. That itself is a beautiful expression of friendship at the core of what is most important to my friend. And that matters to me, as I hope that my prayers matter to him.
Second, I have a theological understanding of how God instructs Christians to pray, but I have no certainty that other kinds of prayers go unnoticed by God. If Scripture counsels that even the rocks will cry out in the absence of people praising Jesus (Luke 19:40), then I could imagine that God is also listening to the human beings He created in His image. I suppose I won’t know for sure in this lifetime, but I can be grateful nonetheless.
John, I appreciate your clear practice of what you have previously published. Also your pondering of whether God receives the prayers of people who worship other gods. 1 Samuel 5:12 would seem to invite such ponderings. "The cry of the [Philistine] city went up to heaven."