The Increasing Relevance of the Global Interfaith Movement

by Patrice Brodeur

Interfaith1 dialogue across the diversity of religious identities has moved from the margins of Western society in 1893 to multiple centers of power worldwide within slightly more than one hundred years. What was once a concept has now become a global interfaith movement. Awareness of this reality emerged internationally in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, starting with the overwhelming interfaith responses to the call by President Bush to mourn the victims of these terrorist acts publicly on Friday, September 14th. On that day, the interfaith movement became common public knowledge in the United States. Simultaneously, around the world the need for interfaith dialogue was identified as an urgent solution to counterbalance extremist religious violence. The global interfaith movement had suddenly moved to the center stage of world attention.

What are the main characteristics of this global interfaith movement? And what are the new challenges and opportunities to increase its relevance in light of this recent move from the margins to many of the centers of power worldwide? In this article, I will suggest brief answers to these two questions, recognizing the provisional and limited nature of my suggestions.

A brief overview of the global interfaith movement can reveal at least six main characteristics. First, there is a unique history out of which this movement emerged with one social location: Chicago. Much later, especially after WWII, a set of interconnected social locations developed first in the West and then worldwide. Second, the uniqueness of the interfaith movement lies predominantly at a perceptual level, that is, dialogue affects our perceptions regarding identity similarities and differences. Attitudes, especially regarding religious others, are transformed from the old historical places of mistrust and fear that have generated centuries of polemical and apologetic forms of discourse at the heart of religious violence, to open spaces of self-discovery triggered by personal human encounters that lead to deep personal spiritual transformation and new levels of trust with others. This trust is what then allows for collective interfaith endeavors of cooperation to emerge to address the common needs of humanity. Third, the exponential growth of the interfaith movement in recent years is happening within a new emerging network culture, which is the result of the revolution in information technology. Fourth, this network culture shapes the diversity of forms (methodologies) and contents (goals) of every inter-religious organization. Fifth, the new self-awareness which participants in this interfaith movement have of themselves within its widespread reality is glocal in nature, that is, the awareness is a reflection of a complex process of perception that integrates various local and global variables. Finally, traditional centers of power in human decision-making have taken notice of this new human phenomenon and have often responded creatively, thus increasing the relevance of the global interfaith movement.

The history of the global interfaith movement harks back to one social location, Chicago, where was hosted the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions as part of its World's Columbian Exposition. This unique location in space and time is the beginning point for the modern interfaith movement. What is less well known is how a new attitude of non-proselytizing came to prevail during the Parliament in an otherwise conservative Christian milieu. Several factors coincided to create this new space, three of which are: the new travel technologies resulting from the industrial revolution; the new philosophies, both political and theological, that emerged from the growing Western scientific discourse; and the new colonial discoveries about the diversity of human cultures. The idea of World Fairs combined all of these factors. Yet one factor in particular made the Chicago parliament unique within the history of Word Fairs: its American social location allowed new forms of religious explorations, such as the new concept of interfaith dialogue, because of the social impact of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It was often easier for progressive thinkers in the United States to retain their own religious identity and practices while exploring new (to them) forms of religious world views. This attitude of open exploration is what guided key organizers of the 1893 Parliament to insist on creating a space where traditional Christian proselytizing was not acceptable and a wide range of invitations were sent out, even attracting one Buddhist monk from Japan, a young Hindu swami from India (the famous Vivekananda), and an American convert to Islam, among many others. Yet, this openness had real limits too since indigenous peoples were part of exotic displays on the outside mall rather than on the Parliament" s inside stage to dialogue with all the invited participants.

The Chicago Parliament of the World's Religions was a historic event of great importance for the future of religious tolerance and new concepts of religious pluralism in the world. The Parliament indirectly paved the way for the establishment of all interfaith organizations, starting in Boston in 1900, with the first proto-multi-religious organization, which is known today as the International Association for Religious Freedom. Others followed: World Congress of Faiths (London, 1936), Temple of Understanding (New York, 1962), the World Conference on Religion and Peace (Tokyo, 1970), etc.

The emergence of  WCRP reflected a paradigm shift in organizational culture within the expanding interfaith movement. There was a new post-colonial international reality in the interfaith movement, although it still remained mostly elitist and visionary. The three-year gestation process out of which WCRP was created exemplified the then new reality of multiple social locations out of which its leadership emerged. This diversity of origins may explain, in part, how WCRP later became the most important interreligious organization judging from its number of national chapters and its large membership, which includes the highest levels of religious leadership in major world religions. I came to discover these multiple social locations through conversations with many of WCRP's founding religious leaders when I was the WCRP international youth coordinator (1989-1994).

In a 1993 conversation with Dr. Aram, past moderator of WCRP/international (1989-1994), I discovered that his role as a prominent Gandhian activist in India complemented that of New Delhi's Archbishop Angelo Fernandes, a leading figure promoting interreligious dialogue during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Both had a strong sense that a unique context for interreligious cooperation had developed in India as a result of Gandhian non-violent pressures to put an end to the British colonial occupation of South Asia. This particular history had shaped key Indian religious figures, many of whom then took a leadership role in developing WCRP. By contrast, my conversations with WCRP Japanese religious leaders, from the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist lay movement as well as from the Shinto Konko Church of Izuo, uncovered a different story. As a result of the devastating effects of the nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a vigorous anti-nuclear movement developed in Japan, fostering new forms of interreligious cooperation. This reality created the fertile grounds out of which key religious leaders such as the Founding President Nikkyo Niwano and Founding Rev. Miyake emerged, both being opened and financially ready to commit to hosting the first WCRP World Assembly in 1970. A third version of WCRP's genesis story came from a conversation I had a year later with Dr. Homer Jack, an American Unitarian-Universalist who became the first WCRP secretary-general (1970-1984). He recounted how the American Reform Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath and Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, architect of the then new Unitarian-Universalist Association founded in 1962, led a joint search to find kindred spirits worldwide who opposed, in the name of their own religious commitments, the increasing violence of the Vietnam war within the broader geo-politics of the Cold War. According to this version, Americans were at the forefront of what led to the multi-continental and multi-religious cooperation at the basis of WCRP's inception. In addition, I later heard wind of European and Turkish versions of this gestation period that led to an unprecedented high level of multi-religious cooperation to protest the Vietnam War in particular and the Cold War in general. The various leaders of this new and historic multi-religious cooperation all felt the urgent need to promote more than theological dialogue: their dialogue had to promote concrete actions towards peace and non-violence.

These multiple claims to owning the "genesis story" of WCRP reflect a beautiful example of how an idea that is ripe can simultaneously appear in different social locations, in the same way that the history of science has often demonstrated a similar phenomenon of simultaneity in scientific discoveries. Out of this powerful synergy of multiple social locations emerged an economically fledgling but truly international organization. The spirit of ownership which so many of WCRP's founders carried up to the time of their deaths impressed me greatly. It sustained the organization through many ups and downs caused by a combination of internal and external factors.

The visionary WCRP founders struggled to encompass their radically different visions of how an interreligious movement for peace could be best fostered worldwide, starting with the place of the grassroots membership among the top religious leadership which gave birth to the organization. The internal tension between visions of grassroots versus so-called "top-town" methodologies to promote social action for peace remain to this day part of the sociological reality among the members of the WCRP family worldwide. More complex differences in specific religious visions also affect internally the organization.

Side by side with this one WCRP example of how international interreligious organizations have developed as part of the growing INGO trend globally, often reflecting the power dynamics within the international community with all of its unexamined nation-state imbalances, it is important historically to mention the parallel and on-going development of a variety of grassroots organizations that often tried to side-step the nation-state structures. These emerged in many parts of the world, especially during the 1980s. But it is not until the personal computer revolution in the 1990s and the emergence of the internet a few years later that this impetus began to affect the balance of power within the interfaith movement.

The first revolution accelerated the last minute success of the 1993 centennial celebrations of the first Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago and reinforced the centrality of the role of the USA in promoting the interfaith movement globally. Both Chicago's social location at a time when the USA was more advanced technologically and its temporal location in a new post-Cold War role for a triumphant USA ideology of liberalism underpinned the early development of the locally based yet internationally oriented interreligious organization called the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.

The Internet revolution greatly helped launch another new international interreligious organization, the United Religions Initiative, even though it was widely considered to be superfluous by major established interreligious organizations when it started as a result of the 50th anniversary of the UN in San Francisco in 1995. The URI used this new methodology of appreciative inquiry and combined it with a new method of human communication. It galvanized a new kind of energy within the interfaith movement, resulting a decade later in one of the most dynamic grassroots global interfaith organizations, one that is methodologically at the opposite end of WCRP.

In brief, it is possible to draw a parallel between the emergence and development of WCRP within a new modern post-colonial culture of international politics in the late twentieth century, focused initially on trying to be both grassroots and high level at once, and the emergence twenty-five years later of URI within a post-modern network culture. These two examples, to take but the two most contrasting ones, help exemplify how the linguistic, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of social locations, whether local, global, or increasingly glocal, affect the nature of every interreligious organization in particular and the interfaith movement in general.

The greatest impact of the global interfaith movement, however, remains in the realm of personal transformation. At times, stunning examples of institutional change have derived from deep internal transformation, such as the role of Pope John XXIII in calling the Second Vatican Council resulting, even after his death, in the radically new relationship between Roman Catholics and Jews. This interreligious initiative was celebrated last month in the Vatican with the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Nostra Aetate Declaration on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions.

Whatever else the interfaith movement is involved in, from clarifying different religious world views intellectually to active social engagement of all kinds to promote peace and social justice, its uniqueness lies in how individual encounters across traditional divides, using a broad variety of methodologies, transform individual practitioners from within by humanizing the other. Whether carried out through sophisticated theological exchange or through informal sharing of hospitality stories, for example, the dialogical process is deeply transformative personally. It bridges the many gaps of misunderstanding between religious people and can alleviate centuries of fears or mistrust. These personal encounters, when experienced by an increasing number of individuals, are what make possible subsequent institutional changes in terms of theology, politics, and social cooperation on the ground. Our perceptions of religious others turn from old stereotypes at best and vilification at worst to tolerance at first, respect later, and even holy envy, without necessarily causing any conversion, except that of the heart. In this dialogic process, we increasingly learn how to love others through deeper respect for our differences. Our transformed perceptions and attitudes towards religious similarities and differences result in being able to move away from the old patterns of mistrust and fear that have generated centuries of polemical and apologetic discourse underlying the sporadic outburst of violence historically, to open spaces of self and collective discovery triggered by personal human encounters. These, in turn, can lead to deep personal spiritual transformation from which stems new levels of trust that allow for collective endeavors of cooperation to address our manifold human concerns.

The exponential growth of the global interfaith movement in recent years has greatly benefited from the new emerging network culture resulting from the revolution in information technology. It is not only that new interreligious organizations have emerged, as in the case of the URI. It is safe to say that a vast majority of interreligious organizations now use personal computers, even if only a few individuals may have access to them in technologically poor areas. In fact, even though the information technology may facilitate the exchange of information and even help put individuals in contact with each other in cyber space, the face to face human encounter remains the methodological foundation of all interfaith work at all levels of society. At the same time, all interreligious organizations are learning to adapt to this emerging network culture and the impact it has on how they communicate and cooperate with each other.

In order to increase the relevance of the global interfaith movement given our current geo-politics in a post 9/11 world, I would like to suggest four interrelated priorities. The first priority is to foster greater cooperation between religious communities and international organizations, especially those working within the UN system, by strengthening interreligious organizations. They are best suited to respond to the fact that while the last decade saw the consolidation of a secular global discourse on the fate of humanity on earth, the world's religious communities still need to find their respective ways to become partners in taking responsibility for our collective human future. The United Nations has led the way in producing or stimulating the production of international declarations that have created global standards by which to measure our collective progress towards the Common Good. An example of direct production is the foundational UNICEF declaration "A World Fit for Children" that emerged in 2002 to link the 1989 "Convention on the Rights of the Child" to the "Millennium Development Goals." An example of indirect production is the Earth Charter which developed out of the broadest possible consultative process at all levels of society over more than a decade of concerted efforts by all kinds of individual and multi-sectorial institutional dialogue, including UN agencies related to environmental concerns such as UNEP. Many conversational partners have now turned to the next task: educating the world about the Earth Charter and implementing the global changes necessary for our collective human survival.

Given that religious institutions with their countless Mosques, Churches, Mosques, Temples, Gurdwaras, Synagogues, and all other kinds of sacred places of worship constitute the largest human network, is it not logical and most appropriate for them to be included in the dissemination of these new global standards? Both international organizations and religious institutions need to foster an integration between their respective traditional educational and social efforts. While each religious community is required to take direct responsibility for this urgent task, is it not more effective to empower interreligious organizations to help them achieve this goal? The United Nations, or any other international institution for that matter, can hardly address effectively the multiple demands coming from the numerous separate religious communities. Yet, through collective efforts such as those resulting from the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN or those at the heart of the identity of interreligious organizations, religious institutions can participate more effectively in UN processes as well as benefit from many UN services.

A different mix of challenges and opportunities exist at the grassroots level. The richest example potentially comes from Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the World Social Forum started in 2001. This now annual event prompted others around the world, whether global in nature (Mumbai, 2004) or local (Boston to coincide with the 2004 Democratic Convention). This new phenomenon reflects our emerging network culture as thousands of NGOs and INGOs gather to express their voice through a grassroots process that celebrates the empowerment of civil society. Because of its different social location in time (early 21st c.) and space (the South, Brazil) in comparison to older international organizations, the culture of WSF promotes cooperative relationships that avoid the secular/religious divide rooted historically in the Western philosophical Enlightenment paradigm.

The secular bias of most major international organizations forming the back bone of the "international community" needs to be carefully balanced by a stronger effort at integrating multiple religious partners in their respective efforts. For example, the World Bank under the leadership of its president James Wolfensohn has been engaged for several years already in conversations on "Faith and Development" with both religious and interreligious organizations. Many other leading international organizations, especially those directly engaging people on the ground, are nurturing such dialogues and developing creative cooperation, from Amnesty International to the Scouting Movement. While the initially grassroots Millennium Debt Relief efforts were not successful immediately, they have set the stage for new levels of interaction and cooperation between grassroots and international organizations, with religious and interreligious organizations having played an important prophetic and mediating role.

While there is no consensus across the diversity of religious world views as to what a common vision of peace might be and while the dialogue at increasing understanding on this front is necessary, the more urgent task is surely to improve religious individual and institutional participation in achieving the new global standards. This is where the challenge of increasing the relevance of the S.I.M. comes in and questions regarding the unique role of interreligious organizations to promote such cooperation resurface.

The second priority for the interfaith movement is to become more effective at translating the new international discourse of standards into a language that speaks to the respective religious visions of peace that religious communities have been fostering for centuries if not millennia. The emphasis here is not on asking religious communities, through their respective and very different processes of decision-making, to blindly jump on the band-wagon of implementing global standards in which many feel they have had little or no role in shaping. The approach is a more empowering one: religious communities need to take leadership at translating within their own communities what these global standards mean within their own religious languages. Adapting the global standards so that they can be understood for different age group at various educational level needs to be complemented with the process of adapting them also to the faith language of each community. For the international organizations that are ill-equipped for this task, interreligious organizations can make available their own expertise at creating dialogical spaces where this translation process can take place interreligiously, thereby helping each religious community take ownership of the process of adapting them to their own respective world views and needs.

This second priority calls for a third one: the consolidation of flexible and inclusive structures for the interfaith movement. This task requires inter-organizational cooperation in a two-step process. Interreligious organizations need first to dialogue with each other to define their own respective identities. This first part will result in better articulation of their respective visions, missions, and goals. Similar to the transformative power of the dialogical process for sharpening an individual's own self-identity, I would argue that collective organizational identities can also be strengthened through this first process of organizational clarification. In other words, the process of understanding our individual religious identity is parallel to that of understanding our organizational identity. Both are improved through honest participation in dialogue.

The second step in this dialogical process is not aimed at organizational self-understanding but at developing mutual understanding as to where the overlapping areas of our respective organizational identities lie because that is where the old spirit of competition raises its head, mistrust and fears multiply, and our collective effectiveness erodes. There is nothing more damaging to the collective effectiveness of the global interfaith movement than the message we send out to the broad public when, after scratching under the surface of our respective public images, the inquisitive critique discovers the relative lack of cooperation among international interreligious organizations. The peace agenda we claim to share to a large degree in our interreligious talks is not always translated into interreligious walks.

International interreligious organizations need to be more actively engaged in this two-step process in order to define transparently their respective organizational identities and relations to each other. This greater clarity can, in turn, allow the interfaith movement to develop a more coherent common agenda based on true cooperation. In other words, the comparative advantage of the whole interfaith movement will never become clear to either non-religious or exclusivist religious people until cooperation in defining the comparative advantage of each interreligious organization is done. For example, if CPWR has developed an expertise at what I call "big tent" events during which a variety of semi-independent events can take place, why would not all international interreligious organizations use that expertise to help them convene "their own" smaller events within the flexible walls of the CPWR umbrella tent? Because of the infrequent nature of this kind of big-tent event, no organization would loose control over its own identity for that short period of time; yet, they would all foster greater cooperation both within the global interfaith movement and without. Religious leaders who are solicited from all sides would have less demands on their time from all the different interreligious organizations and would more likely attend this one large event once every five years because it would gather a meaningful audience, both in quality and in quantity. The same kind of arguments could also be used to attract the greatest leaders of other sectors of society. This approach would lead to the kind of serious multi-sectorial dialogue which is starting to emerge here and there, as in the earlier case of the World Bank but also that of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The potential for increasing the relevance of the global interfaith movement must go through improving inter-organizational cooperation following the principle of interdependence, a principle to be integrated more fully in each respective organizational behaviors. The example of the Oxford is a powerful step in this direction.

The third priority is to clarify the purpose behind consolidating flexible and inclusive structures for the global interfaith movement. This intellectual clarification is threefold: philosophical, ethical, and psychological. It is not sufficient to identify the principle of interdependence, for example, and assume that all religious and interreligious organizations will automatically accept it and adjust to the implications this concept has on their internal structures and cultures of decision-making. Philosophically, the diverse world views represented within the global interfaith movement raise major inter- and intra-religious challenges because of long histories of internal conflicts often linked to other-than-religious yet intrinsically intertwined identities and ideologies. Ethically, while the Global Ethics project of Dr. Hans Kung is a major step in the right direction, it does not provide enough guidance as to why it would be good to come to some consensus about how to foster these structures. This conversation, helped also by the CPWR "Call to Our Guiding Institution", is urgently needed so interreligious organizations can apply this new global wisdom reflexively.

The fourth priority is to develop jointly the assessment standards by which we can judge the effectiveness of the various interreligious organizations on the ground. This last priority can only be addressed after the other three have been sufficiently underway because it requires prior clarification of organizational identity and purpose as well as experimentation with the emerging cooperation that would come out the new flexible and inclusive structures of inter-organizational dialogue. The development of these assessment tools and their use for increasing the effectiveness of each interreligious organizations will, in turn, greatly increase the relevance of the global interfaith movement.

In conclusion, now that the global interfaith movement has made its way into many centers of power around the world, there remains a central question: why are international interreligious organizations not more sustainable economically given their crucial role at promoting tolerance and respect to counterbalance the inroads of discursive and physical violence in the face of so much injustice? The global interfaith movement faces a chicken-and-egg situation: developing sustainable interfaith activities requires funds and fundraising requires a sustainable vision based on a combination of proven effectiveness and weathered relevancy. By addressing the above four priorities on the basis of my earlier analysis of useful vignettes in the history of the interfaith movement, I hope to have contributed my share of ideas towards the urgent need of developing together this sustainable vision for the global interfaith movement. Only when this vision will be clear and owned jointly by the leaders of all major international interreligious organizations will each organization attract more easily the visionary donors and main public actors of our world, privately and publicly, individually and institutionally, who will then commit personally to participating and funding our different yet complementary visions, missions, and goals. Countless individuals involved at the various levels of decision-making worldwide still need to be convinced that investment in the global interfaith movement, when done in cooperation with religious institutions and interreligious organizations, is an urgent priority to counter various forms of intolerance leading to the injustices that fuel violence.

My own assessment of the global interfaith movement reveals a treasure-trove of successful examples that promote peace and justice, at all levels of society, from the often inexperienced yet enthusiastic youth that sometimes move mountains to the often apprehensive yet wisest elders that often do. In a nutshell, the unfolding quiet revolution nurtured by the global interfaith movement can be equated, in terms of its potential growing impact on our collective social well-being on earth, to the impact the revolution in biological sciences is beginning to have on our personal physical health or the impact the information revolution is already having on the quality of our human communications. So . . . Carpe Diem!


1. There is disagreement about whether one should use the word "interfaith" or "interreligious." In this paper, I will use "interfaith" to help blend in with the predominant usage in this issue. However, I prefer keeping "interreligious" for qualifying the word "organization." This linguistic tension historically reflects the preponderant and often competing role of Western Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianities in shaping and promoting this dialogue movement worldwide.

* I am grateful to the Rockefeller Foundation and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame for granting me the sabbatical time and space to write this article.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2005, Vol. 55,  No 1.