by Eboo Patel

In the rush to denounce Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis, progressive religious intellectuals forgot that, at bottom, Huntington was repeating the argument that we have been making for decades. It runs like this: What matters most to most people is religious identity; people who share religious traditions have, over the course of history, grouped together to form cultures and civilizations; different cultures and civilizations are now in more frequent and intense contact than ever before; the nature of these interactions will play a decisive role in shaping our future. It was Huntington's conclusions that we took issue with—namely, that civilizations are inevitably at odds with one another and that the only chance for a stable and liberal world order is the continued domination of the West. The problem of our historical moment is that the corridors of power are filled by people who have downplayed the parts of Huntington's theory that we agree with and are mobilizing military power behind the parts we disagree with.

But there is a brighter side here, accompanied by a unique opportunity. Finally, people are beginning to take our subject matter seriously. No longer are cultural and religious identity issues on the margins while the study of science, the market and the state take center stage. Huntington caused people to read The New York Times differently, essentially saying, 'Listen, this inter-group violence you keep seeing on the front pages is not a random, fleeting occurrence. It is part of a larger pattern of history that has come to dominate our age.'

So what do progressive religious intellectuals do now that our issue is being talked about? My proposal is that we build a field of 'interfaith studies'. Undergraduate religion majors now concentrate in eastern religions or the history of religions, why not interfaith studies? One can earn a masters degree in urban studies or community development, why not interfaith studies? While there are a handful of inter-religious relations programs at seminaries and universities, both in North America and Europe, these programs are viewed as novelties. Our goal should be to make interfaith studies a standard part of the academy.

Interfaith studies would examine the multiple dimensions of how religious individuals, groups, cultures and civilizations interact with one another, and the implications for communities, civil society and global politics. Clearly, it would be an interdisciplinary field. A psychologist might research how individuals who grow up in a religiously homogenous environment experience and cope with moving to religiously diverse surroundings. A political scientist could study why some nations have been more effective in absorbing religious minorities than others, or why politics is dominated by religion in some states and not in others (or perhaps the relationship between the two). A historian would draw parallels between the relatively tolerant empires of medieval Islam and contemporary North America. A sociologist might look at the role religious institutions play in assimilating immigrants. Philosophers might compare paradigms of pluralism, theologians would elucidate how to be Christian or Muslim or Jewish amongst 'others', professors of art and literature could choose to examine any of a thousand great works that have been created at the crossroads of religious imaginations.

Without a doubt, research projects such as these abound in the academy. But they are disconnected—published in separate journals and discussed independent of one another at different conferences and in isolated departments. Academic fields are useful because they are formal spaces for a group of colleagues to engage in long-term data gathering, sustained reflection and extended discussion. It is a question not only of collecting things, but connecting them, and cooperating together to decide what they might mean. Consider similar areas that have become fields, gathering scholars from different disciplines to collect and connect—urban studies, human and family studies, education, community development, social work. Important areas all, and each deserving of a formal space. And undoubtedly, the question of how religious entities interact is equally deserving.

Cooperating together to collect and connect data are steps towards illuminating the dynamic at hand, and ultimately, changing it. I vividly remember conversations between the psychologists, sociologists, historians and philosophers in the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University, where I did my graduate work, on the ultimate question that their various research projects were addressing—how to improve schooling. The parallel discussion in interfaith studies would be on how to encourage positive relations between different religious communities.

Education, urban studies, social work and the other fields mentioned above have significant applied dimensions. Similarly, in addition to gathering scholars to research the questions, interfaith studies would train practitioners to implement solutions. They would acquire a broad, multidisciplinary knowledge-base relating to the interaction of religious communities—the history of immigration that led to the United States being a religiously diverse society; the political philosophy of building a participatory, pluralist democracy; the sociology of how religious groups develop identities when in close contact with religious 'others'. And they would learn practical skills, like methodologies of working within the organizational structures of different religious communities and languages to engage faith issues in a religiously diverse public square. Not unlike a masters in urban studies or community development, these practitioners would play a crucial role in religious, nonprofit and governmental institutions worldwide, doing everything from strengthening civil society by creating interfaith councils to advising immigrants on how to build religious institutions to resolving conflicts between faith groups.

The first institutions who should hire interfaith specialists are faith communities. Not only as staff members who know how to relate to other religious communities (many religious institutions currently have an 'Interfaith Officer' on staff), but also as people who can help Lutherans or Catholics or Jews articulate their religious identity in a world of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (and vice versa). In other words, people versed in interfaith studies are not only useful at the boundaries between faith communities, but within them as well, helping those communities develop identities that are rooted in their own distinct histories but in relationship with those who believe, behave and belong differently.

This issue of CrossCurrents is a sampling of the diversity and richness of such a field. In the tradition of CrossCurrents, these pieces are not academic articles but insightful essays meant to highlight important developments in a critical area. Martin Marty sets the context with an excerpt from his new book, When Faiths Collide. Tony Campolo discusses how evangelicals should engage other religions, while Grove Harris articulates what's at stake when including (or excluding) Wiccans from interfaith work. Christina Wright writes about how a Methodist girl from small-town America became one of the national leaders in the student interfaith movement, and Dana Graef, a Buddhist, discusses the model of Princeton University's interfaith student group. Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf traces the history of tolerance in both Muslim and Western societies.

Imam Rashied Omar and William Vendley discuss the role of interfaith work in peacemaking, Patrice Brodeur traces the history of the interfaith movement and suggests priorities for cooperation between interfaith organizations and international institutions. Leo Lefebure discusses the emerging field of interfaith education, using the Dalai Lama as an exemplar. There is an essay, by me, and a series of responses by a diverse group of prominent religious studies scholars, on whether the focus of the interfaith movement should be on issues of justice or on building relationships between different communities. Finally, Kevin Coval's poetry provides new eyes, and renewed inspiration, for the work ahead. Forty years ago, Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote that the problem of our age "is for us all to learn to live together with our seriously different traditions not only in peace but in some sort of mutual trust and mutual loyalty." Samuel Huntington, peculiarly enough, has provided us with an occasion to institutionalize research, reflection and action on that all-important issue. Let us take advantage of this Huntingtonian moment build Cantwell Smith's dream.

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