Interreligious Heroes – Role Models and Spiritual Exemplars for Interfaith Practice

interreligious Heroes - Role Models and Spiritual Exemplars for Interfaith Practice

The Elijah institute announces a new book in the Interreligious Reflections series, presenting inspirational leaders in Interreligious relations. This volume was conceived as a tribute to Elijah board member and contemporary interreligious hero, Rabbi David Rosen, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.

INTERRELIGIOUS HEROES – Role Models and Spiritual Exemplars for Interfaith Practice

This book brings together 43 premier faith leaders from six religious traditions.

These leaders were asked:
a. Who is a figure who inspires your interfaith work?
b. How does this figure inspire you, and what lessons, applications, and concrete expressions has this inspiration taken in your life?

The result is a stunning overview of the interfaith movement, its history, role models and heroes. Historical presentation complements the personal and experiential voice of the authors, making this not only a work for interfaith education but also a resource for spiritual inspiration.

The project was conceived as a tribute to Elijah board member and contemporary interreligious hero, Rabbi David Rosen, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.

Sharing Wisdom

Shared here are some snippets from book editor Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s summary of the book. These give a taste of some of the themes, some of the authors and why the ways in which Interreligious Heroes can be inspiring for all.

Some themes have struck me as they have appeared time and again across multiple essays. To these I now turn.

The first of these is friendship. It is striking how centrally friendship and personal relations feature across the project. Transformations occur as a consequence of personal relations. Friendship provides the fuel for advancing interfaith growth and understanding, in all its expressions. The notables of the history of interreligious engagement are all described as having had formative and transformative friendships. That some essays do not feature this dimension does not mean it was lacking in the hero’s life. It may speak to the limitations of space or the specific focus an author chose to give. We know enough of many of those individuals to know that is not the case. Friendship, I submit, is a major dimension in the formation of an interreligious hero. It may seem trivial, but nevertheless worth stating, that an important key to David Rosen’s own success in this field is his capacity to develop friendships over decades and across religions. This is one of the major points that emerges from Sharon’s description of David’s path in the interfaith world.

A second point of note has to do with the attributes of an interfaith hero, or of interfaith heroes, inasmuch as not all heroes will feature all attributes. Across all sub-categories of the book, authors describe not only ideas, achievements, and historical processes. These are supported and have their counterpart in the description of the characteristics, personality traits, and even spiritual attributes of the interreligious heroes. I would not want to put forward the suggestion that the more attributes there are, the higher an individual scores on a purported interreligious hero ladder. More simply, it is enough to suggest that character traits are essential to the making of a hero. This seems a sensible proposition in relation to any hero, whatever the domain. The characteristics that are relevant to the making of an interreligious hero may have specificity of their own, in view of the task at hand.

It is therefore worth considering the kinds of traits that authors have put forth. What follows is suggestive and does not seek to be exhaustive of all fine personality traits and characteristics that have been surveyed in this book. It is enough that we recognize that heroic virtues are part of the making of an interfaith hero. I begin with simple Menschlichkeit, the Yiddish term for being a thoughtful, considerate, and caring human being. Debbie Weissman profiles this as one of the qualities of Blu Greenberg. I think it is broader in scope. While heroes can be eccentric and at times even defy commonly practiced ideal virtues, there is an even stronger case to be made for forming human relationships as a virtue constitutive of interreligious heroes. After all, constructing bridges across religions involves creating relationships. The human and relational element is thus key.

Several essays feature clearly the heroic attributes. Cardinal Parolin devotes a section in his essay to the character qualities of Cardinal Bea. As he notes, “Cardinal Bea exemplified several attitudes essential to interreligious dialogue.” The attitudes he describes are broken down into pairs, holding within each pair a constructive tension. These include stability and flexibility, humility and determination, patient tenacity and courageous process. I note that they are also very applicable to David Rosen. In fact, his involvement in the drafting of multiple interfaith statements and his long-term investment in bringing about change in a variety of multilateral relationships and advancing global causes from an interfaith perspective is in some ways similar in type to the tasks that lay before Cardinal Bea. One therefore notices the parallels in character traits that are required for successful realization of such tasks.

Another interfaith hero who has been engaged in long-term processes, the drafting of key texts, and the quest to advance a broad-based multireligious effort for the common good is Hans Küng. Ahmed Abbadi constructs his presentation of Küng in terms of ten heroic virtues. A review of these traits, extracted from Abbadi’s essay, is a fascinating exercise in imagining heroic behavior, especially as it applies to the interfaith arena. The qualities listed by Abbadi are courage, honesty, humility, vision, scorching clarity, functional action, intellectual effort, invitation (to others), optimism, perseverance.

I am struck by how much overlap there is between this description and that offered by Cardinal Parolin. I imagine the dimensions described by Abbadi could have equally been applied to Cardinal Bea and likely to many other workers in the field of interfaith. They are then the stuff from which interreligious heroes are made. Cardinal Koch refers to the distinction alluded to in the introduction between imitable and inimitable characteristics of great individuals. With reference to Pope John Paul II, he recognizes his charisma as an inimitable quality.

Nevertheless, the working assumption is that others can learn from his chosen hero. He therefore proceeds to suggest qualities in this interreligious hero that can inform the person and work of others. Here are his suggestions, and these take us into slightly different ground than the characteristics we have already encountered. These include openness and esteem towards others, interest in the other (one might say curiosity), empathy, fearlessness, courage, trust in God, and trust in the other. I find this a beautiful and inspiring list of qualities. It hits me personally in what seems to me precisely the way that the person and work of interreligious heroes should inspire others.

Speaking of popes, it is not without interest to note some original attributes suggested by Therese Martine Andrevon Gottstein in her description of Pope John XXIII. Here we come across a fundamental love of humanity (possibly akin to the Menschlichkeit cited above), intellectual greed (in other words, an avaricious desire for knowledge), interior freedom, indifference to opinions (mockery) of others, obsession with peace, and, finally, simplicity and patience.

As we look at these qualities they all make sense. They are somehow appropriate for individuals who seek to bring about change and peace and to advance understanding between religions. The point is not to establish a definitive list. Rather, it is to point to a domain that provides the foundation for interreligious heroism, the person and his or her attributes. In fact, it is these attributes that account for why being an interreligious hero is a spiritual reality or achievement. It is not only because the individual is working in the domain of religion. It is because, in order to realize the vision and mission of an interreligious hero, in all the variety that we recognize belongs to the category, one must manifest traits that depend on one’s spiritual quality and are expressive of it.

The spiritual life is therefore the foundation of the work of the interreligious hero. I would add that work in the interreligious domain in turn enhances and deepens the spiritual life of the practitioner. Spiritual growth and interreligious action and engagement dialectically reinforce each other. As we touch on the more explicitly spiritual domain, I would like to mention points made with reference to two individuals described in our collection. Archbishop Pizzaballa studies Abraham Joshua Heschel, an important instance of an interreligious hero chosen from another tradition. I was struck by his description of Heschel as someone who possessed a “profound unity that he demonstrates in himself and that he tries to achieve for others: a complete man, in the biblical sense of undivided.” Pizzaballa goes on to tell us that identity is grounded in faith, understood as a profound relationship with God, prior to any religious affiliation.

This is a powerful statement relating to the religious moorings that make interfaith engagement truly a matter of faith. Among the several hundred occurrences of the term faith in our collection, most use the term as synonymous with religion. Only a handful relate to faith as a foundational dimension of the religious life. I believe this quote is the only one to bring to light the depth of the recognition that the ideal or heroic practice of interfaith must be grounded in deep faith, understood in the way Pizzaballa proposes.

Interreligious Heroes
Role Models and Spiritual Exemplars for Interfaith Practice
Interreligious Reflections Series

Edited by Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Imprint: Wipf and Stock
450 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 x 0.90 in
Published: October 2021

Published: October 2021

Published: October 2021

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interreligious Heroes - Role Models and Spiritual Exemplars for Interfaith Practice