The Case for Multifaith Education

Interfaith Gathering

At Auburn Theological Seminary, where Rabbi Baird has been named the new Dean, joint seminars for Jewish and Christian students are becoming the norm.

As a rabbi who directs a multifaith center in a Christian seminary, I often get asked about multifaith education. People ask me, “What curriculum should I use?” or “How can we teach our students about other religions?” Even more often I am asked, “Do you know a Muslim I can invite to speak at our program?” But rarely am I asked, “Why should we be doing interfaith education at all?” A rabbinic colleague of mine put it to me this way: “I just can’t articulate why interfaith is important to focus on,” he said. “Other than making sure we can all just get along, why does this matter?” he asked. Let’s be honest: most of us know precious little about our own religious traditions, so why should we spend our valuable time learning about other faiths?

I do not embrace a “why don’t we all just get along” attitude toward interfaith work, and I do not believe that the world would be a better place if people of faith would just focus on a few so-called universal teachings from their religious traditions. I do not want there to be one religion in the world; in fact, I think that would be a disaster, and my own understanding of God’s will, which is rooted in Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Bible, is that God doesn’t want there to be one religion either.

The case for multifaith education stands on three things: the news, the pews, and religious views. First, the news.

News headlines are dominated by events that are, at least in part, the result of religious ignorance or misunderstanding. Consider the following news cycles, each of which has a significant interfaith component: the 2008 presidential race, including confusion over the religious background of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and the way both John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s pastors were part of the news coverage; international conflicts including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, saber rattling with Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each conflict colored by so-called fundamentalist Muslims; and a federal raid of a large compound in Texas run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, followed by an embarrassing reversal of many of the charges by the Texas Supreme Court. None of these stories was exclusively about religion, but each one had a religious component.

Because news stories like these are the primary source of information about other religious traditions for most Americans, it is not surprising that so many of us are misinformed or have biased opinions about people of different faiths. Is Judaism well represented by the news of a federal raid on the kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, or by stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is Christianity well represented by headlines about the various forms of sexual misconduct by its clergy? Religion’s high profile in the media puts the responsibility on religious leaders to offer quality instruction about other religious traditions to their flocks. If we don’t answer this call for multifaith learning, we will raise another generation of people of faith schooled in misunderstanding, stereotypes, and bias.

News stories are a constant reminder that religion and misunderstanding about religion play a role in conflict around the world. In places like the former Yugoslavia, India, Israel, Iraq, Iran, the Sudan, Myanmar, and Northern Ireland, conflict is fueled by the relations between faith communities. On 9/11 Americans learned that such conflict is not confined to foreign shores. Humanity’s ability to resolve conflict is in part predicated on our ability to create better understanding between peoples of faith; our own security—our physical safety—is directly related to building relations across religious divides.

Even news stories that appear to have nothing to do with religion are an impetus for multifaith education. Global warming, torture at Abu Ghraib, and poverty: injustices like these are opportunities for people of different faiths to engage in cooperative action to promote justice. The news is a daily reminder that the world remains a broken place. People of faith have a responsibility to take part in repairing the world by reaching across religious divides and working together on issues of shared concern. For all these reasons—the misunderstanding and bias created by learning about other faiths from the news, the role of religion in conflict that affects our security, and the reminder of injustices that demand cooperative action—the news is a major part of the case for multifaith education.

The second reason to engage in multifaith education is the pews. “Pews” refers to the religious diversity in our neighborhoods and in our congregations. Although reliable figures are hard to come by, many have claimed that the United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world. What is not disputed is the incredible growth of religious diversity in the United States since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. In 2008 researchers at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project listed more than 1,600 mosques, 2,200 Buddhist sanghas, 700 Hindu temples, and 250 Sikh gurdwaras in the United States. How many times have we driven by these structures in our own neighborhood without ever bothering to stop in?

The religious diversity in our neighborhoods spills over into the pews of our congregations. Each time I lead prayers or give a sermon in my own synagogue, I have to think about how the prayers or the sermon will be understood not only by my Jewish congregants but also by the many non-Jewish people in the room. These are not curious visitors—these are the partners and spouses of congregants, many of whom regularly come to the services. And almost half of the people in the pews of American congregations grew up in a different denomination: the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 44 percent of Americans have left the denomination of their childhood for another denomination, another faith, or no faith at all.

Most clergy find a wide variety of backgrounds represented in the pews: lifelong adherents, less affiliated newcomers shopping for a religious community, and people of a different faith altogether. Family members of different faiths turn up during a visit to the hospital, at weddings, and at funerals. Do clergy know enough about other religious traditions to serve nonadherents well? Do lay leaders know how to embrace people from other religious traditions without saying embarrassing things? Can congregations serve families made up of a variety of religious affiliations? To effectively serve our communities—to lead our congregations faithfully—we must have a better working knowledge of other faith traditions. 

The news and the pews are the two high-profile reasons for engaging in multifaith continuing education. The third reason, religious views, is more subtle and personal: engaging in multifaith education enriches one’s own faith. Those who spend time learning about different religious traditions report that they come to understand their own tradition better and that they are stretched to grow spiritually. A familiar maxim teaches that “to know one religion is to know none.” Religious traditions did not evolve in a vacuum—they are interrelated, and many aspects of our faith traditions cannot be understood without knowledge of other religions. Learning about other religions helps us make sense of our own. Encountering other faiths also directs our attention to muted theological strands in our own tradition. Religious practices or ideas that are strongly emphasized in one tradition may be more hidden in another. We can experience what theologian Krister Stendahl called “holy envy;” that is, we can appreciate new languages to praise God while being faithful to our own tradition.

No longer can we ignore the religious diversity that influences our world and reaches deep into our communities. Because of a great lack of education about other faiths, stereotypes and misunderstanding continue to proliferate, which fuels conflicts around the world and at home. Religious leaders and laypeople must better understand other faith traditions in order to serve their own communities and engage in righteous acts with others. And as we travel the path toward greater understanding of other religions, we will grow in our own relationship to God.

Excerpted from “Multifaith Continuing Education: Leading faithfully in a Religiously Diverse World” in A Lifelong Call to Learn (Reber and Roberts, eds., Alban Institute 2010).

Source: The Interfaith Observer

Photo Credit: The Interfaith Observer