The Common Good

Why Interfaith Work Does Not Equal Relativism

There is a line in the Riga Veda, a collection of ancient Hindu scripture, that says "Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names." I had heard of this before, but hadn't given it much thought before someone mentioned it last week at the Interfaith Youth Core's 6th annual conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. It was used to claim that interfaith work and dialogue was really all about relativism. Since returning from the conference, it's been just about all I've been able to think about.

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As a committed religious pluralist, I'm used to hearing the movement reduced to promoting relativism. That which would argue that the true nature of interfaith work lies in the sentiment of the Riga Veda, and that it is essentially a manner of saying "it's all good" in terms of the variances among the world's religions. They're pretty much all the same, right? It is largely due to this misconception that interfaith work is considered by some to be a less authentic form of faith-based activism because of the idea that it undermines individual religious traditions and ignores exclusive truth claims. So why isn't interfaith work just about relativism?

First of all, it's biblical. One of the great commandments to Christians is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). But who is our neighbor? When asked this, Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that a neighbor is anyone in our presence, whether they be known to us or a stranger. Moreover, God calls us to be the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). We are living in an age where people across the globe are killing each other to the soundtrack of prayer. We see it everyday on the news and in the media; religious conflicts are our immediate reality. But when Christ calls us to be the peacemakers, he's calling us to give life and integrity to our faith by engaging in interfaith action. It's a call to change the conversation from one of conflict to one of cooperation.

Second, it's pragmatic. For meaningful social progress to occur in our society and around the world, religious communities working together need to be part of the solution. Period.

Third, it strengthens our capacity to love and know one another in a way that deepens our connection to the Divine. Several times over the course of the conference I was asked by other participants "Why interfaith?" as if to suggest "why not just stick with purely Christian activism?" Beyond the pragmatic benefits of having more comprehensive, diverse coalitions, what is the spiritual value in engaging with people from other faiths?

In true IFYC fashion, I answered by telling my story. I spoke of spending Friday night after Friday night at my Jewish best friend's house from the time I was 12 years old, sharing Shabbat with her family, and the peace that came to rest in my heart from being blessed by her parents- always in the form of a little kiss on the forehead and a whispered "shalom" in my ear. I spoke of the strength and comfort I received from my Hindu friends who took time off from their classes to go to the Temple and pray for my father's spirit when he passed away. Through telling my story I wanted to show how by entering into deep relationship with each other, we come to realize that the full nature of the Divine is infinitely bigger than our own experience, and the non-Christians of the world can in fact teach us a lot about God. In reflecting back on all the years I've spent with these friends, I realized how much closer I had grown to God from getting to know how God is God in them.

As faithful Christians we should reflect on this and make ourselves available to all that God reveals. As activists, I call our attention to a popular song that says it better than I ever could: "I'm a movement by myself, but I'm a force when we're together. I'm good all by myself, but you make me better." It's the truth. God is still speaking, and doing so through every soul we encounter.

portrait-alexis-vaughanAlexis Vaughan is a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and former Sojourners intern.

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