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The unavoidable need for religious dialogue | INTERFAITH
Of all the things that have changed in human history in the past century, one of the more significant has been the role and meaning of religion in our lives and how we manage our religious identity.
Not too long ago most of us lived in religious ghettos, mostly cut off from those who thought differently about the nature and involvement of a Higher Power in our lives. Christians from different denominations or ethnic communities, for instance, did not fraternize. An interfaith marriage in the early and middle parts of the 20th century meant a Swedish Lutheran married a German Lutheran.
There were high costs for stepping out of those religious ghettos.
My grandfather was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church and emigrated to the U.S. from Greece at the age of 17.
Several years later, he fell in love with my grandmother, a woman of Irish descent. When my grandfather announced to his Greek community in East St. Louis, Illinois, that he wanted to marry a Catholic he was told by his family and faith community that they would banish him, and they did.
My grandparents’ openness to each other despite growing up in different religious meaning systems spread into future generations. Their son (my father) married a woman raised as a Southern Baptist, while two of my siblings did likewise, marrying spouses of different Christian denominations. From a historical perspective, it is remarkable that many Christian ghettos broke down in the course of only a few generations.
Indeed, despite all the problems created by religion in the modern world, one of the great human accomplishments during the 20th century has been the so-called “ecumenical” movement. This has resulted in an incremental growth in openness, appreciation and collaboration among Christian denominations.
While the previous century brought two world wars, a Great Depression, and political ideologies that dehumanized entire ethnic and racial communities, it also resulted in many Christians learning to set aside centuries of acrimony to recognize the wisdom in other worldviews and practices.
The “boundary breaking” ecumenical movement of the 20th century is now becoming dwarfed by the realization that in our shrinking world people of faith not only need to build bridges to others in their own religious tradition, but also across the conceptual and cultural divides separating entirely different religions.
The religious pluralism of our world is becoming increasingly unavoidable, and inter-religious encounter and dialogue is now one of the great challenges facing all religious believers, with huge consequences hanging in the balance for the entire world.
Research on religious identity suggests that in order for our religious and spiritual selves to flourish in these kinds of conversations and relationships we need both strong religious roots and boundaries in a tradition and openness to the wisdom contained in other religious perspectives and practices. The best of the ecumenical movement learned the same thing.
When inter-religious encounter and dialogue are done right — and humans are still trying to figure out how to do it right — some pretty remarkable spiritual and religious outcomes are often the result. Those in dialogue become more appreciative of their own religious heritage, yet they rise above the toxic polarization of our world; they learn to drink deeper meaning and inspiration from their own tradition, yet develop a bigger concept for God, religion, human nature, faith, hope and love that makes room for those outside their spiritual tribe; they grow in the religious virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, gentleness and spiritual discernment, while also learning to recognize the real source of these same virtues in people of radically different spiritual and religious orientations. Perhaps the greatest benefit religious boundary crossers receive is to learn how to walk comfortably in paradox.
The need for a new kind of religious identity is coming on the world quickly. Whether we welcome it or not, we better get ready.
Mark Markuly is the dean and a professor at the “intentionally ecumenical” School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The school has a growing national and international reputation for its work in inter-religious encounter and dialogue.