How Religious People Can Actually Help

Interfaith unity can reduce misconceptions

Some describe the United States of America as the most religiously diverse country, while others depict it as the most religiously devout, at least of nations in the northern hemisphere.

Regardless, the important issue is how we allow religion to shape us. Will religion be a source of conflict or of community, a basis for clashing or for cooperating? With kids enrolled in two universities and frequent interactions with students at a different university, I recently thought about how this religious interaction is particularly pronounced on campuses. Colleges and universities are ideally positioned to help all of society determine effective ways to recognize religious diversity and promote cooperation.

Diversity, by itself, is not automatically socially constructive. History shows that when diversity – whether it’s racial, ethnic or religious – is left unattended, it can lead to tensions, intolerance and even outright conflict. But when diversity is positively engaged, as history also shows, it can build social cohesion and social capital.

Similarly, interactions between people of different faiths are not automatically helpful. They require attention.

Interfaith engagement has often meant interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, while certainly important and needed, primarily impacts those involved in the dialogues, which is usually a small group of people.

What’s needed now, alongside dialogue, is broader-scale interfaith cooperation. Interfaith cooperation is a civic imperative, not just a religious interest, and so it is no longer only for a small group of committed dialogists.

If colleges and universities engage religious diversity with the same hopes and resources that they dedicate to other identity and diversity issues, there’s an opportunity for lasting impact.

What, specifically, could this impact be? For starters, maybe we could move closer to a world where there is mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don’t. I used to bristle in academic discussions when others would deride my religious convictions. Their attitude was that because I am a committed Christian, I can’t possibly be as educated or thoughtful about literature or philosophy or science. Ridiculous! But I’ll be darned if I don’t hear religious people commit the same sin of shortsightedness toward the nonreligious. These religious folks sometimes talk like the nonreligious are incapable of acting morally. Ridiculous!

Mutual and ongoing respect among those who claim religious identity and those who don’t would move the United States and the world forward.

Let’s not leave without this topic without a reminder: Dumbing down religion to “I’m OK, you’re OK,” or saying that all religions are the same is neither helpful nor correct.

They aren’t all the same. Many religions do have similar ethical expectations – namely, treat others the way you want to be treated, and show hospitality to those unlike you – but they have distinct doctrines, rituals and practices, and in some cases, different understandings of what is authoritative in life. So, all religions are not the same. They should not be treated as such. But the core issue for us, and especially the us in the U.S. this election year, is to progress – not despite different religious languages and loyalties but because of them.

Let it be so. In other words, amen.

Wilson is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) serving as director of communications for the Christian Theological Seminary. Read his blog at http://www.nathandaywilson. com and follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson.

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