Protesting Interfaith? The Importance of Advancing Our Dialogues

I had never before seen anyone protest an interfaith gathering.

04/25/2013: I had never before seen anyone protest an interfaith gathering. But yesterday as we walked out of our hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, a small group of protestors stepped forward to verbally and physically harass our group consisting of religious leaders and foreign dignitaries. The protestors belonged to the Ukranian Orthodox Church and were angered that representatives of their Christian denomination, including Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, were mixing with followers of other religious traditions.

We hurried onto our bus and traveled to our session, and upon arrival we discovered that more protestors were awaiting our arrival outside the Parliament of Ukraine. I was fortuitously seated next to Anne-Marie Lizing, who currently serves as the Honorary President of the Senate of Belgium, and we discussed at length the profound challenges to social progress that exist in our modern world. Among other insights, she remarked that such experiences are valuable benchmarks that reinforce the importance of programs like the assembly in which we were taking part -- the Kiev Interfaith Forum. She advised that there is much work to be done in nurturing a pluralistic and ecumenical global society and that we cannot take this task too lightly, especially in the context of our modern world.

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The present moment is marked by a world in which technology is rapidly advancing and people are more closely connected than ever before. Globalization has opened the floodgates for increased interactions throughout the world. While the quantity of our cross-cultural encounters has reached unprecedented levels, I am struck by our society's lack of progress in improving the quality of these interactions. The nature of our cross-cultural encounters leave much to be desired, and we can only make progress once we collectively recognize this challenge and begin devoting sustained attention and resources.

One particularly fruitful approach to addressing this issue is to explore models that have successfully engaged in multicultural and religiously diverse contexts. The subject of my dissertation research and the founder of the religion I practice -- Guru Nanak (1469-1539) -- offers a powerful model for building relationships across cultural and religious lines. He was born and raised in the South Asian region of Punjab, a space long heralded as a confluence of diverse peoples, and all accounts of his life illustrate his ability to create deep and meaningful bonds with people of various geographical, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.

I would argue that Guru Nanak possessed a distinctive worldview that allowed him to look beyond the politics of identity that often hold us hostage today. His unique approach could improve the quality of our cultural interactions in this rapidly globalizing world, particularly if we are able to adopt his ability to simultaneously appreciate the oneness and diversity of the world.

Guru Nanak views all matter as being interconnected, and he appreciates each and every aspect of the universe as a Divine manifestation. From his perspective, diversity illustrates the richness of the world, and he repeatedly expresses his delight in looking at his surroundings and seeing divinity within it all, whether it be natural phenomena, various community members, or even mundane and challenging situations.

Whereas we increasingly tend to see plurality as marking distinction, Guru Nanak experiences it as a celebration of oneness.

The life of Guru Nanak illustrates this outlook in action and highlights important aspects of how this approach to plurality can inform harmonious living in a multicultural and multi-faith setting. For example, all accounts of Guru Nanak's life tell us that he traveled across South and Central Asia and engaged in constructive dialogues with people of various religious traditions, including Hindus, Muslims and Yogis. One such conversation has been recorded in the Sikh scripture under the title of Sidh Gosti (Dialogue with the Siddhas).

What we find in these writings is a method of cross-cultural dialogue that differs markedly from the ways in which we tend to conduct our interfaith interactions today. Whereas we often gloss over differences and focus on commonalities, Guru Nanak also openly and respectfully expresses his key differences. The candidness he displays in these dialogues serves to forge deeper and more meaningful relationships in which people come to better understand one another.

Though it seems easy from a superficial standpoint, it is not easy to adopt this sort of approach. Discussing difference is often uncomfortable, particularly when it comes to religious convictions, and we often shy away from it in fear of offending one another. However, what we see in the case of Guru Nanak (along with countless other successful community leaders) is that harmonious living requires more than simply co-existing and tolerating one another. A truly pluralistic society necessitates sustained effort to cultivate a deeper appreciation and mutual respect for one another. The boundaries that separate us need not be glossed over, but they do need to be softened so that we can more smoothly traverse back and forth.

The first step in this process is to develop a better understanding of one another. Given the phenomenon of globalization and the rapid increase in our cross-cultural interactions, it is imperative that we develop a more nuanced and more sophisticated framework for dialogue that accounts for commonalities and differences. As we learn from Guru Nanak, we do not need to see one another as a homogenous group with homogenous convictions in order to have deep and meaningful relationships. We can appreciate our differences while also recognizing our collective oneness. There is a possibility of living together as a singular yet pluralistic society -- the two are not mutually exclusive.

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