The word interfaith is one that has come up recently in two instances of my life: once at Brown University in regards to how the Chaplain’s Office can serve “faith” students more effectively, and once in my studies at the University of Chicago where we discussed the tensions and merits of interfaith dialogue. Both contexts had one thing in common: the word interfaith really means shedding one’s extreme positions (that could rupture the ability to have a relationship, much less a conversation) in a religious context and blurring lines between religious traditions in order to find common ground – essentially searching for ways in which religions or faiths can be symbiotic in bringing about their vision for the world, usually a vision of shared love.
My own reflection on this issue, being a reformed Evangelical Christian, leads me through a genealogy of religious intolerance – from Puritanism to shades of modern Evangelical Fundamentalism. And while this genealogy frightens me, I’ve opened myself to the fact that my tradition has more to offer than some might give it credit (but this is a different conversation). What must be said now is that interfaith, the word that is, always wishes to reduce the lines of demarcation between religions so that we might be more comfortable with the fact that our neighbor really is more like us than we think. We, however, cannot forget that even the highest peaks of tolerance have a darkside – tolerance erases what makes some religious following a difficult path, in my case, the centrality of Jesus Christ and His hand in saving the world. Tolerance can also reduce religions to meshy blobs of good feelings and apply categories that don’t actually exist when you take time to get to know the belief system.
On this first point, I don’t know if interfaith dialogue about Jesus’ love could ever go deep if I were not able to say that while I believe there is truth to be found in most, if not all religious faiths, Jesus Christ is the ONE truth and a belief in his Him leads me to salvation. His love, then, is an outpouring of Himself onto the world that we might discern that Truth and see how it is transformative in our lives. And this is a hard truth because it requires a clear line between myself and the Buddhist practitioner next door.
Thus, interfaith is a word that needs some strong qualifiers.
While it’s useful for discussion, we cannot let it reduce religion to a “faith-practice” that each of us possesses. My own faith is not simply something to be dissolved or tempered, it is the Holy Spirit living inside of me. It is a distinct view of my faith, sometimes intolerant but not without the ability to have conversational partners. When I sit down for dialogue, it is not because I am being tolerant, but because I want to share my faith experience and the love of Jesus Christ with those around me SO THAT Jesus Christ may have an impact on their lives as well.
When the Buddhist sits down for a discussion, I’m not sure that he or she wants to even recognize our category of religion. An interfaith dialogue may be offensive on the very premise that we are picking and prodding at each other’s so-called “religion”. So while I find the interfaith movement at least interesting, I do wonder about its unintended offensiveness. I do not wish to condemn it entirely, but let us not forget that interfaith may be just as offensive as the intolerance it attempts to subdue. For me, the lines between my religion and the next belief system are very important – but they are lines, not walls.