Harmony among persons who follow different faith traditions engenders mutual respect and kindness.
It provides a rationale for listening to one another in order to discover who we are. It enables a willingness to be taught, helped and enriched by those who are radically different from ourselves. It strengthens our own faith as we engage with and contemplate the religious wisdom of other spiritual paths.
Harmony is self-evidently superior to disharmony. It creates peace where misunderstanding, suspicion, fear, conflict and hatred are the destructive and deadly alternatives.
Yet, harmony is not enough. Beyond harmony there is a higher plateau of meaningful connection, which is friendship.
As I sat at my computer preparing to draft this article, I was contacted by someone I do not know and whose name I had never heard. His note was timely, deeply moving and providential.
He wrote: “I am writing to thank you [for] … a wonderfully written column I accidentally – or I would say by Almighty God’s guidance – saw and read: ‘Lessons learned on a journey of interfaith friendship.’ Your beautiful explanation of your journey and the missionary teaching for 25 years in Indonesia … touches me and [inspires] me; so that is a reason to contact you because I like to be thankful to God [who] said, “[One] who’s not thankful to my creatures isn’t thankful to me.” Wishing you all the best in your future endeavors and may Almighty God continue to bless you … and your family. Your brother in humanity, Imam Arif Huskic, Michigan.”
I believe that my receiving this affirming message from a Muslim imam and interfaith minister precisely at the moment I was contemplating how best to speak of interfaith harmony was not accidental.
While I am hesitant to claim that God directed this man to contact me just when I needed it, nonetheless it seems this affirming word from an Islamic leader who lives more than a thousand miles away but calls himself my “brother in humanity” displays all the markings of divine nudging.
The goal of interfaith harmony is not to urge Imam Huskic to practice greater tolerance toward me, or to encourage me to tolerate him (far away from me in Detroit). Of course, tolerance is better than intolerance, but it is not sufficient.
Diana Eck, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, explains why in her book A New Religious America – How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper Collins, 2001).
“Although tolerance is no doubt a step forward from intolerance, it does not require new neighbors to know anything about one another,” she writes. “Tolerance can create a climate of restraint but not one of understanding. Tolerance alone does little to bridge the chasms of stereotype and fear that may, in fact, dominate the mutual image of the other. … It is far too fragile a foundation for a society that is becoming as religiously complex as ours.”
As a person who has encountered, known and loved people of other faiths for more than a half century, I agree that tolerance is ultimately deficient.
It is not enough to “put up with” those I meet who practice other faiths – the medical personnel at my doctors’ offices or hospital, the owners and workers in the restaurants, shops or motels I visit, the families who have moved into my neighborhood, or the parents of my grandchildren’s school classmates and friends.
Instead, because I am a Jesus-follower, I am called to move past tolerance to compassion. I am commanded to do to others as I want them to do to me (Luke 6:31), to forgive others when they sin against me (Matt. 6:14), to love my enemies (Matt. 5:43) and to love my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39).
During World Interfaith Harmony Week, we are reminded that as fellow members of the human family we should live in peace with our spiritual siblings and cousins. It was the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng who famously concluded: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions” (Christianity: Essence, History and Future: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996).
Later this year, we can engage face-to-face with people of many religious traditions and spiritualities as they come together for a week of instruction and inspiration. This opportunity, open to all, will be the ninth international convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
On their website is this announcement: “In August of 2023, the Parliament of the World’s Religions returns to the birthplace of the modern interfaith movement … to celebrate 130 years of history in the city of Chicago. Parliament Convenings attract participants from more than 200 diverse religious, indigenous, and secular beliefs and [from] more than 80 nations. Registrants enjoy access to all the plenary sessions, hundreds of breakout sessions, art and cultural exhibits, performances, a film festival, and countless opportunities to connect with individuals and organizations committed to justice, peace, and sustainability. The 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions will be hosted in McCormick Place Lakeside Center from August 14-18, 2023.”
With an anticipated attendance of more than 8,000 persons of many faiths, the Parliament will provide a fascinating laboratory where “world interfaith harmony” can be experienced for a week.
Even more satisfying than pursuing harmony, however, will be the possibility to initiate or nurture friendships that may last a lifetime. That is exactly what I hope to do there with Imam Arik Huskic, my “brother in humanity.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series calling attention to February 1-7 as World Interfaith Harmony Week.