On Wednesday, August 16, I had the opportunity to attend a conference on Religion and Democracy in Oakland, sponsored by the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California and the Graduate Theological Union. Featured speakers included Huston Smith, the well-known teacher of world religions, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, and Dr. Kaled Abou El Fadl, law professor at UCLA.
Dr. Nasr described four forms that the encounter of religions has taken over the years:
- Religions do not agree; therefore all religion is false
This is the attitude of rationalist atheism.
- My religion is true; all others are false.
In the local village, it might have been possible to sustain this illusion, but it is untenable in the modern world. Honesty compels use to recognize that when we undermine the truth of other traditions, we erode the grounds on which we ourselves stand.
- All religions are true, but only in the lowest common denominator.
Nasr calls this “cordial interfaith.” However, it requires a reductionist understanding of religion. By sentimentally trying to discount differences as being merely accidents or the accretion of traditions, in fact one negates what another believes God has made sacred.
- All religions share something of the truth in their depths.
Unity is to be found not at the level of forms, but at the point of ultimate concern. “The reality of things is not exhausted by their appearance.” Religious traditions, indeed all of life, contain both inward and outward aspects. It is useless to find unity in the outward manifestations; it is only when we meet each other at the inwardness of our religious traditions that we can truly meet.
Dr. Nasr cited the poet Rumi, who says (not a precise quotation):
the differences between creatures
results from the form
when you go to the abode of meaning
there you find peace
Interfaith encounters can offer us the opportunity to touch the deepest levels of our own souls, to find the grounding place that allows us to meet one another in all our diverse richness.