Where We've Been – Where We're Going

April 11, 2017

Interfaith Observer, April 11, 2017

Frequent TIO contributor Katherine Marshall’s new book, Interfaith Journeys – An Exploration of History, Ideas, and Future Directions, is a groundbreaking study of the interfaith movement of the past century. Packed with detail, if offers an overview of interfaith that is broader and deeper than anything published to date. The whole text currently is available to download for free from the World Faith Development Dialogue. WFDD is a non-governmental organization, directed by Professor Marshall, which works to bridge the gulfs that separate the worlds of development and humanitarian affairs and religion, hosted by Georgetown University. A paper-and-ink edition of the study is expected sometime in 2018.

Here is Marshall’s brief introduction to her report:

This project explores the complex landscape of initiatives that involve interfaith, multifaith, intrafaith, and other purposeful efforts involving dialogue and action with a religious inspiration. The initiatives are bewildering in their diversity and in their response to forces of change. So the report introduces a complex field and takes stock of institutions, successes, and challenges. It offers a map of the history, intellectual foundations, and major features and actors involved in interfaith work. And it sets out and solicits ideas on priority areas for future action.

Extended appendixes address Using TerminologyProfiles of Selected Organizations, Events, and Approaches; and Foundational Documents. The report/book was funded by the GHR Foundation.

Below you will find the final pages of Marshall’s study, titled “Future Directions.” It is longer than typical TIO articles, dense, and full of generalizations based on the considerable territory she’s detailed in the book. If something interests you, dive into the full text and start exploring. For a softer landing, first read her recent piece in the Huffington Post titled “Interfaith Action in a Tumultuous World.” Interfaith Journeys contains more information than most people want to know about interfaith; but if interfaith is your issue, you can’t afford to ignore this pioneering resource.

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Future Directions of the Interfaith Movement

Exploring the interfaith landscape drives home the dynamism and complexity of the array of formal organizations, initiatives, and largely unstructured efforts that fall under a loose interfaith rubric. They come in all sizes and shapes and touch on virtually every area of human endeavor. They range from elaborate institutional and intellectual enterprises with global ambitions to local, often spontaneous crisis responses to specific incidents. The most sustainable efforts tend to have a kinship with classic civic community-building ventures and very often are part of or closely linked to broader mobilizations and efforts (for example for peace or environmental protection).

However, the specific theological and academic focus in some interfaith work is also a significant part of the story, shaping ideas and social, political, and even economic understandings. Another thread in the interfaith “map” is the history and contested roles of several organizations that aspire to serve as global and umbrella organizations with a meaningful voice in world affairs: what the Parliament of Religions termed “Guiding Institutions,” akin to the United Nations and other transnational bodies.

The history and present state of interfaith work are wrapped up in many of the transformations that are disruptors and shapers of modern life. The challenges to established institutions that shake some foundations of society include transformations of religious institutions and questioning of traditional authority. A feature of contemporary religion in many societies is the lively marketplace of ideas and entities: the freedom to choose, which in turn alters the horizons of interfaith understanding and the ways in which religious identities intersect with other understandings of identity.

Erosion of teaching about religion as a core part of citizen education, again in some societies (the United States, France, and Great Britain are prime examples), means that basic interfaith understanding can be a core challenge for social peace. As religious institutions have proliferated and as many have assumed new political characters, both in reality and in perception, interfaith tensions have taken on new forms and, with the new technologies that are a facet of modern globalization, move and mutate with lightening speed (images of cannibalism in the Central African Republic fueling riots in Bangladesh or cartoons or films sparking worldwide protests are examples). Peace and understanding among different and dynamic religious institutions and beliefs has become a central challenge for many if not most modern societies.

An overall, somewhat ironic observation, is that interfaith work has transformational aspirations and potential and can be powerful, especially at the community level, but it tends to be poorly appreciated in many settings. Notwithstanding bold visions and objectives and despite greater recent recognition that religious institutions and beliefs play vital roles in contemporary societies, interfaith actors are rarely welcome at the leading global policy tables and in many communities. Thus their overall impact is far less than might be expected given how important religious beliefs are to so many world citizens, and mounting evidence that interfaith relations have a crucial part to play in peace and social cohesion. Interfaith initiatives at times play leading and creative roles, but their voices and insights are often unheard.

Key challenges and possible future areas for action are the following:

Appreciating better what is being done and with what impact

  • Global interfaith organizations are rarely recognized as central global institutions with respect to core global agendas. Mechanisms to gather and articulate the wisdom of religious communities in meaningful ways need to be strengthened as a first step. Honest recognition of areas of disagreement that are prominent in many global forums (for example youth engagement, approaches to gender violence, blasphemy laws, and family planning) would benefit from robust discussion in “safe spaces” to build understandings and common visions that can help ensure that perceived differences do not impede or detract from wider, constructive religious engagement.
  • Dealing creatively with diversity is a major global issue and some governments and foundations see religious institutions as central players in making diversity work (as well as potentially destructive forces against diversity). Pope Francis, for example, has prompted new reflections about the potential positive roles of religious leadership. Accentuating these messages and opportunities can move interfaith work closer to the centers of action.
  • Often interesting, sometimes inspiring interfaith engagement in local communities is rarely shared, so that it does not appear to be building towards common approaches. Addressing this eminently fillable gap in knowledge could have outsized benefits. 
  • Interfaith roles in peacebuilding are increasingly robust but still sit largely at the margins of the field, poorly integrated, in large part because religion tends to be bracketed with culture in insidious ways and because religious intervention is more often equated with conflict than with peacebuilding. There is a large untapped potential for interfaith roles in direct conflict resolution efforts and broader post-conflict healing and reconciliation. 
  • Activities and institutional forms that emerge in response to successive crises tend to focus on immediate more than longer term opportunities and challenges. This contributes to an institutional map that, overall, is rather incoherent with generally ineffective coordination. There is a positive aspect – it is organic, touching on wide-ranging issues: more jazz than composed scripts. However, many initiatives are not sustained. They draw attention and have important symbolic and often calming effects but tend to flag as a crisis fades. Recognizing this tendency could help in assuring greater sustainability. 
  • Interfaith groups offer important opportunities for the “localization” of humanitarian organization and finance that is part of the “Grand Bargain.” Better knowledge and clear focal points are needed to translate potential into scaled action. 
  • Emerging academic centers of excellence focused on interfaith matters make important contributions, but their scope is fairly limited and could be enhanced. 

Addressing some conceptual and structural questions about the roles of interfaith institutions

  • Violent extremism tends to overwhelm some interfaith agendas. In contrast, a tendency in reaction is to infuse interfaith discussion with bland bromides about love and peace. Deflecting these tendencies demands a willingness to confront them and to broaden the horizons and agendas of interfaith work and religious engagement more broadly, well beyond violence and extremism.
  • Few interfaith actors are contending with important gaps in the academic field of interfaith relations and rarely see a compelling need to act on this intellectual core. This tends to weaken overall impact. Priority needs include more robust research, funding, and coordination on high priority topics and working towards common understandings of challenges and the shared assets needed to address them.
  • Relationships between interfaith and other religious social justice work and broader civil society mobilization pose quite practical challenges in various settings: who belongs at what tables and what do they represent? Interfaith work is a significant element of the dynamic but shifting civil society landscape, at local and national levels. It can also fall victim to the tendency to “shrink” or threaten civil society space. The often ambiguous and contested roles that religious actors and formal institutions play in societies and vis a vis states can fudge how faith and interfaith institutions are understood in this broader dynamic. Seeing the issues clearly is a start.
  • Tensions between understandings of human rights and religious teachings and values, especially in relation to critical challenges of equality, need to be addressed not because there will ever be total agreement but so that common values can emerge in authentic ways and areas of difference, for example on the significance of family values and potential tensions around proselytizing, can be better understood and managed. 
  •  Global interfaith organizations have not developed sustainable financing for their work. Inadequate and varying financing mechanisms available to support interfaith work are a critical challenge for scaling and integrating the contributions of interfaith efforts. Major funders rarely see the full potential of the field or discipline. 

Areas where interfaith could have particular impact

  •  Specific and meaningful focus on interfaith roles in conflict prevention and governance issues, especially in fragile states, is a priority. Attention to the aggravating issues of corruption and poor governance as a grievance and cause of state weakness and failure lacks a coherent direction, and religious actors could play far more positive roles. 
  •  Interfaith engagement on refugee integration and related policy debates needs a more robust tack. 
  •  Various communications mechanisms and initiatives specific to faith and interfaith actors and work can be better appreciated and built upon, including Internet sites, radio, social media, and academic journals, as they can play positive as well as negative roles. Interfaith issues and action are not widely appreciated in the public sphere. Attention to this specific communication challenge is an area for action. 
  •  Well-grounded policy responses that take interfaith realities into account and integrate religious beliefs and communities as key elements of social cohesion can and should be bolstered, for example through strong case studies. 
  •  Mapping local interfaith work and diffusing results could help bring greater coherence to community level initiatives and inspire a broader “collective impact.” 
  •  Creative interfaith programs at various universities contrast with a frequent absence of attention in others. Defining common standards of interfaith knowledge (“faith literacy”) is a work in progress. 
  •  Agreed evaluation criteria, standards, and mechanisms are especially weak. Most evaluative data is qualitative and narrative-based, rather than quantitative and statistically accessible. 

“Religious literacy” is central to many of these challenges. Practical action at the broad interfaith level inevitably focuses on levels of knowledge and effective communication strategies and tools. Robust and plausible documentation of best practice, good case studies, and measurement of contributions and potential of interfaith approaches are crying needs. This is true at the community, national, regional, and global levels.

 To realize the broader interfaith aspirations and potential, far better awareness of what is at stake and meaningful definitions of common purpose are needed. This highlights some core challenges of what can be termed “religious literacy.” It involves civic knowledge extending from community to national and international levels, to counter misconceptions and simple lack of understanding of different religious traditions. Here education systems, media, and political leaders play central roles. Interfaith efforts are a vital part. Clear, higher expectations of the level of knowledge of relevant professions should be set (including international relations, humanitarian work, medicine, and law, for example) and appropriate “religious literacy” resources developed and disseminated to help achieve them.

This article was originally published by the Interfaith Observer.

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