Dr. Azza Karam is secretary general of Religions for Peace International and professor of religion and development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Previously, she served as a senior advisor on culture at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); coordinator/chair of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development; senior policy research advisor at the United Nations Development Program in the Regional Bureau for Arab States; and president of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations. She is the lead facilitator for the United Nations’ Strategic Learning Exchanges on Religion, Development and Diplomacy, building on a legacy of serving as a trainer cum facilitator of intercultural leadership and management in the Arab region as well as Europe and Central Asia.
"No peace among the nations
without peace among the religions.
No peace among the religions
without dialogue between the religions.
No dialogue between the religions
without investigation of the foundation of the religions."
— Hans Küng, Christianity: Essence, History, Future
The above quote, one among many hundreds, exemplifies so much of the work of this giant of an intellect, this leader of heartful minds, this sage of the spaces where faith in faith itself is the beloved. Hans Küng was the fountain of wisdom to which many of us seeking the Divine not only inside ourselves, but also in the spaces between all of us, constantly flock. He spoke of institutions, wrote of lived and practiced theology, and served as the compass which guides—but is beyond the control of the most powerful. He irked and irritated those who would seek to instrumentalize faith to rubber stamp any institution or office. He spoke and wrote—eloquently—of the power of faith to hold accountable, to heal, to bridge divides, even to affirm that we choose to die in peace.
Hans Küng was the fountain of wisdom to which many of us seeking the Divine not only inside ourselves, but also in the spaces between all of us, constantly flock.
Küng challenged the written, spoken, and lived traditions of hypocrisy in religious garb—institutions, individuals, groups, or communities. He argued valiantly and took clear positions against dogma. Yet he never failed to champion totally a complete and unequivocal faith in God. As he argued with offices of power in his own church, he maintained and eloquently articulated the rationales for a firm belief in the word. So, in many ways, he exemplified and shed light on the ways in which interfaith work is being done, can be done, and must be done.
Working to serve an organization which convenes all the world’s faith traditions, as Religions for Peace does, is a daily lesson in humility vis-à-vis great institutions which have weathered the tests of time in a way no other institution has—or can. Küng reminds me that as diverse as these institutions and some of the oldest communities known to humankind are, they are necessary for the process he believed in: investigating the foundations of religion. His words remind me that what we serve is what he spoke to—the very basis of peace between and among nations. Hans Küng’s words resonate powerfully in the religious elders who serve, together, Religions for Peace’s call for positive peace: a peace that far transcends the absence of war; a peace predicated on the well-being of the most vulnerable among us, rather than the interests of the most powerful.
In his certainty of and in faith, and in the word, Küng speaks to “the how” of interfaith dialogue. Ultimately, the word is the means of communication and connection in multifaith settings. And as much as it can be the source of divisions, it is also the means to bridge differences. Approaching a space where many religions come together to dialogue requires at once a very firm faith in one’s own faith, as well as an ability to appreciate something Küng noted, which is that “every human being—without distinction of sex, age, race, skin color, language, religion, political view, or national or social origin—possesses an inalienable and untouchable dignity.” Put differently, no religion, no race, no sex, no age is better than another. We approach interfaith dialogue, in fact, as we would approach human rights—appreciating the inalienable right of each human being and each faith tradition to live in, with, and for dignity. Anyone can engage in interfaith dialogue, but not everyone can work to serve others’ faiths.
We approach interfaith dialogue as we would approach human rights—appreciating the inalienable right of each human being and each faith tradition to live in, with, and for dignity.
The lessons learned from Religions for Peace’s 50-year legacy affirm that “leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate, and xenophobia—even inspire and legitimate violent and bloody conflicts,” as Küng noted in his 1998 book, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics. At the same time, Religions for Peace’s work, predicated on multi-religious collaboration in service of peace, is a living and persistent acknowledgement that those very same problems cannot be solved without religious leaders and members of religious communities! Precisely because religions can be a source of strife, they must be a source of healing.
COVID-19 has demonstrated, beyond a shadow of doubt, that religious actors are frontline health service deliverers and, in countless cases, life savers. Whether within the boundaries of nation-states seeking to deal with an unfolding climate crisis, or attempting to serve refugees and forcibly displaced people, religious actors are active and much needed. And yet Religions for Peace’s own experience, in setting up the first Multi-Religious Humanitarian Fund, points to two facts: The first is that even when and where all members of the same religious community were to come together (a highly unlikely scenario), it would not be enough to face the simultaneous increase in xenophobia and humanitarian needs.
But Religions for Peace’s experience with the Humanitarian Fund also points toward something else: that few religious institutions and religious actors are ready to invest in one another’s efforts. COVID-19 responses from religious communities are as plentiful in the efforts and expenditures within respective religious institutions, as they are poverty stricken in their attempts to come together as multi-religious responses. In other words, religious organizations serve desperate needs. But they rarely serve the same needs, together. And yet this standard of unity in effective service delivery to humanity is what religious organizations decry in the efforts of governmental and intergovernmental entities alike. Is the pot calling the kettle black?
COVID-19 responses from religious communities are as plentiful in the efforts and expenditures within respective religious institutions, as they are poverty stricken in their attempts to come together as multi-religious responses.
Serving as a woman in a space not only traditionally held by men but indeed designed by, for, and around men demands diligence in keeping faith in faith itself. Küng’s words come often to mind when he said, “If you cannot see that divinity includes male and female characteristics and at the same time transcends them, you have bad consequences.” I have the privilege of hearing those words spoken to by both men and women faith leaders, from North and South, young and older leaders, and members of the Religions for Peace movement. Indeed, the ability to see Divinity as inclusive of male and female characteristics and transcending them is precisely what the 100-plus leaders of Religions for Peace’s World Council, its 90 Interreligious Councils, and its leagues of interfaith women and youth grassroots networks, around the world, attest to. Yet in spite of that, there are many moments in the interaction of this vast network of multi-religious actors in which I wish Küng’s words could be framed—as flashing neon signs—on top of each of our heads.
Küng’s teachings inspire a resilience of spirit rather than of institutions. What he believed in and lived for is what those of us committed to the belief in the power of multi-religious collaboration maintain: that “[o]ur earth cannot be changed unless…an alteration in the consciousness of the individual can be achieved….” Such an alteration in consciousness is not an “aha moment.” It is reached through living one’s faith in actions of service beyond self and without discrimination and distinctions.