There is no greater need now than cultivating a global understanding of human unity. Faith communities should lead this effort as our spiritual values, such as compassion, love, and peace, are universal and can bring us together as a human community. Why then is this so problematic for many religious leaders today? Why is religious identity more important than human identity at a time when the problems we face, such as climate change and growing economic inequity, are global and can only be solved through collective efforts? Although many religious leaders give lip service to the concept of human unity, resistance to actual integration remains.
In reality many see the strengthening of human unity as a threat to their religious identity. If we connect equally with those of another religion, does our commitment to our own religious community weaken? This fear inhibits the deepening of inter-religious ties — and it’s a challenge the interfaith community must work to overcome by demonstrating that religions are in fact complementary, not competitive.
When I recently mentioned at an international interfaith meeting that we must move beyond merely respecting other faiths to a deeper appreciation of their truth and beauty, I was told this was going too far. I was told the goal of interfaith is to stem hatred, not erase boundaries. I strongly disagree. The goal of interfaith is to come to love the “other,” and for this we must come to appreciate the worldviews that other religions offer. This is a huge but much needed step for humankind.
I have been involved in the interfaith movement for more than 15 years and I have seen progress, though slow, as religious devotees struggle to engage with one another under the rubric of “tolerance” first, then “respect.” But they still shy away from “full acceptance” of the other.
Since the beginning, my work has been to engage the voices that have been left out of inter-religious dialogue — those of women and practitioners of the Eastern traditions, in particular Hindus and Buddhists, who together make up nearly one and a half billion people. It is for this reason that I founded the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) to help identify and bring to the fore women religious and spiritual leaders. We did this by organizing dialogues in conflict areas — such as Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan — that were shaped and led by women spiritual leaders.
Fifteen years later, I find that there is now much greater effort to engage women at the international level. We are often approached to recommend women for interfaith meetings, as there is greater awareness now of their necessary involvement. But there is still resistance to placing the Eastern faiths on equal footing. This has long baffled me as these traditions are so rich in wisdom and insight and so greatly add to any dialogue. To help achieve this East-West balance, GPIW founded the Contemplative Alliance, which highlights the unifying contemplative practices shared by the major religions. We first launched in 2008 at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, and since then we have organized 10 such conferences and dialogues around the United States.
When I attend international meetings I often point to the progress that has been made in the U.S. where Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation have become mainstream and are gaining respect equal to other religions. A growing community of people is now at ease with the crossing of religious boundaries and the integration of Eastern practices with their Abrahamic beliefs. Now more than ever, we are able to take what we need for our own spiritual unfolding. We should not take this freedom for granted — it is still rare in most of the world.
I see this integration as a very positive step as it can aid in deepening our understanding of human unity, the common vision, and shared values underlying all religious traditions. In the past, religious institutions focused on their differences. This served to separate and polarize people. If we are to solve global problems as a global family we must shift from a paradigm of separateness to one of unity — by evolving from an emphasis on doctrines that separate to values that unite.
“The truth is one but the wise know it by many names,” says the Vedas. Decades of interfaith work have produced fruit. It is now time to openly acknowledge that there is no loss, only gain, when the religions come to truly know and love one another.
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