Writer looks at growth of interfaith movements

Times Staff Writer

Conflicts between religions continue to rock the world, but when Gustav Niebuhr looks out on the religious landscape, he sees what he calls the “possibility of community.”

Niebuhr, an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University, detects an encouraging (he calls it unprecedented) trend: people of faith reaching out to those of other faiths.

This is not to suggest conflicts between religions will end soon, if ever. Just this week, Hindu mobs destroyed more than a dozen churches and attacked Christians in India.


But in Niebuhr’s work as a professor and, before that, a reporter on religion for the New York Times, he began noticing that, bit by bit, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims were making efforts to learn about other faiths. Niebuhr explores the trend in his new book, “Beyond Tolerance” (Viking), and came to Southern California this month as part of a book tour.

He argues there is urgent need for interfaith work, given the way religion now sometimes splits, and endangers, the world in the way the Cold War once did. “Religion is to the 21st century what ideology was to the 20th,” Niebuhr said.

The title “Beyond Tolerance” conveys one of Niebuhr’s principle themes, and he discussed the work on a recent weekday before he spoke at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Groups can tolerate one another, he noted, without really getting along. A lack of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean cohesion.

“Tolerance is not enough because there’s no educational component to it,” Niebuhr said. “Tolerance doesn’t bust down stereotype. Tolerance doesn’t put a face on faith.”

Niebuhr argues, with anecdotes and statistics, that thousands of believers from a wide variety of faiths are trying to reach across religious divides. He cites a 2000 study of 14,000 U.S. congregations by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The report, “Faith Communities Today,” found that 7% of American congregations had participated in some interfaith activity, such as holding a joint religious service. It also found that 8% had collaborated with another congregation on a community service project.

That may not sound like much, Niebuhr writes, but with an estimated 335,000 churches in the United States, that translates to 20,000 to 25,000 congregations teaming up for such work.

“But the original survey provided a baseline for a second, more intriguing one five years later,” Niebuhr writes. “This time around, the institute reported that the number of houses of worship participating in inter-religious worship had tripled to more than 22%, while the number that joined in community service had risen more than fourfold to 38%.”

Niebuhr concludes: “A cultural shift had taken place.” In the interview, he put it this way: “People are not beyond redemption. People can learn. People can cooperate.”

What’s prompting the shift?

Mass communication has made it easier to reach out beyond one’s own group. He notes that in the 1990s, Hindu temples on the East Coast began holding open houses so their neighbors could learn about them.

This practice has been taken up by many mosques and for some has become a yearly event. This month, “Open Mosque Day” was observed by many Islamic congregations in Southern California. Look at many mosque websites, Niebuhr said, and you’ll often find an option called “take a tour.”

The interfaith movement -- and “Beyond Tolerance” -- were not prompted by 9/11, but the terrorist attacks helped shape them. Niebuhr was in Manhattan that day and reported on the World Trade Center attack for the New York Times. “You were in the presence of a crematory,” he said.

He found himself thinking of religious tolerance and acceptance -- ideas already brewing for years -- and decided that if “tolerance is all we can manage,” the victims of 9/11 deserved better.

As Niebuhr researched his book, he encountered a variety of efforts to reach out. He ran across a nun who organized discussions of about six people from different faiths; it was a small effort, but it was her way of building understanding.

He also frankly describes the difficulty of reaching out. Niebuhr writes of an effort by a group of Buddhists and Roman Catholics to forge ties in Los Angeles.

He quotes from a report by the group: “It challenged us to articulate to one another what we took for granted among ourselves.”

Niebuhr writes: “At times, the group -- a small one, numbering perhaps a dozen people -- had spent an hour or more puzzling over a single word from one of their traditions, trying to explain it to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Niebuhr says there’s a precedent for interfaith work in the U.S., particularly from the 1960s, when clergy and congregations of different faiths banded together to promote civil rights. But the focus has changed. “This time the focus is on religion,” he said.

Niebuhr readily acknowledges a basic problem: many faith traditions view themselves as the one true way to salvation or enlightenment.

The holy writings of various faiths say as much. So where can one find, he was asked, a scriptural basis for interfaith cooperation?

“You can start with Genesis,” he replied. He cited this well-known passage, Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Doesn’t that show, he asks, that people should get along? Niebuhr didn’t mention it, but a few verses later comes the line: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

Niebuhr also recounts a conversation with the head of a Hindu temple in New York, who cited a verse in the Bhagavad Gita in which God promises to liberate all people, not just Hindus, from their sins.

Niebuhr collects anecdotes from across the country in his book, but includes moving scenes from Los Angeles. He recounts an interfaith service that brought together Buddhists and Catholics at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown.

He was immediately struck by the visual difference -- the Catholic priests in black, the monks in glowing saffron, a bright contrast to the cathedral’s muted interior.

“The differences are OK,” he said, thinking back on the scene. “The differences are good. But so is being together.”

He also notes a fitting inscription on a cornerstone just to the right of the cathedral entrance. It would be easy to miss because the eyes are drawn up by the soaring walls.

The inscription is from Isaiah: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”