On Faith: A week to celebrate interfaith harmony

The idea of interfaith harmony might strike some as ironic in light of the immensity of interfaith disharmony through history right down to the present. This is particularly true at the moment in some Muslim-majority nations, where persecution of Christians has spiked.

In response to the chronic problem of religious conflict, the United Nations recently declared the first week in February each year as Interfaith Harmony Week, and is urging religious groups across the globe to sponsor interfaith events — breakfasts, charitable projects, lectures, and dialogues. One such event will occur at University Synagogue in Irvine on Feb. 3. The award-winning film "On Common Ground" will be shown followed by a discussion with its director, Ahmad Zahra.

The interfaith movement has grown significantly in Orange County since 1993 when the first Interfaith Diversity Fair (now Forum) took place at UC Irvine. Its 18th iteration, at UCI on April 28, will be directed at a select group of area university students on the theme of religion's impact on world politics. Additionally, the Interfaith Youth Council, working with high school students, presents a forum March 13 on "Faith Commitments and the Environment" at Shinnyo-en Buddhist temple in Yorba Linda. Then there is the work of 11 interfaith councils throughout the county that meet monthly to share mutual concerns, often with guest presenters.

Despite this impressive activity — mirrored in many parts of the nation and free world — not all believers are on board. In particular many Orthodox Jews, Evangelical Christians and ultra-conservative Muslims view such activities as compromising their own faith. How, they ask, can we recognize the truth claims of another religion when they contradict our own beliefs? Can Jesus, for example, be simultaneously a misunderstood Jewish reformer to Jews, the son of God and savior of humankind to Christians and a great prophet, but of less importance than Muhammad, to Muslims? And, by participating in interfaith activities, are these conservative believers implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of other faiths?

The true question, in my view, will only be answered on a higher plane of existence. Then, human finitude that limits all knowledge in this world — even the truths of faith — will give way to fully illumined truth and to a divine reconciliation. When astronauts began viewing Earth from space and sending back photos, we saw our planet in a new way — as a beautiful blue spaceship, which was awesome and precious. So, it seems to me, will we behold religious truth in a new, cosmic perspective in the afterlife.

For now, the case for dialogue and cooperation between believers of all varieties rests on the following considerations:

• A common ethical core unites all the major faiths — the golden rule, the pursuit of justice, concern for the less fortunate, and compassion for all sentient creatures.

• There will always be many different religions in spite of efforts by various faiths to convert the world to their theological position. In fact, new religions continue to emerge, for example, the Baha'i Faith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the19th century, the Unification Church and Wicca in the 20th. Even in any one faith there are differences in belief and practice, such that there are an estimated 30,000 Christian denominations worldwide. So we will need to live and work together to heal the world despite our most profound religious differences. Religious misunderstandings have caused bigotry and violence for the past 2,000 years. Dialogue and cooperation, by contrast — along with academic instruction about the world's religions from middle school through college — can promote respect and cooperation.

• Meeting and working with those of other faiths need not signify theological agreement. Fuller Seminary in Pasadena — perhaps the premier evangelical seminary in the nation — has established the Journal of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue to provide a forum for conservative Christian scholars and pastors who might venture into inter-religious work.

Peace and harmony among nations will only be fully realized when there is peace between religions. May dialogue and harmony increase.

BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is emeritus professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton and a Costa Mesa resident.

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