By Harold Kasimow
“The alternative to peace is disaster. The choice is to love together or perish together. Let the love of life have the final word.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
As a person deeply committed to promoting interfaith dialogue as a path to peace, I was thrilled to learn that King Abdullah II of Jordan proposed the idea of an annual World Interfaith Harmony Week.
“Humanity everywhere is bound together,” he told the General Assembly of the United Nations, “not only by mutual interests, but by shared commandments to love God and neighbor; to love the good and neighbor.” He proposed designating a special week in February during which people would meet in their places of worship to seek out sources in their traditions that teach tolerance, respect for the other and peace.
We live in an amazing but dangerous world. It is tragic that at a time when religious traditions are becoming more powerful, they have become major contributors to division, hate and even violence. Too many people of faith are intolerant and continue to teach hate, which is a poison to our children and future generations.
They easily find harsh passages in their sacred texts that they interpret literally and use as excuses for violence. It is especially sad that Judaism, Christianity and Islam, united in worshipping the same God and in seeing Abraham as a model of faith, are contributing significantly to this tragedy.
The greatest religious leaders have shown profound respect for practitioners of other religions. For example, Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must have the innate respect for other religions as we have for our own.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great rabbis of the 20th century, wrote: “In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God. … Holiness is not the monopoly of any particular religion or tradition.”
Pope John Paul II declared dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews to be a “priority.”
Authentic dialogue is critical, especially among the Abrahamic faiths, to overcome hate and violence. Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, recently said that interreligious dialogue is “not only one of the answers, it is the only answer.”
Religious leaders have a special responsibility to raise their voices and speak out against hate at every place of worship. This is also the responsibility of academics who have devoted their lives to the study of religion and who can help us understand the incredible diversity of the world’s religions. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one of the most important teachers of comparative religion in the 20th Century, helps us understand that religions are not fixed, static entities, but are constantly being influenced by encounters with other religious traditions.
I believe that if we want to reduce hate and violence it is urgent to focus not only on our sacred texts but also on the writings of the great spiritual teachers of our time — people such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr. and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. What most strongly unites these spiritual teachers from diverse religious traditions — a Jewish rabbi, a Baptist minister, a Catholic monastic, and a Muslim professor — is their total commitment to their own faith and, at the same time, their deep respect for the other.
These extraordinary teachers are open to the possibility that we can be spiritually enriched by an encounter with the other. These thinkers, who greatly admired each other, believed that we are, in fact, in harmony with our faith traditions when, despite our radical doctrinal differences, we become friends.
Harold Kasimow is George Drake Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell.
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