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Interfaith Dialogue ( 12 Nov 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Overcoming interfaith challenges

By Daniel Sperber

9 November 2010

There are certain challenges that, despite our various differences, are common to almost all religions, and consequently to all liberal religious leaders. They fall into two main categories:

The first is of that of secularisation. It’s a process that is seriously eroding religious communities, and, of course, has also significant economic consequences. For when there is a shrinking of the community, its economic resources are affected. The second category is at the opposite end of the spectrum, encompassing extremism and fundamentalism, often accompanied by violence. And, of course, this phenomenon can also lead to a degree of disaffection on the part of certain sectors of the community, again adding to the decline in membership of religious congregations.

The first category has gained strength in recent decades, due to the overriding influence of rationalism, bolstered by modern technologies, which would persuade many that all problems—philosophical, theological, ethical etc.—can be solved by some type of mathematical algorithm based on a plus and a minus. This anti-spiritual trend encourages people to see religion as anachronistic; and offers so-called “post-modern” secularist solutions to all problems. The second seeks a deeper and more intense experiential involvement with religion; is repelled by modern materialism, permissiveness, and ethical relativism and prefers a world-view in black and white. It is happy to abdicate personal judgment and blindly follow charismatic leadership. The more extreme the leadership, the more intense the experience.

These two opposing tendencies are usually the part of a minority at the periphery. But though peripheral, they are active, vocal, receive a high profile in the media and are therefore highly influential.

The centre, on the other hand, may constitute a large majority, but is passive, silent and even apathetic. It is therefore the challenge, and indeed the duty, of liberal religious leaders of the various faiths, to emphasise the legitimacy of their ideological position, to encourage moderate activism, and to find ways of making their message more attractive, more inclusive, and experientially exciting. These are challenges common to almost all faiths, despite their religious, political and ideological differences.

Setting aside our various differences and inter-faith tensions, we, liberal religious leaders, may point to a number of areas where we can successfully work together and engage in positive and creative dialogue, which can, in turn, win over and galvanise the center of each respective religion, and create stronger bonds between faiths.

One such example is in the area of ecology. As we cohabit this planet, and jointly cause damage to it, we must surely join together in order to seek, preach and realise conservational solutions. We, as religious leaders, are generally in agreement that the earth is the Lord’s, and we are merely stewards, mandated to tend it and watch over it, for us and for future generations. So “conservationalism” is not merely a pragmatic issue, but also a clear religious injunction.

An additional example is the general attitude to holiness and, consequently, to holy places. These are frequently the seeds of conflict, rather than constituting a basis for friendship, mutual understanding and cooperation. The complexity of definitions and establishment of legal status in places such as Jerusalem is a challenge that all liberal religious leaders face, and better that we do it together than in separate groups and uncoordinated endeavors. Liberal religious leaders can play a central role in helping to resolve the national and religious aspects of such conflicts.

These are but two examples of areas of mutual concern, in which we may avoid and circumvent theological and political acrimonious argument.

There is much that divides us, but also much that unites us. Let us stress the commonality as opposed to the divisive differences, so that together, with combined efforts and forces, we can march forward to a better world.

Professor Daniel Sperber is the President of the Institute of Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.

Source: Khaleej Times