Media miss the big interfaith story

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2010

We in the media are missing big stories. That's how Will Storrar, who directs the Center of Theological Inquiry, put it last week over the phone, and I couldn't disagree.

Preceding the 9/11 anniversary, there was ample coverage of Terry Jones' threat to host a Quran-burning and the siting of an Islamic center near ground zero. You'd think nothing but name-calling is happening when, in fact, genuine interfaith dialogue exists in many places.

Yes, "interfaith dialogue" sounds deadly dull. But, really, what's more central to keeping our world from blowing up?

Storrar quickly identified three university-level discussions typical of what's happening among scholars, whose views ultimately shape how people on the street think.

First, there's the discussion that started at his Princeton center. It involves 16 scholars from the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - who have met regularly around the world to study the scriptures from each other's perspective.

They also have shared times of devotion and struck up friendships. One result is a new book of essays, "Crisis, Call and Leadership in the Abrahamic Tradition," in which they attempt to square their faiths with modernity.

Second, a global discussion is occurring through Cambridge University's Interfaith Program. Groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars study scriptures together to understand each faith's distinctiveness.

Third, a Salzburg Global Seminar exchange involves scholars and legal experts examining the common ground between international law and Islamic law. In November, they will meet again to produce a book about their findings.

These efforts capture the spirit of authentic dialogue. No one holds back. Participants don't sugarcoat their differences. And scholars search for common ground.

At the lay level, there also is serious exchange among the Abrahamic faiths. In Dallas, for example, Temple Emanu-El and First Presbyterian Church exchange pulpits. Similarly, my colleague Steve Blow reported Sunday how the Rev. Bob Roberts Jr., who pastors a North Texas evangelical church, meets regularly with Texas Muslims and is hosting a global faith forum this fall.

Conversations like these may achieve daily media attention, but they're a response to what we learned nine years ago: A deadly gulf opens if Jews, Christians and Muslims don't discuss their differences.

That's why it was heartening to see evangelicals led by the Rev. Richard Cizik announce last week that they want to search for commonality with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who's leading the effort to create an Islamic center near ground zero.

It isn't that journalists always miss these currents. Interfaith discussions occur online at sites like The Washington Post's On Faith blog and The Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog.

Texas Faith participants have spent considerable time this year discussing the essentials of an interfaith dialogue. My favorite reply came from the Rev. George Mason of Dallas' Wilshire Baptist Church, who wrote recently:

"We have been concentrating on the question of how to live respectfully with one another by acknowledging our religious differences and not pretending that every religion is fundamentally the same, thus minimizing the particular truth claims made by each."

But such conversations also include the hard work of finding shared aims, without which our globe won't survive. Mason touched on this, too:

"We need to acknowledge that one common value in all our traditions is some version of the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' If the truth claims of any religion are ever to be taken seriously by outsiders, it will only be because the door of inquiry has been opened by a bold and consistent witness to the ethical principle of the Golden Rule."

Applying the Golden Rule can get us beyond our pasts, which fuel the grievances that prompt violence in the name of religion.

And that's why the search for common ground should be the biggest story around.

• William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at the Dallas Morning News, Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75265; e-mail: wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.



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