Opinion | Columns

Interpreting 'interfaith'

Columbia is home to a vibrant culture of interfaith collaboration and exchange. But what does this mean? And why does it matter?

We all profess the merits of interfaith initiatives. Of course, a progressive, modern community like ours hosts an amiable interchange of religious ideas. Interfaith dialogue is the natural expression of our love of diversity. After all, we are Columbia.

But if we move beyond such genteel façades and urbane pleasantries, we may find a different reality hiding behind a specious mask. To what extent do we view interfaith dialogue as just an inconvenient devoir, the unhappy task of a faithful few fulfilling an obligation to political correctness? Or as just the newest and trendiest concoction of the dealers of epiphenomena, an opportunity for religion addicts to go hang out with the rest of the opiated masses while the sober go on with their real lives?

It is true that interfaith dialogue, when conducted insubstantially, can in fact devolve into these things. If we seek to engage with one another only to propitiate, thinking that devotion to the punctilios of dialogue in itself is enough, then the interfaith movement will forever remain an empty and quite unnecessary formality. And it will deserve any furtive glances of scorn it may attract.

But if we think deeply and earnestly about the purpose of interfaith exchange, then we find that interfaith projects are not just the expression of airy-fairy ideals of global harmony and cross-religious friendship. Rather, interfaith initiatives are indispensable to both a prosperous society and a thriving individual life.

The platitudes about interfaith dialogue are true. In a world where few things are as dangerous as ignorance, interfaith work provides real, living knowledge. Certainly, independently studying the sacred texts of other religions is an essential way to combat religious ignorance, but it can never replace actual interaction with adherents of different faiths. Interfaith activity can thus lead to an understanding of the fundamental human virtues—regardless of their multifarious expressions and myriad targets—that we all share.

Less appreciated than such truisms, however, are the benefits of interfaith dialogue to the individual. Interfaith initiatives act as the “contact zones” in which different and sometimes contradictory belief systems interact with one another. It is in these zones, where we look at other systems of thought with curiosity and skepticism, that we are also forced to examine our own beliefs and test their validity. When our faiths come in contact with others’, do they still feel right? Do our intellects, our emotions, our inmost thoughts still accept them? Do we believe what we always thought we believed? These are difficult questions to ask, but we have to ask them, especially in college.

This is not to say that we must abandon our beliefs when we seek to enter into an interfaith discussion. To do so would be disingenuous and in fact would be detrimental both to our own selves and to the interfaith initiative as a whole. Interfaith cannot operate in a phony world in which everyone is equally right and all opinions are equally valid. The ability to defend what one believes and to engage others critically is essential to faith, and it is a practice that does not necessarily preclude a genuine internal desire to check and refine one’s beliefs. Moreover, “interfaith,” despite its name, cannot exclude people who choose not to affiliate with organized religion. All, atheists and agnostics included, must be part of the conversation if it is to be fruitful.

This is, to a large extent, what already happens at Columbia, not only when faith groups on campus collaborate and converse with one another, but also when we gather in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization to consider life’s fundamental questions. We do not readily think of these classes as interfaith discussions, but perhaps we should. What other opportunities in life will we have to engage with a diverse group of brilliant minds on what life means? Alas, too few.

This, I think, is what “interfaith” means. “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship,” say the writings of my own faith. After all, life itself is an interfaith activity, and we cannot blithely live on pretending that it isn’t.

Amin Ghadimi is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He is a former Spectator editorial page editor, a former senior editor of Columbia East Asia Review and served as secretary of the the Bahá’í Club of Columbia University. He is studying abroad at the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies. The Way That Can Be Told runs alternate Tuesdays.

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