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Interfaith Dialogue: Working Together

The following is a transcript of Dr. Andrew Wilson’s presentation given at the forum on “Interfaith Dialogue in these troubled times”. The event was held at the Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City on Monday, July 31st. Dr. Andrew Wilson is Professor of Scriptural Studies at UTS.

Wilson is the author of World Scriptures: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, which is a compilation of the major texts and themes espoused by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Bahai, and Confucianism.

I am sure all of you are here because you are interfaith. You understand that we live in a global village, where all around the world, people of different religions, different cultures, different values are rubbing shoulders with each other. And, unfortunately when there is distrust and when there is this sense of competition; I have to win and you have to lose, or if you win I lose, it creates a big problem. 

Religion has been implicated in this because religion has tended to reinforce tribalism; tribal identity. But in that sense, if that were all there was to religion then religion would be no different than politics. But, religion goes deeper than politics, because it is connected to our relationship with God, who is the God of all human kind, as [Dr.] Idris [Kone] so beautifully prayed. I thought that was a good Old Testament psalm, but it is a Muslim prayer, the same sentiment as the Old Testament and in the Christian bible. So, when you go deep into religion, when you go deep into God or even when you address your own conscience and ask the question, “In this difficult situation where I’m confronting people with whom I may disagree politically, or socially whom I mistrust, or [when] other people in the media or on Facebook are telling me that I should mistrust them, should I impugn their motives?” We have to think, “Aren’t they children of God as well and doesn’t God have a relationship with them as well as me?” And then I might want to find out what in fact is driving their hearts to take positions that might on the surface be empathetic to mine. We could take any of the hot button topics that have broiled this country such as abortion, or Obama Care, or the budget, or immigration. We all have probably taken sides, on one side or the other, on these issues from the stand point of politics, that’s a natural thing to do. And yet, there are believers, people of faith on both sides, even though some people may try to convey the impression that the people on my side are believers and the people on the other side are all atheist. Nothing can be further from the truth. 

When you look at the totality of belief there is so much that can unite us as believers, whether we are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, whatever. But, if we look at a mix of people, people tend to look at what makes us different, and we tend to fight over that. That’s what’s unfortunate.Dr. Andrew Wilson Professor of Scriptural Studies at UTS

So, we have evangelical Christians who are lining up with the Republican Party or [President] Trump, and saying that we are in a culture war against the forces of atheism, that are trying to take prayer out of the public schools. Well, I come from a reform Jewish background, and we reformed Jews, in our faith, wanted to take prayer out of the schools because it was all about promoting an overbearing Christian culture upon our young people who wanted to remain Jewish. And when we come to Obama Care, there’s this idea in the Bible of the role of the government in helping the poor, which is faith [based]. So actually, on all the great issues of the day […] and you can go all the way back, all the way back to the 1920’s to the Scopes Monkey Trial on evolution you have great ministers and pastors and rabbis lining up on both sides. So, it’s not like one side are believers and the other side are atheists, but that’s the way it’s always been when we look at things from a tribal identity and not from a God identity. From a tribal identity ‘my religion is the best’. Well, every single religion represented here, [at the Interfaith Dialogue] whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unificationist, Buddhist, they all think they are the best. We all think “I’m number one, and the other guys are an inferior religion and you ought to learn from me”. So this is a particular problem in my own faith, Unificationist. They always (some of them) go into interfaith thinking that “my real purpose, my underlining purpose is to convert them.” To teach them my truth because my truth is higher than their truth. Now that is a problem, because actually we have so much to learn from one other. God is infinite, and God is like a diamond with a million facets, and each religion is like catching one facet of that God, and bringing it out in all of its beauty. But, there are other facets that we don’t see, that we can learn from, that we can appreciate the beauty and glory of the multitude of human race that God created. 

When I worked on this book The World Scripture, which was published around 1988, I found so many passages from different scriptures that talk about the same thing. I can find passages of prayer from every religion. I can find passages about faith, about giving, about compassion, about the omnipotence of God, about the imminence of God. Every religion has some of these same ideas. So you look at religions in their totality; there is tremendous overlap. When you look at the totality of belief there is so much that can unite us as believers, whether we are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, whatever. But, if we look at a mix of people, people tend to look at what makes us different, and we tend to fight over that. That’s what’s unfortunate. This is religions fault. Because religion has been carrying for hundreds of years their battle flag. “You all need to follow the cross” or “You all have to follow the crescent.” 

One of the things about the American founding fathers, which has sort reached a dead end, and is what I think is the cause of our problem today, is the idea which came out of the British Enlightenment, which was this idea that we lift up reason above religion. And we say, there are certain reason principles that we can all agree on, no matter what religion we are: “There is a God. We have to be just in this world. We will answer ultimately in the by and by for the consequence of our actions, and then we can unite around reason.” And actually people like Thomas Jefferson, with Jefferson’s Bible, where he took out all the miracles, all the supernatural parts of the Bible, and just kept in what he thought was within reason.

It worked to get America started but this turned into secularism, and secularism ultimately doesn’t work, because it doesn’t satisfy the deepest longing of the human heart which is for a deep connection with God. And you can’t have deep connection with God only through reason. And so, people need the personal connection with Jesus as their savior, you can’t just bracket that out.

They tried secularism in India under Nehru, they tried secularism in Europe, they tried secularism in United States by bracketing faith and sort of kicking it out of the public sphere. It doesn’t work, because the deep part of the human heart is connected to God. Interfaith is a different road that can reach the same point of harmony in society, but it is one that takes into account, and honors and celebrates the ways that people relate with God, instead of trying to bracket and say we can’t talk about it, saying we can’t pray, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. The fatal flaw of secularism is that it doesn’t acknowledge the place of God in people’s lives, and the transforming power of having a relationship with God and how it can help people overcome all kinds of problems. [How a relationship with God can help them] get through all types of problems in their life; addictions, break down in their marriage; whatever. So many problems can be solved when people pray and find a relationship with God. Whether it is a Muslim God, a Jewish God, a Christian God, a Rastafari God, a Santeria God, a Buddha, or whoever, it all works, because it’s all connected to the one source. So I think interfaith is the future of how we are going to get beyond these troubled times, where people still are unfortunately identifying externals and not going deep and not thinking of one another and how God is working in each person’s life whether we are Democrat or Republican, or Tea Party, or Bernie Sanders or whoever. We are all motivated by God in one way or another and that one God is not going to want one side to be the winner at the expense of the other. He’s going to want for us to find a way that we can all work together and that’s the message of interfaith. Thank you very much.