So often I wonder if interfaith work can really have the voice I hear. I wonder if it can shed its pathetic refrain of vague, self-congratulatory liberal notions of tolerance. I wonder if, amid the noise and haste of talk-show evangelism and televised extremism, we can discern the more powerful alternative stories: of Mahatma Gandhi and Badshah Khan, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I wonder if our silence, our inability to tell these stories as they affect us, cedes the terrain to agents of destruction, who would have only their group dominate and others suffocate.
In truth, I don’t know. Our public discourse on religion is too frequently filled with violence and virulence, endowing the so-called clash of civilizations with the sheen of inevitability. It’s this very uncertainty, however, that urges me to change the conversation from conflict to cooperation. So, I’d like to tell you how I spent the last days of my winter break. The Hindu community in which I was raised bought a new property some two years ago–an old church in the foothills of San Jose. The final day of our new year’s retreat involved a special Vedic fire ceremony to pray for, among other things, spiritual maturity and mutual cooperation with our neighbors: a Polish church that has been particularly warm and welcoming. I love these rarefied rituals: the smells of smoke and mystery and tradition, the joyful liturgical harmony of the priests, the deep sense of the height and glory of this sacrifice. But my favorite part of the day was to hear the following from several attendees, my mother included: “There’s something about this place, this church. People have really prayed here. It’s those blessings that are coming to us.”
For her, the dialogue of religious experience did not simply override cultural boxes; it drew on their deep wells and breathed their spirit across space and time. I don’t think we require some mystical assertion to recognize that, as Gwendolyn Brooks says: We are each other’s magnitude and bond. Like the faith heroes I mentioned, I believe my religious tradition calls me to build mutually enriching relationships with those different from me by working together to serve others. Religious particularity is not only about domination or persecution or political intransigence; it gives us the ability to interrogate ourselves, to take learning seriously, to be surprised and humbled by the fact of existence. I am not interested in apologetics, but in fellowship; not merely in hearing another’s story, but in writing a new chapter together.
This is what I hope Stanford F.A.I.T.H. will begin here: countering violence by confronting the triple threats of racism, economic exploitation and war; countering hatred by advocating for feminist and LGBT rights; countering mistrust by preventing deaths due to malaria. These are concerns that call on the best of our traditions–religious and secular alike–and require us to engage our deepest identities in common action. Please join our weekly meetings: Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in the Common Room in the CIRCLE (Third Floor, Old Union). Help us transform interfaith cooperation from an anomaly to a social norm. Every student is a potential interfaith leader. We need only have the words and the heart to act.
– Anand Venkatkrishnan
Co-founder, Faiths Acting in Togetherness and Hope (F.A.I.T.H.)