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Recovering Interfaith History, Recovering Ourselves

By Paul Chaffee

The sad wisdom claiming “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it” is much more interesting turned upside down: Those who remember the best of the past are freed to live into a better future. Choosing interfaith history as TIO’s second theme had to do with reclaiming remarkable stories, mostly unknown, of men and women building friendship among strangers centuries, even millennia ago.

Interfaith history so often begins with the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Claiming that milestone is appropriate when studying the modern interfaith movement. Much of this issue is devoted to the past 118 years. But consider the bigger picture. Ashoka and Akbar, a Buddhist and a Muslim, created interfaith cultures in a Hindu civilization centuries ago. The Pax Romana and Cordoba, despite all their shortcomings, showed how multi-religious communities can thrive. This issue features some of those stories.

Special thanks goes to Marcus Braybrooke for “A Dream that is Contagious,” an engaging survey of interfaith understanding and cooperation since 1893. Marcus’ 141-page version of the story is called Faith and Interfaith in a Global Age (1998). And his classic history, Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue (1993), remains a basic text for serious students. In the accompanying interview, I spoke with Professor Braybrooke at his phone in Oxford.

Years ago as a student, I remember a professor talking about whether leaders create history or history creates leaders. Either way, considering the history of interfaith relations, extraordinary leaders have been transformative, provided vision, and inspired commitment and achievement in seemingly impossible circumstances. A few of them are held up here – Swami Vivekananda, Juliet Hollister, Huston Smith – and more will show up in future issues.

Finally you’ll find stories about history in the making and the foundational documents that support us all.

Before diving into the stories, though, indulge a few minutes on “Torah, Sequined Saris, Chapattis, and Peace,” Ruth Broyde Sharone’s delicious story of attending Rosh Hashana services in central India last month and discovering a constructive interfaith culture that is gentle and peaceful. In a sense, Ruth’s story is trans-historical, a glimpse into healthy interfaith options that have existed for centuries in all sorts of cultures.

What we’ve left out of this issue are the nightmares of religious conflict, history which could easily fill another issue. Those stories, though, get all sorts of ink in the mainline press and elsewhere. Will TIO address diminishing religious violence? Sure, in a peacemaking issue next May. What seems more important first is understanding that none of us is alone in this venture, indeed, that we have a rich, living heritage. History provides part of the proof when we discover sisters and brothers, over the centuries, who have longed for a just, peaceful world, respecting all living beings.

Enjoy the stories!