By Paul Chaffee
Selecting an academic keynoter to launch a new kind of boundary-breaking theological institution was surely a daunting assignment. Attendees at the September 6 opening convocation of Claremont Lincoln University were clearly excited about seeing the world’s first intentionally multireligious school of theology come to life. But they probably didn’t expect to be electrified by the keynote address, didn’t expect to jump to their feet with cheers and applause when it ended. Which is what happened.
The address was delivered by the Honorable Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States. It is hard to imagine how any cleric, theologian, or pundit could more concisely or powerfully state what is required from people of faith and practice in the 21st century. At the heart of his presentation, he said:
…The challenge religion faces is how it can manage the contradiction of being simultaneously a victim of fundamentalist extremism as well as its antidote. Can it simultaneously defend its original impulse for good and give leadership for a world free of the absolutism advanced in its name? Can it transcend its life and death struggle for its own relevance and simultaneously advance a set of spiritual values and a moral ethic in a world defined by the absence of compassion, social justice and peace? Can religious communities rescue spirit, values and divine objectives from its own internecine battles for adherents, resources and theological supremacy?
What must be achieved for us to be successful are transitions within the religious communities from competitive religion to co-operative religion and even from comparative to collaborative religion. The first transition should signal that people of faith are in a battle for faith itself, not simply to place our particular labels on already faithful people. The battle for faith is the battle to do good and to create a world where people live better lives and the natural world is more sustainable. The second transition denotes that we have to move beyond the ‘compare and contrast’ model of interfaith engagements, and build solidarity across our markers of difference to achieve shared goals that both signal the relevance of religion and faith as well as demonstrate its capacity to build coalitions, campaigns and unity in action around values and principles we hold in common…