What the world (and especially the U.S.) needs now -- I mean besides love and a good no-scent tobacco-less cigar -- is interfaith leaders. (On second thought, never mind about those cigars.)
These would be people who understand enough about various religious traditions that they can work with adherents of many faith traditions (and none) to accomplish goals for the common good. And they can do it without stirring up even more of the resentment, misinterpretation and hatred that already exists between and among various traditions.
But where can we find such leaders to help Americans living in an increasingly diverse religious landscape find ways to cooperate and at the very least tolerate one another?
One answer would be to have people with an interest in this area read and act on Eboo Patel's timely and important new book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Patel, one of the most effective interfaith leaders in the nation, is founder and head of the Interfaith Youth Core based in Chicago. He and the Core were the inspiration for the creation of the Kansas City Interfaith Youth Alliance (I serve on its board) and for many other interfaith efforts around the country.
Patel's new book is nothing less than a specific, excellent, readable guide for training interfaith leaders -- and for understanding in more depth why we need them as we move toward a culture of religious pluralism in which no particular faith will have a monopoly on influencing society and its citizens and leaders.
As I have written before, the U.S. has an opportunity to be a model for how people of different and contrasting faith traditions can live in harmony -- not by creating one syncretistic mush of a common faith but by respecting the real differences between and among the various religions citizens follow. This book can help staff that effort.
Patel puts in this way: "A healthy religiously diverse democracy is a society where people who disagree on some fundamental things do so without violence and in a manner where they are still able to work together on other fundamental things."
Patel comes to this work from the perspective of an Ismaili Muslim (Ismailis are part of the Shi'a branch of Islam). As he attended the University of Illinois (he later got a doctorate in religion from Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar), he became intrigued by the idea of being a social entrepreneur, and that notion eventually led him to found the Interfaith Youth Core. He describes that journey in the book.
An important distinction that Patel highlights is between diversity and pluralism. Drawing on the work of Diana Eck, who leads Harvard's Pluralism Project, Patel writes this: "Diversity is a fact; pluralism is an achievement, one that must be worked at."
Pluralism is diversity in positive, healthy, fruitful action, in a sense, and that must be the goal in a nation such as ours where diversity is a reality. The alternative is, in the end, unthinkable. Patel says that a religiously diverse society with few interconnections is vulnerable to all kinds of trouble, including violence.
This book is full of interesting and helpful lists, including what aspects of religious diversity are most important to pay attention to, various ways of responding to that diversity, the characteristics that make up good interfaith leaders and the skill set such leaders need.
Authors often are advised to write about what they know. It's hard to think of anyone in the country with more on-the-job know-how about interfaith work than Eboo Patel. And now he has given us the gift of his thinking so that others of us can join in this crucial work, too.
(Patel will be in Kansas City in February to speak at a Project Equality workshop.)
(The photo at left was taken in Kansas City a few years ago when I moderated a discussion with Patel after he spoke here.)
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YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP
An Irish government official says he knows for sure that God doesn't exist but thinks that smarter-than-human aliens probably do. This is why I no longer write humor columns. It's almost impossible nowadays to be funnier than people in the news.