Religions as Conscience: The Interfaith Imperative
Frank Kaufmann «View Bio

Editor’s Note: This essay was delivered at The Convergence of Science and Spirituality Conference, Great Hall, Iliff School of Theology, on September 9 this year. It serves as a useful counterpoint to the controversial speech by Pope Benedict XVI published on this page, putting modern interreligious endeavors in historical perspective and underlining some of the intrinsic difficulties facing interfaith efforts.
The evolution of interfaith consciousness in the modern period is rapid and promising. Progress notwithstanding, pioneers in the field have yet to intuit an endgame sufficient to bring world traditions to full and enduring harmony. At present even the best interfaith relations remain bound as lateral wanting for a transcendent, unifying principle. This brief presentation offers for consideration a telos-based analogy, comparing harmonized world religions to the conscience of a saintly and wholesome person.

This paper proceeds on the assumption that a correct or insightful grasp of the essential elements and dynamics of conflict is: 1. necessary and 2. applicable.

This, despite the insistence by many that real-world conflict is too complex and nuanced to admit of, or benefit from, attempts to generate applicable meta-phors.

This paper treats on concept, but only cursorily. The concept is: The human being as a model provides an ideal and a purpose for interreligious relations.

Every era or occasion of positive interreligious relations is different. Human existence as we know it has evolved from extremely few people (some say 2) to 6.7 billion earth inhabitants at present. Even though in earlier eras social and political patterns would hold for far greater lengths of time, there still has not been (to the best of my knowledge) two distinct and separate occasions of interreligious collaboration inside of a single pattern of human social and political evolution. I point this out to say that the history of interfaith in the modern period is distinct and different from all prior occasions in which one can find fleeting semblance of interreligious collaboration or cooperation. Students of peace note times such as 12th century Spain, or the occasional 16th or 17th century Mughal who allowed a time of Hindu flourishing. Hopefully these occasions have lessons or insights for us, but our time is different both in religion and in the social and political context in which religion functions. Population and technology have a great deal to do with this difference.

It can be argued that religious behavior and evolution of religious consciousness parallels political, international and inter-cultural consciousness. Said otherwise, it can be argued that human beings simply evolve in the sweep of our growing species-wide enlightenment and potential, regardless of any one person or group’s particular bent or vocation.

The widespread notion that religions either can or should get along, or at least live and let live, is very new and very young (about 110 years old). It occupies a tiny percentage of the time in which people have lived religiously. Additionally, part of the impulse to soften or temper religions’ inclination toward imperialism derives from the post-enlightenment impulse to dismiss religion as primitive superstition and anachronistic. Death of God theology rightly identified this as what is called “functional atheism.”

The Emerging Recognition of Cooperation as a Positive and Mutually Beneficial Value, and the Unique Aspect of Religion
Insight into the fact that cooperation yields personal gain has always existed to a greater or lesser degree at various times in history, but only to a limited degree, and almost always in the service of its contrary impulse, namely gain at the expense of the other. Primitive, utilitarian forms of cooperation function in the pursuit of alliances. Alliances are formed to attain the necessary strength and power to pursue gain for self at the expense of the other. The impulse to form alliances even for non-noble purposes nevertheless has the positive outcome of incrementally enlightening even the scheming actor. “We” comes to describes ever broader realms of diversity.

Religion in this scheme of things ideally should be the star student on the path toward increasing enlightenment derived from cooperation. The irony however is that in religions there is no incentive to form alliances. To the extent that religions are expansionist and acquisitive they believe that their power resides in the unalloyed force of their respective ideologies, metaphysics and lifestyle systems. Religion manifests the human propensity to dominate in exactly the opposite manner than the material and secular insights. Religious imperialists if they form alliances with anyone do so with secular power in pursuit of their expansionist designs. And this is always done to their peril: spirituality flees, and ugly institutions arise bearing the name of this religion or that.

The ONLY thing that can lead religions in the direction of cooperation is their best side.

This fact is at once the very thing that makes the modern interfaith movement such a rare thing of beauty, on the one hand, and so excruciatingly slow, so wheel-spinning, and so often superficial to the point of near disingenuous, on the other.

Harmony Comes in 3s, and the Unique Aspect of Religion
Conflict arises when neither partner is able to acknowledge the inherent or insuperable “superiority” of the other, and when the “superior partner” does not use his or her advantage for the welfare and upliftment of the one less blessed. If the more blessed lives to uplift the lesser no conflict will arise, even if superior strength of one or the other is not cut and dried, namely even if there is near parity.

When relations degenerate into conflict there is no way out for the involved partners save exhaustion or the intervention of a “3rd” participant. Exhaustion is always only temporary anyway. The “3rd” by definition is “transcendent,” it transcends the parochial concerns of both embattled parties, seeking the welfare of something greater than the benefit or interests of only one side or the other. Peacemakers should proudly own participation in transcendence.

The 3rd can be embodied in a person or an institution (like George Mitchell, or the United Nations), it can be something that both sides recognize as a “higher power,” or it can be an ideal or a purpose recognized by both as worthy. This 3rd must, by whatever art and science, find the way to move the players to embrace something other than an obsession with their own cause or designs.

Again, as with the previous section, Religion is least well suited to benefit from the harmonizing influence of the 3rd (for at least 2 reasons):

1. Each religion already regards itself to be singularly preeminent vis a vis anything to do with the transcendent, and
2. As systems traditionally and predominantly hierarchical, it is nearly impossible for someone outside those systems to have sufficient authority to mediate or guide.

Religions are built around the very stuff that they would need to surrender to in order to be led away from conflict and strife and toward harmony. Their situation might be compared to that of the alcoholic who is ever more intelligent and knowledgeable than the best therapist hoping to help.

Religion and Global Conflict
The nature of global conflict and the relationship of religions to war and conflict has changed radically and dramatically during most of our lifetimes. Prior to 1989, even though religions did not work harmoniously together to any significant degree no one thought of war and global instability as lying in any way at the feet of religions’ primitive habit of seeing other religions as foes or inferior. In the 20th Century (until 1989) the good guys and bad guys were understood in the context of what was dubbed “the cold war.” The dominant military players were Russia and the United States, and China to a lesser degree. The belief systems that fueled enmity were rendered in economic and political differences, using terms such as “Democracy,” and “Communism.” The interfaith efforts that transpired in those years were rarely characterized as central to the pursuit of a peaceful world. (The notable exception was Ireland, and to a lesser degree Israel and Palestine.)

This changed radically with the fall of the Soviet Union. The first frightening and horrifying sign of the power of religion to animate genuine hostilities, indeed war, was seen in the wake of the fall of what was called Yugoslavia. The complex cauldron of conflict transpired along battle lines that took on the eerie hue of religious identity for the first time in centuries: Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. From the war in the Balkans to this day things have never been the same.

Now in the minds of most people in the world, almost all war, conflict and global instability is directly related to religion in some way or another. This creates a huge demand on interfaith activity. But the interfaith enterprise has found itself flat footed in its ability to change quickly enough to bring to bear its wisdom, benefits and insights from a different age of dialogue, one with different habits and different assumptions.

Religions as Conscience: The Interfaith Imperative
The role of religion has always been to function as the origin of a peaceful world. The three qualities found uniquely in religion that make this so are repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. But in a world in which war was not felt nor defined primarily in religious terms, most people did not know this. Now everyone knows religion cannot be overlooked. 9/11 and other recent religion-related violence has happened on the watch of leaders and a world in a stupor, not only about terrorism or Islam, but about religion and religious belief per se.

Every human individual has good impulses and bad impulses (good for the self and the other, and/or bad for the self and for the other). Consequently, all human institutions, including political ones such as states and nations, are characterized by this pair of impulses. Just as a human being can behave well or poorly, so can a group, a corporation, and so can a nation.

In the case of an individual, the faculty that seeks to keep him or her on a path that is good, wholesome, healthy, even loving, is the conscience. As infinitely complex as human beings are, and human behavior is, the all important matter of behaving well or poorly rests entirely in the conscience. The conscience is quiet, non-aggressive, yet relentless and long-suffering. It tries until our last breath to guide us in the direction of goodness.

On larger scales, religion is meant to function in the same way, but now that the world is irreversibly sewn together as one, the fractured condition of world religious relations obstructs the capacity of religion to function in the way of its proper role in human affairs.

The mission to be the wellspring of goodness, and keep the organism of our human family healthy, wholesome and whole, is the mission of all world religions in a world that is now one. This shared mission is the “transcendent 3rd” that can finally shatter the lateral relations in which religions are locked.

Frank Kaufmann is the Executive Director of the Interreligious Federation for World Peace.