A better way to talk about faith

Student groups find innovative ways to bridge religious differences

By David Bornstein

The New York Times

Published: Friday, June 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

It's not without conflict. Damhorst has gotten pushback from evangelical friends. "Some say that even collaborating with people from other faiths is a disservice — because it affirms the validity of their beliefs," he said. "Others fear that if they come to the table for an interfaith dialogue, they're going to be asked to hang up some aspect of their tradition — or maybe even start to question their faith."

That's not his experience. He says that his own faith has been strengthened by this work. "When faith is just a series of ideas in your head, one does find it offensive to have it disagreed with," he says. "But when faith is lived out in action, it's more impermeable than if it's just a concept."

Americans celebrate diversity. But one of the mistaken beliefs about diversity is that it leads to greater tolerance. Putnam's research indicates that, unless people make a concerted effort to build bridges, diversity leads to greater social fragmentation — with lower rates of trust, altruism and cooperation. "What ethnic diversity does is cause everybody to hunker down and avoid connection," he explained. "It's not just the presence of diversity in your neighborhood. You've got to actually be doing things with other people in which you have a personal attachment. Diversity is hard, not easy."

The question that obsesses the IFYC founder Eboo Patel today is how to make interfaith cooperation as much of a social norm as multiculturalism has become. As part of that process, IFYC is providing guidance to a select group of colleges to demonstrate what a college-wide model interfaith program could become.

One of them is Dominican University, which is changing its curriculum, redesigning student outcomes, engaging students and faculty, and aligning its academic calendar — all with interfaith cooperation in mind. Donna Carroll, the school's president, envisions a day when any student who walks across the stage to receive a diploma from Dominican University will have gained a solid understanding of interfaith cooperation. "Because we are educating the next generation of arguably global leaders, it's part of our responsibility to ensure that this is a component of the educational environment," Carroll explained. "All you have to do is turn on the news and you can recognize that."

Indeed, if you take a stroll along the Internet, cable TV, or talk radio, you'll find no shortage of dire warnings from people who dread a clash of civilizations and often deride interfaith cooperation as na?e. In this vision, safety means maintaining a fortress mentality and keeping a firm divide between us and them. Another path to follow is the one espoused by George Washington, that all Americans "enjoy the good will" of others. To make that hope real, says Patel, people who care about tolerance need to cultivate specific leadership skills today: "We need more people to show how our religious differences fit within the overarching framework of pluralism that is part of the American tradition — this magnificent and glorious idea that people will stand up and fight for."

David Bornstein is the author of "How to Change the World" and founder of dowser.org, a media site that reports on social innovation.

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