[Disclaimers: A) I am a friend of Rabbi Ted Falcon, one of the Interfaith Amigos. B) I spend most of my time and energy engaged in interfaith dialogue.]
I’m listening to an On Point interview with the three Interfaith Amigos: Rabbi Ted Falcon, Sheikh Jamal Rahman, and Pastor Don Mackenzie. Great guys, all. Intelligent, warm, and filled with hope. Question after question is answered with care, calm, and a liberalism that, after a while, I find more than annoying.
As the interview goes on I learn that all the hate-filled, xenophobic, misogynist, and triumphalist aspects of these three Abrahamic faiths are either anachronisms to be abandoned, or particularist expressions of universal truths. In other words, to take but one example, when Christianity claims that Jesus is the sole means to salvation we are to understand this as addressed to Christians only, and not claiming that Jews and Muslims must come to God through Christ. Or when Jews claim to be God’s Chosen People we are told that God chooses everyone for something, and hence the chosenness of the Jews does not exclude the fact that others are also God’s chosen.
This kind of liberal niceness is totally disingenuous. If Christian claims are only true for Christians, then they aren’t really true. And if God chooses everyone, then God really chooses no one which undermines the entirety of classical Judaism, to say nothing of contemporary Jewish claims to Israel as the Promised Land.
In other words, the Three Interfaith Amigos are amigos not because they have learned to transcend their differences, but because they have no differences. The religions these three clergymen represent are so liberal as to be almost interchangeable.
Once you abandon the exclusivist claims of each of the Abrahamic religions, you have to ask yourself why you would choose to maintain loyalty to one or another among them? The answer cannot be that one is true, while the others are false. They are all saying the same thing in different ways, so the only attractor is that you prefer one flavor of faith to another. Can it be that simple? Am I Jewish because I prefer it to Christianity the way I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to plain chocolate chip ice cream? And if that is all it is, is it so shocking and novel that I can have friends who prefer another flavor, and even can befriend those lactose intolerant types who refuse to eat ice cream at all? Is this worthy of special praise and an hour with Tom Ashbrook on NPR?
I am neither surprised nor impressed that Ted, Jamal, and Don get along, and agree on essentials. I expect no less from well-educated, liberal, middle class Americans. The fact that they call the exclusivist claims of their traditions “untruths” rather than hard truths suggests that the only way for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to become friends is to deny as false the claims most central to each faith.
Where does this leave interfaith dialogue?
This is not an academic question for me. I work with teachers from many traditions, and we, too, get along and agree, and we do so by negating the core of our respective faiths and upholding a liberal universalism instead. We begin with the modernist assumption that there is Truth and that all religions point to the same Truth, and interpret our respective religions in light of this. But, with the exception of Hinduism which actually says this (Truth is one, different people call it by different names), this assumption does not come from our respective religions. It comes from liberal, democratic capitalism that reduces everything to a matter of taste.
So what am I left with? Questions mostly.
Is true interfaith dialogue happening among liberals, or must we wait for fundamentalists to take one another on around the table? Does it matter that liberals of different tribes can get along? Are liberal religionists clinging to outmoded faith labels when in fact they (we) are all liberal humanists? Is there a way to admit, honor, and use one’s historical identity without abandoning universalism or watering down that identity?
I don’t have answers to these and similar questions. If you do, please share them with me. And if the three Interfaith Amigos read this blog, please help me understand. My own spiritual path depends on it.