An honor and a pleasure

I had the great honor of speaking to the ACMCU conference at Georgetown University on Thursday, and then the great pleasure of attending the banquet to celebrate the Center’s 20th anniversary that evening. Congratulations to John Esposito and the whole team at ACMCU. You have so much to celebrate!
Here is the text of the short presentation I gave on The Challenge of Religious Pluralism …

I wrote a book that came out last year. We struggled to find a title, and finally settled on this: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
Now I know that some of you are thinking, “They should have struggled a little longer and harder. But …
We wanted to evoke curiosity, so we used a question.
We wanted to avoid excessive seriousness, so we alluded to an old familiar joke.
We wanted to avoid excessive levity, so we alluded to a joke that isn’t very funny.
We wanted to stimulate the imagination – so we evoked a scenario of religious leaders doing something together.
Many assumed the book would be about the challenge of religious pluralism, and in a sense it was. But it wasn’t an interfaith book as much as it was a religious identity book, because the challenge of religious pluralism is in large part a problem of religious identity.
The fact that many religions exist wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the challenge their multiplicity poses to the identity of many individual religions.
In other words, we don’t simply have a pluralism problem among religions. We have an identity problem within specific religions, and that problem can be succinctly stated by one thing nearly all religions held in common.
Before I name that one essential identity problem, though, I’d like to mention two things that nearly all religious people, and especially Christians and Muslims, already know how to do well. First, many of us know how to have a strong religious identity that is hostile toward other religions. In other words, we are strong Christians and strong Muslims, and that strength makes us deeply loyal to our fellow Christians or Muslims – and deeply suspicious of our neighbors who are not like us.
In contrast, many of us know how to have a weak religious identity that is tolerant toward other religions. In other words, we reduce the hostility that our strong-hostile fellow believers hold by diluting, watering down, secularizing, and suppressing the uniqueness of our religious tradition. We say something like this: “Yes, I know you are of another religion, but that doesn’t need to be a problem, because I’m not very religious anyway.”
When some people say pluralism, this is what they mean … achieving religious tolerance at the expense of strength of identity …
When you name those two common options – a strong-hostile faith on the one hand, and a weak-tolerant faith on the other, you naturally wonder … why can’t there be a third option: a strong faith that goes beyond being hostile or even tolerant? Why can’t we have a strong-benevolent Christian or Muslim identity?
That question brings me to the one essential identity problem that Christians and Muslims, along with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and others share. It is one feature that we share in common, and that commonality is a problem, not an asset. Here it is: we all tend to build identity among us through hostility toward them. We know who we are by distancing ourselves from who they are. We know how good we are by emphasizing how bad they are.
We tell stories of times in the past when they hurt us, oppressed us, insulted us, colonized us, ignored us, insulted us, killed us, attempted to destroy us. We seldom tell the stories of the times when we did these things to them.
We love to compare our best saints with their worst sinners.
We perpetuate the myth that same is safe and different is dangerous.
And oddly, the more we emphasize our dangerous differences, the more we become the same: people who need an enemy, outcast, or outsider to know who we are.
I pondered long and hard about what challenges I as a Christian would have to overcome to avoid either a strong-hostile or a weak-benign identity. I identified five, which I’ll just mentioned briefly.

1. The Historical Challenge requires me to face the ways that the 20 centuries between me and Jesus have gotten me off course from his original message and mission. It requires me to face the ugly parts of my history – the violent parts that are kept hidden from believers but are well-known to outsiders.
2. The Doctrinal Challenge requires me to acknowledge the ways Christian doctrines have been used as weapons against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others over these 20 centuries. It requires me to either purge those doctrines as irredeemable – or to rediscover and repurposes them as healing teachings – rediscovering the link between the word doctrine and doctor.
3. The Liturgical Challenge requires me to examine the ways in which rituals, songs, readings, and other practices of my faith unconsciously and unintentionally reinforce a hostile identity in their efforts to instill a strong identity. It then requires me to imagine how a strong and benevolent identity could be reinforced through the rituals and other practices of my religion.
4. The Missional Challenge requires me to reconceive of Christian mission in ways that express not hostility but benevolence to my Muslim and other neighbors. It invites me to imagine ways that Christians and Muslims can engage in a shared mission for the common good of all people and all living systems on our threatened planet.
5. The Spiritual Challenge requires me to discover in my faith practices of personal and communal transformation … so that I and my fellow Christians can develop empathy, compassion, solidarity, courage, and the other virtues necessary to be equipped as peacemakers, flowing from a deep well of inner peace in my own innermost being.

These five challenges – historical, doctrinal, liturgical, missional, and spiritual – have set a new agenda for me in my own spiritual development, and this agenda has been, for me, a truly life-giving and joyful enterprise. It is making me, I hope and believe, a better Christian.
So, my friends, if I could offer one suggestion as we move forward, seeking as faithful Christians and Muslims and others to build a more peaceful world, it would be this: let us face the historical, doctrinal, liturgical, missional, and spiritual challenges in our own traditions. To quote the Christian liberator Jesus and the Muslim prophet Issa: let us seek to take the sticks out of our own eyes before we focus on the splinters in the eyes of others.
Because the challenge of pluralism is, at heart, a challenge that goes to the heart of each religious identity. By facing that challenge, we can avoid the pitfalls of both strong-hostile and weak-benign religious identity. We can, with God’s help. become better Christians, better Muslims, better human beings, better neighbors.