Former New York Times Reporter Looks at Growth of Interfaith Movements

August 30, 2008

Author: Steve Padilla

Source: The Los Angeles Times,0,931434.story

Conflicts between religions continue to rock the world, but when Gustav Niebuhr looks out on the religious landscape, he sees what he calls the "possibility of community."

Niebuhr, an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University, detects an encouraging (he calls it unprecedented) trend: people of faith reaching out to those of other faiths.

This is not to suggest conflicts between religions will end soon, if ever. Just this week, Hindu mobs destroyed more than a dozen churches and attacked Christians in India.

But in Niebuhr's work as a professor and, before that, a reporter on religion for the New York Times, he began noticing that, bit by bit, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims were making efforts to learn about other faiths. Niebuhr explores the trend in his new book, "Beyond Tolerance" (Viking), and came to Southern California this month as part of a book tour.

He argues there is urgent need for interfaith work, given the way religion now sometimes splits, and endangers, the world in the way the Cold War once did. "Religion is to the 21st century what ideology was to the 20th," Niebuhr said.

The title "Beyond Tolerance" conveys one of Niebuhr's principle themes, and he discussed the work on a recent weekday before he spoke at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Groups can tolerate one another, he noted, without really getting along. A lack of conflict doesn't necessarily mean cohesion.

"Tolerance is not enough because there's no educational component to it," Niebuhr said. "Tolerance doesn't bust down stereotype. Tolerance doesn't put a face on faith."

Niebuhr argues, with anecdotes and statistics, that thousands of believers from a wide variety of faiths are trying to reach across religious divides. He cites a 2000 study of 14,000 U.S. congregations by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.