Speech: Why interfaith sharing is so beneficial
[The following is the script (only loosely followed) for a presentation made at the Multi-Faith Workshop conducted at the Hindu Society of Central Florida on November 4, 2012.]
Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation to the New Age Group of the Hindu Society of Central Florida, to the Hindu University of America, to the Chinmaya Mission, to the Sikh Society of Central Florida and to any other organizations and individuals whose efforts have made this Multi-Faith Workshop possible. I believe that such gatherings, and the sharing that takes place at them, are vital for at least eight reasons:
ONE: Human affinity groups don’t naturally or automatically understand each other. And this is true whether we’re talking about race, ethnicity, culture, language, age, gender, religion and a long list of other identifiers that put us into readily defined and easily recognized categories. Conversations, such as we’re having here today, help us both to understand our differences and to discover our similarities.
TWO: Too often our perceptions of others–you know, those people who fall into the “them” category as opposed to the “us” category–too often these perceptions are based almost exclusively on rumor, myth and an array of second-hand, third-hand or fourth-hand information. This workshop gives us a first-hand look at who our religious neighbors really are and the prime values they hold dear.
THREE: Religious groups seem especially prone to comparing examples of their very best moments and very best situations with examples of the very worst moments and very worst situations of whatever other group or groups they’re comparing themselves to. It’s not too hard to guess which group is going to look better when comparing one religion’s modern, educated, affluent version, with some other group’s uneducated, poverty-stricken, highly disadvantaged version. The beauty of gatherings such as this is that we’re comparing apples with apples.
FOUR: In exchanges such as we’re having today, we’ll inevitably disagree on some points. Maybe even strongly disagree. And maybe on many points. However, almost always we’ll discover a surprising amount of common ground. We’ll find that many of our bottom-line values are the same–even if the beliefs from which those values spring are quite different. Such a revelation not only bonds us more closely to those we once thought were so different from us, it also affirms us in our own values–because we suddenly come to realize how universal they are.
FIVE: My father used to tell me that all who I meet are my superior in some way–and in that way, I can learn from them. Similarly, I believe that every faith tradition has something unique and vital to teach everyone–even those who already subscribe to another faith tradition. Events such as this introduce us to new perspectives and serve to broaden the perspectives we already hold. We go away as better, more well-rounded people.
SIX: We can never have too many friends. And events such as this help us realize that there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be friends. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be learning from, and sharing with, each other. Only when we move beyond labels, and get to know each other as flesh-and-blood human beings who are so much like us, do we discover a whole new realm for fruitful interaction that we may not have realized even existed.
SEVEN: Our respective faiths teach that every human is important, that every human is worthwhile, that every human deserves to be listened to and taken seriously. Gatherings such as this workshop provide opportunity for us to put that belief into practice in tangible ways. If our respective religions are worth anything, they should equip us to relate productively to the full spectrum of humanity, not just to those in our affinity groups. If religion itself creates barriers or causes us to treat others with less respect, it needs to be re-evaluated. Figuratively, today’s exchanges hold up a mirror before each of us, challenging our stereotypes, our prejudices and our blind spots.
EIGHT: People who know everything and have all the answers don’t need to come to events like this. Yet we have come. And by the very act of coming, we’re admitting the finiteness of our knowledge and our failure to consistently put into practice even what we already know. We admit that we still have much to learn about life, about human relationships and about interacting in the most effective, most harmonious, most rewarding way.
So, again, I want to say a big thank you to those who are making possible all of this and much more.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.