Muslims, Christians and Jews Seeking the Common Good
June 13-23, 2011
The Reconciliation Program will host a strategic conference of influential, mid-career Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders June 13-23, 2011. Approximately ten leaders from each faith community, men and women with a proven record of leadership and clear future potential have been chosen to attend this international gathering focused on seeking the common good. Participants have been carefully chosen by senior leaders in each faith community as representing those mid-career leaders most likely to be exercising the widest influence in their communities in 10-15 years from now.
One of the unique aspects of the Building Hope Conference is that, while participants represent the full spectrum of their respective communities, particular emphasis has been given to drawing in forward-looking leaders in the traditionalist or conservative wings of their communities. In the past, many interfaith dialogues have reached out only to the most progressive wing of each community, with the result that millions of more traditionalist religious believers do not feel a sense of ownership of the process. This group of leaders represents a generational shift in interfaith dialogue, involving people of peace from the whole spectrum of each community.
These leaders will gather to wrestle with some of the big global issues confronting the world today. Here are some of the topics covered:
Muslims, Christians and Jews among them comprise well over half of the world’s population. Thus, without peace among these three religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world today. A small but important step towards peace is seeking the common good together.
Below is the final statement from the participants at the Building Hope Conference:
Yale Reconciliation Program
Building Hope Conference
June 13-22, 2011
“In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, Love and Justice”
We wish to begin by expressing our thanks to the Yale University Center for Faith and Culture and to HRH the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and the government and people of the United Arab Emirates for the opportunity to take part in this conference. We feel that God has guided us to this place, where we formed friendships that we hope will last for the rest of our lives, and we built partnerships which had a substantial impact on our religious and spiritual worlds. The time spent learning about different religions allowed deep respect for other voices to emerge. The time spent reflecting on topics of joint concern was enriched by our new-found ability to truly listen to each other with respect and interest. We would like particularly to express our appreciation for the hard work done by Rev. Joseph Cumming, Director of the Yale Reconciliation Program, and his team, and by Dr. Hamdan Almazrouei, Chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, and for all that they did to ensure that this conference was organized in a way that contributed to its noble goals. We express our thanks for the gracious hospitality which we received.
As Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders seeking God’s pleasure and the common good we learned many things from our time together:
Many other wonderful things took place here which this document cannot contain, but we rejoice to affirm what we have described here and things that remain indescribable.
A rabbi, a priest and an imam were sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and smoking shisha… The beginning of a politically incorrect joke? No. One of my favourite moments from the Building Hope Conference in July 2011. The nine-day event – yes, nine days – brought together over two dozen mid-career religious leaders – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – to discuss issues of common concern. But this was not just another dialogue jamboree looking for the lowest common denominator amongst liberals who hold that all religions essentially share the same ultimate values of truth and harmony, inevitably leading to the same destination. No. This was a meeting of the passionate, the committed; the coming together of those who might be labelled ‘progressive conservatives’.
The invitation-only event was hosted by Joseph Cumming and the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture in New Haven, Connecticut and brought together participants from around the world. The centre has been engaged in the controversial initiative A Common Word between Us and You and in a sense this event was a continuation of that initiative, bringing it closer to the grass roots of the respective faith communities. The idea was to draw together not the usual suspects from amongst the establishment hierarchies but younger leaders who have the influence and potential to shape the future. And on the agenda were not so much the things that unite as the things that divide, some of the most sensitive and explosive issues of our time: religious violence, freedom of conscience, proselytism and Israel-Palestine.
And that was why the conference was so long. Most conferences end after three days, but we were only just beginning! Part of the unique nature of this encounter was that it forced us to move beyond polite conversation and to engage in deeper relationship and honest debate.
The first three days were taken up with presenting our understanding of our faith to one another. Not so easy as it became clear that even within the same faith community there were representatives of different traditions: Orthodox and Reform, Catholic and Protestant, Salafi and Sufi. Certainly we all learned a lot and it was fascinating to hear imams, rabbis and clergy discussing amongst themselves. No punches were pulled so Q&A times were not always easy to chair! At times there was real tension: ‘Christians are not monotheists’; ‘Islam is intolerant’; ‘Jews are violent’. However, we agreed that such contentious claims would be held off until later in the conference when time was allotted for a full debate. This was crucial as it gave time to get to know one another before entering heated argument. So shared meals (featuring halal and glatt kosher food!), a boat cruise, time at the cafe and a trip to New York all played an important role in creating a secure context for discussion.
So too did visiting one another’s places of worship. Again this was not an exercise in multi-faith worship. Attendance did not require participation. No-one pretended that all worship is the same. However, there was real value in sharing and explaining our practice. Observers were often moved by the passion of participants and in many ways this was maybe one of the lasting highlights for many involved.
So what about those contentious issues? Did we find the answers and resolve them all? Alas, no. In the final count nine days was still too short. But it was a start. Of course we still disagreed on many things but disagreeing with a newfound friend is very different to disagreeing with a stranger. We listened and we understood better: expanding Israeli settler families need space for their children; not all Evangelical Christians support western foreign policy; many Muslims affirm that there should be freedom to leave Islam; we are all embarrassed by the violence and extremism of some of our co-religionists.
The goal was not to merge our understandings of truth into one insipid, anonymous compromise that would inspire no-one. Rather it was to begin a conversation that would point the way to how committed followers of the different faiths can live together and make the world a safer, more just place. To that end the relationships forged at Yale do indeed ‘build hope’; hope that instead of stereotyping and presuming on our own interpretations we may actually pick up the phone and discuss with those we trust; hope that when controversy arises our first port of call will not be the media or our own populist pulpits but an email to a friend who may be able to shed light on the latest crisis. This is surely the only way forward in our plural and increasingly religious societies.
In a small way this has begun. At Yale I not only acquired knowledge but gained friends. We are still in touch – as much as all our busy schedules allow. We have already discussed a controversial book published by an extremist leader and there are plans to discuss another book together. The proof of whether this sort of robust dialogue has lasting value will be whether our friendships persist. Will we still be in touch a year from now? I hope that we will be. I’d love to meet again; I have more questions to ask and I want to sit in the cafe again with a rabbi, a priest and an imam.
Dr. Richard McCallum is a British sociologist and church leader who taught for ten years at the University of Tunis. This article was first published in LapidoMedia.