Eboo Patel: The RealClearReligion Interview
In the wake of the Tsarnaev brothers' attack on Boston, much was made of the importance of interfaith dialogue. Eboo Patel, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), has admitted that interfaith programs can't perform miracles, but he insists they still matter. Earlier this month, I caught up with Patel in his Chicago office (with a gorgeous view of the Chicago river) to find out what interfaith programs actually look like and why pluralism is an exceptionally American idea.
RealClearReligion: What is the Interfaith Youth Core?
Eboo Patel: We want to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in the United States. We think that is a generational endeavor. So, over the course of the next thirty years, we try to impact the conversation about religion in public discourse in moving the conversation from faith as a barrier to faith as a bridge, we partner with higher education institutions to help them model interfaith cooperation, and we train young people to be interfaith leaders.
RCR: Where's the starting point for interfaith conversations?
EP: The starting point is: How does your faith or philosophical identity inspire you to serve others?
RCR: Only service?
EP: It's service. It's compassion, hospitality, and mercy. How does your faith tradition speak to those concepts and how are you inspired to apply them?
RCR: It is an interfaith cliché to start with the statement: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all worship the same God. Is that a productive starting point?
EP: That's not IFYC's starting point because Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are not the only three major faiths. There are over a billion Hindus in the world. There are 500-some-million Buddhists in the world. We have the Sikhs, the Jain tradition, Taoism. We're not interested in telling anybody that they're not a major tradition. And in the United States, a third of people between the ages of 18 and 30 say that they're none.
We are interested in cultivating respect for diverse faith and philosophical identities, we want to help shape positive relations among people who orient around religion differently, and we want to cultivate cooperation for the common good. We think that that's best accomplished through shared values -- hospitality, mercy, compassion. People can share these values through their particular narratives and then apply them together.
RCR: Some Christians might tell you that service is also about evangelism.
EP: We believe in the pluralization of service. People serve out of a variety of particular inspirations, traditions, and narratives. People ought to share those traditions and narratives, but I don't think service ought to be a wedge to proselytization. I'm not opposed to proselytization, but when you proselytize, you ought to be clear about what you're doing.
RCR: Isn't evangelism a by-product of service?
EP: A young evangelical once told me: in the Bible there is the Great Commission and there is the Great Cooperation. In other words, within the same tradition there are different impulses.
RCR: How can Christians and Muslims serve together if they don't worship the same God?
EP: You should read Miroslav Volf's Allah: A Christian Response.
RCR: Am I wrong in suggesting Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God?
EP: Yes. You're wrong in Muslim cosmology. A significant dimension of Muslim cosmology is about reason. Human beings are meant to use their minds to discern the nature of things, including the will of Allah. This is one of the reasons there have been centuries of great Muslim philosophy. Medieval Muslim philosophers translated Aristotle.
RCR: Didn't that school of Muslim philosophy lose?
EP: Look, Islam is in dark days right now. But, there are certainly voices of that school around today. It is more accurate to say that those voices are not the most ascendant voices right now.
RCR: Are Salafi jihadists perhaps too ascendant right now?
EP: I'm not a fan of Salafism at all. But let's not imply Salafism and jihadism are synonymous. Salafis have a particular view of the tradition that I don't believe is correct. However, if they want to live their lives and establish their communities in ways that are literalist, they are free to do that insofar as it doesn't infringe negatively on others. In other words, the Amish are free to be Amish, so long as they don't destroy everyone else's cars.
RCR: But you're not an Islamic pope. There's no one in Islam saying to the jihadists: your view of the tradition is incorrect. So, if we can't all agree on God, how do we serve others together?
EP: That's the point of interfaith conversations. You have people around the table who have various different theologies. When it comes to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, they have an interesting set of theological things in common: God the Creator, a set of revealed texts, a set of prophetic messages. The problem with beginning there is that you leave out Buddhists and Hindus and Taoists and secular humanists. It's not a good way of starting a conversation that is meant to be inclusive.
We start, as I mentioned before, with a set of shared social values.
RCR: Are those values transcendent, though?
EP: Yes. Mercy, compassion, service, and hospitality are relatively transcendent values. I think the question you're implicitly asking is: How do people, who fully believe in their own tradition, also have positive relations with other traditions? At IFYC we call that a theology of interfaith cooperation. Within one's own tradition is a set of resources of why you ought to relate positively with other religions.
Here's the alternative to that: People don't believe anything at all. I prefer a world where people have a deep relationship with their own tradition and have an understanding of the threads within their tradition that are positively relational to other traditions.
RCR: Is there room for a serious theological conversation amongst traditions?
EP: It depends what the goal of the interfaith endeavor is. The goal of IFYC is to create a civic pluralism. People from different religious backgrounds ought to be in Little Leagues together, PTAs together, and they ought to work together in hospitals and law firms. We are less interested in the question, for instance: How much do Muslims and Christians agree on the idea of God? That's a question for seminaries.
Let me better define civic pluralism: How do people who orient around religion differently work together positively in the same society? That's a question we're trying to answer.
RCR: Isn't it exceptionally American that your organization exists to answer that question?
EP: In my book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, I write about the exceptional nature of America when it comes to pluralism and the importance of fighting for American pluralism. America was the first diverse democracy. It was the first nation to believe that people from different backgrounds who spoke different languages and prayed to God in different ways could come together and build a nation. That's a stunningly inspiring notion.
Pluralism is a deeply embedded value in the American tradition, but it's not something that falls from the sky. It's something you have to continue to work on. America is a nation that welcomes the contributions of all communities and nurtures the cooperation between them. It is a responsibility of different communities to contribute.
America's promise is that all communities will have equal rights; America's genius is that communities who are given their dignity will return their contribution. In that regard, the United States is remarkable.