August Interpath Commentary

Why Interfaith Work Matters to Me

James L. Ford, Ph.D.

When I was thirty years old, I quit my corporate job, sold my house and other possessions, and embarked on a year-long trip around the world. Starting in New Zealand, I traveled north through Australia, Southeast Asia, Japan, India, Nepal, East/North Africa, Israel, and finally Turkey. In most of these places, I lived on considerably less than $10 a day. Along the way, I encountered devotees of many of the world’s great religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Sikhism, Jainism, and African religions. It was (and is) difficult, for me at least, to meet and interact with followers of other traditions and casually dismiss them as wrong, deluded, or even misguided. Even if I didn’t fully understand their tradition, I almost always experienced a deep authenticity of faith, sincerity, graciousness, and a genuinely warm hospitality. Clearly, these other religions harbored the capacity to foster the best in human nature. But I had been taught that Christianity was the “only way” to God, salvation, and even a moral life. How was I to reconcile these received teachings with my own experiential encounters with those of different faiths? More generally, how is anyone to make sense of these different spiritual trajectories of human faith and our seemingly universal quest for the divine?

These are questions that stayed with me throughout my travels. And upon my return, they provoked me to apply to graduate school where I pursued them with greater depth and intensity. Eventually, I earned a Ph.D. in religious studies with a focus on East Asian religions, Buddhism in particular. After almost thirty years of intensive study and teaching, I still find these questions about religious diversity captivating. Indeed, they provoked me to write my most recent book entitled The Divine Quest, East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities (State University of New York Press, 2016).   

I share this summary of my personal odyssey because it explains in part why I think genuine interfaith dialogue and understanding are so important to those of us living in this extraordinarily diverse and globalized world. There was a time when only the most adventurous travelers might encounter people of a radically different faith and worldview on a daily basis. Now, however, it is virtually impossible not to encounter religious practices and beliefs different from one’s own, particularly for those of us living in the United States. Even if we don’t have direct relations with followers of other faith traditions (or no faith at all), we cannot help but be aware—through the news, other media sources, and simple daily existence—of their presence around us. Given this reality in which we of the 21st century find ourselves, interfaith engagement and understanding is not just an option, it seems to me, but an imperative—if we are to create the hospitable society and peaceable community in which we would all like to live.

Interfaith understanding and cooperation are not about proselytizing to the “other”; nor is this about creating an indiscriminate melting pot or simply becoming more “tolerant” (i.e., allowing others to practice their faith free of discrimination). The goal, rather, is to facilitate learning, understanding, respect, and even cooperation between and among belief communities and groups. Oftentimes, this is accomplished less through comparing our different “belief” systems, and more through doing things together…like reading books, sharing our contemplative practices, or learning about the arts, music, dance and even food of our different cultural and faith traditions.

What is more, there is a deep need for this kind of work, now more than ever. It is widely noted that America is one of the most “religious” and religiously diverse countries in the developed world. Almost 60% Of U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives. Roughly 90% believe in God, to one degree or another. And yet, our religious literacy is appallingly low compared to other developed nations. A Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2010 “shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history, and leading figures of major faith traditions—including their own.” Ironically, atheists scored highest on the religious knowledge test.

There are numerous reasons for our collective ignorance, but a significant contributor is the lack of religious studies in our public schools. The Pew survey revealed that many people think that the constitutional restrictions on teaching about religion in public schools is stricter than they really are. Just 36% know that classes on comparative religion may be taught in public schools. So it is not surprising that school boards and administrators might be reluctant to authorize such classes.

Given this state of affairs, it is incumbent upon non-profit organizations like Interfaith Winston-Salem to step into the breach to foster greater understanding within our community. Why? Because ignorance and misunderstanding about other religious traditions and those who follow them can lead to misdirected anger, resentment, and even violence.

While I have not fully resolved all the questions that arose from my world travels many years ago, I can say that my many encounters with religious “others” over the years have, as many interfaith participants have noted, actually served to deepen my own religious faith. In some cases, the teachings and practices of other traditions have helped me discover a thread of my own that I never even knew existed. But the differences are also revealing and important. In the end, I cannot put it any better than His Holiness the Dalai Lama did to a predominantly Catholic audience at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York: “Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers—it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.” Amen.


Dr. James L. Ford is Professor and Chair of the Department for the Study of Religions at Wake Forest University where he has taught since 1998. He has served on Interfaith W-S Board of Guidance since 2014.