The evolving Baha’i perspective on interfaith dialogue

17 January 2019
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This is part three in a series of stories about the Baha’i community’s participation in the discourses of society. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

OSLO, Norway — Recent international interfaith gatherings highlight a growing awareness in the world. Many social actors are seeing in interreligious dialogue a new potential to channel the constructive powers of faith for the betterment of society.

“If we all have humility instead of insisting on the exclusivity of our own perspectives, then we begin to learn from each other,” says Britt Strandlie Thoresen, who heads Norway’s national interfaith organization. As a Baha’i, her commitment to interreligious dialogue springs from a belief in the power of fellowship to foster unity. “We are striving to find a common path together—a path to building a better world with each other.”

Today, the interfaith movement can reflect on more than a century of experience cultivating dialogue between people of different faiths. At the end of the 19th century, the burgeoning movement seemed to hold great promise for ushering in a recognition of the oneness of religion. The 20th century painted a very different picture. Two world wars, a seemingly intractable rise of sectarian violence, religious fundamentalism, and radicalization have left many disenchanted with religion and wary of the value of the movement.

The interfaith movement, however, has made impressive contributions toward promoting unity among the world’s religious communities. Increasingly, people are conscious of how the movement can go even further in helping humanity to attain higher degrees of unity in addressing its most weighty challenges.

For Baha’is, a century of participation in interfaith activities worldwide has sparked a deep reflection in recent years. What is the potential of the spaces opened up in the name of interfaith dialogue? What are its aims and hopes today? How can we participate in a discourse that draws on the insights of religion but goes further to explore their relevance to a world in disarray?

“One way of looking at religion is as a phenomenon that transcends any one faith or sect,” explains Venus Khalessi, who represented the Baha’i community at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last September. One of the aims of participation in interfaith dialogue, she explains, is to draw out universal principles and learn from each other’s experiences applying them. The point is to work toward a more peaceful and just world. “In this sense, religion can be seen as a system of knowledge and practice that is evolving and offers insights and values that can help society advance.”

SLIDESHOW
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Britt Strandlie Thoresen (second from right), chair of the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway, speaks among five panelists at a major annual national meeting in the town of Arendal. The event brings together government leaders, civil society, and faith communities to discuss major issues affecting the country. Here, Mrs. Thoresen speaks at a panel on the environment. The event was called “The Cathedral of Hope,” held on the water to highlight pollution of the oceans and other environmental issues.

The view that religion has a vital and constructive role to play in the life of humanity was shared by representatives of many religious groups at the G20 Forum. The conference’s concept paper describes religion’s prominent role in many societal issues.

“Acknowledged or unacknowledged, around the world religion addresses the challenging problems societies and nations face as well as broader societal well-being,” the paper states. “Without the investment of time and resources that religiously-motivated organizations and individuals provide, the United Nations’ SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) are unattainable.”

In November, more than 8,000 people from around the world gathered in Toronto, Canada, for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, another major forum for the global interfaith movement. Baha’is organized sessions on relevant themes such as the empowerment of youth, the relationship between religion and citizenship, the principle of oneness, the equality of women and men, race unity, and more. In all, more than 60 presentations were offered by Baha’is, often in collaboration with people of different faiths.

Mrs. Thoresen sees great value in continuing to invest time in interfaith activities. “We are learning step by step. We are learning to listen, reflect, and communicate with one another in a way that builds common understanding.”

“In this setting, it is important not to dwell on differences but to try to build on what we all have in common, and that is a lot actually,” she continues. The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway, which Mrs. Thoresen chairs, not only holds regular interfaith gatherings in Oslo but also promotes interreligious dialogue in local communities throughout the country.

“We need a kind of dialogue that can harness the power of religion to help humanity tackle its most challenging problems.”


Gerald Filson

Interfaith activities vary widely. Some groups primarily seek fellowship; others are oriented toward social change. Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, for example, the country has been increasingly conscious of its religious diversity and has been seeking to cultivate a pluralistic society. Interfaith dialogue has played a critical role in building a common vision for the future. And more broadly in the Arab region, the United Nations Development Programme organized a conference in December, bringing together religious representatives, including Baha’is, for a review of how faith communities are enhancing social cohesion and tolerance.

In addition to the evolving landscape of interfaith activities, some Baha’i communities are observing a new frontier: moving beyond traditional interreligious dialogue to include a wider sweep of society.

“We need a kind of dialogue that can harness the power of religion to help humanity tackle its most challenging problems,” explains Gerald Filson, a Baha’i who used to head the Canadian Interfaith Conversation, the country’s preeminent interreligious organization. “In Canada, we are finding that secular and religious actors can work together in pursuit of the common good. Opening spaces for this sort of collaboration has helped the discourse advance and new possibilities to open up.” The Baha’i community there has co-organized several major national conferences about religion in the public sphere, bringing together civil society and faith-based organizations, academics, and government representatives.

In Spain, a recent seminar focused on confronting violent radicalization, bringing together a high-level panel of security specialists, policymakers, and scholars to better understand and address a growing problem in Europe.

“We have to keep moving forward together—widening the circle to include all people. Only through transcending divides and working side by side for our common destiny can we begin to address the real problems of the world in a way that actually uplifts and brings people together in an understanding beyond rhetoric,” Dr. Filson says.

In their participation in discourses related to religious coexistence, the role of religion in society, and interfaith dialogue, growing numbers of people and groups are learning to draw out religion’s constructive contributions to society, and the Baha’i community is striving to contribute its share to this vital cause. In its efforts, it is finding inspiration in the Universal House of Justice’s April 2002 letter to the world’s religious leaders.