What Holds Us Together

Beyond Toleranceby By Gustav NiebuhrViking. 256p $25.95

If the second half of the 20th century could be called the ecumenical era, the initial decades of this century signal the start of the interfaith era. In the years following the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church took early leadership in outreach efforts to other religious traditions, but it was a rather lonely leadership. Now many other Christian denominations have begun their own programs of interreligious dialogue. Since 2002, for example, an Anglican initiative convened by Archbishop Rowan Williams in collaboration with Georgetown University has sponsored an annual gathering in places like London, Doha, Washington, Sarajevo and Singapore. In both plenary assemblies and intensive working sessions, an invited group of Christian and Muslim scholars engage in the close study of Biblical and Koranic passages pertinent to a particular theological topic. Such sustained exegetical analysis can open rich veins of theological reflection, while the continuity of a core group of participants allows intellectual trust to build.

Recent interfaith outreach has not been limited to Christian initiatives. A letter issued last October by 138 Muslim leaders addressed to the heads of all major Christian denominations captured wide attention. Entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” this document draws upon scriptural texts from both traditions, seeking to foster a conversation about the commonality of love of God and love of neighbor in Christianity and Islam. A number of those addressed, including Lambeth Palace and the Vatican, have taken steps to respond to the October letter. Organizations without a religious affiliation have also become quite active in this sphere. Institutions as diverse as the U.S. State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, the World Economic Forum and the United Nations have launched programs to enhance interreligious and intercultural understanding. The social and political concerns sparked by recent world events and by accelerating demographic shifts have put interfaith relations on the agendas of many groups for whom this subject had not previously been a focus of attention.


Such institutional efforts, whether international or national, form the backdrop for the more personal, local and regional investigation that this volume undertakes. Crisscrossing the United States and interviewing adherents of many faiths, Gustav Niebuhr, former religion reporter for The New York Times and now a professor at Syracuse University, explores the proliferation of interfaith initiatives emerging on the American landscape. His visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and gurudwaras (Sikh places of worship) and his conversations with clerics and congregants are chronicled in the recently released Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America.

The seeds for this instructive and insightful study can be found in the article Niebuhr and his colleagues wrote for The New York Times about random attacks against Muslims, or those thought to be Muslims, in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. He found plenty of material for that article; but he also found the beginnings of a counter story, a story about gestures of support extended to Muslims and to mosques, gestures motivated by a desire to defend and to protect, to reaffirm the welcome and hospitality that continue to characterize so many American communities. In six brief chapters Niebuhr describes the deeds of Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and others whose efforts, great and small, are forging an interfaith culture of outreach, connection and dialogue. The significance of Niebuhr’s title is captured in a key statement: “What holds society together is not just people who will tolerate others, but people who will actually go beyond that, to provide the glue that nourishes social relationships.” This book is about that glue.

Although his focus is the present, Niebuhr’s narrative is enriched with numerous references to the long history of American religious diversity. In one chapter we hear about the Cape Cod synagogue that began life in 1797 as a Congregationalist church. When because of diminished size, the Christian congregation could no longer sustain the building, the remaining few deeded it to the flourishing Jewish community of Falmouth. In a later chapter, Niebuhr takes us from Falmouth to Flushing and the 17th-century house of John Bowne, a local farmer who in concert with others rejected the restrictions that Governor Peter Stuyvesant placed upon Quaker immigrants to New Amsterdam. The group’s 1657 protest statement, the Flushing Remonstrance, stands as a milestone in the evolving history of American religious liberty.

The people Niebuhr profiles, the examples of interfaith engagement that he describes and the various forms of mutual collaboration he catalogues make for a decidedly optimistic picture. Yet the author acknowledges that shadows exist and that powerful, negative currents exert their force. He quotes a young Muslim social entrepreneur who compares his relatively modest resources to those of Hezbollah; he recognizes that this nation’s political rhetoric is bellicose and blinkered; and he acknowledges that many American Christians share the sentiments of those who cannot condone any dialogue that is not aimed at proselytization and conversion.

Nor does Niebuhr shy away from the hard questions: What is the ultimate advantage of all this interreligious activity? Other than the creation of personal friendships and the warm glow of mutuality, is there any lasting value or larger benefit? In his final chapter Niebuhr ventures a “measured yes” to these queries and quotes Albert Camus on the radical courage of clear-eyed hope. Camus’s prescient words in a 1946 publication, Neither Victims nor Executioners, complement remarks made two years earlier by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the author’s great-uncle. Well before the demographic changes wrought on the American religious landscape by mid-60s revisions in U.S. immigration legislation, the older Niebuhr had reflected upon religious diversity and its challenges: “The solution requires a very high form of religious commitment. It demands that each religion, or each version of a single faith, seek to proclaim its highest insights while yet preserving a humble and contrite recognition of the fact that all actual expressions of religious faith are subject to historical contingency and relativity.” The older Niebuhr’s great-nephew has amply demonstrated that this theological attitude now animates countless efforts of interfaith exchange and interaction. The verbal documentary that this volume offers allows us to hope in Camus’ formidable gamble: “that words are stronger than bullets.”

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