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Religion and Society

The Urban Other: How Religious Difference Makes for Good Religion and Good Partnerships

In today's urbanized, overcrowded, and globalized world, religious communities are ever more likely to come face to face. While there are still separated Buddhist and Hindu villages in Sri Lanka, and Christian and Muslim villages in Nigeria, both are more likely to meet in urban settings: be it Colombo, Lagos, or New York City. Here in New York they will meet among Hindus, Jews, and Sikhs, as well as co-religionists from over one hundred countries. Even communities that don't leave their particular location are less likely to call it exclusively theirs. Increasingly, we live in a world where we must relate to religious difference that recognizes our interconnectedness- like it or not.


Positive religious encounter makes for anxiety on the part of many. Liberals see conservative religion as unnecessarily ridged, causing trouble when it confronts difference. Conservatives fear that intimacy with difference leads to loosing their particularity.


The agreed upon assumption is that interfaith encounter loosens ones religious identity. This is nothing new. In the third Century, when Jews were forced to share public space with 'pagans' because of their new minority status in urban settings, they were especially fearful of social interaction. The Talmud instructs that "Their wine is forbidden on account of their daughters." Fear of conversion, syncretism, and liberalization is as old as religious difference.


But these days we must think more carefully about what actually happens on the ground. A first thing to note is that this idea of faith lessening through religious encounter serves the purposes of both sides of the polarize debate. On the conservative side, the argument is a reason not to talk to religious others. On the liberal side, it is a way to maintain a liberalizing agenda. Both conservatives and liberals rejoice when their prophecy is fulfilled.


Second, often sociologists unintentionally legitimate these fears. For example a study by Robert Wuthnow demonstrates that theologically liberal Christians are more likely to be interested in cross religious encounters. Such encounters, it would follow, are more likely yet to lead to liberalizing and hybridizing of faith. Likewise, urban sociologist Claude Fisher tell us that in urban environments, which are religiously plural, compact, and lead to greater interaction of difference, people create sub-groups that develop their identity by negatively 'othering' outsiders. This seems to prove that serious identity difference must be developed negatively.


But when religious communities interact on the ground, things are not so simple. Certainly the above examples do happen. But other things happen as well. Sometimes religious encounter leads to the 'hard difference' itself getting re-enforced. And sometimes that is for the good of the interfaith interaction and both communities- from their point of view.


One example is an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, Father Tibebu. Tibebu rents a small chapel in a Catholic Church in Midtown Manhattan. "We don't even rent a church, just a church's basement," he says. "We are in exile, we are poor. We get a new experience." Other renters include a Muslim community. It's a turn key operation, in one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the world- where religious communities rely on one another. Tibebu also engages in interfaith work through the interfaith Center of New York. Here he is often among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. He is especially interested in meeting Jewish leaders, because of his interest in the Hebrew bible. But he also partnered with Muslims in Ethiopia, and likes to continue these meetings. In these social justice circles often meets leaders far more liberal than himself. But he finds this only encourages him to clarify who he is in the public sphere, where others too must be different. "We understand God differently. It's okay. I know who I am, and I know that even brothers are different from one another."


The problem with data that proves liberals to be more interested in working across religious difference may be that it leaves out the morally pragmatic interfaith work that gets done in spite of difference, but also because of it. Those with orthodox faiths would score low on a survey of 'interest' in religious encounter. Other times they don't consider it religious interaction and it goes undetected by studies. Yet when the time comes, they are often able to do so with little anxiety. I asked one Hasidic rabbi, Chiam Wordsberger, if he was worried about coming to an interfaith retreat on social justice. I explained that there would be evangelical Christians there. He shrugged. "Maybe their gonna try to convert me. They're gonna fail. Then we're gonna work together."


In the case of urban sociologists who assume that the creation of subgroups leads to a negative view of others, again the picture is too simple. In the case of interfaith, it is often the case that religious groups interact positively in a way that simultaneously deepens their identity, clarifies their difference from their partners, and improves their relations with others. This often includes an edge of weariness or a sense of superiority, but what's new? It is not hand holding interfaith, but rather 'hard boiled,' interfaith.


In New York City, during Ramadan, Muslim groups through out the city invite non-Muslims to break-fast with them. Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Christians are guests, among secular civil servants. In such cases, Muslims reach across religious difference by being different. Those who are different come as citizens who are different, will remain so, but will build positive relationships over a meal and conversation. No conversions have been reported.


In fact the religious leaders we work with at the Interfaith Center overwhelmingly report that interfaith encounters deepen their faith and recommit them to it, while gaining important insights into their neighbor's religion, and finding points of resonance within their moral and social traditions. This deepening does not imply moving to the left or right.


These findings will not work for conservatives who want to isolate themselves from their religiously different neighbors. For them, there is no real idea of sharing a city in times as hard as these. Nor will it sit well with liberals who want to erase difference, and decide themselves what others should erase. For them, embracing difference can only mean easing difference.


Meanwhile, the religiously different work well together here in New York, and in other places. They can be liberal or conservative in politics and theology. They can believe in one god, many gods, or none. They are drawn into partnership by important causes and close proximity. Their partnerships actually keep them different from one another, and they learn from each other, work together, and often build friendships. It is neither polarized religiosity, nor a harmonized peace that some would imagine. It is clumsy at times. Rarely smooth, sometimes lurching, and never boring. It is what happens when religious communities agree to share a city. With it, there maybe a reason for hope.