I had the chance to speak to 3,000 young people at the United
Church of Christ's National Youth Event in Tennessee 10 days ago.
I paused in the middle of my talk to ask a question: "How
many of you know someone from a different religion personally - a
Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu?"
Almost every hand in the room went up.
Faith formation, for these young people, is going to not only
involve the question: "What does it mean to be a
Christian?" It is going to have to include an additional
element, "What does it mean to be a Christian in a
community/country/world of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists,
Sikhs, secular humanists, etc?"
The great comparative religions scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith
predicted this in his book, "The Faith of Other Men,"
based on his experience in South Asia a half century ago:
"The religious life of mankind from now on, if it is to be
lived at all, will be lived in a context of religious
Cantwell Smith was way ahead of his time. My bet is that many
Americans over a certain age still don't know someone from another
faith. But their children do. And it's not just an urban America
experience. A good number of the young people in the audience I
spoke to were from rural areas - small towns in Wisconsin, Texas,
Pennsylvania. Religious diversity has become an everywhere
phenomenon in America. And it means the first "Interfaith
Generation" in America is growing up in front of our eyes.
Scholars, educators and activists are recognizing this new
phenomenon. Three new publications (full disclosure: I contributed
to two and was interviewed for the third) seek to guide and equip
our interfaith America.
Gustav Niebuhr, the former religion reporter for The New York
Times and currently a professor at Syracuse University, recently
published an excellent book describing and analyzing the religious
dynamics of contemporary America, with special attention to the
growing interfaith movement. He writes that he saw this movement
emerging in America during his two decades as a journalist, and
watched it explode after 9/11, "pressed by a new sense of
urgency to encourage peaceful encounters across religious
lines." His book, Beyond
Tolerance, is a lyrical read and as good a window into
America's religious diversity as you will find.
Reverend Bud Heckman, a long-time interfaith leader and one of
the best I know in the field, has put together an edited volume of
"how-to" pieces called Interactive
Faith. It answers one of the most common question that I hear
when I talk about the importance of interfaith cooperation:
"I think bringing people from different religions together is
a great idea, now how do I do it?" This book has chapters on
the methodology of interfaith dialogue, arts, service and other
such programs. Reverend Heckman opens it with a lucid introduction
on the theory and practice of interfaith work. The field has long
needed a book like this. It belongs on the bookshelf of anybody in
a religious, civic or educational community who wants to start an
Rebecca Kratz Mays' edited volume, "Interfaith Dialogue at
the Grass Roots" answers another common question in a
concrete way: "Is interfaith dialogue only for religious
leaders and scholars." The answer is, "No - it's a
movement that everyone can and should participate in." The
pieces in Mays' volume are examples of interfaith work in a
variety of ways and in a range of contexts, from the United States
to Macedonia to Indonesia. The pieces are well-written and
introduced by one of the most important scholars in the field,
The interfaith generation is going to be asking a whole new set
of questions about what it means to be young and religious in this
day and age. A new literature is going to have to emerge to light
the path for them. These books are amongst the first in what
promises to be an exciting and important new field.