Fr. Dcn. Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Institute for Religious Freedom, and Chris Stackaruk, co-founder of Neighborly Faith, examine the way ignorance of religious traditions risks hostile division while the wrong kind of understanding feeds the error that all believers are fundamentally the same.
Andrew Bennett: What would be the genesis of Neighborly Faith? What was the gap that you identified?
Chris Stackaruk: The genesis was very experiential. I grew up in the Toronto area in what I would say was a very diverse public school and high school I went to, and had many experiences with religious diversity, with people of other faiths. But then I went down to the United States for my university education and spent six years there studying in evangelical schools.
I noticed this strange attitude I was encountering with professors and fellow students towards people of other religions. Not to speak badly against the institutions, but it just was really a knowledge gap about how to talk about people of different faiths, how to be respectful and not just have conversations about people. People couldn't have conversations about others that they would want to be overheard by those people and weren't sure how to talk about it.
So that experiential moment, as well as some big yellow and red flag moments with people where mean things were said about Muslims or Jewish people or Buddhists, made me think about, there must be a better way to do this. And so I started looking. And what I found was that not a lot of work was being done to help lay people, or even academics, figure out how really to talk publicly about people of other faiths, and live their faith publicly in a society that's becoming more diverse.
I ran into some statistics that were a little scary such as Islamophobia's rise in Canada and the United States. Forty six per cent of Canadians are suspicious of Islam and think it's damaging our society. Those kinds of things really shook us, and said, "We have to do something." And that something is our ever-evolving project called Neighborly Faith.
Andrew Bennett: We've done some work through Cardus with the Angus Reid Institute that has asked Canadians, "What are your impressions of different religious communities?" And Christians and Jews come off very positively. Broadly speaking, those that were polled had positive perceptions of Christians of different stripes, and Jews. But then when you got down to Sikhs and Muslims, Muslims in particular, there is a high degree of negative perception.
Trying to combat that is a big challenge. The media is saturated with images, of what's happening in many parts of the world, and that colours how people see different religious traditions.
What were some of the stereotypes that you found yourself confronting when you were studying at these schools, and what was the impact of those stereotypes on you?
Chris Stackaruk: I ran into a lot of thinking that average, everyday Muslims were somehow associated ideologically with what we see on the news, or perceived in, say, Pakistan, or how Christians may be treated. Or with ISIS. It was a sense of association that was very political, of always having a lens on individuals, their neighbours, the people down the street. There was a lumping them in with ideologies and politics rather than sort of encountering them as people, as just average people of faith.
That tendency is a core problem we're working on – taking this group of people out of, say, this strange ideological pool associated with global Islam, and sort of getting them to be people down the street, our neighbours, people God has called us to love. They aren't just journal articles about thoughts and global politics. They're people.
AB: The negative stereotypes about particular religious communities are applied not only to Muslims, but also Jews. The persistence of anti-Semitism is obviously very troubling, in the United States, in Canada, and in Europe. There’s both the old pernicious anti-Semitism, and now this kind of new anti-Semitism that seeks to demonize Israel and so forth.
In addition to maybe particular stereotypes that the media might present, or stereotypes that might have lingered kind of in our common cultural consciousness, what other major drivers do you think are leading to the breakdown in human encounter that you're trying to remedy? What are other particular cultural trends you're concerned about?
CS: There is a driver within our churches and communities in that we don't have the categories to think about people of other faiths outside of, say, an evangelistic mode, which is the mode we want to keep, and is so precious to us. I got an email from someone saying, "I don't understand why you want to do all this liberal, be nice to Muslims stuff, when really they're all Hell-bound. And you should really just be telling them that." My response was, "That's really nice, but when you live next to this person, that doesn't really function. What are you going to do, throw the tract on their porch, and never return?" We need to get out of this very truncated framework about how to talk about and think about our neighbours.
AB: At Cardus, we always talk about the fact we're living in common. We have to be able to be neighbours to one another.
CS: It’s just being real. I had someone phrase it well: "What you're doing is essentially telling people something as obvious as: This is water." A lot of our versions of how to engage are theoretical because we're not engaging. I talk to many people who say, "I have a hundred opinions on how to engage with Muslims." And I say, "Well, do you engage with Muslims?" The answer is no. So, it’s a completely a speculative enterprise. It has nothing to do with faith, but with having sort of politicized or idealized assumptions about people.
The media is a driver here in preventing us from having these conversations. The only place people are getting catechized is something like Fox News. What you do so well at Cardus, is telling people what's out there, what they should be taking note of in society, not just in Scripture. Then how do we analyze that? There needs to be some catch up around who surrounds us, and therefore, how do I act?
A lot of that is shifting because Canada is shifting, and who's in Canada is shifting. What it means to live in a liberal space where everyone gets to be an individual and coexist well, is shifting.
AB: There’s a prevailing view in certain quarters that interfaith work means we have to iron out difference, and we find common ground all the time; that there needs to be this kind of leveling-out project so that we avoid conflict, or anything that might contribute us to not being good neighbours. So we have to just level it out, and not talk about it at the worst end. Or, if we are going to talk about it, then we have to basically come to this point where we say: "Well, we all agree on the same thing."
How do you view, or maybe challenge, that particular perspective?
CS: It's a very common perspective. In a world that you might slap a label on something called the interfaith world, it’s the predominant perspective on how faiths can get along. That's a real tragedy, because it alienates people of real traditional faith who say, "I do not want to live in a lowest common denominator sort of association with people of difference, where we say, 'We're all human all the time.'" It’s a meaningless encounter, to you walk up to someone on the street and say, "I love you because we're all humans." It's just a strange way to live to be seeking always the lowest common denominator.
And it mischaracterizes everyone's religious belief, which is something very precious to them, very particular, that can't be associated with another religious belief. And no one wants that, either.
Very few people want to say, "I'm the same as someone who is a Muslim, even though I'm a Christian." It just doesn't work. It doesn't take. In many ways, it is contributing to the failure of something that is labeled the interfaith movement, but that can't move much because the people there aren't movers.
AB: It's not an honest position?
CS: It's not. It's a position that most people of faith can't and won't hold. Therefore, it is both a dishonest and ineffective approach to living together well and deeply.
AB: I gave a talk to an audience predominantly made up of devout Roman Catholics. I was asked, " How do you justify your work on religious freedom with a belief that what the Catholic Church teaches is the fullness of truth, and that it is universally and objectively true, including for all those different religious communities you are engaged with?"
It’s this idea of Catholic Integralism, that the ultimate goal has to be to ensure that there can be an acceptance of the fullness of truth, i.e. that which the Catholic Church professes and confesses. And if you're engaged in religious freedom, that’s somehow compromised.
How do you address that challenge that I think all of us face as Christians, because we do have an evangelical faith? We are called to spread the good news to all nations. How do you maintain that tension between wanting to engage the person of another faith in all honesty, but at the same time, hold true to your belief that they should encounter Christ?
CS: Theoretically, it could seem like there's a lot of tension between our desire to change others, and our desire to give them the freedom to be themselves. I hope that's a simple framing. But I really don't think in practice that comes up as much as people think it does. We do have the desire to see everyone come to know Christ. But, when you think about that, we are not going to compel them. That is not what Christ calls us to.
Jesus calls us to do many things of which we can do just as easily, which is love people, allow them freedoms to believe what they believe if they choose not to follow Christ, to be good neighbours to them. By their invitation, oftentimes when you are a good neighbour, you can share the great news of what Jesus Christ has done for them and for us.
But we cannot compel people to accept Christ. So therefore, we do have other commandments, as well, which is to love them well. To give them the freedom to live out their lives as people created in God's image.
AB: Yeah, I think that comes back again into a point of honesty, where religious freedom is not just the freedom to be a Christian and to live out a Christian life and to engage in mission activity, but rather, it's rooted in an understanding of human dignity, where we have to be able to see in our neighbour that dignity. You know, that image and likeness of God.
And at that core, religious freedom is about being able to pursue and know the truth and live that truth once you've found it.
When you look at your work with Neighborly Faith, what do you believe that your work in this type of interfaith work is doing that manifests that human dignity? How does that human dignity come through in your particular approach with Neighborly Faith?
CS: I'll be very practical in terms of doing something. If we are facilitating an event that brings together Christians and Muslims, we'll say conservative Catholics, conservative evangelicals, and Muslims, maybe recent immigrants, who of course have a more traditional faith. Our approach would be to let them be themselves.
Oftentimes, the Muslims want to evangelize, if that's the term, the Christians. And the Christians want to do the very same. But once that's out of the way, it's actually a whole lot of fun to realize that if we are ever going to live together well, it must be to be ourselves together. There cannot be some sanitized space in society, or in our interfaith engagements, where we say, "I'm going to become a more palatable version of myself for you." It's not a real relationship. It's not going to produce a society of people that are truly engaging with one another, who are truly neighbours to one another.
We're about creating real encounters with real people. And it's a harder sell to get that to happen. It's a harder interview to have when you bring out your whole awkward self, you know? Your incomplete theologian self who has a sense of calling in what they ... you know, they want something for each other that each other may not want.
But that's what we're about. And we think this is really the way forward in creating a rich, deep, liberal society, where everyone is welcome. Everyone is together, as well.
AB: I think you’re using “liberal” in the sense of not simply tolerating, but respecting difference, and ensuring that difference has an ability to express itself within the public square?
CS: I mean we should have a society where we both celebrate people's individuality, where they can express it, but also that's the right, but the responsibility is to bear one another's burdens. That we say, "I'm not going to like everything about you, and you're not going to like everything about me. But I am committed to your freedom, I'm committed to your individuality, and I'm going to bear the sometime burden of that by loving you and giving you the space to be you. I hope you return the favour."
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