Berlin recently announced a project of the “House of One”, a building that includes a synagogue, a church, and a mosque under one roof. Furthermore, the building will include a space in the middle, connecting the three places of worship, to be used for dialogue or even to be used by people of other or no faith. The initiative came from the Christian side, but both the Jewish and Muslim communities happily endorsed it. If this project becomes a reality, it will be a unique and pioneering model of inter-religious pluralism.
Most importantly, I am particularly happy for Berlin to be the pioneer in this field. Seventy percent of Berlin’s buildings are new, mostly built within the last fifty years. The city bears witness to history’s most disturbing and violent years as well as to religious persecution. Hence, I believe that part of building up Berlin again out of the ashes is building up its celebrated religious diversity.
Yet, I wonder why America, the most religiously diverse country in the world, would not pioneer a similar idea. One would imagine that such a multi-faith worship place may exist in New York, for example. It turns out that there is an ongoing project in Houston, Texas that is based on the same interfaith idea. The Peace Garden is an initiative by the Dialog Institute: a synagogue, a church, and a mosque in one space, but not under one roof. The Dialog Institute in Houston has had this project planned for at least three years, but it seems its development is slow.
Whether it is in Berlin or in Houston, the idea of shared sacred space is not a new one historically speaking, but definitely a much needed innovation in modernity. In Spain’s Andalusia, mosques, churches, and synagogues existed side by side under Muslim rule. Jews and Christians were granted religious freedoms that nowhere else in the Middle Ages would be granted. After the fall of Islam in Andalusia, religious tolerance in the global Muslim empire started to decline. In modern times, Europe witnessed mass persecutions against Jews and others. In America, Catholics, Jews, Asians, and many others have struggled to defend their religious rights in a country that took pride in its Anglo-American white Protestant ethic. When Catholicism and Judaism finally became officially regarded as “American” it was Islam’s turn to be perceived as the “other” and the unwanted “alien.”
To revive the concept of religious pluralism in any society, especially in secular societies, is therefore a sign of positive civic development. Pluralism differs from diversity, which is a social and religious reality that we live in. Pluralism, on the other hand, as Diana Eck describes it, goes beyond diversity, or plurality, to “active engagement” with difference. This active engagement is what makes neighboring churches, temples, synagogues and mosques work and cooperate together for the public good. Pluralism is not just tolerance, it is understanding, or what Eboo Patel calls “appreciative knowledge.”
The Qur’an speaks of pluralism as the reason for diversity in creation: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Chapter 49, verse 13). In other places in the Qur’an, God reminds us that He could have created us all following one religious path, but that He didn’t. When Muslims read the above quoted verse, it behooves them to believe that pluralism is a religious duty. That one should know their neighbors and have a positive relationship with them. That difference is valuable, as it adds to the diversity of creation. But difference should not lead to division and violence. Maybe this is the test of faith: to interact with those with whom we religiously differ in the most humane and compassionate way to fulfill our covenant with our Lord. This is the promise of pluralism.
Image courtesy of The Guardian.