What is the Point of Multifaith Work?

Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

A few months ago, I was asked to facilitate a workshop that would address a simple question: What is the point of Multifaith work? As I searched for answers within the mission statements of multifaith organizations from around the world, it became rapidly clear that our field is fragmented and undefined, with little agreement as to the goals or methods for engaging in multifaith collaboration. A few months later, Eboo Patel drove home this point when he appeared on the Multifaithful Podcast (a project of my organization, Global Spiritual Life at NYU). He stated “If you ask five people involved in interfaith work what they think the objective of interfaith work is, there is a reasonable chance you will get five different definitions… And half of them are opposing to one another.” Therefore, in an effort to sort out my own feelings about this question, I want to name and analyze a few of the more common approaches to multif aith work in the hopes of teasing out a more comprehensive multifaith theology together throughout the year.

One of the most common approaches to multifaith work is the “Community Approach.” This approach is most often used by groups that share a preexisting environment such as a campus or a local town, and have decided to create a multifaith council or organization to help improve the relationships between the various religious groups in this area. Community based multifaith groups can be found in almost any local community and on most college campuses across the country, making it one of the most common versions of multifaith work.

A second approach I want to highlight is the “Service Approach.” This approach does not rely on preexisting communal bounds, but rather appeals to a more universal ethic of community service as an entry point for creating sustained multifaith relationships. The most successful proponents of this approach can be found at the Interfaith Youth Core, who organize more interfaith service opportunities than any other organization in the United States.

A third approach is the “Shared Journeys Approach.” This approach assumes that people who identify as spiritual or religious share common identities and experiences that can be best understood by other people who share a similar perspective. “Shared Journeys” is exemplified by groups such as Scriptural Reasoning, which brings people together to study shared sacred texts and to experience religious and spiritual traditions of other groups together.

A fourth approach, and the last one I have time to discuss in this essay, is the “Peace-Building Approach.” This approach is best exemplified by organizations such as Seeds of Peace, who bring youth from different sides of a conflict together in an effort to build relationships and humanize the next generation of communal leaders. Peace-Building has been used in various contexts throughout the world, including in Israel/Palestine, Ireland and South Africa, some of the most complicated geopolitical conflicts in the world.

What is clear from these various approaches is that there is no universally accepted approach to multifaith work and that these various approaches lead to qualitatively different multifaith programs. Should we focus on shared spiritual experiences or service? Should we focus on areas of conflict or local communities? Is it possible to aim for two or more approaches simultaneously without suffering from mission drift and disorganization?

I am sure there are other approaches that I have not been exposed to that are novel, powerful and can incorporate a few of these thoughts into a single vision of multifaith engagement. Personally, I have been involved in multifaith work for the better part of a decade, but I have yet to develop a perfectly comprehensive theology to multifaith work. I am attracted to many components of different approaches, but I often wonder whether our work is limited without a vision of multifaith work that can solve the biggest issues facing humanity in the 21st century. This question has been on my mind for years, and I look forward to hearing what other scholars at State of Formation have to contribute to this evolving conversation.

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3 thoughts on “What is the Point of Multifaith Work?

  1. Welcome to the SoF community, Ariel. The approaches you listed are some of the common ones I’ve heard as well. I think you point out a key element of interfaith work – that it happens on an individual level as well as communal. Interfaith work involves communities, but essentially comes down to an interpersonal level, making things naturally complex and varied. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Micah,

    Thank you for providing this useful taxonomy of approaches to interfaith dialogue. Many of the questions you raise in this piece are thought-provoking. I will respond to a couple of them:

    1) You ask whether it is possible for an organization or project to aim for two or more approaches simultaneously without inviting mission drift or disorganization. I would answer that yes, this is indeed possible, because these approaches often have fuzzy boundaries. The service approach and the peace-building approach seem particularly close to one another, and I think there is definitely room in the world of interfaith organizations for groups and projects that aim at both of these approaches.

    2) You ask, ““Should we focus on shared spiritual experiences or service? Should we focus on areas of conflict or local communities?” To me, the only possible answer to all of these questions is one I recently heard an expectant mother give when asked whether she wanted a boy or a girl: “Yes!” Shared spiritual experiences may lead to service, and service may lead to spiritual experiences; areas of conflict often are our local communities, and local communities may become areas of conflict if a robust interfaith infrastructure is never built.

    In sum, I think it is helpful to see a taxonomy of approaches as descriptive rather prescriptive, as something to aid our understanding of how groups currently are approaching interfaith work rather than as a list of ways they must approach it. I think you leave this possibility open when you acknowledge that there may be other approaches to interfaith work of which you are unaware. Perhaps it would be wise to add that there are ways of and good reasons for combining some of the approaches you mention.

  3. Jeffrey- thanks for the thoughtful response! I definitely agree with you that these approaches can overlap and that the distinctions are not perfectly clean, but I would push back a little bit about trying to hold multiple goals at once. I think it can be done, but sometimes I wonder whether we underestimate the value of having more specific and achievable outcomes in mind when we begin a program. Utilizing multiple approaches at once is doable, but I would advocate for thinking in terms of broader goals and outcomes and then choosing the tool. It may mean you use more than one, but I think it might lead to qualitatively different programs in the long run.

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