Lost and Found: Interfaith Dialogue and Rediscovering Religious History


I am currently in the middle of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, by the renowned historian and professor of religious studies, Philip Jenkins. In the book, he shows how the loss of this history, especially in the Western Christian world, has impoverished the Christian world in the West as it is unaware of the richness of its own historical record. He also makes the point that due to the many points of contact and influence between the Christian East and all the various religious traditions found in the area, understanding this lost history would be greatly beneficial to interfaith and even intra-faith communication. Many aspects of interfaith communication rely on learning about the other tradition(s) involved in the discussions and the more knowledgeable the participants would all benefit from greater contextualization. Reclaiming history, whether it is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other religious tradition or even secular history, is always beneficial as it provides greater insight into the current era.

Understanding one’s own tradition more fully allows for greater communication of the beliefs and behaviors that inform religious practice. Jenkins makes the point that learning the history of the churches that no longer exist (or if they do, not nearly in the numbers they did at their height), helps to understand why and how religious communities die. If we understand what causes religious communities to die, we have greater knowledge of what is needed to create and sustain a vibrant community, not only when it comes to Christian churches, as the lessons learned are applicable to all, I think.

He makes the point that,

“The particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for over a millennium the historical norm : another, earlier, global Christianity existed…Christianity became dominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default : Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed very differently.” (p.3)

I find this quote to be applicable to all religious traditions, since too often it seems to me that many members of religious traditions are somewhat ignorant of their own tradition’s history, whether the whole or of their particular sect/denomination. I feel that understanding the history of how one’s own denomination came to be, whatever it is, leads to a greater appreciation of not only how things are done, but why things are done in a specific way. This would also allow for greater sensitivity to the adherents of the other denominations/sects in one’s own religion, as it would show that they too have a rich history related to how they carry out their practices. Understanding this, rather than writing off members of other groups in the same faith, or even between faiths, I hope would generate a greater willingness to not simply write off other groups as mistaken or misguided. Showing that there are multiple ways to be a Christian or Jew or Muslim, rather than just one that is the only true way, would go a long way to build discussions. Recognizing that while they may not perform the exact same rituals or be as stringent or whatever the case may be, they are just as committed to their religious practices even if there are differences that are contentious.

Knowing that differences between do not (or should not) necessarily disqualify someone from being counted a member of that specific religion or not, is part and parcel of religious dialogue. No discussion can exist if someone who a member of a smaller or minority sect is not even accepted as being a member of the religion as a whole. Shutting down conversation and declaring everyone who does not do or believe the same as heretics or apostates at worst and misguided or mistaken at best is never a good thing. Discussions about how and why these differences exist(ed) and what lessons can be learned for the current and future eras of religious communities are imperative today.

Jenkins makes the point that “too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance.” (p.245) Deciding how much to become involved in the modern world and trying to strike that balance between tradition and participation is something all religious traditions have had and continue to struggle with. In this world where there are so many other demands and other things to do, than to think about going to church or the mosque or to the temple or synagogue, learning from the history of how and why certain groups managed to remain relevant and survive destruction is crucial for those involved in religious affairs in general. Time will only tell whether the current sects and denominations, let alone the current religious traditions survive into the future if they cannot remain relevant. Of course, new traditions would most likely take their places and so on and so forth. I completely agree with Jenkins that is precisely what has been happening throughout history and will continue to happen.

Image Source: Mhss via Wikimedia Commons

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3 thoughts on “Lost and Found: Interfaith Dialogue and Rediscovering Religious History

  1. What a great post and thanks for sharing this book with us all. Though written from a Christian perspective, I’m sure, as you said, the same points can be applied to all religous traditions. Culturally relevant traditions are what allow religious ideologies to organically survive through time. There are a lot of religious extremists who fight against this reality, holding onto an ideal that is largely envisioned in their minds, but the ferocity by which they fight it shows that it’s not sustainable. We all need to come to terms with our history. It’s not always pretty, but we need it to become more emphatic people, like you said.

  2. I agree whole-heartedly. Whether religious history, political history, etc, we are so quick to take a shallow and reductive look at history and trends–and much is lost as a result. I am reminded of something an ethics professor loved to say in lectures–“validity is found in the genesis.” It is not enough to perform and enact traditions, but rather one must know why they are doing it. He loved to lecture on the rich history of religious traditions that seemed all-but-forgotten. I won’t (and can’t) recount it now, but he had a marvelous lecture on how the history of mandated confession was not out of a Catholic obsession with guilt and sin, but rather a policy intended to open up Mass and Communion to peasants and serfs. The point is that we lose much without our history–particularly when much of that history has been lost via non-European, non-male voices being quashed.

  3. I agree with both of you! Thank you so much for your insightful comments.

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