For many, the multiplicity of options and interactions may seem like a cacophony -- the cause for confusion, syncretism, and, yes, a different sort of decline for religion. Though these conclusions may lack nuance, they are certainly incomplete. Inter-religious interactions may in fact strengthen one’s own religious identity, while creating the opportunity for meaningful dialogue about hot-button issues.

To give a personal example, when I was living in Israel during the 2008–2009 academic year, I wrote an article for Sightings that cited the extended period of tolerance in al-Andalus (often known as “Muslim Spain” -- the parts of the Iberian Peninsula controlled from 711 until 1492 by a series of Muslim groups) as a historical example of coexistence that we can draw from for inspiration. A few days later, I received an e-mail from an Iraqi reporter who was surprised and excited to find that Jews, Muslims, and Christians had ever lived together in such a positive way. He wanted to hear more from me -- as a future rabbi -- about my views and was even interested in writing and article on the topic.

After googling him and reading some of his other articles, I decided to go ahead with the interview. I had seldom met anyone from Iraq but wanted to do whatever possible to improve inter-religious relations. The resulting article, “Jews and Muslims lived in peace with each other,” surprised me as much as I think it did the author himself. For me what was surprising was that my comments had been at all unique. As an American, I had many Muslim friends, and having fun with them had long eclipsed simply trying to “live in peace.” But to the journalist who interviewed me, the idea that a future rabbi would ever cite a historical period in which Muslims and Jews coexisted -- much less hope for positive interactions in the future -- was astounding.

In spite of our different frames of reference, living in the Middle East gave us both a sense of immediacy in our interaction. The reporter wanted someone to affirm the potential for positive relations between Jews and Muslims, and I wanted to affirm it. Across several countries still technically at war, we found a common space to communicate online. Now Facebook friends, we periodically continue to dialogue -- even as we adhere to different religions and hold entirely different worldviews.

I am just one person who was fortunate enough to have positive inter-religious exchanges online. Though perhaps not “transformed” by it, I certainly was enriched and affirmed. I am not alone in this experience online. But the question remains how to create a sustainable, accessible space and format for these online interactions. Many organizations are working to formulate an answer. The future of inter-religious engagement will in large part take form in the answers that succeed.

 

Joshua Stanton is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College. He is also a founding co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™, a nursing home-based project designed to improve intergenerational relations. A graduate of Amherst College, he is the recipient of numerous leadership awards. He is also a blogger for the Huffington Post and an emerging writer, whose articles have been published in five languages. In addition to his other work and study, Stanton serves on the Board of Directors of World Faith, as well as the Education as Transformation project.