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Interfaith Terms Of Engagement Revisited


Sep 24, 2004
Religions become universal when they speak of the human condition and connectivity that transcends racial, national, ethnic, gender, psychosocial, and economic barriers and stereotypes. By weighing in on such inequities in these matters, religions become eternal. Then they are no longer just for the time or place when they were first enunciated. Then they remain relevant to people and their lives even centuries later.

It is true that most religions, much of the time, teach about a reality that lies beyond words and concepts and from this understanding they allow us to derive a lifestyle that is harmonious, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and progressive. Most religions have also discovered that defining a precise code for micromanagement of ethical conduct where every "t" is crossed and every "i" is dotted is a minefield, invariably leading to heightened, even violent disagreement between neighbors.

I had talked about some of these matters a while ago but our world has changed as has our perspective. Hence this updating today.

The New York Times of February 18, 2007 featured an article that started with the August 2006 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey asked American churchgoers to identify issues that their clergy talked about in their sermons. What could be simpler? But many, if not most, of the topics had little to do with heaven, hell or everlasting life; in fact, they addressed matters with more immediate concerns – issues of this life, the here and now.

What type of questions claimed the focus of the clergy and religious teachers?

Ninety-two percent of respondents said their clergy delivered sermons on hunger and poverty, 59 percent spoke on abortion, Iraq rated 53 percent, same sex issues were the subject for 52 percent, environment 48 percent, evolution and intelligent design drew a rating of 40 percent, the same number applied to matters of death penalty, 24 percent reported that stem cell research was talked about, while immigration was the subject of clerical preaching for 21 percent of church-going Americans. This data comes to us from a 2007 survey; surely issues of immigration and economic inequality have defined an important niche since then. Just give an ear to the current political debates.

This is a ten years old survey, and offers quite a pot purée. The priorities and the numbers may have changed since, particularly now that we are in the middle of a highly charged election season in the United States. Surely the general focus on contemporary issues remains. I am also fully aware that this brief summary is at best incomplete. It doesn't mention Jews, for example; I am sure they do not miss out on such topics and concerns. This quick recount also doesn't tell us about the variety within the Christian experience -- from the most conservative Christian fundamentalists to the most liberal humanists. But that kind of esoteric variety, important as it is, is not my focus today. What I wish to highlight is that churches are exploring issues that impact the daily lives of their flock and the structure of society.

Surely, these matters need and deserve honest exploration and an ever ongoing national conversation. I am also aware that such topics occupy a central defining place in the current presidential political contests in both the Democratic and Republican parties. I also clearly see that over the past six months most hopefuls in the Republican presidential campaign are focused less on constructive parsing of these and related issues and more on an abusive verbal war of words with those they disagree. Perhaps time will cure them of such shenanigans and skull-duggery but I am not that optimistic.

Look again at the issues that I have briefly listed. These are matters of considerable importance in today's world; many have changed over the past few years and will continue to evolve. Some of them, like stem cell research or the Iraq war, were of no concern only a few years ago, while others, like disease, hunger and poverty, have been with us forever.

Keep in mind that since they are an integral part of the greater American milieu, North American Sikhs would share the concerns of the larger society, specifically immigration and education, as well as hunger and poverty. In addition, however, as a relatively new visible minority, Sikhs would also have a stake in job rights, social and legal equality under the law, matters of interfaith relations, as well as the unfortunate sequelae of 9/11.

Not that they are unique to Sikhs, issues such as alcoholism, female feticide and infanticide, questions of caste and clan, spousal abuse and dowry system also demand attention. How to preserve, nurture and transmit our identity and heritage would unquestionably remain on the front burner.

How do we define an equal place at the table of this society remains the very obvious central theme.

Yes, religions speak of eternal values that give us an ethical framework in which to navigate our complex lives. But to do this successfully, mundane matters of life that the Pew survey explored cannot be ignored or set aside. Our eternal values must engage with the everyday concerns that drive our ordinary but often desperate lives. I know that such issues evolve and mutate, our knowledge base and technical skills, too, shift and progress, while answers change. And surely, at times we will make mistakes and rue the path we have chosen.

We are exploring today some ideas that define the terms that frame the engagement between religion (faith) and life. Religions need to provide us a guiding process, not give us answers etched in stone. It is then that religions work, as T.S. Eliot says, "to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time." What we never want to do is to disconnect the evergreen teachings of religious truths from our contemporary life. If that happens, religious teachings become empty rhetoric, while their practices and traditions are reduced to meaningless, fossilized rituals.

But then, why is it that I have rarely, if ever, heard any conversation on most of these issues within any gurdwara? Are we Sikhs living in a different universe?



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