The true purpose of interfaith panels

Continuing our look at the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, we come to paragraph 24. This is an interesting passage:

We owe it to our partners in this common effort [i.e. interfaith activities], however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

The above passage is just one sentence. It’s such a long sentence that it might be hard to see the forest for the trees. So let me break it down for you. The House of Justice here is saying, “We’ll participate in interfaith activities with you, but we have to make one thing clear. The whole project is pointless unless everyone agrees with us that there is only one God and all the religions come from God. Our beliefs are the solution. If you believe differently from us, then you’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.”

Think I’m being harsh? Don’t look at me. The Universal House of Justice said it.

To be honest, I don’t have a problem with the UHJ saying that. They’re just being straight shooters. I’m making a point of it, though, to point out what I feel is a double standard. If a Catholic (or other Christian) says the answer to the world’s problems is Christianity, at least some Baha’is will regard that as pig-headed bigotry. You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s the dominant theme of the Letter. But saying that the Baha’i Faith is the answer to the world’s problems, that’s enlightened open-mindedness.

By the way, all this talk of interfaith discourse reminds me of a staple of the Baha’i campus association’s repertoire: the interfaith panel. Interfaith panel discussionGet five or six people up on a stage sitting a table together, each from a different religion. Give each one five minutes to explain their religion, and then open the floor for questions. This is supposed to promote understanding and tolerance, but I’m skeptical.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much support interfaith discussions. They are very helpful. I think they have two important roles. One is that by learning about someone else’s beliefs, you find out that they aren’t as block-headed as your stereotype made them out to be. The other is that you learn etiquette – little things that might be offensive to a member of that faith, or at least things that are best avoided. For instance, if you have Muslim or Jewish friends, it’s good to know before having them over for dinner that pork should not be on the menu.

Neither of these purposes is served by the interfaith panel discussion. Five minutes (or however long the organizer allows each speaker) is not enough time for a Catholic to explain what we believe about the Trinity, why we don’t have women priests, what we mean when we say the pope is infallible, and all the other issues people have with us. Let alone go into issues of etiquette like how to visit a Catholic church respectfully.

A theme can help by narrowing things down, but it can also hurt by watering things down. The organizer might ask the panelists to speak on “how your religion views racism” or something. Then each panelist says, “we think racism is bad”. Yawn. Of course they’re going to say that.

An event would have potential if there were only two speakers, along with a knowledgeable interviewer. Not a debate, but a guided discussion. Interfaith debates are dumb and pointless because they encourage adversarial judgments and attempts at one-upsmanship – not conducive to learning or understanding. Or even just an interviewer with a representative of one religion, and hold a 30-minute interview with time at the end for questions from the audience.

Anyway, getting back to our six-member interfaith panel… Aside from the superficial structure, look at its superficial composition. There are the usual suspects – the Jew from Hillel, the Muslim from the local mosque, the mainline Protestant minister, the Buddhist and/or Hindu, the Baha’i (naturally) and then something offbeat just to mix things up, like a Wiccan or a Native American, or a witch doctor from New Guinea. How can any of these people really represent either (a) their religion, or (b) their fellow believers? Who’s representing me on that panel, for instance? The reverend from the United Church of Vanilla Protestantism? Or can we really say that the guy from Hillel represents Judaism? Is he the voice of all Jews, from Lubavitcher to Reconstructionist?

Something else to notice: Interfaith panels are done all sorts of ways, but I’ll bet every one of them that’s sponsored by a Baha’i campus association will always have them talk in a particular order… the order of religions found in every Baha’i pamphlet. First the pagan, then the Buddhist/Hindu, then run through the monotheists in order from Jew onward, wrapping up with the Baha’i.

There’s something interesting about this order. I think there’s more going on here than simple interfaith understanding. Let’s go back to the Letter to see what I mean.

interfaith discourse … must now address honestly and without further evasion … that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

The purpose of interfaith discourse then, for the Baha’is, is ultimately to show people that all religions are the same and come from God. This then, will lead people to realize that the Baha’i Faith is true. The interfaith panel, when organized by Baha’is, becomes a sort of live-action Baha’i pamphlet. Each representative gives his or her spiel – pagan, Buddhist, Jew, etc. – and then the Baha’i representative wraps it up by saying, “All religions teach the same thing. Look at tonight’s panel. Everyone here said that racism is bad. That means they all came from God.” And then she reads a quote from Paris Talks and everyone breaks for refreshments.

Baha’i campus associations, therefore, use interfaith panels as tools for spreading the Faith. They are staged in a way that supports Baha’i truth claims. Don’t believe me? Then try an experiment. Suggest to your local Baha’i campus association that the next time they hold one of these events, they not invite a Baha’i panelist. How well will that go over? Or (and this would be even more interesting) suggest they choose a topic that is not a Baha’i principle. So instead of having them talk about race unity or the equality of women and men, have the panelists talk about the value of paid clergy or the necessity of ritual.

I can tell you right now, no Baha’i campus association and no LSA will ever do that. Why not, you ask? Simple. Because the purpose of interfaith dialogue is to prove the Baha’i Faith right, not to allow the other religions to be themselves.