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Gustav Niebuhr on Interfaith Understanding

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: The violence in Gaza may question whether people of different religions can ever learn to live together in peace. But especially since 9/11, many religious leaders and scholars have been trying to identify their differences and work together in spite of them.  I spoke with the author of a new book that celebrates interfaith projects at the grassroots.  The title is Beyond Tolerance, and it’s by former newspaperman turned Syracuse University professor Gustav Niebuhr, the great-nephew of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. For him, promoting understanding between religions has become a calling.

On 9/11/01, Niebuhr was a religion reporter at The New York Times in midtown Manhattan. He was profoundly moved by the sight of the smoke from the World Trade Center rising over New York.

“That sense of curiosity can lead to the destruction of stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that threaten us often in this world.”

Professor GUSTAV NIEBUHR (Director, Religion and Society Program, Syracuse University and Author, Beyond Tolerance): It was the people inside who were incinerated. They were people from all different backgrounds, from all different faiths, and those of us who lived and worked in Manhattan, we didn’t just see it; I believe we experienced it. We physically internalized it. We breathed in the ashes from the Trade Center so that in a way those people are part of us.

ABERNETHY: Niebuhr applauds the theological conversations scholars are having, but he values at least as much the work of those he calls “everyday peacemakers” in churches, synagogues, and mosques whose curiosity about each other’s faith has led to conversation.

Prof. NIEBUHR: That sense of curiosity can lead to the destruction of stereotypes, and it’s stereotypes that threaten us often in this world. It’s belief that those people over there are out to get us. They’re no good — all of them are no good. Where does that lead us? That leads us into sort of fear and narrowness. That’s what we need to get away from. That’s not to say there aren’t dangerous people. There are, and they have to be dealt with. But we can’t allow our lives to be ruled by fear of others.

ABERNETHY: Niebuhr says local interfaith conversations can lead to joint projects and eventually to global peacemaking.

Prof. NIEBUHR: It is not about being nice, and it is not about being tolerant. I mean tolerant doesn’t really require very much. I think tolerance is a rather passive condition. But it is, in its own way, about going up against extremism.

ABERNETHY: Religious extremism, says Niebuhr, can produce catastrophic violence.

Prof. NIEBUHR: That’s why I think that people across religious boundaries, indeed across national boundaries, too, owe it to themselves to attempt to find the common humanity in each other, owe it to themselves to find ways of conversing and of working together, because the alternative can be so radically horrible.

ABERNETHY: Niebuhr cited the Catholic theologian Hans Kung.

Prof. NIEBUHR: I’ll paraphrase him. He said there’ll be no peace in the world without peace among religions, and no peace among religions without dialogue among religions.

  • Don

    Maybe the grass root approach is the best idea. I do not think that tolerance has worked. But if we start learning and understanding another’s position in life it will lead to something deeper than tolerance.

  • Lois Stuber Spitzer

    Women Transcending Boundaries is a group in Syracuse that is trying to be in dialogue woman to woman . I see great hope in this for these are the hands that rock the cradle.

  • Cheryl Soehl

    Here in Columbia, SC the group Women of Faith has been meeting for several years — an outgrowth of an on-campus conference at the University of South Carolina called Partners in Dialogue. We are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish, Unitarian, etc. women who meet to share prayer, spiritual searches and spiritual expressions of all kinds. It works because of the openness of each person to learn and grow and share. All of us find incredible nourishment in our simple gatherings.

  • Channah

    Gaza was not a war of faiths. There are Christian and Muslim Palestinians here. It is a war of politics and control of territroy.

  • allan watson

    dialogue is the bridge to tolerance. there will be peace on earth when there is peace among religions. more important, someday soon, yes soon, there will be, beyond tolerance, acceptance as billions begin to understand that there is not found in any religion a sacred scripturethat reflects the perfect will of God and, if there were, there is not aperson or group of people, that has the ability of perfect understanding.