RELIGION AND THE PUBLIC SPACE
By William F. Vendley
THE elderly Venerable Tep Vong, the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist community in Cambodia, travelled to Jaffna in Sri Lanka in the midst of the recent civil war.
In a broken city under siege, he joined others - Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians - to try to bring a peaceful end to the violent separatist conflict.
The force of his quiet Buddhist resolve was unmistakable. Yet, he never quoted a single Buddhist scripture. He spoke, instead, in the plainest of ordinary words.
Who would have thought that speaking plainly in ordinary language is revolutionary? But for many religious communities, it is.
The revolution consists of the growth of multi-religious action based upon ancient religious meanings, but using new ways to communicate across religious lines.
The evidence, if you look, is everywhere: war zones, places of extreme poverty, schools and regular neighbourhoods. Religiously fanatical forces capture headlines, but the big story is that religious communities are actively cooperating on a scale until recently unimaginable.
Shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines of today's challenges, multi-religious cooperation is mainstream and it is growing.
What's up? Have religious communities decided to blur their distinctive identities, drop their doctrinal differences and jettison the transcendent to flatten themselves into merely humanistic organisations? Hardly.
They are holding fast to defining differences in relationship to the transcendent, but they are also working together. It is the successful melding of these two - real religious differences and positive cooperation - on an ever-greater scale that is revolutionary.
A key to understanding the underlying revolution is the fact that today's religious communities are increasingly 'bilingual'.
A double image illustrates the new bilingualism. In the 1960s, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr preached to a small Christian church about the scourge of racism. He used the language of Christianity - its scriptures, images, theologies, prayers and other customs. He spoke to Christians as a Christian in their own religious language.
Now follow King to his famous 'I have a dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where he spoke with conviction on racism to hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom held different - or no - religious beliefs.
King remained the same religious man. He did not change as he walked from church to public mall. But he couldn't just repeat the sermon given in his little church.
Many of the people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial did not share the language of his church. Instead, King spoke in the language of the public square. He never ceased being a believer. But in the different circumstances of church and public square, he expressed his religiously rooted care in two distinct ways. He was religiously bilingual.
Many religious communities are rapidly gaining this same bilingual skill. They keep their own religious language for exchange and action within their communities, but use ordinary language for the same purpose in the public space.
Dr Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, led his Islamic community towards healing and reconciliation after the bitter trauma of civil war. To do so, he first worked as a Muslim among Muslims, using the riches of Islamic language, including its scriptures and traditions.
But together with Roman Catholic Cardinal Puljic, Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikolai and Jewish leader Jakob Finci, he also worked in a shared public language to offer the exhausted nation a common vision of unity that called all to action. In the aftermath of the pain of war, bilingualism helped harness the powers of each religious community to cooperate to build the nation.
Both sectarian religious and public languages are irreplaceably important for religious communities in our globalised world. Neither can be collapsed into the other without impoverishing a religious community's ability to both know itself and to act upon its deepest possibilities for care in today's pluralistic world.
A revolution is under way because more and more religious communities have acquired the remarkable ability to switch from the language of the temple, synagogue, mosque, church or gurdwara to the language of the public square.
Discourse in both languages is required for us to have diverse religious communities composed of well-informed members with durable moral sensibilities, who can find a medium for collaboration with people of all faiths, or none at all, in facing the global challenges of our day.
The writer is secretary-general of the United States-based Religions For Peace, a multi-religious international organisation. This is the concluding essay in the Religion And The Public Space series.