The theme of diversity occupies a special place at this auspicious time when Qatar is fully prepared and poised to welcome visitors from all over the world to the Pearl of the Peninsula. FIFA’s World Cup promises to be full of fun, fascinating and fantastic. It is indeed a good time to ponder on the solemn splendor and the nagging challenges of understanding and embracing the “other.”
This magical moment provides a good opportunity to reflect on the diversity of cultures, religions, values, sensibilities and worldviews in our shrinking planet. The task of engaging diversity is an integral part of Qatar National Vision 2030. This vision focuses on “tolerance, constructive dialogue, and openness towards others at the national and international levels.”
Tolerance and intercultural sensitivity are increasingly important in a world where people are becoming more interconnected by the forces of globalization. The world yearns for creative paradigms and models that can foster peaceful coexistence, justice and peace. Beyond the discourse on the “clash of civilizations,” it is imperative to engender creative insights into narratives that can enable humanity to critically engage the diverse and complex factors that have become non-negotiable aspects of our contemporary world.
The 21st century has ushered in a world that is seamless, borderless and globalized. This is our new global structure and it is pertinent to the academic study of world religions. Ninian Smart, a Scottish scholar of comparative religion, has maintained that this reality contributed to the modern study of religion. This insight provides a great segue to delve into the power and persuasion of religious diversity. Engaging religious diversity is central to the mission and vision of Georgetown University. As a Jesuit institution that valorizes interreligious understanding, cura personalis and community in diversity, Georgetown affirms that because we live in an ecumenical age in which many cultures and religious traditions will affect one another, it is crucial for us all to have a mutual understanding.
In light of the pervasiveness of insularity in the world, the Spirit of Georgetown firmly accentuates the power of solidarity and communitas, to borrow a word by the British anthropologist, Victor Turner. In the twenty-first century, religious identity and affirmation continue to play significant roles in personal, domestic, and international affairs. In a world that is already fraught with many centrifugal forces, religious bigotry can exacerbate existing tensions and fault lines. Walter Benjamin once remarked that “If the enemy should win, not even the dead are safe.” This prognosis is a grim reminder that the future of humanity rests on the bold affirmation of virtues that transcend selfish and myopic interest.
The pathways to salvation, moksha, nirvana, samadhi and sat-chit-ananda are sated with treasures, insights and practices that can transform chaos into symphonies of hope, joy and bliss. Religious traditions provide tremendous resources such as kindness, empathy, love and forgiveness for grappling with some of the challenges confronting humanity today. These insights can actually serve as antidotes to global challenges such as terror, ecological disaster, and food security. Dealing with these challenges demands collective efforts and insights.
Georgetown University is deeply interested in putting religious diversity into action. On Oct. 10, I had the honor of hosting Imam Yahya Hendi, director of Muslim Life and Chaplaincy at Georgetown in my “Problem of God” class. He spoke passionately about the meaning of Islamic spirituality and piety. He also addressed the poignancy of religious diversity in our new global village. He was nostalgic of the time we spent together studying Islamic Kalam at Hartford Seminary 32 years ago. At the lecture, my students from religious traditions such as Christianity and Hinduism engaged him on thorny theological issues such as theodicy, predestination and eschatology. His responses were candid and laced with humor, wisdom and personal anecdotes. The class session was a testament to the power of honest interreligious engagement. The flow of our discussion reminded me of the theocentric appeal in one of the poems by Hafez, a Persian lyric poet and a deft defender of the faith. The poem affirms the presence of the Ultimate Reality in churches, mosques and temples.
Interreligious engagement is not analogous to simplistic agreement — such a position is incongruous with the sheer diversity of human values evident in the world. Rather, it is a solemn and humble affirmation that all people can learn from one another.
Akintunde E. Akinade is a professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Qatar.