The following is a brief checklist I created for ideological bridge-builders:
Begin by looking around you and list divisions that already exist. It is important to begin close to home and look for divides in your family, faith community, and neighborhood first, and then expand your field of vision and explore communications between religious groups and detect chasms that exist in race relations, political behaviors, and so on.
Once you have a list of identified divides, prioritize them based on a combination of three things; (a) the importance and urgency of bridging the gap, (b) your current skill level, and (c) the most suitable place to start construction.
A real-world builder tries to find the best location to bridge a ravine by looking for strong foundations on each side and a narrow gap with easy access. I always suggest to people that they begin with smaller divides closer to home while they train themselves to become better bridge-builders.
When I use the word harmony to describe what we are trying to achieve here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, people often imagine an idyllic version of that, for instance, the beautiful resonance produced by the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing a classical work of art.
Knowing about that tendency, I go on to explain that even though the choir image might represent our aspirational goal for a harmonious society, punk rock bands and experimental jazz quintets also create their own unique versions of harmony, which is why we should not dismiss any effort in the social context.
In the Ear of the Listener
Everyone knows the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A similar statement could be made about music, as in, “harmony is in the ear of the listener.” What may sound beautifully to one person will probably sound like utter rubbish to another, which is why there are so many types of music. Music appreciation is subjective.
The premise for engaging in shared human experiences (which is something we encourage here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative) is fairly simple. If people can be around each other doing co-human things—i.e., things that everyone does, such as eating food, helping others, creating, talking about their family, sharing their life story, etc.—and not feel threatened, anxieties are reduced, empathy is increased, trust is built, and perceptions are changed.
More in Common
Here’s the thing. Birds of a feather flock together. People self-segregate. This is both natural and normal so long as it is not coerced. Individuals choose to be around others who are like them.
And yet, most folks make a noteworthy discovery when they set aside visual and ideological distinctions and mingle with people who they previously thought of as completely different, essentially, that they have more in common than they realized.
Inner voices of doubt and fear can be powerful detractors. “Who do I think I am?” “What can I possibly give to the world?” “I am so flawed that I can hardly be the change.”
To overcome limiting beliefs, we, the aspiring peacemakers and bridge-builders of the world, must find ways to empower ourselves.
Self-Confidence Can Increase or Decrease
Thankfully, self-confidence is not static. You can have a lot of self-confidence in one area of my life and little in another. In addition, the feeling can fluctuate from one year to the next, and, since self-confidence can decrease, it can also increase.
In the context of social harmony, the goal is not to be better than anyone else, rather to be confident enough to take action. As such, self-confidence can be defined as:
This dual definition subtracts chest thumping and narcissism from self-confidence and replaces it with solution- and action-orientation.
In a media landscape that thrives on division, it’s comforting to find companies that believe in our shared humanity and are willing to bet their branding on it.
On the face of it, brands like Heineken, TV 2 in Denmark, and President’s Choice in Canada have very little in common. One sells beer, another is a Danish television station and the third is a food company. Yet, they have all made commercials that celebrate a belief in humanity.
That is why we are sharing their ads here. Not to take a stance for or against their products, but rather to applaud warm and content rich commercials that tugged at our heartstrings when we first saw them.
Connecting Through Co-Humanity Can Decrease Anxiety, Change Perceptions, Generate Trust, and Elicit Empathy
In our workshops, we use four words to underscore the importance of co-human experiences: trust, empathy, perceptions, and anxiety. Allow me to offer more detailed definitions of what we mean by that, starting with the Merriam-Webster dictionary designations:
Anxiety: Apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill.
Perception: A capacity for comprehension, a mental image.
Trust: Reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.
Empathy: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.
Defiling Religion With Hate: How Individuals, Places of Worship, Society, and the Press Can Counter the Trend
Once again, terror has struck. Once again, lives have been lost. Once again, religion has been defiled by hate. The attacks in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and Sri Lanka have reminded all of us that hateful people can skew the teachings of any religion and use them as a justification for violent actions.
Sadly, attacks by the few can create divisions among the many, expanding existing chasms between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and creating new ones. We must work diligently against that trend. Hate can spread like a virus.
Here are some of the things that individuals, places of worship, society and the press can do to minimize hatred's influence on society.
I recently listened to an interview on NPR with a self-proclaimed globalist. He rightly pointed out that the globalist view—which, among other things, takes into consideration the effects that our actions have on other societies around the world—does not inherently contradict allegiance to our country any more than our allegiance to our family is antithetical to our allegiance to our country.
Under the right circumstances, both can flourish.
Surplus Leads to Charity
There is no denying that allegiance is subject to a natural progression. We choose our needs above those of others, choose our families needs above those of other families, choose our communities needs above other communities… and on it goes.
However, when working with a surplus, it is also natural for individuals, communities, and nations to become more charitable. When basic needs have been met, people are more open to helping others to meet their needs.
In addition, when people understand the link between their actions and the influences that those actions have on others, they often change their behavior (sometimes at considerable expense to themselves). This shift in behavior is subject to moral growth, i.e. an ability to see the world from a variety of perspectives and change conduct in accordance with that, essentially to use imagination to elicit empathy and compassion.
Carol Gilligan’s model for moral development shows that human beings generally move from being selfish to being able to care for others in their near environment to, in rare cases, showing genuine care for a large number of people they don’t know.
When we compare her model to others in the same vein—including Piaget, Loevinger, Erikson, Steiner, Beck, Graves, Kohlberg, Peck, Fowler, Wilber and others—moral growth corresponds with people’s ability to see the world from an ever-increasing number of perspectives and act accordingly; a classification that rhymes with the human ability for compassion, defined as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Simply put, moral growth leads to increased compassion and care, both of which are central to the development of social harmony.
Let’s take a quick look at the progression.
When I moved from Iceland to Texas in 2010, I was forced to face several unconscious and uncharacteristically judgmental attitudes.
In Iceland, I had labeled myself a political moderate and my voting history included both center-right and center-left political parties (plural, as in, there are a lot of political parties in Iceland, not just the two choices we have here in the USA).
Furthermore, I stood outside of organized religion as a part of the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. I thought of myself as fairly evolved spiritually and predominantly free of pejorative views.
Yet, after we arrived, I struggled mightily with many of the religious and political ideologies I was faced with in Texas. For a while there, I couldn’t even get myself to interact with people who showed different ideological preferences.
Connecting Through Our Shared Humanity
Thank goodness for my wife and kids. Because of my children, who were two and seven when we moved to Texas, I’ve interacted with a number of parents through everything from sports and band to Girl Scouts and Mu Sool Won. Furthermore, my wife, who is a natural connector, has brought me along to crawfish boils, dinner clubs, game nights, and more.
In my work here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, I meet a lot of good-intentioned people who want to make the world a better place. It is truly a blessing to meet people from all faiths and spiritual paths that are passionate about creating a more harmonious world.
"What My Path Teaches..."
One thing I’ve noticed is that when people are explaining how they came to be called to this work they often cite their faith or spiritual path. Some feel the need to do so in great detail by quoting scripture, talking about the practices they engage in, both personally and with their groups, and by recounting many of the things that their teachers, priests, or spiritual leaders have said.
This is both normal and natural. People not only want to be good but they also want to be seen as good and show how they got there.
Our need for harmony will be in direct relationship with the amount of acrimony we feel. For example, I spoke with a minister last year who was teaching in the outskirts of New York on 9/11 2001. He told me that he’d never seen strangers come together as they did in the weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers. People went out of their way to be nice to each other, support each other, smile at each other, and lend a helping hand wherever they could.
He has not experienced anything like it since, and yet, we are seeing a similar sentiment expressed across continents in the wake of the New Zealand terrorist attack.
When People Start to Feel Better
At this juncture, it is important to remember that work towards harmony often dissipates in rhythm with receding acrimony. People start to feel better and get sidetracked.
This is natural.
So, if we want to be bridge-builders on a continual basis, not just in the aftermath of a tragedy, we have to work against this instinctive urge. We have to make harmony important, either by continually reminding ourselves of the worst that can happen or by envisioning the kind of world that we want to live in and work towards that every day (preferably both).
Reconnecting Through Our Shared Humanity Is the Most Important Project at This Time in History (Examples)
The ‘two personas’ is a concept that is central to everything we do here are Harmony Interfaith Initiative. It is a simple concept with broad implications.
It goes something like this: Each human being has two personas; the human and the ideological. The human persona consists of all the things that make us co-human (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and the ideological persona consists of all the beliefs and values that cannot be independently proven or disproven (if someone can be persuaded one way or another, then the concept is usually ideological).
As far as we can tell, there are two extremes related to this idea of the two personas.
One extreme is the danger of dehumanization. When people focus on ideological differences and consistently refer to each other using discriminating labels then a door is opened to alienating ‘the other’ and making the human being somehow less than human. That creates justifications to deny basic human needs, a willingness to go along with social marginalization, and a readiness to condone violence. Once violence is condoned, the otherizing is complete.
The other extreme claims that “we are all the same” and misinterprets any attempt to discuss differing beliefs as an attack on someone’s humanity. Ideological differences are dismissed as trivial and only the human persona is allowed to exist. This kind of reductionism can cause problems, but people who refuse to see ideological differences usually do not resort to violence.
We Have Created a Social Imbalance
From an integral standpoint, every human being is a complex mix of these two personas, but our information-driven society has placed such an overemphasis on the ideological persona that it has created an imbalance, politicizing and polarizing everything in ideological terms, from word-use to basic human characteristics such as gender and skin color.
Based on this discrepancy, we can say without hesitation that the most important project at this moment in history is to reclaim a social connection to the human persona, to move away from dehumanizing and otherizing in the direction of co-humanizing.
Here are a few examples to support that hypothesis:
With Participants from All Across the World, Our Partnership with the Charter for Compassion Continues
In 2018 we partnered with Charter for Compassion to offer a workshop that was called Working Together Towards Harmony. It attracted nearly three hundred participants from over twenty-five countries. I used the feedback I got from that group to improve the course, rename it, and write a book based on that material.
Now, starting on March 18, we are offering the online course again, this time under its new name: Co-Human Harmony. We already have registered participants from the USA, Scotland, France, Malaysia, Australia, England, Canada and the Netherlands.
by Andrew Chirch
Have you ever heard the saying that "you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with?
For me, that saying took on a deeper meaning after reflecting on Ya Ahad from the Islamic tradition. One of the ninety-nine names for the divine, Ya Ahad translates (I’m told) as something like absolute and total oneness.
To be very clear, I am not an Islamic theologian or scholar. At the risk of appropriating something out of context from a revered religion, I offer that what I share comes through the lens of my own identity. Any misreading or insult is unintentional. Having said that, the Sufi Sheikh I first heard this term from smiled gently and said, “there is nothing that is not The One” when I asked about this name.
Most people are familiar with the parable of the three blind men who were attempting to describe an elephant. One held the trunk, another the tail, and the third held the belly while they argued vehemently about which one of them was right in their description of the elephant. In their own way, they were all correct. Each held a vital piece of the puzzle.
That sentiment of ‘true but partial’ is something I resonate with deeply. That is why I sought input from 19 bridge-builders and peacemakers in my new book.
Here is some of what they had to say:
Last year, I was working on a pilot project with the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan that was aimed at improving relations between church members and the Native American population in the area using some of the ideas from our Co-Human Harmony program.
During that time, we stumbled upon an interesting problem. Some of the participants were focused on bridge-building and social harmony. Others were intently focused on social justice and thought that the whole social harmony thing was a waste of time.
I experienced a similar quandary when I approached potential contributors for my new book. One woman told me flat out: “I am not interested in social harmony. I want social justice.”
What is the Difference?
As I understand it, social harmony seeks to improve relations between people who are at odds while social justice reform is about changing policies and laws through the political system.
The two are not completely antithetical but the approaches are different.
The social harmony approach looks for potential bridge-building opportunities and attempts to find common ground before trying to solve difficult issues.
The social justice approach seeks to highlight injustices in the public domain, draw attention to them in any way it can, and then solve them through legal reforms. In many cases, anger and outrage are used as catalysts.
by Aaron Bible
Teaching a world religions class to seventh graders in the middle of the Protestant-dominated Bible Belt of Appalachia has been a challenge. The geographical isolation of our area has led to our students and community not getting enough exposure to other religions of the world, and the only education they are currently receiving is superficial with little to no real experiences of other ways of life.
I believe the only way we can create a peaceful and productive society is through an empathic education of true experience that fosters an understanding of religious diversity. This is the very reason I applied to attend The Interfaith Center of New York’s NEH-sponsored Religious Worlds of New York summer institute. And after attending the three-week program, I am now equipped with an abundance of resources and knowledge that will help me and my students become better citizens of the world.
Dr. Henry Goldschmidt, ICNY’s Director of Programs, led the institute with a passion for all the educators in attendance, but equally for the students that we would eventually be teaching back in our own classrooms. The first real revelation that Dr. Goldschmidt made to us was the idea of teaching “lived” religion as opposed to merely “charting” religion. He explained that putting a set list of major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) into a grid of superficially shared features (founder, scripture, doctrine, etc.) does not lead to a true understanding of any religion, or the lives of its practitioners. For example:
People often become demoralized when they are faced with enormous problems. In their eyes, the obstacles may seem so overwhelming that they give up and do nothing.
This can true about all types of issues, including global warming (“it won’t matter what I do so I won’t do anything”), politics (“these people are going to keep fighting no matter what I do and my vote doesn’t matter”), and interfaith relations (“the religions of the world have been at odds for millennia… how can I do anything to change that?”).
Whether the internal arguments against doing something are identical to the ones described above or are entirely different the outcome is the same. No action is taken.
And yet, doing nothing is also doing something.
Good people who sit on the sidelines are also contributing to the problems we face. Who knows what the outcome would be if they did what they could with what they have where they are? In the same way that compound interest generates exponential growth if money is invested for long enough, compound actions make a difference.
An Achievable Vision
We have found that when people feel overwhelmed, they need an achievable vision—a feeling that what they are doing means something and contributes to the overall solution in some small way.
In my new book, Co-Human Harmony, I offer such a vision:
In the modern world, there is a tremendous need for interfaith dialogue. When done right, dialogue can ease tensions, reduce anxiety, build trust, increase empathy, and change perceptions.
But, when done wrong, it can cement distrust, fortify stereotypes, and deepen divides. The wrong way, in this context, is to bring total strangers together and lead with the most contentious topic that you can find. It doesn’t take an active imagination to see where that will end.
If you are interested in improving relations, both between people of different faiths and between people of no faith and the faithful, allow me to offer a step-by-step approach that has served the interfaith community well.
Interfaith Explainer: The Difference Between Intrafaith, Interfaith, Multifaith and Interspirituality
These four words, intrafaith, interfaith, multifaith and interspirituality, mean very different things. Yet, they are sometimes used interchangeably and without distinction. The following definitions should help people discern and understand the differences.
Intrafaith = Within
When someone proposes an intrafaith conversation that means a conversation within said faith or religion. Our January guest blogger, Rev. Susan M. Strouse, wrote eloquently about the importance of having discussions within faith traditions, especially as they relate to the implications of interfaith dialogue.
On October 20, 2010, the UN declared the first week of February to be observed as World Interfaith Harmony Week. This project, first proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, has grown year by year and now has more official participants than ever before.
The initiative is decentralized by design, but those who are participating can register their events on the World Harmony Interfaith Week website or with affiliates such as URI and The Parliament of the World’s Religions.
The official goal is to improve relations between people of different faiths or belief systems (which, as always, includes those who are not affiliated with any faith).
Martin Luther King Jr. said that men often fear each other because they are separated and can’t communicate with one another. This weeklong celebration, from February 1-7, is meant to alter that dynamic and improve relations.
by Rev. Susan M. Strouse
“We don’t know how to talk to one another any more!” It’s a common lament these days, especially those with whom we disagree. We tend to stay within our own bubbles, safe in our comfort zones with those who are of like-mind. Despite (or perhaps because of) the growing diversity of our world, we seem to be more divided than ever.
One area where the opposite has been true is the interfaith movement, in the desire to cross boundaries, learn from other traditions, and work collaboratively for the good of our communities and world. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which I recently attended in Toronto, Canada. Being among over 8,000 people from all over the world, representing a stunning array of nearly 200 religious, spiritual, and Indigenous traditions is my idea of heaven on earth!
But some years ago, I became aware of a concern within our interfaith ranks. At just about every interfaith gathering I attend, someone will pipe up and say, “Interfaith is great, but what we really need is an intrafaith dialogue.” And I agree. For I had discovered this for myself in one of the congregation I previously served as pastor.
What will a book about social harmony and bridge-building need to include to be considered a worthy contribution in challenging and divisive times? How will it supplement the efforts of interfaith and interideological initiatives across the country? How can I make sure I am not wasting people’s time?
Those were some of the questions I returned to again and again as I wrote Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, which was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, 2019, and here are some of the answers I came up with.
I was listening to a Dr. King tribute show on NPR last Thursday on my way back from a planning committee meeting for the Annual Friendship and Dialogue Dinner that will be hosted by Dialogue Institute Austin. Funnily enough, one of my Muslim friends there had told me a story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how he’d told people, who’d to travel for hours to Mecca to pray with him, that the traveling time could be used for contemplation and prayer and was really a blessing in disguise. That turned out to be true for me on my hour-long drive back home. Listening to stories of Dr. King was both uplifting and inspiring.
The interviewees on the radio program had all known Dr. King personally. Of the things they said and stories they recounted, one struck me as particularly relevant to our times.
A Spiritual Malady That Must Be Avoided
It was Dr. King’s refusal to harbor feelings of anger and hatred, even when justified, which got my attention. According to a close friend, who had also read through most of Dr. King’s unpublished sermons, this was a reoccurring theme in the reverend’s life. He believed that destructive emotions, however deserving, were a spiritual malady that did more harm to the one harboring them than to those who the emotions were directed at.
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Our Vision and Primary Goals
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We provide people with access to strategies, methods, and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. We use the term interfaith broadly to mean 'a strong belief in someone or something' and focus on improving interrelations between people who have different worldviews. Our primary goals are to remind people of our shared humanity and to support new and ongoing efforts.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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