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Asian Faiths Development Dialogue

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 17, 2008

Inter-Faith Dialogue in Asia: A Path towards Peace,
Decent Societies, and Progress

Katherine Marshall, Executive Director, World Faiths Development Dialogue, Georgetown University and The University of Cambodia


Introducing the Topic

Excellencies, colleagues, dear friends,

I am honored to be here at this important forum with its creative agenda.  Its aim is to share experiences, explore leading ideas, and allow us all to learn from each other.  The topic before us: “Building Peace, Cooperation, and Harmony Through Inter-Faiths Dialogue,” has vital importance today, for Cambodia and for the world.

This Forum has a deeper and bolder agenda also: to consider how this alliance of secular and faith leaders and thinkers, gathered from many different sectors and countries, can make the dream of the Asian Faiths Development Dialogue a reality.

Let me begin with what brought me here.  I have spent the past 40 years focusing on development, which, simply put, is about social justice – how to assure a decent life and real opportunity for every child and person in the world.  That’s what the international development agenda, the Millennium Development Goals, which were boldly proclaimed at the 2000 United Nations Assembly, aid programs and cooperation, global philanthropy, and corporate social responsibility are, or should, be about. 

My work has led me to focus on two dimensions: faith and ethics.  In the global debates, meetings, papers, books, and protests around international development, religion was generally not part of the discussion.  That is frankly ridiculous.  Where did education start?  Health care?  Who focuses on those people who were excluded from the benefits of growth and services?  And where were the most basic questions posed about why we are all here on earth?  In religious thinking and communities. 

And ethics?  Ethics is a large and complex topic, awesomely dominated by philosophers and theologians, but they are asking essentially the same questions as those who work for social justice, about right and wrong, why things are as they are and what kind of society we want to build. But the issues and complex choices that ethicists frame are not always clearly articulated in development circles. Ethics goes far beyond academic debates.  For most people everywhere, ethics, whether drawn from their religious teaching or from philosophy, is the anchor or compass for life.  Ethics also offers inspiration and a link to the past as well as the future. 

Faith and ethics are the glue of community.  So, as we address the challenges of development and working for a better world, we should always keep the anchors of faith and ethics in mind.  That has not always been the case.

The World Faiths Development Dialogue, which I lead, is a bold effort to bump heads (as my father used to say when his children squabbled or failed to listen to him) between the technical worlds of economics, participatory assessment studies, energy audits, and business plans, and the practical and intellectual worlds of “faith” – Buddhist, Catholic, Jain, Muslim, and Jewish wisdom and practice.  So we ask constantly, what does this effort to bring the worlds together – to “bump heads” – mean for health care?  For schools?  For trash collection?  For how men and women relate today? For orphan care? For resolving festering conflicts? For honest government? For microfinance?  The list of topics is endless, from AIDS to zebras – A to Z. 

We start with a firm faith that by asking questions, broadening the group of those who are at the table to include especially religious communities and leaders, we can help improve the quality of development strategies, programs, and work on the ground.

The Asian Faiths Development Dialogue is a close partner of WFDD, exploring in the Asian – and Cambodian – context, the same issues.  How can and should religious and secular organizations find common cause in fighting poverty and working for social justice?  Are there differences in perception about realities, policies, and future paths?  And if so, what kind of dialogue should we promote and support?  What are the hot issues for peace? For prosperity? For the environment?  For the quality of our lives?  And what should we be doing to advance our common goals?

This dialogue is needed because, despite countless intersections, the worlds do not meet comfortably and we are still groping to find bridges.  That is what the WFDD and the AFDD are about: building bridges.  The vocabulary, the images and stories, and the intellectual constructs of different worlds, can be very discordant and seem far removed.  But in reality they overlap and are intertwined.  And the stakes are high. The opportunities we can miss are large.  We need those bridges, solid ones, and we need them now.

I want to pay a special tribute here to the founder of the AFDD and patron also of the WFDD: Dr. Haruhisa Handa. His talents are extraordinarily broad (spiritual leader, opera singer, golf pro, publisher and writer, flower arranger, painter, to name just a few), and his generosity is legendary – he is a model of contemporary philanthropy, someone who sparks ideas across different disciplines and worlds.  And, unlike so many of his colleagues, he always follows through.  He has a special love of Cambodia, which is what has brought him to anchor the AFDD here in Phnom Penh.  His commitment to bringing religion together with economics, scholarship, support for children, health, and other practical affairs is an example and inspiration.


Resurgence of Interest in Religion, International Relations, and Public Policy

The contexts for the Asian Faiths Development Dialogue are both local – that is, rooted in Cambodian realities – and global. 

My challenge is to set the scene from the global perspective, and I look forward to the day’s exploration of how these issues emerge in a Cambodian reality. 

The broad global context is the rather remarkable new interest in religion that is a part of international relations today.  Many world leaders are now acknowledging that they had missed a huge issue and dimension in their conduct of foreign affairs – the role of religion.  Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright, Tony Blair, just to name a few, have made public “confessions” that say that IF they could do it again they would take religion far more explicitly into account. Large companies, foundations, international institutions, governments, and think tanks are all reflecting about religion and exploring a deeper understanding of its role and more direct engagement with religious institutions and leaders.

There is a context here for this renewed interest, that is perhaps more pertinent for the West than the East, which is a long tradition of what is often termed “secularism;” indeed, secularism is quite often referred to, not in a positive sense, as equivalent to firmly held religious belief.  Secularism, which in this context is read as a way of thinking and a movement that shuts out religion from public debates and policy, emerged largely from European history, shaped as it was by long wars of religion.  There were long and bitter contests between very practical religious power and emerging ideas about broader human rights and principles that drew on, but went beyond, religious teachings.  The upshot was a complex but powerful wall drawn between “religion” and “state.” 

That’s an important piece of the story – how religious institutions were pushed from the seats of power and had to adapt to new roles, while state authority was redefined in ways that were no longer linked to divine authority and the institutions of religion.  It explains why so many approaches to international relations have simply ignored religion altogether. But there is another piece, which revolves around contemporary attitudes and fears of the divisiveness, which can come with religious beliefs and identity.  This attitude and psychological legacy produces the view that it is best to maintain conscious lines that separate “church and state” and “public and private.”  The underlying and often unspoken assumption is that religion has little to do with practical daily affairs and that if it does, it can have a negative influence on some processes of social change.

What many are recognizing today is that these lines and assumptions, while they do have important validity in some situations, can go too far and can obscure the positive, vital links between faith and practice, between ethics and action, between religion and social harmony, between communal peace and justice.  We need to re-explore our assumptions about how these world views and disciplines relate and intersect.

So today we grapple with how to take into account religion in many aspects of international affairs – whether negotiating about the Preah Vihear Temple, looking for ways to share access to the Holy sites in the Middle East, contending with how to deal with the reality of houses of prostitution, or considering school curricula and how they address social values. 

Slowly, the notion that it is unwise and impractical to exclude religion from debates and diplomacy is gaining currency.  But we are still faced with large gaps in understanding and a groping towards how to translate the fuzzy idea that there needs to be dialogue into reality.  That is the task of the WFDD and the AFDD.


Inter-faith Dialogue: Where it is Going and Why

One place where we see these confluences taking on reality is in the inter-faith movement. 

There is a global upsurge in inter-faith activities.  These are wonderfully diverse.  They often begin in a village where the imam, priest, and monk meet during a crisis, or in schools where a culture day celebrates music and dance from different traditions and opens eyes to new worlds.  Inter-faith movements and institutions are taking clearer form at regional, national and international levels. 

Though engagement among different religious traditions goes far back in history, the modern inter-faith movement largely reflects changes linked to modernization and globalization.  First, one’s religion today, in most modern societies, is not a simple given or an inherited identity, and second, religions are far more intertwined today, with different groups living together all over the world, than they generally were in the past.  Thus a product of modernization is the emergence of plural societies, and inter-faith work is one avenue to address the implications of this vast social change. 

Plural societies can be a great gift – opening new avenues and ideas.  We can enjoy and learn from a vast array of traditions and cultures, including religions.  Today the beauties and glories of Cambodian culture can be accessible all over the world, and people in many societies can savor Brazilian dance, French food, Chinese calligraphy, and Moroccan design.  And we can all benefit from and savor the beauties and wisdom of different religions, through Christian music, Muslim architecture, and Buddhist mythology.

Plural societies can also generate friction and conflict as groups compete or misunderstand the motives of others.  Ancient feuds or simple separation of communities can erupt into tensions as pressures of modernization disrupt tacit accords that kept the peace or as urbanization shakes up societies.  The situation today is complicated by many processes of change.  Whereas in the past, most people were born into a religion and stuck with it and their community until they died, this is far less true today.  In most modern societies, religion is a choice for each individual.  Many stick with the faith into which they were born, but others change their beliefs and their affiliations over the course of their lives.  In some societies, there are complex overlaps.  For example, in Japan, many follow Shinto rites for their entry to world, when a baby is born, go to a Christian church for marriage to enjoy the joyful rites, and finally, turn to the Buddhist temple for comfort in death, seeking a sense of continuity of being and life.  Brazilians are known for the exuberance of their faiths, and many change faith frequently or combine them.  The French word “briccolage” is used to reflect this very personal tendency in some societies to construct one’s own faith or spiritual approach: building a personal religious outlook.  Old ways of looking at religion no longer work.

The diversity of inter-faith movements takes this complex picture into account.  Some focus on global leadership among religions, while others work to support local communities in their inter-faith work and to weave these diverse efforts together into a broader learning movement.  Overall, their major themes have been those of this conference: peace, cooperation, and harmony.

Inter-faith work has three vital cores and lessons. 

First, virtually every inter-faith effort (like this meeting here today) highlights the extent to which diversity is vital for success, not to speak of vitality and survival.  The vital importance of diversity is well understood when the subject is biodiversity: for plants and animals, diversity is an imperative rule of nature.  Diversity of cultures is equally important, yet in today’s globalized world there is great concern about whether and how it is possible to protect and preserve traditions and cultures in the face of homogenizing forces (epitomized as McDonalds culture) and pressures of modernization and change.

Inter-faith work works to celebrate diversity and find ways for different faiths to know one another better, address differences, and find common cause.  Inter-faith work addresses the fears that traditional cultures and religion will be drowned or marginalized by the sheer pace of modernity.  Inter-faith meetings are a glorious celebration of the richness of human heritage and diversity, a living tapestry of history.  They highlight the joy and meaning that is part of faith traditions and the culture that is so much intertwined.

Second, inter-faith work and movements have a specific goal of conflict resolution and peace building. They draw on traditions in all faiths that celebrate peace, help to “spread the word” about these desires for peace, and often help develop specific skills in addressing tensions among different groups.  Inter-faith groups across the world work to mediate specific conflicts and build a culture of respect and appreciation that are essential to social harmony.

And third, inter-faith movements often engage in practical common efforts, on topics that have little to nothing to do with theology, because they understand that when even hostile groups find common cause and work together they can address their differences.  There are countless examples of how groups come together to solve problems that are of common concern.  My favorite example is the inter-faith trash and garbage initiative in Ghana, where a group of faith leaders came together to help clean up the city of Accra.  The effort involved civic pride before a coming Football competition, but it also recognized that cleanliness and health, as well as godliness, went together for all faith communities.  The common effort helps to build trust as well as understanding. Similar efforts address food security and housing.

Thus, inter-faith work can address complex, profound dialogue about theological differences, but it can also have a very practical face.  We should not forget that religion is not just about prayer and improving the self, but about community and society.

For all these reasons, we are witnessing a growing interest today in inter-faith dialogue; inter-faith efforts and movements are increasingly visible in universities, cities, and towns, as well as at the transnational level. 

The global inter-faith movements, Religions for Peace (WCRP), the Parliament of the Religions, and the United Religions Initiative, as major examples, are working actively at many levels for peace and to resolve conflicts.  They also work for understanding because in today’s plural world, every global citizen needs to have an understanding of the community within which they live, including its faith traditions.  At a global level, inter-faith movements are working toward what we can call a basic “faith literacy.”

In all these ways, inter-faith dialogue is a major avenue to understanding, cooperation, and harmony.


Inter-faith Dialogue and Development

Inter-faith movements are many levels are recognizing more and more that peace and development go hand in hand, and that the challenges of development are part of their work.  So they too are looking for practical ways to build bridges.  But there is a matter not only for religions but for all institutions of society.  It is striking that economic and business communities in many parts of the world are looking more and more at how religion affects their work.  An example is the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders that set out after September 11, 2001, to explore the large gamut of issues that affected Islam and the West.  The World Bank’s Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics has worked for more than a decade to learn from inter-faith and faith approaches to globalization and development.

And that is where WFDD and AFDD come into the picture.  They focus on the goals of development, social change, and social justice, recognize the vital role of religions for that noble objective, and seek a new set of bridges that often span secular and religious, at many levels, local to global.

What this challenge highlights is the complex set of links between peace and harmony and equity, opportunity, and justice.  The peacemakers of the world, whether their approach is secular or religious, recognize that real peace is intricately tied to opportunity and the assurance of a decent society.  Decent societies are more and more often plural societies today (which generate their own tensions and need for peace making).  And, conversely, development is impossible without peace.  War is an obvious enemy of progress and prosperity, but so are communal tensions.

Because religious traditions and institutions are vitally important in so many societies, they need to be part of the dialogue about peace, cooperation and harmony.  Inter-faith dialogue today needs to be inclusive in the breadth of its agenda, and it also needs to reach out beyond formal religious institutions and communities.


Building Peace, Cooperation, and Harmony

The conference themes of peace, cooperation, and harmony are large and loaded challenges, and they are intertwined, like the branches of a great river delta.  One cannot come without the other.  For my final comments, I have redefined these challenges as peace, building a decent society, and progress. 

We know that peace is about the absence of war and violence.  Many blame religion for conflict and tensions, including the infamous “clash of civilizations.”  Many wars and conflicts are blamed on religion.  But conflict is part of the human condition and most conflicts that may appear to be religious, in fact, have deeper and more complex roots.  After all, there is tension in most families as well as societies.  The violence of our times goes far beyond religion.  The tendency to blame conflicts on religion, in general, or particular religious traditions, is fraught with risk. We need clear eyes to appreciate where religious differences and tensions spark friction and conflict but also look beyond to understand the deeper causes.

Most important, we need to build on the deep traditions of world religions to make peace, to keep peace, and to build peaceful plural societies.  Here, we can mobilize religions to use their prophetic voice to demand action on cases like Darfur and to address the ugly signs of anger that the current financial crisis seems to be bringing out. 

And in doing so, we need to ground working for peace in efforts to build decent societies.  That means education, caring for the environment, assuring health care, providing clean water, and above all providing the opportunity for each and every person to thrive and develop their talents.  Faith traditions and inter-faith movements can and should contribute to these ends if we can build strong bridges.  The work to build decent societies is intricately related to the core inter-faith effort to build understanding among communities. Here, tolerance is not good enough as an objective: we need to work, especially through inter-faith avenues, for understanding based on real knowledge and respect, at all levels, from family and community to global.

As we work for the visions of each community and country, we can look beyond to the ideals of the global society, reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Millennium Development Goals.  These ideals are grounded in a deep belief in progress, and in the potential for building just societies in a better world.  They set out what can be.



 The WFDD and AFDD have set ambitious goals to help in all three of these challenges: to make peace a real part of our vision of development, to work to build decent societies, and to help ensure that growth and change reflect progress and forward movement, not just an increase in wealth and prosperity. 

We are working across many development topics to build the bridges, to ensure that the wisdom and practical energy of religious communities are part and parcel of development programs and thinking.  We are convinced, for example, that education is an absolutely essential right and need today, but we also appreciate that more attention is needed to the way in which values and approaches to plural societies are part of educational programs.  This is one of many lessons we have drawn from our dialogue to date, as we meet concerns about ethics and values in education in faith communities across the world.  We have found both common cause and tensions in addressing major challenges like the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  We are working to bring greater understanding and common cause in working for honest, transparent societies and governments.  And we see great potential in mobilizing faith communities (as you have begun to do in Cambodia) to address the challenges of global warming and protection of nature.

WFDD and AFDD work to combine the interwoven themes of celebration of diversity and building on traditions with the modern miracles of technology.  We aim to build networks that span the world, help catalyze action by bringing groups together, build knowledge by highlighting what has been done and the directions it is taking.  And we also seek to pursue a thoughtful and purposeful dialogue about areas where there are concerns, tensions, and differences, for example on changing gender roles in modern society or what should be included in school curricula.


Concluding thoughts

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;” thus English author Charles Dickens began the novel Tale of Two Cities.

Indeed we can, on some days, and from some vantage points, see ourselves in the worst of times today.  There is great pain in the world, with war, suffering, inequality, and terrible threats to the very environment of the planet earth.  We can see injustice and frustration.  We see threats to species and the pollution of the air.  We see too many children dying before they are five years old, and far too many who do not go to school. Many people seem to have lost their bearings and sense of values.  Many question whether prosperity brings greater happiness and good.  The speed of life today and precariousness of life and prosperity produce anxiety and fuel tensions.

But we also live in the best times the world has ever known.  We have the potential for the first time in human history to assure every human being a decent life, an education, and joy in life.  They can enjoy the cultures of the entire world. We have resources and tools to perform miracles – in health and technology.  Knowledge can be available to all, at the tips of our finger.  We have a will at the global level to end poverty, and amazing power among communities and civil society to bring about justice and realize human rights.

We need to work together to address the ills and to achieve the potential, to realize our dreams.  And the WFDD and the AFDD, which are about building bridges, enhancing understanding, and seeking better paths, can be a central part of that journey.