Religions get a lot of blame for what’s wrong with the world, both in the past and in the present. Religious intolerance is said to be the source of violent conflict and oppression, and in many cases, these accusations are true. Yet as Kelly James Clark notes in his introduction to Abraham’s Children, religion has also been a great force for good, and many religions teach tolerance and respect for others. He explains how this belief motivated him to put together this collection of essays:
Religious believers should do everything in their divinely motivated power to effect religion as a force for good. Believers should make it so that genuine faith in God inspires kindness, compassion, and liberty but not intolerance, hatred, and violence. So I invited prominent political figures, as well as those deeply involved in peace and justice movement, to defend religious liberty and tolerance from the perspective of their own faith tradition. If religious believers don’t work hard and together, religiously inspired evil may eventually win out over religiously motivated good. Without religious believers doing everything in their power to bring peace and reconciliation to our broken world, religion could be the death of us all.
Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University and former professor of philosophy at Gordon College and Calvin College, has brought together key figures from the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to explain what their traditions teach about religious tolerance. The collection begins with five essays from the Jewish perspective, continues with five selections by Christians, and concludes with five pieces from Muslim thinkers. The rabbis, scholars, politicians, and activists who contributed to the collection (see the complete contributors’ list) offer a range of perspectives, but all agree that their religions teach tolerance and respect for those not of their faith.
I was taken with the motivation for this project from the start, and I loved Clark’s introductory essay, but I found the first couple of pieces to be dispiriting. The whole collection, but especially the selections by the Jewish contributors, gives a lot of attention to the Jewish and Palestinian conflict in Israel. It’s an important and complex topic that ought to be addressed in a collection like this, yet I was distressed when the first couple of essayists talked about anti-Jewish education among Arabs and suggested that Arabs would destroy Israel if Israel put down its arms. They may very well be right—anti-Semitism is real, and anti-Israel sentiments are strong. But this accusatory stance is not likely to bring about any progress. These writers made some other excellent points, but the finger-pointing was troubling.
In most of the essays, however, the writers are just as critical of their own traditions as they are of others; in fact, they are usually more critical of their own and express a longing for their fellow believers to learn to see God in everyone. They cite teachings in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, as well as the words of great thinkers in their traditions, as evidence that respect, tolerance, and love for all people are central to their faith. When we remember, for example, the Old Testament teaching that all people are made in the image of God, it becomes impossible to defend acts of violence against others. If every other person contains the image of God, to treat them with disrespect in the name of God is nonsense.
For the most part, these writers are not promoting an idea of tolerance in which all beliefs are perceived as equally right and equally good. One recurring theme is the idea that the word tolerance implies that there is something about which we disagree. Given that some interfaith and ecumenical movements can tend toward teaching that all religions are the same despite their contradictions, I appreciate that these writers leave room for disagreement, even while teaching respect and even love for those whose beliefs are different. Among the keys to navigating the tension are the recognition of God’s love for everyone, the belief that religious faith cannot come through coercion, and a sense of humility about the ways we may be wrong.
Most of the essays made compelling arguments for religious freedom and tolerance, and it was a pleasure to see intelligent believers come at these questions from so many different perspectives. Not all the pieces were equally strong—Jimmy Carter’s essay was cobbled together from earlier published writings, and thus feels less coherent. The middle section on women’s freedom seemed especially out-of-place because as important as this topic is, it wasn’t a focus of this book. I felt a similar sense of disconnect when reading Rana Husseini’s compelling essay about honor killings. It was a good piece, but it felt like it didn’t belong. Despite the writers’ differences, the other essays covered many of the same themes and made interconnected arguments, and the focus on this one issue, rather than on religious tolerance in general, seemed odd to me. Overall, however, I’m glad that this book exists and that people have a chance to see these diverse voices speaking as one on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.