President Obama has often been accused of not carrying through on promises or projects. That criticism would not apply to the promises he has made to make the White House’s “faith-based initiatives” into “multi-faith-based initiatives.”
Back on June 8, 2010, I did a blog titled “We’ve Got a Friend: Obama and Interfaith.” It summarized a meeting I attended at the White House, along with about 100 other religious scholars and leaders, organized by the “White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” The focus of the meeting was how to advance interfaith and community service on college and university campuses.
Well, Obama has carried through on the commitments he and his Office made back in June. A few days ago, on March 17, he announced the “President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.” As stated on the website of the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships, it is “an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus.”
Obama’s challenge lays out concrete steps calling on students and staff, teachers and administration, of higher education to promote specific programs that will enable their learning communities to become interfaith learning-through-serving communities. And there will even be awards for the most creative and effective projects.
Amid the turmoil swirling around the world and in the White House offices – the tragedy in Japan, the violence in the Middle East – clearly this interfaith initiative does not rank anywhere near the top of the list of hot news items. But it may be one of the most significant in its long-range promise.
Obama is calling for greater religious literacy. But he is doing so by calling, first, for greater religious cooperation. The ideals that motivate him are the same that motivate many of us who are trying to promote more effective interreligious dialogue through interreligious cooperation.
Becoming multi-religious friends in mutual efforts to help others is an effective way of deepening not just our tolerance of each other, not just our understanding of each other, but also our ability to learn from each other. Academics use some fancy, but engaging, language to express this dynamic: dia-praxis leads to dia-logue. Doing leads to learning.
Religious people who act together stay together in continued learning and respect for each other.
My hopes for universities and colleges across the country reflect my hopes for our community at Union Theological Seminary – that next academic year we will all take up President Obama’s challenge and engage in specific, interfaith collaborative projects in order to meet the needs of our city and country.
By walking and acting together, we will talk and learn together.