Interfaith as an ideal and as an activity now abounds. Very few in the world will admit they do not affirm peaceful and collaborative relations among religions and believers from different traditions. This current expanse of interfaith consciousness has been evolving and maturing for approximately 40 years since the 1970's. The elder statesmen of the interfaith pantheon coincided with the spirit of peace that gave rise to the United Nations. These include the Temple of Understanding, World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Congress of Faiths. Also quite old and established is the International Council of Christians and Jews, a bilateral interfaith group. These early organizations paved the way for contemporary interfaith. from the 1950's onwards. They were in a way parallel to the United Nations dream only from a religious instead of a political framework.
In the 1970's UN limitations began to harden in the diminished hopes of the global community, as did any radical hope for evident change that might have been harbored for the work of these early interfaith groups. In both cases all recognized the positive value of ongoing work in both areas, but hope for real change transformed itself into recognizing peace work as something worthwhile in its own right. Sort of a "the poor you will always have with you" approach to doing good.
These organizations continued to represent what would become "the establishment" in the interfaith panoply, and many of its seasoned leaders served as mentors for the new turns and developments of interfaith work in later years. In the late 1970's another major spurt of interfaith arose that persisted in an unbroken line of development from that time until the present day.
This period of interreligious relations from the late 1970's until the present, has traversed a number of different phases based on global and international developments and contexts for their relations. During the cold war, interfaith was beneath the surface and did not concern the average person on the street, or the average religious believer. The world at the time was distracted by communist aggression and the proxy wars sponsored by the East and West blocs. Though the problem of communism should have been recognized as a religious problem, people tended to see matters as economic, or based in political theory. In all of life in this period, religion took a back stage. The same was the case obviously, perhaps more so with interreligious activity. People presumed that such conversations were simply for the few who happened to take interest in tht sort of thing, much in the same way one was a movie goer, or a classical music afficionado.
Good interfaith progress occurred during the cold war, but it was not recognized as pressing in world affairs. It was beneath the surface or in the background, so far as most people were concerned. Bbut among religious professionals and people naturally insightful about the central importance of religion in human affairs, important strides were realized in the hard and challenging work required to advance positive interreligious relations. Greater knowledge, wisdom, and facitlity in positive interreligious relations were developed, as was greater complexity and breadth. These developments and progress during this phase of obscurity remain the treasure and legacy of interfaith opportunity as seen at present.
In 1989 when communist states (particularly the Soviet Union) imploded, instead of the appearance of the era of peace expected by some, there erupted onto the horrified surface of human, and interanational relations full blown, old fashion, medeival, kill-the-infidel style religious war! The tinderbox of course was the Balkans ("former Yugoslavia') - (which by the way erupts now once more, with the declaration of Kosovo independence.) This war (and subsequent global instability) all revealed a persistent reality of religion taken with deadly seriousness in human affairs.
The path to secular enlightenment - (that finally realized itself in full blown, State-enforced atheism, proved to have made nary a dent in religious devotion and religious passions. The only thing that happened post-enlightenment was the rise of a new religiously-held passion, namely religious-ignorantism in the forms of post-enlightenment rationalism and secularism. These emerged to bcome one of the smaller "religious" communities in the scheme of things.
With the surprise evidence that old fashioned religious hatred had gone nowhere at all, the major secularist and materialist powers found themselves asleep at the wheel of world affairs. Even to this very moment, North Atlantic power centers (especially media, as well as the "management theory movement") stubbornly resist the wisdom of recognizing the enormous influence of religion (for good and for bad) in the unfolding of contemporary world affairs.
Though the interfaith movement struggles to be effective in the face of massive outbreak of conflict that involves and includes religious dimensions, it should be noted that the interfaith movement did not suddenly arise with the post-Soviet-era "discovery" that religious passions still inform human life. As noted above, these already attempted to instill themselves alongside UN dreaminess, and then arose again due to other factors in the late 70's and throughout the 1980's.
The cold war distracted many from the truth about religion and the importance of interfaith for most of the 20th century, but despite the immediate eruption of Balkan type interreligious hatreds in the wake of communist decline, the elite still imagined a non-religiously influenced world also throughout the 1990's. This "second slumber" was characterized by the dog dream that at last everyone in the world would want to be just like the United States. The rude awakening from this modernist delusion was perhaps even more stark than the religio-political clashes that shredded the Balkans. The infamous 9-11 attacks once again labored hard to remind the secular elite that religion seems to matter to some, and matter quite a lot!
Hopefully this ostrich-like attitude of the secular elite is changing, as might be indicated in phenomena such as we find in uncharacteristic New York Times quote of February 25, 2008:
Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, echoed that view. “Religion is the single most important factor that drives American belief attitudes and behaviors,” said Mr. Lindsay, who had read the Pew report. “It is a powerful indicator of where America will end up on politics, culture, family life. If you want to understand America, you have to understand religion in America.”
Events since 9-11 evoke religion (however bastardized) are so persistent and relentless, that even those who find belief bothersome in its tenacity, seem to recognize (if reluctantly) that efforts and experts on how religions might better get along are now seen not only as not "quaint" but perhaps even welcome.
Once again we should be thankful that interfaith activists did not spring to life on September 12, 2001 green, and clueless. Rather, as I have postited in these few words, current interfaith reflection, scholarship, and activity represent an unbroken period of approximately 40 years of development, sophistication, and increasing inexperience and complexity.
There remain key and vital elements missing in the repertoire of interfaith professionals, that still leave the industry insufficient to influence radical chang and success in the face of severe, world threatening conflict. Addressing these inadequacies is one of the responsibilities of concerened, enlightened leaders with intuition into the spiritual. In the mean time steady education and information from scholars in the field of religion and peace, and interfaith relations are vital to our current situation.