Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical, Fratelli tutti, is remarkable for highlighting St. Francis’s irenic meeting with Fatimid Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219 amid the depredations of the Fifth Crusade—an encounter richly depicted in a fresco by Giotto in the Upper Basilica in Assisi. The meeting is a distant harbinger of what today we would call interfaith or interreligious dialogue, the significance of which was emphasized by the Pope’s 2019 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb and his more recent meeting in Iraq with the Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In St. Francis’s time, such meetings were rare; today they are more common. Some scholars even speak of a “global interfaith movement,” which gained steam in the second half of the twentieth century but really accelerated in response to 9/11. A simple web search will dredge up thousands of interfaith “centers,” “institutes,” “councils,” “projects,” “initiatives,” “forums,” “groups,” and “alliances.” The sheer number of these bodies, in the United States and abroad, poses a challenge to the scholar attempting to chart the movement’s history.
But most trace their origins to Chicago’s 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, hosted in conjunction with that year’s World’s Fair. For an unprecedented sixteen days, the parliament brought together religious leaders from around the world for a series of lectures and conversations. Similar events soon followed, both in the United States and Europe, usually spearheaded by scholars, liberal Protestants, Reform Jews, Unitarians, and Theosophists. At first the Catholic Church looked on with skepticism. Pope Leo XIII even fulminated against “promiscuous religious gatherings,” and several prelates who participated in the Chicago event were later disciplined. But of course the Church pivoted at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), heartily endorsing interreligious dialogue in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate. Begun as a post-Holocaust statement on Jewish-Catholic relations, Nostra aetate was broadened to include other faiths as well. Pope John Paul II, who had been a young theologian at the council, made interfaith engagement a central feature of his historic papacy, while Jewish scholars such as Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel also championed it.
Since the late twentieth century, and especially after 9/11, interfaith organizations have mushroomed, and numerous religious bodies are now on board. A sample list might include Religions for Peace (founded in 1970), the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom (1987), the North American Interfaith Network (1988), the Global Ethic Foundation (1995), the Rumi Forum (1999), the United Religions Initiative (2000), the Malaysian Interfaith Network (2003), and the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (2007), among many others. In 2011, the United Nations began recognizing World Interfaith Harmony Week every February. The American Academy of Religion recognized a new Interreligious and Interfaith Studies unit in 2014. Major philanthropic foundations have gotten into the act, funding a wide variety of interfaith initiatives. Countless books and articles have appeared on the subject.
In short, even as violence tied to religious identity still assails us in the daily news, we live in a booming heyday for interreligious dialogue. From a historical perspective, this phenomenon is remarkable, a noteworthy departure from the more isolationist and skeptical postures that faith traditions have exhibited toward one another in the past. For those involved, “dialogue” has become an umbrella term, signifying a wide range of peaceful exchanges, gatherings, and collaborations involving two or more religious traditions. At such events the consensus is that different faith traditions ought to get along and make the world a better place.
It is hard to disagree with such a goal, and, indeed, one finds much that is commendable in the current interfaith scene. But it is also a movement facing fundamental challenges and criticisms. The criticisms are best understood after surveying several recent developments. Together, these suggest that the jury is still out on the shape and future of interreligious dialogue. There is reason for both hope and concern.