In 1950, the Baha’i community in the United States initiated World Religion Day, to be observed on the third Sunday in January. The purpose of observing the day is to foster interfaith communication, understanding and harmony by hosting interfaith discussions, conferences and other events. It is now celebrated not only by Bahai’s in the United States, but increasingly be people around the world.
The World religion day website aims “to foster the establishment of interfaith understanding and harmony by emphasizing the common denominators underlying all religions.”
This is a laudible goal (one I seek to contribute to through the book I am currently writing that adapts Tibetan Buddhist meditations for Christians). In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote
the more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.
I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still further.
So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say yes where one really can.
If I affirm myself as Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.
Merton is obviously speaking from his own standpoint as a Catholic. But there is truth to his observation that, whatever one’s own faith tradition happens to be, there is danger in affirming ourselves by negating all that is of other religions. It is true that there are differences among the world religions and it would be folly to pretend otherwise. But there is also much truth in faith traditions other than our own that we can affirm and, to use a line I loved the first time I heard it, any truth belongs to the Holy Spirit.
We could all benefit by making greater efforts to understand and appreciate that which unites us across religions, the truths that we all share.