At Buddhist-Christian dialogue, finding solidarity amid shifting religious landscape

(RNS) — Recently, a group of more than 30 Buddhists and Christians gathered to form relationships and discuss ways to collaborate as part of the National Buddhist-Christian Dialogue.

As one of the Christian participants, representing the American Baptist Churches USA, I participated in the dialogue against the backdrop of white Christian nationalism. Recently, Louisiana passed a law mandating the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms of the state, and Oklahoma issued a directive for all public schools to teach the Bible. Our public spaces ought to be free from religious dogma and such laws represent a growing trend of Christian nationalism. The efforts are part of a slew of new laws that seek to enforce Christian hegemony, as backers eye a sympathetic Supreme Court that has recently supported prayer at school functions.

Hosted at University of the West, one of the country’s only Buddhist institutions of higher learning, and co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches, Hsi Lai Temple, University of the West, Claremont School of Theology and the Guibord Center, the May 29 dialogue was one of several the National Council of Churches has co-convened with interfaith partners, including dialogues among Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. 

I was struck by how often I have been in Christian spaces for interfaith dialogue and how rarely the dialogues have been hosted by a Buddhist institution. Signs included invitations to a dharma group, and Chinese characters and calligraphy were posted on the walls. It was a joy to be in another faith tradition’s space as a guest. My only hope is that members of other faiths feel so welcomed when they are in Christian spaces, a task made more difficult by the current climate of Christian supremacy. 

One of the most moving takeaways for me is how much we shared in common as religious leaders in a quickly secularizing society — the struggle to attract and retain new members, the hard work of building youth groups, the concern over what the future might hold. Moving beyond dogma helped us realize there is a need from both of our traditions to engage young voices in leadership.

The data on this is clear in Christianity. According to the Faith Communities Today 2020 study, the median age of those in congregational leadership is 57, up from 50 in 2000. While the statistics are a little harder to come by for Buddhist leadership, anecdotally one Buddhist participant in the dialogues remarked, “It’s hard to convince young men to become monks these days.”

As we were joined on a Zoom call by two United Methodist young adults and their in-person Buddhist counterparts from Hsi Lai Temple, we heard familiar themes: the need to act now on the climate crisis, the importance of authenticity, the gap between belief and practice. Those voices were augmented and complemented by distinguished leaders from both traditions, who spoke eloquently about aging and the deep knowledge developed over a lifetime. 

Some of the most moving conversations centered on the Transformative Hope Project, led by Tammy Ho and the Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative. The project brings together resources and educational materials, including videos, that center Asian American elders and their diverse religious responses to increased hate crimes since 2020. 

The panel on peacemaking highlighted the need for faith-based voices to speak into the many crises in our world. In particular, there was a strong commitment from those present to speak out against injustice and be in solidarity with the vulnerable. As one Buddhist participant put it to me, “Once we get past the basics — we have no God, you do — then we can get to the really important conversations.”

As we left the one-day meeting, I felt a sense of hope. We shared how much we admire each other’s traditions and talked about real issues facing our communities and how we can address them together as religious leaders.

In a country that is polarized and shifting its understanding of the role of religion in civic life, these interfaith relationships have the capacity to develop strong networks that can respond to racism, white Christian nationalism and climate change from a faith-based perspective, understanding that what unites us is so much more than what divides us. 

(The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister of Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois, and co-associate regional minister for white and multicultural churches at the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He is the author of “Sanctuary and Subjectivity: Thinking Theologically About Whiteness and Sanctuary Movements.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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