Religion can build understanding

When I began teaching at Franklin College in 1978, religion was usually relegated to the back pages of the newspaper. On those pages, the community was informed that such and such church was having a potluck dinner or fish fry. In other words, religion was not major news.

The world has changed a great deal since 1978. One of the greatest changes has been the resurgence of religion as a major newsmaker. Many of these religious stories have focused on the negative impact of religion. From Waco to Oklahoma City to the Twin Towers to Boston to Iraq and Syria, religion has been the fuse that has set off massive destruction and caused untold human tragedy.

Yet we misrepresent the present world situation if we ignore the many positive religious stories.

When I saw the photos in the Daily Journal of the Tibetan monks constructing a sand mandala at Franklin College, I was reminded that religions are the greatest promoters of world peace. The visit of the monks brought a bit of bliss into our campus and local community.

More recently, I joined the millions who were following the many addresses and activities of Pope Francis on his visit to our country. At a time when bad manners by politicians are beyond belief, we were given the gift of this gentle leader and teacher. Here was a humble man who turned down an invitation to eat with congressional leaders to be with the homeless. Here was someone who reminded us of the dignity of immigrants and of prisoners at a maximum security prison.

Americans don’t like to be reminded of the dangers of greed and the value of the poor, but Pope Francis spoke so passionately and compassionately that few of us turned him off. His visit brought a wave of bliss to our nation that many expect will be long lasting.

But there is more bliss to come. From Oct. 15-19, the Parliament of World Religions will meet in Salt Lake City, Utah. Representatives of major and minor religions will gather to meet and learn from one another. The Parliament of World Religions rarely meets in the United States, so expect considerable coverage of this event in our national media.

The Parliament of World Religions is, in a nutshell, a big deal. There will be major religious figures offering keynote addresses, while other religious leaders and scholars will offer seminars on religious perspectives on the environment, religious terrorism and world peace. I am honored to have been invited to offer one of these seminars.

Am I excited to be going? You bet. Even though I have studied or taught religion for nearly 50 years, I know that what I don’t know about religions is an ocean compared to the glassful of what I do know.

I am excited for another reason. As one who believes that the future of religions in the world will be the building of bridges of understanding and encouragement rather than walls of separation, I anticipate meeting other “bridge builders.”

While I know that I will be speaking about the power of interfaith friendships to combat terrorism, I have no idea what I will learn from others. But this I am sure of — I am going to be “blissed out” from the experience.