Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Religion / Gustav Niebuhr '77
Beyond Tolerance

Review by Jerry Irish / Illustration by Jennifer Hewitson

Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America
By Gustav Niebuhr ’77
Viking, 2008 / 218 pages / $25.95

Here in Claremont in the wake of 9/11, there was a flurry of community outreach across religious boundaries. My Muslim colleague, Professor Zayn Kassam, received calls from administrators and teachers at El Roble Middle School and Claremont High School asking if her children had arrived home safely. Claremont community members she didn’t even know phoned to inquire if she was okay. The United Church of Christ Congregational held an interfaith service, and the Islamic Center of Claremont held an open house that has become an annual event. Community members organized to provide a daily presence around the City of Knowledge School, a local Muslim institution, to ensure the safety of its staff and students in the weeks following 9/11. Claremont Presbyterian Church, in consultation with Professor Kassam, organized a guest speaker series on various aspects of Islam. And Claremont United Methodist Church developed a relationship with local Muslims that continued for five years and included potluck suppers, shared worship experiences and discussions on a wide range of issues.

All this activity and more went on beneath the mainstream media radar. Newspaper headlines and news reports called our attention to isolated acts of vengeful violence against Muslims (or people imagined to be Muslim) and amplified the government’s drumbeat for war against “evil” nations. But who knew that the citizen-to-citizen outreach we were witnessing in Claremont was happening all across the nation? Gustav Niebuhr ’77 gives us an eye-opening account of this phenomenon in his book Beyond Tolerance. Having spent 15 years as a religion reporter, Niebuhr was working for The New York Times on 9/11. He was in a perfect position to write about terrorist manipulation of religion or fundamentalist reactions to religious pluralism, two prevalent themes in post-9/11 reporting on religion. Instead, he focused on people who wanted to make constructive use of religious diversity. What interested Niebuhr was the idea that “some people choose to build networks that deliberately cross boundaries in an era in which religious differences are so explosive.” Such people seek to build community rather than divide it.

Through Niebuhr’s writing we discover that the religious pluralism we take for granted in the Los Angeles Basin is not unique, and that post-9/11 interreligious activities akin to those in Claremont took place in cities as different from one another as Nashville, Seattle, Denver and New Brunswick. Perhaps more surprising, in 2005, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 22 percent of American congregations had participated in interreligious worship, while 38 percent had joined with other religions to do community service. Niebuhr introduces us to numerous clergy and lay persons—Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims—who have reached beyond their own religions to interact with others. Beyond Tolerance would be worth reading if only for its accounts of such activity. But Niebuhr, who is an associate professor of religion and director of the Religion and Society Program at Syracuse University, brings to his narrative a historical and psychological perspective that gives it far greater significance.

Niebuhr reminds us that religious diversity and its positive employment has been a distinguishing feature of our nation since its founding. When James Madison wrote that “Freedom arises from a multiplicity of sects … which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society,” he had in mind the vast diversity among Christian congregations. As wave after wave of immigrants have added other religions to the mix, Madison’s words have become all the more relevant. Niebuhr makes clear that the freedom intended here is not a function of toleration but of respect. Thomas Paine viewed toleration as a counterfeit form of intolerance that could be extended or withheld at the whim of the powerful. Even earlier in our national history, George Washington wrote to assure the Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., then our nation’s smallest minority of free citizens, that religious liberty prevailed over toleration, the latter being the mere indulgence of one class of people by another. More than a century and a half later, Franklin Roosevelt articulated four freedoms that distinguish democracy from tyranny: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. In his analysis of interreligious activity, Niebuhr makes insightful connections between freedom of worship and freedom from fear.

Two factors seemed to fuel the post 9/11 interreligious activity Niebuhr describes: a civic responsibility to protect fellow citizens who might be in jeopardy and a hunger to learn more about Islam. Both factors entail personal dialogue with the other and, thus, a recognition of the other’s humanity. There is no stronger witness that fear needn’t be the only response to difference. Indeed, it gives one hope that at a time when fear was the dominant rhetorical tool employed by our government, so much interreligious activity with Islam emerged. The aim of such boundary-crossing engagement is neither compromise nor conversion, but understanding. The result is a clearer grasp of one’s own beliefs and a keener sense of our common humanity. The Claremont Methodists and Muslims cited above regularly expressed the view that all they wanted was for the Christians to be the best possible Christians they could be and for the Muslims to be the best possible Muslims they could be. It was their distinct religious traditions that sustained their ongoing relationship.

As someone who teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Pomona, I obviously have a personal and professional stake in the importance of understanding religions and the role they play locally and internationally. Beyond Tolerance is a powerful testament to the value of studying religion at every level of our educational system. By extension, Niebuhr is making a case for what has long been a guiding assumption at Pomona, namely that difference is to be celebrated as a strength, that mutual understanding across ethnicity, religion and sexual preference enriches the individual and vitalizes the community. I suppose it should come as no surprise that a graduate of the College writes so well and wisely about living beyond tolerance.

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