Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I was struggling to be optimistic about the state of the world. It felt like no matter where I looked for news updates — Twitter, my inbox, Deseret’s homepage — I was met with bad news.
Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, described the current state of affairs well during a recent appearance at BYU.
Every generation thinks they face the highest-stakes challenges the world has ever seen, he noted. For us, it’s actually true.
“The consequences of bad decisions (made today) are more dangerous and perilous than humanity has ever known,” he said during the 2022 Amos A. Jordan Lecture, which was hosted by The Wheatley Institution.
Although I wasn’t able to speak with him during his visit to Utah, I’m pretty confident Rabbi Saperstein wasn’t saying all that in hopes of deepening my stress about the pandemic, political conflict and any number of other issues.
Instead, I think he wanted to discuss the vastness of the world’s current problems to show that fixing them will require more than small-scale solutions.
What the world really needs right now is a radical transformation, Rabbi Saperstein argued. And faith groups can play a key role in bringing it about.
“Religious communities have urgent, profound and indispensable wisdom to offer,” he said.
Today, as in the past, faith groups are on the front lines of solving the world’s many issues, including hunger, sickness, education gaps and underemployment. By working together, religious organizations can multiply the impact they’re having on their own, said Rabbi Saperstein, who is the director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“We’re in an extraordinary moment right now for multi-faith relations. Never in the history of the world has there been this degree of interfaith dialogue ... and cooperative endeavors,” he said.
It’s important to keep positive developments like that one in mind when you’re tempted to be pessimistic about what will come next, Rabbi Saperstein noted. As daunting as today’s challenges are, the world has the tools to address them. People of faith are called to help restore hope, he said.
“We may well be the first generation capable of creating the society that our ancestors charged us to build,” he said. Religious groups “have to take that message of hope out there with confidence.”
Fresh off the press
Term of the week: Religious pluralism
In addition to addressing today’s top challenges and how we can solve them, Rabbi Saperstein spoke on the concept of religious pluralism, which he contrasted with religious tolerance.
As the name implies, religious tolerance describes a situation in which different faiths groups learn to tolerate each other. “There’s a sense of grudging silence,” Rabbi Saperstein said. People of faith won’t attack each other, but they also won’t seek to become friends.
Religious tolerance is certainly preferable to interfaith violence, but it shouldn’t be society’s ultimate goal, he said. He encouraged faith groups to deepen their relationships with one another and move toward a situation of religious pluralism, instead.
“When you bury differences, they come out in unhealthy ways,” Rabbi Saperstein said. “If we discuss things that are different,” and understand why we each believe what we believe, then we can achieve deeper and healthier interfaith relationships, he added.
What I’m reading ...
Like many Americans, I spent much of the past week following the news out of Russia and Ukraine. Here are seven stories that helped me understand the religious significance of the current conflict:
- Explainer: How is the Russia-Ukraine war linked to religion? (The Associated Press)
- Putin is after more than land — he wants the religious soul of Ukraine (Knox Thames for Religion News Service)
- The Ukrainian needed prayer. The Russian volunteered (Christianity Today)
- Pope Francis again pleads for an end of conflict (National Catholic Reporter)
- First Presidency asks world leaders to seek peace in Ukraine (Deseret News)
- For Ukraine’s Jews, the threat of war stirs memories of past horrors (The New York Times)
- An Orthodox theologian on why Americans should care about Ukraine (Religion News Service)
Odds and ends
I recently returned to my old stomping grounds in New Haven, Connecticut, to teach a class on religion journalism for Yale Divinity School students. Here’s a recording of the public event that was part of my visit; one of my former professors interviewed me about what it’s like to cover religion and the Supreme Court.