Deanna Ferree Womack: The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Calls Us into a Common Future

What distinguishes humans from other living beings is not primarily our wisdom but rather our ability to look toward the future. According to a New York Times article by psychology professor Martin Seligman and science columnist John Tierney, we ought to call ourselves Homo prospectus instead of Homo sapiens because human wisdom arises from our power of prospection. We are drawn to the future, they say, far more than we are driven by the past. This understanding of human life resonates with me as a Christian with a faith centered on future hope. Yet as a historian and professor of multifaith relations, I also believe that the way we speak about the past (and how accurately we remember it) matters for our visioning of the future. This is why I so deeply appreciate how the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto points us back to our history as Americans and as Atlantans and then calls us into a common future.

With the growing religious diversity in the United States and transnational networks of communication, trade, and travel that connect us to communities across the globe, our future promises to be full of interfaith encounters. The prospect of living alongside members of multiple religious traditions may seem new to some American Christians, especially those in rural areas like the Midwestern farming town where I grew up. Interreligious engagement, however, became an American reality long before anyone now living in the US could claim an American identity. Even before our Constitution enshrined religious freedom as a foundational right, the first Jewish synagogues were founded in the eighteenth-century American colonies. The earliest Buddhist temple in the US was erected in the 1850s, and our nation’s first documented Muslim communal prayer was held in North Dakota in 1900, although the Muslim presence in America dates to the colonial period. We have a multifaith past. Indeed, despite Euro-centric imaginings of the Western Christian story, our society has become what it is today through a long history of cultural interconnections, civilizational interdependence, and interreligious collaboration.

Considering contemporary American conversations, it may be particularly helpful to note what we could learn from Islamic history. For example, the works of Greek philosophy and science that have so profoundly shaped Western culture were translated into Arabic and preserved in early-medieval Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate. This Muslim dynasty supported the city’s thriving translation movement and other pursuits of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars. Along with developments in medicine, navigation, printing, and other technologies, these ancient Greek texts traveled through Muslim Spain into the Latin West, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Reformation. In Iberia itself until the late Middle Ages, Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived and worked together in an environment of convivencia, or coexistence. Although our modern conception of minority rights did not exist in these medieval societies, the level of religious tolerance under Islamic rule far surpassed anything one could find in Christian Europe at the time.

For similar examples in more recent history, we might look to the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire in the late-nineteenth century, where an ethos of intellectual exchange emerged among members of the Abrahamic faiths during the Nahda (modern Arab renaissance). In my research on this period, I have discovered that Arabic-speaking women in Ottoman Syria participated in these cultural currents by publishing books, articles, and poetry through the modern Arabic press. What I find particularly enlightening is that Christian and Jewish women authors claimed Arab-Islamic heritage as central to their own identities and spoke with pride in the achievements of Islamic civilization dating back to the Abbasid era. This common heritage also bound together the Syrian Christian and Muslim immigrants who arrived in the US in the decades before World War I. Muslims were the minority in the Arab American communities that grew in the Northeast and Midwest, but it is significant to note that this was the second wave of Muslim migration to the US and that it took place more than a century ago. The earliest wave consisted of West African Muslims forcibly brought here as slaves.

Interfaith encounters are not a new reality in America or in Atlanta, as the Interfaith Manifesto reminds us. Religious diversity enriched the Civil Rights Movement in this city, and here today we have countless opportunities for building multifaith relations. For this reason, Atlanta is an ideal setting for training the next generation of interfaith leaders, which we seek to do at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and at Georgia Tech, Candler’s partner in the Leadership and Multifaith Program (LAMP). Looking to the future, these young leaders – and all of us – can draw wisdom and inspiration from local and global histories.

The stories I have highlighted of religious exchange in medieval Baghdad, in Islamic Iberia, in Ottoman Syria, and in our own nation’s history do not represent perfect models that we could fully replicate today. As we have seen too many times before, attempts to preserve or recreate the past usually end with one group’s imagined past becoming a source of oppression for others. Instead, we should allow history to teach us that interreligious cooperation is possible and is necessary for human flourishing. Then we will find the courage to take up the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto’s challenge to stand against religious intolerance and marshal religious diversity in new and more fitting ways. Join me in answering this call to build a common future.

Deanna Ferree Womack is Assistant Professor of History of Religions and Multifaith Relations at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where she teaches on Islam in America, Christian-Muslim relations, interfaith dialogue, and global religions. She also directs public programming for the Leadership and Multifaith Program (LAMP), a joint endeavor between Candler and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech. Womack is ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and came to Candler from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she completed her PhD. Her research focuses on Christian-Muslim and American-Arab encounters in Ottoman Syria in the pre-World War I period.