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On Discovering and Re-Imagining Interfaith

Unfinished Business

On Discovering and Re-Imagining Interfaith

by Bud Heckman


“Discovering” Interfaith

When I first started working for interfaith cooperation, I could not find or figure out much of anything. I was hungry to learn, but it was more intuition, inductive reasoning, and plain old dumb luck of “finding” some of the trails of pioneers that moved me forward in figuring out what interfaith is.

I asked lots of questions, often naively, to everyone and anyone who would listen. It felt as though my colleagues and I had little more than the illumination of a few flashlights in a very dark forest.

At the time, there was no how-to “manual,” despite the aid of the Sourcebook for the Community of Religions that Joel Beversluis produced in advance of the 1993 Parliament. Interfaith publishers and journals did not yet exist. Interfaith and interreligious studies were not yet recognized by the powers that be in higher education as a topic area, let alone a field. There was no directory of organizations or people. All these things were coming into being, slowly and awkwardly. Many of my early learnings were captured in a book crafted together with many colleagues called InterActive Faith: The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook.

Twenty years later, there are a lot of the markers for legitimization and institutionalization of interfaith cooperation as a cultural value and movement. While we have a long way to go, there are many positive signs. I am thankful for the journey and the progress.

An Interfaith Top Ten

After a recent planned interim role leading Religions for Peace USA for a third time, I handed over the keys this past week to the new executive director, Ms. Donna Bollinger. I was reflecting on what points of learning I wanted to pass on to her and decided it might be worthwhile to share my top ten list for her more broadly. Donna is already highly competent and accomplished, but I wanted to impart what I often learned the slow way.

Interfaith is relational. Person-to-person relationships are the foundational building block to interfaith relations. Many a crisis has been either avoided or overcome by the trust and knowingness that comes with investing in personal relationships across lines of faith. This starts with the search for shared values and the openness that a new relationship requires, and wonderful things can happen.

Interfaith is dependent on both dialogue and action. Many people who work in interfaith relations are attracted more so to one than the other between dialogue and action. And there is a marked generational divide in the interests. The truth is that both are needed and they inform one another in beautiful and often unpredictable ways.

Interfaith is multifarious. Interfaith is amazingly complex and takes on many, many different forms in many different places. I have been hunting for its forms for two decades and am still surprised to find the interesting ways that it can be manifest. I tried to create a taxonomy of it, a scheme for classifying the many expressions that were emerging. Within in a few years my taxonomy, which built off another’s earlier work, was surpassed by a new expanded taxonomy by another, which itself has been eclipsed.

Interfaith is widely misunderstood. Very few people use the term interfaith. Those that do often do so with widely different things in mind. It is a malleable term that is widely misused and misunderstood. It is geographically and theologically colored. The addition of interspiritual, multifaith, multireligious, interreligious, and other terms, only adds to the confusion.

Interfaith is organic and institutional. Whether it is representational or grassroots grounded, formal or informal, staffed or unstaffed, heart-centered or head-centered, organic or institutional, or what-have-you, does not matter. Effective interfaith is done in a variety of ways.

Interfaith is fed by empathy. Creating safe space to give seed to the development of human empathy is at the heart of interfaith. Empathy rends human hearts toward overcoming one’s preconceived notions of the acceptable forms of identity, tolerable values, and positions.

Interfaith is justice. Because interfaith is a meeting of different religious ideas and movements, it is a place of justice. Faiths are imbued with our deepest moral, social, and cultural values. They speak truth to power. And there is a motivating force in each of our religions to act for justice. When they come together, we can’t expect any less.

Interfaith is political. Much of interfaith cooperation tries to steer wide and clear of political conversations or actions. Because religion and politics are two traditional taboos of conversation in polite company, the combination of the two is perceived to be potentially jarring. But the reality is that the act of valuing the “other” is a political act and statement. Accepting, valuing, and loving your religiously “other” neighbor is a political statement. And, as I just noted, faith traditions lead and call us to action for peace and justice. It is in their DNA.

Interfaith is much easier than intrafaith. Interfaith conversations can be difficult, confrontational, and deeply charged. Yet the conversations that happen between peoples within a shared faith tradition are the most difficult ones to have. Folks have little tolerance for divisions amongst those they perceive as sharing the same values, traditions, and faith. They often have more patience for “other” faiths, because they have less they must internally reconcile between the two viewpoints. Intrafaith conversations are vital to healthy and robust interfaith conversations and vice versa.

Interfaith is a long game. Interfaith is still evolving into a movement. Many of the pieces are coming into place, as I have written here. Yet, we have a long way to go. It is important for those in the trenches to have the long game in mind. Change does not come overnight. Not just how do we do this event, hold this campaign, or build this new thing, but what will the long arc of this work be?

United Nations summit on nuclear weapons   –  Photo:  ICAN

United Nations summit on nuclear weapons  – Photo: ICAN

An example is warranted on this last point. Religions for Peace was born in the 1960s as a direct result of the growing concern over the nuclear crisis. For decades, Religions for Peace and other religious and interfaith partners worked to address conflicts with Track II diplomacy, advance efforts to end land mines and chemical weapons, and calls for an end to nuclear weapons.

Those may well seem likely airy-fairy pie-in-the-sky ideas to you, but consider that: 1) most governments in the world today appreciate and benefit from frequent Track II diplomacy by interreligious actors; 2) the UN eventually banned land mines and chemical/biological weapons and their use is now widely diminished; and 3) the UN just passed a ban on nuclear weapons that could become ratified within two years. Thousands and, arguably, millions of lives have been and will be saved because people of faiths worked together and went for “the long game.”

Crowdsourcing the Re-imagining of Interfaith

I am privileged to be taking some time off this summer and fall to write a new book under the title Reimagining Interfaith. It is a follow-up to InterActive Faith and is likely to be produced collaboratively. I think we are at a stage where we need to radically re-imagine what interfaith will look like tomorrow and what we need to get there.

Photo:  Lumos

Photo: Lumos

Coincidentally, there will also be a global interfaith conference called “Reimagining Interfaith” in Washington, D.C., July 29-August 1, 2018. (Mark your calendars!) Many local, national, and global organizations are working collaboratively to put the conference together, including originally the International Association for Religious Freedom, Religions for Peace USA, United Religions Initiative, Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Church of Christ. There is already some initial information up and an email notifying engine mechanism at www.reimagininginterfaith.org.

Your input would be especially appreciated. Please consider taking a moment to share some of your ideas here about what the future of interfaith cooperation might look like.

What do we have to do to advance interfaith as a movement? What will it look like down the road? What do we have to do to get there? Please share your ideas.

Header Photo: onortao.com