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Enlarging the Interfaith Tent

Growing Beyond the Families of Abraham - Part 1

Enlarging the Interfaith Tent

by Hans Gustafson

This is the first of three articles by Professor Gustafson on expanding the interfaith community. The second and third will appear here in June and July.

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Photo: Hans Gustafson

Photo: Hans Gustafson

Despite an ever-widening door to the growing tent of interreligious engagement, there remains work to do. Interreligious studies in the academy, as well as the interfaith movement in the wider community, have blossomed in the West over the last few decades. The forces of globalization and migration continue to bring people of vastly different religious, cultural, and spiritual identities closer together in neighborhoods, communities, and places of work. The world is growing more religiously diverse, bringing new opportunities and challenges for living in a pluralist society.

Once focused mostly on the interaction between and among the major Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), interreligious studies and dialogue now more frequently includes the major non-Abrahamic, or so-called Eastern (or Dharmic) traditions (including Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Sikhism), as well as Bahá’í, LDS Christianity, and indigenous traditions, among many others.

It is also more common for atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs), and “the nones” to be present at the table of interreligious engagement. However, there are still groups missing. These include Native indigenous traditions, new(er) religious movements, polytheists, and contemporary Pagans.

Druids celebrating at Stonehenge – Photo:    Wikimedia Commons

Druids celebrating at Stonehenge – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Western non-indigenous polytheists and contemporary Paganisms (mono-, heno-, and poly-theist) include Druidry, Heathenry, Wicca, and others. Their absence at the interfaith table may be due, in part, to their relatively low numbers in the West as well as the fear that centuries of oppression from dominant traditions has generated.

It is also likely due to the reluctance of those already at the interfaith table to take them seriously and/or to invite them to participate. Even interfaith activists sometimes harbor prejudiced stereotypes about unfamiliar groups. Reservations may include the perceived “threat” of polytheistic worldviews and a plurality of deities. New religious movements (NRMs) may be similarly feared, so that newly created spiritual identities such as Wicca or reconstructed once-dormant traditions such as Druidry or Ásatrú are kept out.  

2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City – Photo:    PWR

2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City – Photo: PWR

Though Native indigenous traditions often are absent from the table, less present than most, my sense is that there is a great openness to having them join the interfaith community. The 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City featured an “Indigenous Peoples Program” as central to the gathering. The upcoming Parliament in Toronto this November also features Indigenous representation and speakers. In fact, the historic 1993 centenary Parliament of the World’s Religions was the first international interfaith event to welcome Pagan and indigenous traditions, and they have remained presenters at all the modern Parliaments. Nevertheless, the interfaith movement has a long way to go before all feel welcome.

At the Salt Lake City Parliament I was able to attend, “Staving off Ragnarök: a Heathen Response to Climate Change.” attracted a rather small audience of 15-20 people (out of 9,800 at the Parliament) in room suited for 300. A general confused attitude toward contemporary Pagan groups sometimes permeates the air of the Abrahamic tent.

The Inclusive Challenge

Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core have popularized an inclusive definition of interfaith encounter, described in Interfaith Leadership: A Primer as “interaction between people who orient around religion differently.” The American Academy of Religion’s Interreligious and Interfaith Studies group defines the study of such encounters as “critical interdisciplinary engagement with interfaith and interreligious studies, which examines the many modes of response to the reality of religious pluralism.”

If we take Patel and the AAR group seriously, questions surface about the size and scope of the interfaith tent today. How big is it and how big should it be? If everyone orients around religion in some way, regardless of whether or not they identify as religious, then indeed we are in a very large tent, one that will take a lot of  time and work to materialize.

This article challenges religious leaders in the West, those who tend to own the interfaith table, often from Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, to welcome marginalized traditions to the table as equals, leaders, and teachers. This includes Native indigenous traditions, polytheistic religions, the Dharmic family of traditions, reconstructed pre-Christian European communities, and other contemporary Paganisms.

In A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, UC Berkeley professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, Page DuBois, writes, “Beyond condescending to polytheists, beyond tolerating polytheists, the so-called monotheists, the ‘Christian nations,’ the U.S. and the UK, have a great deal to learn from them.” Interreligious encounter is not primarily about agreeing to, or obsessing over, theological commonalities and similarities. It is just as much, if not more, about learning the differences and distinctions among the traditions. It’s about being challenged to listen to others and to rethink views and actions in the face of those who differ. Above all, isn’t it about learning while being open to the possibility of growth and change?

Header Photo: Pixabay