Reimagining the Interfaith Community
Opening the Door to Collaboration
by Paul Chaffee
The most important thing to know about Reimagining Interfaith (RI), the upcoming conference in Washington DC (July 28-August 1), is how collaborative it is. There are 22, count them – twenty-two faith and interfaith organizations (including TIO) – contributing to the effort. (You’ll find their logos and links at the bottom of this article.) The cultural dominance of corporate ‘smokestack’ industries competing with each other is sadly reflected in nonprofit corporate culture as well, where faith and interfaith groups often compete with each other, particularly regarding programming and funding. Which makes this collaborative reimagining gathering unique.
Considering the state of the world, a growing feeling throughout religious communities focused on peace, justice, and healing is that none of us can successfully address these issues alone. To have any hope for getting where we want to go, we have to be collaborative in a culture where competition trumps collaboration most of the time.
RI began with the International Association of Religious Freedom (IARF), granddaddy of the interfaith organizations inspired by the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. IARF decided to have its next World Congress in 2018. Then Unitarian Universalists, IARF supporters for more than a century, suggested that the Congress could provide the context for something bigger, an effort ‘owned’ by us all. And so it came to be. As a result, just getting acquainted with the leaders attending will offer excellent interfaith networking opportunities.
Bringing the Matter Home
What really matters, of course, is reimagining interfaith in our own backyards when we go home after the conference. As a proponent of radical inclusivism and the editor of TIO, I’ve been asking myself, Who has not been adequately invited to the interfaith table in these pages? On reflection, it occurs to me that TIO has been better at welcoming Humanists and Neopagans to the table than Evangelical Christians or the conservative communities within other traditions. (This month's issue addresses all three.)
The struggle between conservative and liberal religionists goes back forever, I suppose, and the first task in deconstructing barriers is to realize that none of us represent monolithic communities. Just ask Pope Francis if Catholics are all of one mind. The word ‘evangelical’ itself is burdened with all sorts of different definitions and attitudes. Most traditions have their own conservative-liberal sectors, which makes this an intrafaith as well as interfaith set of issues. The good news is that the social technology for building trust among former ‘enemies,’ building relationships among those who have serious disagreements, is emerging, and none too soon.
In defense of TIO, one or two articles a year have addressed dismantling the barriers between evangelical Christians and the rest of the aggregate religious community, as well as similar barriers within other traditions. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, under the leadership of Charles Randall Paul, is one of the few projects that consistently welcomes conservative and liberal representatives to the table, ranging from Evangelicals to Muslims and Mormons. Five years ago TIO published Paul’s “The Fruitful Power of Trustworthy Disagreement.” More recently, see TIO’s review of Learning to Live Well Together (2018) by Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat. They lead an interfaith program at St. Philip’s in Leicester, UK, a program that positively and productively welcomes disagreement as fodder for building trustworthy relationships among conflicted parties. You’ll find a subsequent interview with Tom Wilson published two months ago.
When I reimagine interfaith, it has to do with bringing the ‘left and the right’ together in friendly conversation, whatever the tradition(s), whatever the differences. Whether you and I agree philosophically or theologically has nothing to do with what we might do together to feed starving children or deliver refugees from war or reduce global warming.
A Pagan friend of mine told of attending a large regional interfaith conference in southern California a dozen years ago. My friend sat down in a circle next to a very conservative Lutheran pastor, an accomplished executive of an interfaith organization providing a raft of services to people in need. As they talked, got acquainted, and talked religion, the pastor said to my friend, “I think you are going to hell, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends and work together.”
I was astonished by the story but sadly appreciative of what those two achieved with each other. Both had reasons to be there that were more important than whether they agreed about some of the big theological issues. As an interfaith Christian myself, I shudder at this Lutheran’s attitude towards my friend. But I’m thankful that instead of getting on a high-horse or walking away from the conversation, the pastor focused his time and energy on collaborating for the sake of doing good. And I’m deeply thankful that my friend had the equanimity and good will to hear that kind of judgment and not take it personally, as an attack, but rather the beginning of a relationship.
Personal collaboration can lead us to organizational collaboration, which is what we most need in addressing climate, race, war and nuclear weapons, polarization, poverty, and so much more. The fact is, we already live in a thoroughly interfaith world. Our task now is to reimagine this world as a kinder, gentler place where justice and peace prevail for all.
The deadline to register for Reimagining Interfaith is April 25.
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about Reimagining Interfaith's co-sponsors
Header Photo: pxhere