“New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement,” by Eboo Patel

Excerpts from the Winter/Spring 2015 Harvard Divinity Bulletin

(Originally published as a post on Quaker Universalist Conversations on 3/25/2015.)

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2013) and Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2010).

The full text of Patel’s article “New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement” appears in the current issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2015, VOL. 43, NOS. 1 & 2).

As Quaker Universalist Fellowship blog moves into a conversation about Quakerism and Christian Universalism, Patel’s observations about the inclusiveness/ exclusiveness dilemma within the contemporary interfaith movement are remarkably timely.

Patel begins by describing a Chicago pastor who spoke to an interfaith youth core conference a few years ago.

He spoke about how much he had gained from his Buddhist meditation practice, expressed disdain for Republicans in power, and proclaimed how excited he was to be in a friendly space with people of other faiths. Finally, he noted his frustration that a particular type of Christian was always absent from such gatherings, saying:

“There are too many conservative evangelicals who claim the mantle of my faith, who believe that Jesus is the only way, that Christians have the exclusive truth, and who focus their energy on trying to bring others to their view rather than expanding their own spiritual horizons. I find that I have more in common with people like you than with people like them.”

With almost divine irony, the microphone was passed next to

a young man who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois…, and who looked calmly at the pastor and said, “My name is Nicholas Price, and I think you are talking about me.” It could have been an ugly moment, except for how Nick handled it.

He simply said that he was an evangelical Christian…, [that he had] majored in religious studies with a concentration in Islam, and he believed his faith called upon him to seek to convert Muslims and also to cooperate with them. While he was deeply committed to the former, he understood that this space was dedicated to the latter.

Patel writes that this exchange challenged his assumptions about interfaith work profoundly. He writes,

In his self-introduction, the pastor had succinctly articulated what I’ve come to call the three main rooms in the house of interfaith cooperation: liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment. Moreover, he proclaimed that those views weren’t just rooms in the house, but the front porch and the foundation as well.
For the pastor, interfaith cooperation was a logical extension of his theological liberalism, political progressivism, and spiritual sensibilities. More to the point, not only was his engagement in interfaith cooperation predicated on those perspectives, but he believed that they were prerequisites for any engagement with interfaith cooperation.

Nick had taken a different route to the house of interfaith cooperation and, when he arrived, was greeted by a guard on the front porch and told in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t a place for him.

My experience during fifteen years in interfaith work is that this is pretty common. Evangelicals are on the outside and are frequently invoked as somewhere between the foil and the enemy.

The second issue it raised for me was more fundamental—namely, what is the purpose of interfaith work? Is it to bring together theological liberals and political progressives of various religions to share how their different faiths brought them to similar worldviews?

That’s what the pastor wanted, and what he was accustomed to in such settings. He had come to the event hoping to commune with his friends from a range of faiths who felt comfortable in those three rooms, and perhaps to invite a few more folks in.

But if this approach excludes, and potentially raises hostility toward, faith groups, then it ought to raise the question of just what it is we think we are doing in a movement called “interfaith.”

In the remainder of his article, Patel proposes that the “primary purpose of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual views.”

It is essential that we examine our assumptions about how we actually do interfaith work, how we actually define universalism.

What if we discover that our actual practice is to exclude or to shy away from or at least to feel uncomfortable interacting with those spiritual neighbors with whom we disagree religiously or politically or behaviorally?

How do we allow ourselves to be “made tender” by this discovery, so that the boundaries of our interfaith work, our universalism, open even wider?

I encourage Friends to read the whole of Patel’s “New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement.”

There is always more room in our hearts.

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael


Image Source

“Christians are calling for prayers, and for peace and reconciliation, in the wake of recent violence in Tanzania (Danish Bible Society / Creative Commons),” from “After Beheadings, Can Love for Persecutors Spark Revival?,” on Charisma News (3/27/2013).

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Comment by Keith Saylor on 3rd mo. 27, 2015 at 1:38pm

Hello Mike,

I read the full article with interest; it was concluded with these words:

"Vibrant interfaith work is going to require the best people giving their best effort and doing their best work—and, yes, subordinating some of their other principles and identities some of the time—to write the next chapter in the glorious story of diverse people having a common life together."

I walked away with a singular impression; wondering what would happen if our identities, our self-conscious egos, where not formed or established in the crucible of specific sensations, perceptions, principles, fraternities, ideologies, philosophies, or secular and religious institutions?  What if the self-conscious ego were inspired and sustained in intuiting itself? What if this experience were a natural part of human being; only, at this point in the history of human being, this intuiting consciousness is often clouded or overshadowed by reflections in the mirrors of the intellect that take the place of our natural intuitive being that each of us shares and is larger than any one person?  What if the self-conscious ego no longer looked to the mirrors but rested in the intuiting itself and through the essential posture realized the transformation of the very nature and relationship of conscious being/Being to the mirrors of the refracted intellect?

Comment by Olivia on 3rd mo. 29, 2015 at 8:13am

Thank you for sharing this, Mike.

I sense three (so far) fundamentally different hopes underlying a person's attraction to "interfaith" (there may be more). 

#1: the inner conviction that God (aka the Divine by any name) is bigger than the constructs of one's personal theology, the feeling that one needs room to breathe (or that the world needs room to breathe) into a Divine that is larger than our own views and is large enough and mysterious enough that it can't be answered by one religious approach alone.    Also the wish to meet with others who understand and value this (who will incidentally tend to all be liberals).

#2 -- Is embodied by this conservatively-inclined person in the example above (I stumble over how he would want himself described and I defer to that).  A wish to reach out to those who may not have as much Light as we already sense we are on to and in the loving arms of...  and convert them to our faith.  I don't tend to think of what that person is doing as true interfaith work because it's built on a fundamental lack of respect for the other person's path bearing equal weight to our own.  However, for the person who is deeply grounded in their own faith in this way, MIRACLES DO HAPPEN.  God IS present and manifested among people of this amount of divine conviction, in a way that liberals often miss out on.  And I can see that this gentleman may get some converts -- some people will want what he's found, and I don't fault them for that one bit.  He may bring others into his faith...but that's another thing...that's not about doing interfaith work...just seems to be about going into interfaith environments and still being a fundamentalist within those.

#3: Well #3 is honed pretty well at the end of your quoted passage above "But if this approach excludes, and potentially raises hostility toward, faith groups, then it ought to raise the question of just what it is we think we are doing in a movement called “interfaith.” "   Perhaps those who want what this article is chasing are ACTUALLY drawn toward differences, rather than toward fundamentally similar views applied to different faiths (seeking the differentness, versus in orientation #1 above the seeking to understand someone else who is simply a Hindu liberal or Islamic liberal if one is a Christian liberal). 

It would take a much higher paradigm, I suppose, to be able to see the Divine commonality between say....an orthodox fundamentalist (if such a thing exists) and a Neo-pagan Quaker, to "hold space" for the evangelical trying to convert others while being clear that those others aren't on to God as much as the evangelical is....as well as "holding space" for the more progressive views.  I suppose this larger paradigm is, of these 3, the most like actually focusing on and seeing the Light within others.

It seems to require constantly submitting to a higher will than one's own and a willingness to be irked by others without judging them or being distracted and limited in one's ability to love, etc.  The fruit it bears within the person's heart who holds it I won't claim to reduce to anything I could know and sum up...but perhaps it includes fruits of divine connectedness, synchronicity, and miracles...to offset the hardship of this constant act of surrendering one's personal will.

[Apologies if my comments get too unruly or lengthy. I'm trying to chase this thing you've evoked and doing so rather clumsily, I'm sure.]

Comment by Mike Shell on 3rd mo. 29, 2015 at 2:09pm

Friend Keith,

Thanks very much for your comment.  You write in part:

What if the self-conscious ego were inspired and sustained in intuiting itself? What if this experience were a natural part of human being....

This speaks to my condition.  Though I have lived over 60 years longing for and awaiting such directness, I have long understood that such is what Jesus hopes for all of us.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Mike Shell on 3rd mo. 29, 2015 at 2:47pm

Friend Olivia,

Thank you for your effort to articulate the various hopes implicit in the interfaith longing.

Some of your concluding words, in particular, resonate for me:

It would take a much higher paradigm...to be able to see the Divine commonality between say....an orthodox fundamentalist (if such a thing exists) and a Neo-pagan Quaker, to "hold space" for the evangelical trying to convert others while being clear that those others aren't on to God as much as the evangelical is....as well as "holding space" for the more progressive views.  I suppose this larger paradigm is...the most like actually focusing on and seeing the Light within others.

It seems to require constantly submitting to a higher will than one's own and a willingness to be irked by others without judging them or being distracted and limited in one's ability to love, etc.  The fruit it bears within the person's heart who holds it I won't claim to reduce to anything I could know and sum up...but perhaps it includes fruits of divine connectedness, synchronicity, and miracles...to offset the hardship of this constant act of surrendering one's personal will.

Since 2007 I have published a personal blog called The Empty Path: Nonaligned faith and practice in the present. As I explain on the About page, I chose that term "nonaligned" very carefully.  Since my early adulthood in the 1960s, I have known inwardly—though I can rarely demonstrate it, even to myself—

that every imagined pair of opposites actually draws our attention to a continuum of partial truths along one dimension, while arguing for either/or prevents us from perceiving and affirming that greater unity.

When I was troubled, as a Lutheran preacher's kid, by the seeming claim of orthodoxy Christianity that non-Christians would not be saved, I was told not to worry for them because God has his own ways of caring for them.

Now, when I find "one way only" theologies a stumbling block to communion with evangelical Christians (or Jews or Muslims or others),  I have to trust in that same Divine Wholeness.

Everything we say or do in our respective religious lives—and I include nontheist and humanist and atheist lives as "religious"—represents descriptions of our experience of the divine, not, as we often believe, descriptions of the divine itself.

Thanks again for your words.

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Johan Maurer on 3rd mo. 29, 2015 at 5:41pm

I really appreciate Eboo Patel's article, which gives me some wonderful tools in my bridgebuilding vocation. It's a timely article for a paper I'm writing for a regional conference of the Evangelical Missiological Society, which is meeting in a couple of weeks at George Fox University.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 29, 2015 at 8:47pm

I'm guessing there are two basic approaches to going 'interfaith':

1) 'Which religion?' seems unimportant because religion and spirituality do not seem all that real to members of this category

and

2) 'Which religion?' seems unimportant, to people in this other category, because they have an intuitive sense of God as a living reality beyond the limitations of any one religion.

Someone who has found God as a living reality, but only recognizes God in the form of his own initial finding (even William Stringfellow, at least in some of his early books!) will find either group rather puzzling, but the category 1 attitudes would be the most off-putting. One might not be all that narrow in one's faith -- but would still be frustrated, struggling for some way of conveying: "This stuff is carrying significant information; it's about something real that matters more than they can imagine!"

Comment by Olivia on 3rd mo. 30, 2015 at 5:19pm

Hey Forrest,

Where's a valid, life-affirming option in which 'which religion?' one practices is vitally important (FOR THEM)?

I think that's where I'm at on my interfaith views at the moment.

Mike,

Nice thoughts --  

"Now, when I find "one way only" theologies a stumbling block to communion with evangelical Christians (or Jews or Muslims or others),  I have to trust in that same Divine Wholeness.

Everything we say or do in our respective religious lives—and I include nontheist and humanist and atheist lives as "religious"—represents descriptions of our experience of the divine, not, as we often believe, descriptions of the divine itself."

Comment by Mike Shell on 3rd mo. 30, 2015 at 6:13pm

Forrest and Olivia,

I believe that Patel is arguing for an important distinction between the difficult challenge of unbounded "interfaith work" and the work of those who come together solely because of common political and/or theological bonds and call what they do "interfaith" (yet exclude faiths they cannot learn how to share fellowship with).

As Patel writes later in the article I excerpted:

Interfaith cooperation is actually a separate house.... In a highly religiously diverse and devout society, at a moment of global religious tension and conflict, positive relationships among people who orient around religion differently are absolutely necessary....

The goal of the architects of the house of interfaith cooperation—the interfaith leaders—should be to find frameworks, activities, and conversations where those people can both build relationships and do productive things together in civic life.

Interfaith work has to do with finding common ground for people who do not agree about core matters of religious faith and practice, and yet who do agree about those social and civic matters which cry out for action which is motivated by and grounded in profound religious convictions.

Asking "Which religion?" is a separate matter, and not one Patel seems to be addressing here.  I think his primary point is that interfaith work needs to be the work of people for whom religion and spirituality are real (Forrest's #1) and who also "have an intuitive sense of God as a living reality beyond the limitations of any one religion" (category 2).

Blessings,
Mike

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 31, 2015 at 12:06pm

re Olivia's question: I very much like Jewish approaches to grokking the divine, but I'm not Jewish. I like the Episcopalians but feel out of place in their services. Some Hindu ideas and practices are very helpful, but I don't dig no bloomin idols. It's important that I stay with the Quaker thing because it's the best approximation so far of what God leads me to... but it's become a dead end for so many people. Meanwhile, I'm okay with other people becoming Whatevers -- but it's most urgent that they meet the 'Referent Of All That', regardless of whichever whatever best takes them to that. I no longer think the Quaker thing, the way we're doing it, has the power to catalyse that encounter except in those few people specifically called that way -- like that Black woman who showed up at my Meeting one morning because she'd dreamed she should 'find the Quakers.'

re Mike, hey! There are all kinds of tasks that people of different religious orientations can agree on and work to implement together. People whose political worldviews differ too widely won't agree on how to do that, however. Some groups will naturally exclude themselves from Planned Parenthood efforts, etc. Some churches will lend themselves better to 'Restorative Justice' projects while others will take an authoritarian, even punitive approach even to charitable works... and their theologies may not correspond to those personal attitudes the way one would expect! It's good when we can work together, but the areas of verbal agreement where that's the most natural aren't necessarily the most important; and it's also good that we _are_ different and do take different approaches to our own works (if we're working any!)

When my wife & I started a small food line (which we abandoned for other commitments a few years later) we'd find people working with us who had very little in common theologically, but their sense of God as a living reality was what brought them together for the time.

But from the perspective that we're all faced with a spiritual crisis that only manifests as political and physical crises -- then the most important work isn't just poking our collective thumbs into all the crumbling dykes of the world. How to share faith, ie that spiritual essence that makes people well, while valuing the different conduits to that essence we've found...?

Comment by Olivia on 3rd mo. 31, 2015 at 5:31pm

Hey,

Mike you said "Interfaith work has to do with finding common ground for people who do not agree about core matters of religious faith and practice, and yet who do agree about those social and civic matters which cry out for action which is motivated by and grounded in profound religious convictions."

I don't see this being the case yet.  I'm thinking that usually with the doctrinal differences come opposing viewpoints on the most critical civic matters to attend to.  Certainly this is evident as:

- wildly progressive people of faith fighting for full inclusion of gay people, while the most conservative people of faith work to make sure there won't be any gay marriage, an abomination in their eyes,

- and similarly the topic that we tend to split up over and cause civil wars over and call it "prolife" and "prochoice". 

Tell more about what you meant by that, maybe.... :-)

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