“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,

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 Mike Shell on 4th mo. 5, 2015 at 12:58pm

Friend Forrest,

You write:

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.... 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!)....

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...?

Yes, these are exactly the challenges to interfaith work of which Patel writes.  His concern is that folk in different interfaith efforts do honest self-examination and discernment.

A useful query might be:

"How are we allowing our political and religious differences to divide us as human beings and to undermine our work of caring for others in this world?"


Comment by Mike Shell on 4th mo. 5, 2015 at 1:14pm

Friend Olivia,

You responded to my statement

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.

with this comment:

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. 

I don't see Patel's wish as being the case yet, either.

This continues to trouble me, and it's why Patel caught my attention so completely. I believe he indicts all of us, on all sides of the political and religious spectra.

Here's an example of my own self examination which I recently posted on Facebook:

I am an oddball Quaker on the abortion matter. I am pro-choice AND pro-life. I am extremely troubled that the whole public debate is constrained by that illusory pair of opposites.

For me, the exceedingly more important moral questions are these:

How do we ensure that every child who is born is cared for and that every mother is cared for?

How do we ensure that no woman is made pregnant who does not want to be pregnant, or who does not have the readiness or the means to care for and raise a child?

Even more critical to me as a man is this question:

Why do we not put the moral burden on men who impregnate women?

No woman can get pregnant without a man, unless she chooses to do so by artificial insemination. No man has to carry a child from conception to birth.

So long as patriarchy makes the rules yet denies the male responsibility, no pro-choice/pro-life alternatives are sufficient.

Please, Friends. Let's change the conversation.

Guarantee care for mothers and children. Hold men accountable for their impregnation of women.

Concerns about abortion and birth control, at their best, arise from the religious principle of "reverence for life," and it is crucial that human beings constantly revisit how that principle plays out in our collective actions.

However, the political controversy has completely distracted us—on all sides—from the on-the-ground reality of women and children.  We subordinate their real and present lives to (alleged) political principles based on (alleged) religious principles.

Patel is challenging us to put human beings ahead of principles.

Not at all easy.  Never likely to happen on a large scale. Yet always our responsibility to attempt.



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