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Eight Interfaith Primers
Articles by David Nelson and Vern Barnet

This month (Many Paths 2008 March) we gather into one place eight previous essays, some revised, to encourage wider interfaith practice. 
      The Rev David E Nelson DMin is CRES associate minister, president of The Human Agenda, and past convener of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. 
     The Rev Vern Barnet DMn is minister emeritus of CRES and convener emeritus of the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
    [for a PDF version with images, see pages 9-12 of (Many Paths 2008 March)]


1. Why Interfaith?

For two weeks in 2007 June, Kansas City hosted the  National Interfaith Academy.   I had the honor of leading Evening Prayer for the students and faculty. Here are my five talking points from my homily.

I began by reporting that I am often asked, “Why do I want to engage in Interfaith conversations and activities?” Here are five reasons.

1. Because I am curious.  Marley, our granddaughter, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is always exploring, touching, and wondering. I attended the 1989 North American Interfaith Network’s “Assisi” in Wichita more out of curiosity than passion. We have to be taught and conditioned to stop exploring differences. I want to know why some men wear those little hats and why women wear scarves or cover their entire body. I want to know what goes on inside that temple, shrine, tent, or that home.

2. Because it is life changing. I share the Marvin and Lincoln story on my blog under STORIES. I really like the evolutionary progression: 
     tolerance -->
     respect -->
Appreciative Inquiry is my model for relationships both professionally and personally. I can’t imagine my life with out sweating with Lakota Sioux, sitting with Buddhists, dancing with Sufis, debating with Jews, fasting with Muslims.

3. Because it is liberating. Such new freedom when I don’t have to determine who is right and who is wrong! Christianity has become “a gated community where you can live with only a tiny fraction of your brain functioning.” The Eastern mindset is so liberating in contrast to much of my conditioning that if — I believe this and you believe that — one of us must be wrong. The Life Connections Program at Leavenworth: One of my friends in the program shared how he wanted to take revenge when his brother was murdered, but he kept hearing in his head the voice of his mother, “Never return hate for hate. Return love for hate.” His Mother is right.

4. Because it is necessary. Others can debate the role of religion in creating our current global conflicts, but it is very clear to all of us that religion can play a huge role in addressing the challenges of today – 

5. Because it is so much more fun.  Such an interesting and beautiful world. Only need to open your eyes and behold the wonder of creation to conclude that the Creator enjoys diversity. Only need to listen and watch in almost any neighborhood to realize there are so many stories of transformation, and healing. Myhu Indians of California: Earthmaker, after conferring with other parts of creation, decided to give humans “hands like mine so they can continue the work of creating and caring for creation.”  —DN 

2. Heart Keys 

It’s an affair of the heart. You meet these wonderful people, full of compassion and doing good things. You want to know them and know what energizes them, to understand the religious perspectives which give their lives meaning.
     That’s how I fell in love with interfaith work. It’s by knowing people and enjoying their company that our sense of community is strengthened. 
     The wisdom of many traditions in our neighbors also provides us with keys to open doors to the sacred, keys from others that may work for us.
     Here’s a superficial example. My own heritage is Christian, and I thought I knew what church bells meant. Bells routinely say, “The service is about to begin.” I had heard them at home; I heard the cathedral bells in Europe. In fact, I had even rung the bell when I was a student.
     It wasn’t until I saw a child swinging a rope with a striker at the high end at a Shinto shine gong that the church bell took on deeper meaning. I learned that the intent at the shine was to awaken kami, the god, to attend to the devotee, and that paradoxically the act awakens the devotee to the presence of the god. 
     This key experience helped me understand that the church bell does not merely call people to church, but also can awaken the presence of the sacred in us; the bell is not just an external ringing but also an internal resonance. It is not a Pavlovian bell compelling us to go somewhere; it is rather an alarm clock awakening us from self-centered slumber.

You may not have needed that particular key, but I did. Behind the doors of our own faiths are obvious and sometimes profound truths we forget or have yet to discover. Someone from another faith may hand us a key.
     Here are a few keys, A to Z. From the American Indian, the key to solving our environmental problems— and energy issues in particular—may be more in revering nature than in any technological fix. A Bahá'í key may be their architecture which models human kinship. Buddhist techniques can free us from mistaking transitory things for the permanent.
   Christianity reveals the redemptive power of vicarious suffering. Hinduism’s myriad images of the divine may caution us about worshipping anything finite. Islam’s weighing of individual and group interests may restore us to better balance. The Jewish impulse, tikkun olam, repairing of the world, reminds us the world is not the way God wants it to be and offers transcendence through service.
   Pagan practices show the power of natural ritual. The Sikh is literally a “learner”; so should we all be. The Sufis remind us that faith can be ecstatic. The Unitarian Universalist openness to new ideas is a yeast for our culture. In Zoroastrianism we find ethical commitment characterizes the cosmic drama in which we participate.
     And Free-Thinkers (atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists, and such) help the rest of us remember that  our civil life is founded in mutual liberty, rather than on the dominance of one religious group over the others.
     You know you are really neighbors when you exchange keys to each other’s homes.   —VB

3. Wells and Waters

As I work in the community, people sometimes ask, “What is your own faith?” I usually avoid a direct answer because it is more important for the reader to focus on his or her religion, not mine. I hope I am an honest broker treating those of all traditions with respect even when I personally disagree with a particular belief or practice. 
     So I sometimes say, “On Mondays I’m Sikh, on Tuesdays Buddhist, Wednesdays Hindu, Thursdays Wiccan, Fridays Muslim, Saturday Jewish, Sundays Christian.” 
     “Oh, so you pick and choose what you like.” 
     I would like to think that 35 years of studying religions of the world is not a casual cafeteria approach to faith. A sage has said that when one needs water, it is better to dig one 100-foot well rather than a dozen 10-foot wells. 
     Those who have failed to dig beneath the obstructing rocks in their own traditions sometimes seek easier ground for their religious questions, but remain on the surface because they cannot turn the stones in the new plot, either. 
     Still, it is possible to find fonts of spiritual refreshment in all faiths. I can drink from any well and quench my thirst. 
     This is not to say that all religions are the same. To say the Kaw is the same as the Nile or the Ganges or the Amazon is to misunderstand the importance  of geography, history and accessibility.   The familiarity we have with one stream does not necessarily mean that a distant faith is less worthy to those whose waters it refreshes —  or that the powers of its waters will somehow bless us in ways that our own river cannot.    —VB 

4. Whence Breath?

What does it mean to be spiritual? Is there an answer to this question that applies to all religious paths?
     In Hebrew, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek, similar   expressions use “breath” as a metaphor for spirituality. In English, “spirit” is part of words like “respiration” and “inspiration.” So one way of describing spirituality is “breathing with a sense of the sacred,” living so that every breath we take reminds us of the ultimate mystery of our existence. 
     1. The first stage of spirituality might be a sense of awe and wonder. Many of us may marvel when we contemplate the Grand Canyon, the experience of love, the history of a nation or profound questions like, “Why is there anything at all and not nothing?” But when we are truly spiritual, we marvel at even the most commonplace situation and everyday event. In the life of the spirit, every moment is fresh and every breath is a miracle. 
    2. A second stage of spirituality is gratitude. The amazement we feel at simply being alive is transformed into thanksgiving. We live as if we receive an unending flow of gifts. 
    3.Still, we cannot be content unless we are sharing with others what we have received. In a third state of spirituality, gratitude matures into service. Spirituality is not an escape into a private bliss but rather an engagement with the most intractable pain and sorrow within a perspective of universal interplay that removes any sense of isolation from others. 
     Spirituality, then, is not disembodied sentiment or abstract vision. Arising from the physical metaphor of breathing, spirituality is both a signal of our palpable, fleshy nature and of the elusive mysteries to which we must surrender, as we live without knowing whence our next breath comes and whither our last breath goes.  —VB  

5. Three Attitudes

Scholars have various ways of naming different attitudes toward religion. Here is one simple scheme.
     1. Superiority.— Some believe that one religion (namely theirs) is so superior to all others that they need know little about other faiths, or even that such information may be harmful. With this attitude, theologians such as Karl Barth proclaim the one true religion.
     2. Universality.—  Others say that religions are fundamentally the same. The languages and images may be different because religions arise from varied cultures, but all faiths point to the same Reality. Something like the Golden Rule can be found in almost all scriptures of the world.
     3. Kinship.— My own view is that we are all neighbors and must come to know each other better without assumptions about either superiority or universality. Only later, after many deep encounters, are we ready to discuss superiorities and universalities.
Studying yoga does not mean I become a Hindu, any more than eating Chinese food converts me to Confucianism, or standing in awe at Caravaggio’s painting, “St John the Baptist” or the Guanyin statue at the Nelson Gallery, means that I am a Christian or a Buddhist. 
     I have something to learn from every tradition that enriches and helps me understand my own. Such acquaintance affirms my kinship with all peoples. —VB 

6. Toward Pluralism

How should we regard religions other than our own? Evidence of religious diversity is all around us. How do we respond to this reality?
     Harvard’s Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project there, asks us to imagine seeing a sincere person praying at a Shinto shrine. Do we suppose our God is listening? If not, why not? Does the maker of all things (John 1:3) accept prayers of adoration only if the devotee belongs to one particular denomination or religion?
     1. Exclusion— The “exclusivists” say only one faith can be the path to salvation; all other ways lead to perdition. An example. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod suspended minister David Benke because he prayed “in the precious name of Jesus” 12 days after 9/11 with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders in Yankee Stadium. Authorities in his church said Benke should not have dignified other faiths by sharing the “Prayer for America” with them.
     2. Inclusion.— The “inclusivists” say that their faith is large enough to include all others. The Christian God, for example, saves well-intentioned Buddhists even if they have never heard about Jesus because such a Buddhist would certainly become Christian if given the opportunity.
     Eck said the “melting pot” idea is a civil expression of this perspective. People from everywhere are welcome to become Americans so long as they shed the peculiarities of their appearance and customs and adopt American ways. The “come and be just like us” invitation requires assimilation and conformity. In religion, it erases differences in favor of uniformity. Eck called the melting pot “anti-democratic” in expecting people to give up what they cherish in order to be accepted.
     3. Pluralism.— The “pluralists” want neither to reject nor to assimilate others; they want to encounter those of other faiths. Using the metaphor of jazz: in order to improvise well, one plays one’s own distinctive part as one listens closely to the other players. We can embellish the tune of religious liberty noted in the Constitution by listening well to others. 
     Eck, whose book A New Religious America argues that our nation is the most religiously diverse place on the planet, recognizes the many issues that arise in a nation of many faiths, from the Air Force chaplaincy scandals to the arguments over the posting of the Ten Commandments. 
     But she seems optimistic about America’s future when she cited progress in the relatively recent acceptance of Jews in the life of Kansas City, in the once-prejudiced Ford Motor Company now having its own interfaith council, and in the outpouring of support for Muslims who had been attacked following 9/11. 
     In Eck’s view, the pluralist approach is the healthiest way to respond to the fact of diversity.  —VB 

7. Mirrors of Faith

1. Many folks in the community have let me know they understand the dangers of religious prejudice. They believe that everyone has the right to one’s own religion, or none. 
   This is an advance from the days when people were forcibly converted to another faith or denied opportunities because of their beliefs. Home associations can no longer prevent Jews from buying in their areas. While Wiccans and other minorities still encounter discrimination from time to time, we have come a long way. 
   But are their deeper levels of engagement with faiths other than our own? 

    2. We can move from respecting others’ right to their own faiths to respecting their faiths. This is a subtle but crucial distinction. It is one thing for me to agree you have the right to have whatever painting you wish in your living room, and it is another thing for me to learn why it is beautiful to you, even if I do not want it in my living room. 
    3. We take another step toward deeper understanding when we participate in interfaith exchange. I need a mirror to see myself. When Christians discover why Jesus is so revered by Muslims, when Tibetan Buddhists and Jews tell their stories of suffering, when Hindus and American Indians share dances, all can see their own heritage more clearly with the mirror of the other. 
     4. But there may be an even fuller engagement possible for us. The mirrors of faith transmit and reflect the holy from many angles. Bringing and focusing them together, a powerful, curative light can shine to heal the three great crises of the lose of the sacred: 
     * the endangered environment, 
     * the violation of personhood, and 
     * the broken community. 
     This may be the key religious task before us.  —VB 

8. Three Crises

Why learn about other religions?     Though we are different, we are all kin. To get along, we need to know who we are.
     In addition, learning about other faiths helps us understand our own. Kipling once asked rhetorically, “What knows he of England who only England knows?” Do I really know Kansas City if I have never been anywhere else? 
     Similarly, a pioneer in religious studies, Max Muller wrote, “He who knows one religion knows none.” We know our own tradition best when we can see how it looks with others.
     But the most important reason to study other faiths may be that we need all of them to face three great issues today, three great crises of our age: 
    * the endangered environment, 
     * the violation of personhood, and 
     * the broken community. 
     Embedded in this overview, and acknowledged with quotation marks, are the inspired summaries of thousands of years of experience achieved not from academic investigation but through the acquaintance and trust developed among those of us here in the Kansas City area who are committed to celebrating both our kinship and our diversity, articulated by the 250 folks welcoming all these faiths, primal, Asian, and monotheistic, at the 2001 Gifts of Pluralism conference, in the unanimously approved Concluding Declaration.
     * The Environment.— Are we polluting and desecrating the world? Primal religions, such as the American Indian ways, may help us recover a sense of the sacred in the world of nature, and find deeper messages in our own scriptures about our relationship to creation. From the Primal religions, we learn that our environmental problems cannot be addressed merely by technological fixes;  rather a spiritual reorientation is required to transform our abusive practices into patterns of reverence.
    “The gifts of pluralism have taught us that nature is to be respected, not just controlled. Nature is a process that includes us, not a product external to us that can just be used or disposed of. Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility. When we do use nature as we must – for food, housing, and other legitimate purposes – we should do so with respect and care, preserving its beauty and mindful of its connection to the Sacred and ourselves.”
     * Personal Identity.— Does the loss of a wholesome sense of self lead to addictions like substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, and compulsive shopping? Oriental religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, focus on the inner life, and can lend us methods like meditation to heal the wounds. From the Asian faiths, we learn that the key to our personal wholeness lies not in achievement or worldly success, nor in wealth, pleasure, status, or influence (though all of these can be good for us and for others), but rather in emptying ourselves in compassion for others, acting because the act is good, rather than for reward. 
   “We have also learned that our true personhood may not be in the images of ourselves constrained by any particular social identities. When we realize this, our acts can proceed spontaneously from duty and compassion, and we need not be unduly attached to results beyond our control.”
    * Social Covenant.— Why have crime, power struggles, and moral decadence diminished our sense of community? The monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can teach us rules and attitudes by which justice and compassion can be realized. From the Monotheistic traditions, we learn that we are not isolated individuals but strands in a social fabric that now is so frayed that urgent mending is required. This can happen when the focus on the bottom line yields to work whose mission is to benefit the community more than private enhancement. There is nothing wrong with fair profit, but the chief mission of any organization, including business, should be to provide a useful product or service to others, not simply to make money. The “win-at-any-cost” mentality has corrupted our politics and economic system, and endangered education, medicine, the arts, and certainly religion.
     “Finally, when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service, the flow of history towards peace and justice is honored and advanced.” 

THE ETERNAL QUESTIONS OF FAITH are lodged in such issues. In short, interfaith relationships can heal the disease of our super-secularistic/faux-religious/ersatz-spiritual, fragmented, fractious civilization; interfaith keys open the doors to the sacred everywhere. —VB 

[For Vern's response to the desacralization of our age, see