Intra- and inter-faith conversation in an age of division

Our world is undeniably diversifying. Our “tribes” of people who used to be separate and not in contact with one another are now rubbing shoulders more often, working at the same workplaces, living down the street from each other. There is still resistance to this encounter with the other, of course, but it seems inevitable that this pattern will only continue this way in the long run. One question this can raise for people is: what do we do about encounters with people of other faith? Do we pretend they don’t exist? Do we convert them? Will they convert us? Or is there a way to engage in productive conversation and respectful learning from one another?

Susan Strouse, author of INTRAfaith Conversations: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?, has created a guide for church members and leaders who are interested in doing the work of inter- and intrafaith learning. Strouse was (at time of writing her book) a Lutheran minister in California who is passionate about facilitating interfaith conversations. She has her DMin (doctor of ministry degree), and it appears much of her research for her doctoral thesis made it into the book. The pages are replete with all kinds of references and there are helpful appendices at the end. That being said, her writing is scholarly but not stuffy, and the book is very approachable. (My regret is I wish I had the hard copy version instead of the electronic version, because there’s so much information packed in!)

Having an interfaith conversation, or learning about interfaith matters, is altogether distinct from having an ulterior goal of wanting to convert the other faith-holders. Thus, for Christians (for whom evangelizing is often a big concern), there are many resistances that might be had about doing interfaith conversations. Strouse adeptly addresses questions that arise, such as “How do I stay true to my faith if I’m not trying to convert the other person?” or “But what about how the Bible says, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” She encourages the questions to be vocalized in congregations, because that is the whole point of an intrafaith dialogue. There are no single answers to the questions; no one “right” perspective to hold.

Strouse lays out some different frameworks for thinking about religious diversity. One such framework is pluralism spectrum: one end being exclusivist (e.g., faith in Jesus as described by Christianity is the only way for salvation); a middle ground of inclusivism (e.g., other faiths can hold their own beliefs, but it is the saving grace and way of Jesus that ultimately saves them, for that grace is for all regardless of if they choose it), or pluralistic (other religions are authentic paths on their own terms, regardless of if they include Jesus or not). Simply to have a framework to form one’s thoughts within can help people identify more clearly where they are at and be able to communicate to others their stances on issues. No position is declared right or wrong in the interfaith dialogue, but the intrafaith conversation allows for deeper self-understanding.

Strouse goes much further into other issues on the interfaith and intrafaith landscape, including the rise of the spiritually independent, how to do theology in an interfaith context, mysticism and the contemplative heart, and more practical aspects of how to actually host the dialogues.

I strongly believe one of the best antidotes to fear and hatred of the other is having actual person-to-person contact with the other, or at least taking the opportunity to be directly educated by the other (letting them teach you about their experiences. We can do this through reading if need be.). Strouse points out that we must not compare our best with their worst, but our best with their best. In an era seeming beset by division and skepticism about the “other side,” I wish that we could all be as humble and gracious to learn from others different us, yet as grounded in our own tradition to teach others the best of our best.

I wonder what you, my reader, think of the inter- and intra-faith dialogue. I wonder if these are issues you have thought about, or if you have wrestled with the theology behind it (I’m aware not everyone gets as excited about theology as I do…). What symbol might you choose to represent where you are? Would it be a picture with multiple religious symbols? A symbol of only your particular religion? Maybe a cross-shaped umbrella, sheltering all other religions (the “inclusivist” position)? Wherever you find yourself, this is a conversation worth having!

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Links:
Find INTRAfaith Conversation on Amazon
Check out the website
#TheINTRAfaithConversation

submitting to fermentation

3-26-16; Easter Saturday
I measure out flour and water and add it with the bubbly, fermenting liquid called ‘starter’ that I keep stored in a jar in my kitchen counter. I could say I made this yeast-mixture myself, but I didn’t; I added flour and water together and then time took over. I add things, I mix things, but life is created outside of my power.
I mix my dough. I wait. You cannot rush waiting, you cannot rush a dough’s rising. It is one of those times where I must submit to a simple, ancient force with more say-so than I have. The yeast will determine when this ball of dough is ready. I look at my cold, firm dough ball, wondering – waiting – hoping for it expand into its full potential. I let it be. I sit; I wait. I submit.

Jihad of Jesus book review

 

Dave Andrews’ The Jihad of Jesus hooks the reader with a seeming paradox, as he suggests you cannot have neither Jesus without jihad, or jihad without Jesus. If you are open enough to not write him off immediately, you can quickly discover that after Andrews finishes walking us through a very sobering journey of all the terrible violence that Christians and Muslims have done to each other in the name of their religion, he is mostly playing with words and ideas to make this title feasible.

Jihad and Jesus, you say? Many Judeo-Christian Westerners are under the impression that it is inherently violent, a holy war, terrorism, killings in the name of Allah. However, Andrews re-examines the meaning of jihad and gives us another – truer – definition: jihad means “struggle” in Arabic, and has two components, the inner and outer struggle. The inner struggle is the greater jihad, and is the struggle to fulfill one’s religious duties. The outer struggle is the lesser jihad, which is a physical struggle against opponents. Some, but not all, Muslims would interpret this as “holy war,” but Andrews takes care to emphasize that there are nonviolent ways to interpret both the lesser and greater jihads.

Ah. Well, with this new definition of jihad, you can probably guess how the rest of the book goes, and if you are willing to go with this definition (as I and probably a good number of you readers are), Andrews is preaching to the interfaith choir.

I am tempted to sum up the rest of the premise of this book with two quick sentences. First, he asks if the construction of these religions is not just an excuse for the terrible violence, but the actual cause of it, a question he daringly answers with yes. Gasp! How can you say that? Well, like his reconstruction of jihad, he defines two “constructions” of religion, the word around which that first sentence pivots. My second summary sentence: One must distinguish between “closed-set” religion, which is boundaried, black-white, insiders-outsiders, right-wrong, and “open-set” religion, which is (as you could guess) open to all, seeking the heart of God and encouraging others to do so as well, instead of defining itself by rules, beliefs, and dogma.

With this wordplay, with new definitions for ideas we had preconceived notions of, jihad and Jesus can fit together much better. Jesus, through his words and actions, took on the struggle (jihad) to fulfill his religious duties, and likewise we need to, or at least can, embody the spirit of Jesus in order to fulfill our own religious duties and quest for nonviolence.

There are other interesting tidbits in this book, including some really fascinating studies about violence and the human capabilities for evil, but the main points of the book are above. I found that Andrews seemed repetitive, which grated on me by the end of the book, but his message is especially important for those not in the interfaith choir… if they are willing to pick up this book and give it some real consideration before throwing it out of their closed-set circle.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

simplicity and farmer’s markets

(from Tuesday, 2-9-16) The canal path is white today and the bare tree branches dusted with snow; the flakes come down and greet my eyeballs with a handshake. The simplicity and the beauty of the snow make me think: what do I really want from life? Where will I find my joy? Because I recognize that I have such joy in this simplicity; this morning run on my canal that I’ve done hundreds of times, the gentle flakes falling from the sky, the houses on the canal path that I always imagine myself living in, fantasizing of a life of simplicity and peace as you look out over this waterway every morning with your coffee. What I long for is the complex simplicity of making your home, your life, a place for people to find their peace in or find a community that they belong. What I long for is someone with whom to share all of this. And I realize, as I propel these tired legs forward on a random, beautiful Tuesday, that right now I have all that I need. In this moment, it is complete. And some deep part of me trusts that the next moment will also, somehow, be complete.

*****

(from Saturday, 2-20-16) Farmer’s Market, Saturday morning. A February morning that makes you believe wholeheartedly in spring before winter strikes again, not ready to fully release us to sunshine and melted streets and birds singing. People file into this old windowless warehouse building, funniest farmer’s market atmosphere I ever saw, for their market goodies before starting the rest of their day. My roommate sells coffee along with free huge hugs and smiles to brighten your day. I go to see her. I love this collection of people who are willing to slow down, savor tastes, and pay a little extra for the real thing. I wish I could be more like them.
Too soon it is time to go, back out to the sunshine, off to my Saturday shift in the library before I am free to run and play in this abundant sunshine. The surprise summer-in-the-end-of-winter puts me in a giddy mood and I cook up plans for how to squeeze every last drop I can from this day. I act as if I won’t have this again forever, and in a way I won’t, if forever means a couple of weeks. I remind myself to let the abundant sunshine rain its abundance on me. There will be days like this again. And right now, live fully into the moment that today is giving me.

heart-opening Quaker meeting

(January 10, 2016) It is First Day, Sunday, Quaker meeting. Today is his first visit to my holy place, my sacred ground. Only a couple of people are in the meeting room when we arrive and there is something so vulnerable and intimate about that. I’ve learned by now that when I bring friends here I can take no responsibility for the quality of their worship. There is no way I can relieve their boredom if they are bored – though it turns out they are generally not bored and enjoy the silent experience. So today, I trust him to settle in, and I take note of who is present, gaze out the window. Then I turn my eye inward, shut my eyelids, open my hands to God.

This past semester, every meeting was a challenge, my inner demons attacking me after my first ten minutes of silence. I couldn’t sit still – well, I did sit still, but inside, I was a mess, a thousand monkeys ricocheting in my  monkey brain.

Lately, though, I have been full of peace and joy. I am this way today, sinking into something deep, wondering if anyone else is experiencing today’s meeting how I am, wondering what it feels like to be in what they call a “gathered meeting” and how I might find out. Is this one gathered? I am gathered, at any rate. My heart is open to the world, open to other people. I remember when I was not this way. It was most of my life. I used to be so closed off, so guarded, so walled. So afraid. Who am I now? How am I this different from the girl I once was? Today, my open heart overflows with love, and I want everyone else here to experience this as well.

The children file in at the end and my wish for them is that they may remain open-hearted, that the world will not close them off and that they will stay light and free. I hope they still are: when I was their age, I was not.

Heart-opening exercises in yoga have got nothing on this Quaker meeting, for me. Sit, breathe, expand, love.  

NMCF outside

(Picture taken from my meeting’s [North Meadow Circle of Friends] Facebook page… thanks, guys!)