Tales of Interfaith: Reflections on a Book Tour

As you might know, I returned from a book tour a few weeks ago.  I talked to people, all over the U.S. and in Toronto, Canada.  I talked about how Interfaith can liberate us from the age-old need to throw rocks at each other over our diverse spiritual beliefs, and instead to embrace not only our diversity, but our common humanity.

But this morning, what I’d like to share are some of the lessons I learned, and some of the things that happened along the way that relate very much to what we do here.

Is there interest in Interfaith?  Yes.  Every time I gave a presentation, I spoke for about ten minutes, read from the book for about twenty minutes, all lasting just under half an hour, and then in all but the first presentation, I took an hour and a half of questions – an hour and a half.  Good questions, not negative ones – questions trying to explore and examine what is Interfaith as a faith??  And also, how does an Interfaith Church work??

The most poignant and truly agonizing question that kept coming up over and over again – the question that was asked at least once every time I spoke was this.  The person usually started off by saying something like, “I like this.  Interfaith makes sense.” This was followed by: “But I like my religion.”  Or, “I like my spiritual path.”  Or, “This is the path of my family.”  And then the question.  “Must I leave my spiritual community to embrace Interfaith?”

For me the answer is, “Of course not!”  But if the answer were that obvious, it wouldn’t be asked over and over again, and with such anguish.  It is a question that each of us, if we are to speak of Interfaith to others, must learn how to answer, and be comfortable in answering, and be patient as we answer.

Religions, other spiritual communities, have taught over and over again, for thousands of years that you leave one spiritual community to join another.  I personally feel so comfortable living “bi-churched” that it feels natural to me.  But it does not feel natural to most.  For most of us, in our hearts, if not our heads, it is an either/or proposition.  If you join “us”, you leave “them.”  If you stay with “them” then you may be a “friend,” but you can’t really be a member.

Three days, on a train going across Canada on my way home, gave me time to process my experiences on the book tour, and I realized as I sat there, gazing at the passing scenery, that it really comes down to “us” and “them” all over again.  How can you be a part of “us” when you are still a part of “them?”

I have a friend, not a close friend, but someone I know, like and deeply respect.  She was an Episcopal priest.  But she also found truth in Islam.  And she did not find Christianity and Islam incompatible.  She has had her life turned upside down by a church superior who said, “You have to choose.”  When she wouldn’t choose, when she wouldn’t deny one spiritual path in favor of the other, she was told she could no longer be a priest.  I knew this before I left on the book tour, it happened some time ago – it made the papers.  What the tour brought home for me was how fundamental, how primal, if you will, this “us and them” approach is – to the spiritual and virtually every other way we live our lives.

The essence of Interfaith is to realize and internalize that there is no “them.”  There is only “us.”

As I’ve travelled, I’ve learned to speak not of cutting roots, but of adding a few.  I have learned to talk not of changing paths, but broadening our path … just a little.

I had some wonderful conversations with people on the trains …and I was on a lot of trains.  Riding on the train means you take your meals with different people: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Some people I met were hugely uninterested in Interfaith.  They asked what I did, which is a pretty common ritual when you’re eating with strangers.  I told them I was an Interfaith minister.  They said something like, “Oh”, and we moved on to a different topic – which was fine.  One couple, whom I met over breakfast, in an ever so polite way told me all religion was bosh.  The difference was that Judaism and Islam were violent, negative bosh, while Christianity was pretty harmless, a kind of warm and fuzzy bosh.  It was fascinating.  I had no reply – not over breakfast.  I just listened in awe of their logic.

Still, I found that most people were not only interested, but eager to find out more.  Yet over and over again, the great impediment was not being able – or at least not prepared – to grasp, and more than grasp, to embrace the possibility of belonging to two communities.  How can I truly be a Christian, and yet also embrace Interfaith?  How can I be a Muslim, or a Humanist, or whatever?  It goes back to the intrinsic, internalized belief that there can be only one true path to the sacred.

Forgive me if my mind drifts to a musical.  But I remember Oklahoma, and the song, “With me, it’s all or nothing.”

I realize now much more clearly than before, that this will be our greatest hurdle – and, if we can help people over it, our greatest accomplishment.

It’s not all or nothing.  I can walk the spiritual path of Judaism and at the same time respect and honor the fact that friends walk the path of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha’ism, Humanism.  I don’t have to give up my path to embrace Interfaith.  We’re all on the same road.  It’s ok if we’re not in the same lane.

When we first started, just two years ago – hard to believe we are still that young!  When we first started, we decided to meet twice a month because that was all we could afford.  Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  We meet twice a month.  For some that’s enough, and I know that.  But for any and all who want to belong to Interfaith AND be a part of another spiritual community as well, by meeting only twice a month we make that possible.  I know some of us have other spiritual communities to which we belong.  That’s not just “ok”, it’s terrific.  It’s Living Interfaith.

That’s hard for some to understand.  Yet I know it’s “getable”.  If you’ve been here a while, I know you get it. And other folks do too.  I wish I had gotten her name, but at my reading in Bellingham, there was a woman who had bought the book earlier in the day, read most of it during the day, and had come to the reading with what appeared to be her not quite as enthusiastic husband.  During the time for questions she stated that she was Lutheran.  Lutheranism was her spiritual path and she had no intention of leaving it.  Then she added that The Interfaith Alternative was a book she’d been waiting for all her life.  She was a “both and” not an “either or.”  She understood that Interfaith means broadening your path, not leaving it.

On the flip side of the coin, I had a radio interview with someone who listened almost patiently to why I had written the book.  When we were off the air, and I appreciate and respect that he waited until then, he told me that he had the answer.  He walked the only “right” path.  His was the only “true” faith.  He felt that interfaith, small “i”, should stick to tolerating other people’s “wrong” beliefs.  But this idea of according equality to differing beliefs had no place in his world.  And, of course, he’s not alone by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet I think the time is right.  I was hugely encouraged when the very first review of The Interfaith Alternative came out.  It was in the Anglican Journal.  That’s not where I would have expected to have received such a sympathetic ear.  That, happily, was just one of my personal prejudices that got exploded during my trip.  Another prejudice I had was that the book couldn’t possibly get a fair hearing from the Bible Belt, or the South.  Wrong.  I was interviewed by a radio station in Iowa and a radio station in Georgia.  Both interviewers were clearly engaged and receptive.  It was a reminder to me of how easy it is to throw everyone into one category.  It was a reminder to me that I am not immune.  Like everyone else, I need to be vigilant to guard against my own prejudices.  But I digress.  Back to the Anglican Journal.

The writer called her review, “Why Faith Is Better Than Religion.”  And she talked about the book, about Interfaith, as a faith, moving away from dogma, towards community and justice.  She concluded the review by saying that the book “may rekindle hope for the possibility of an inclusionary and harmonious world.”  May it be so.

And interestingly, the last time I looked there were four reader comments.  Nice balance – two positive and two negative.  One of the positive responses referenced where I say that my faith is Interfaith, and my spiritual path is Judaism.  The comment states,

“I too can say my faith is Interfaith, although I am new to this term, and in my case, my spiritual path is Christianity… “

Yes!  This person gets it.  And, then, just to keep my head the right size, one of the negative responses,

“…Why is the Journal promoting such trash? Anglicans are Christians who should exalt Jesus Christ.”

So, yeah.  There’s still a little work out there to do.

But another of my positive experiences was at a Roman Catholic missionary community in Toronto, Canada.  It’s called the Scarboro Missions.  The Scarboro Missions has an Interfaith Desk, directed by Paul McKenna.  Paul’s particular calling is to make the world aware of the Golden Rule, as it is manifested in virtually all spiritual paths around the world, and then nudging people into actually practicing it!

I had a wonderful experience at that Roman Catholic mission, where Paul had arranged for me to speak to and with a group of people who were very clearly interested in Interfaith.  And intriguingly, while there was interest in the book, what Paul and the others were most interested in was this church.  How does work?  How do we keep “right belief” out of who we are?  How do we share, without trying to convert or convince?  I left, promising to keep our website up to date, not with only our Mission and Vision Statements, but also our Bylaws and other materials as they develop.  In Toronto, there is a lot of interest in starting another Living Interfaith church.  And I received an e-mail just the other day from someone in upstate New York, hoping there was a Living Interfaith church near her.  I’ve had other such e-mails from around the U.S. and indeed, around the world.

I’ve been in touch with a religion columnist for the New York Times.  Yes, he’s interested in the book.  But what he’s really interested in is this church.  And he plans to fly out in the fall to visit, and to observe one of our services.

Yes, we’re small.  And yes, it would be nice to grow.  But let us not forget, ever, that we are trailblazers.

When we first dreamed this church, Steve, Dilara Hafiz, whom you haven’t had the chance to meet yet, and I dreamed of our church becoming a model for inclusivity.  We are becoming that model.

Amen.

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