Our Interfaith Future

The Pew Research Center has been tracking religious hostilities around the world since 2007. They have just published a report that found that a third of the 198 countries and territories that were studied in 2012 had a high or very high level of social hostilities related to religion. That is the highest share in the six years that they have been looking into hostile acts that are the result of religious belief. Their conclusion? The incidence of violence based on religion whether carried out by private individuals, organizations or groups has increased in every major region of the world except the Americas.

…Except the Americas.

Maybe, just maybe the interfaith relations work that some have been doing in this country, in every major metropolitan area, and in many middle size and small communities since 9/11 is paying off. In just over a decade, maybe, just maybe, small groups of people intentionally trying to make a difference in lots and lots of places, have…

Eboo Patel talks in his book Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America about how in the not so distant past interfaith work was led by and the passion of an older generation.

Who leads interfaith work and how it is led is changing. Patel and many others are telling us it is all about creating relationships. A younger generation is eager for relationships, rather than debate. They are more and more comfortable with diversity and with friends, loved ones, colleagues who are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and bring along to their circles of community a rich variety of religious experiences and exposures.

We keep hearing that the “nones”, those who express no affiliation with or loyalty to a particular religious institutions as did the generations before them…think of themselves as no less “spiritual”. They are not particularly interested in building churches, but they are very interested in spiritually themed conversations. And they are not satisfied in monolithic or one world-view answers…

The future is interfaith.

Seven years ago or so, when I first began having conversations that would eventually lead to my becoming the minister at the last church I served some there told me in no uncertain terms that I must be involved in interfaith work. What those same folks did not know is that UU ministers, at the time, were also hearing strong suggestions that we should all be involved in interfaith work.

The first week I arrived I called the coordinator of the Interfaith Alliance of Eastern Carolina and offered to help do whatever she needed. Secretly reluctant, openly humanist, yet a person who finds value in doing some things she is told to do, I helped with management type details that needed to be done in the background. I sat, once a month, with people who were liberals from a variety of Christian denominations, people who were Hindu, Muslim, Sufi, Baha’i, Quaker and Jewish. I listened to them quote or pray from the resources supplied by their faith traditions; scriptures, prayerbooks, etc. It was like a cacophony to me, a tower of babel, prayers and quotes, and sometimes songs…all shared to bring peace, to plead for peace, to tell us that peace would come because it was pre-ordained, that peace would come because our energies merged, that peace would come because we petitioned God, or because it was mandated by the prophet… I listened, often ill at ease, sometimes bored. I rarely said very much.

This interfaith group had begun as a response to 9/11. The monthly gathering, held somewhere, often arranged by me, every month except November was called Prayers for Peace. Other than the yearly Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, that is all we did together. And it was always in a Quaker style format. There was a lot of silence.

It wasn’t enough for me. It wasn’t enough for the new rabbi in town either. Shortly after we had both arrived in this new place for us, we asked to add a ‘learning about each other” conversation to follow the time for prayer.

We proposed that one faith community representative each month share the details of their tradition, followed by questions. It was within these gatherings over time where I learned that these people wanted not only to share about who they were, what they held to as most worthy in their faith traditions, sharing what they most trusted in life, but they wanted to know the same sorts of things about me. I was thrilled that when I began to tell them, them seemed to really welcome what I had to say…

This group, I had been told to be a part of, became a place that made a difference in my life, in my spiritual life and in my profession life.

Learning and growing in relationship with each other, we all began to think about who was not present. We invited indigenous (native) Americans to join us, and neo-pagans, even a few agnostics…

By the end of the 5+ years I was with them, our annual Thanksgiving Day services had gotten better and better and even more diverse, led by those of us who knew each other and now cared a lot that all had a place at the table. The monthly Prayers for Peace still happened, but was always followed by themed sharing where relationships were created and nurtured.

This morning I want you to consider that the future is interfaith. And I don’t necessarily mean that you have to get involved with the organized interfaith efforts in this community. Although that is a good thing to do. Yet, what I most mean is that conversations about the age old themes: grace, forgiveness, suffering, peace, salvation, justice will move out of church buildings…and into the streets, into living rooms and the cyber social gathering places. Perhaps more importantly these conversations will be among groups of would-be friends that don’t all look the same or speak the same, or dress the same, or like the same food…

And acts of faith will be less about maintaining an institution and more about using whatever vehicle facilitates the sort of conversations that create and sustain understanding, appreciation, relationship and finds commonality amidst diversity.

And I will be bold enough to also say to you that what we think of now as faith tradition, in our case often termed “our living tradition”, will become more be a kind of “street” knowledge, a body of wisdom that anyone anywhere can tap into and live by.

This every day spiritual wisdom will be what will be known to “work” to make life richer, less lonely, less isolating, less hostile and more peaceful and it won’t belong only to this or that group. It will be “common” knowledge among a diversity of people the world over.

What I would like to share with you as well… is that what I am talking about already exists, and has existed within every major world religion since the dawn of time. The collections of “street” or “common” knowledge that are known as wisdom sayings, or what scholars and those who study world religions call “wisdom literature” is in every major body of “scripture”. Around for ages, there is already a broad collection of all the practical stuff that works to make life go better embedded in scripture the world over.

What qualifies as wisdom? The 17th Century poet and linguist Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said; “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.”

The dictionary defines “wisdom” what gives one the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting. It is insight. Wisdom is common sense and good judgment. Henry David Thoreau said “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” It is the sum of learning through the ages. It is the wise teaching of the ancient sages.

Maya Angelou points out that this body of knowledge is often oral, passed down from grandmothers and fathers to children again and again as short and often pithy sayings. She says; “In those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.”

The thing about interfaith conversations that is so wonderful is that while learning about a person or a group of person who are different from you, you can see or hear things that they may be so immersed in they can’t see as clearly as you might. It is like, how fish are probably not aware of the water they swim in.

In the Book of Acts, we are told that “Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds.” (Acts vii. 22.)

Did he go to interfaith dialogues! At least he studied the water, the culture he was in, even though he was not Egyptian, he learned from the wisdom they knew, soaking up what was valuable and constructive from their collective common sense. It caused him to be mighty in words and deeds!

Sometimes it is the “stranger” the one not native to a particular place, who can best hear or see the wisdom of a place, of a people, of a culture.

Wisdom is, as my grandmother liked to say, more than “book learning”. Being wise means one has the ability to combine knowledge with practical application.

It has been shown in survey after survey that we UU’s are among the most knowledgeable (meaning book learned) group of church folk in America. But are we also wise? Could someone come into our midst and learn all they need to know to live peaceful, relational lives? …to be mighty in word and deed?

Our third source says that our living tradition draws from the wisdom of the world’s religions to inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives. How familiar are you with the wisdom literature from the world’s religions? I know that some of us have immersed ourselves in learning/practicing Buddhism, and/or different forms of Paganism. Some of you are attracted to Hinduism, or know a lot about Quakers, or Judaism.

A long time ago, I became fascinated with wisdom literature. At first what made it so interesting to me, was how you could find various world religions personifying wisdom as the feminine aspect of God. Sophia was the wise woman who was understood to be the consort, and the necessary compliment, to the father god. Perhaps the archetype is often female because wisdom is almost always related to the practical and heartfelt aspects of life, and not so much the removed or esoteric. Wisdom literature as well is concerned with the day to day, and not so much with the dramatic course of history.

In Proverbs, what goes on in the family, in the kinship system and in society is the topic, again and again. Proverbs is concerned with day to day practicalities. It is focused on the ordering of routine life, on how a life can be made good and living prosperous. Do this and you will have a good life. Do this and we will all get along. A stitch in time saves nine.

The wisdom writings in the Bible, (Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job) are not unlike more secular types of conventional wisdom, (like the wisdom saying that Benjamin Franklin was so fond of). The Wisdom literature in the Bible is not interested in telling Israel’s story. It is not concerned with the covenants or promises made between God and man, nor does it have any thing to say about a God who acts to direct the course of history. Wisdom literature does not claim to be a product of divine revelation. It is grounded instead in the observation of and reflection upon human experience. Wisdom literature whether in the Bible or found in other world religions is always the result of insight based on experience. Its aim is always a self-evident universal truth, that which we often call common sense.

Sometimes wisdom literature is composed of short sayings, like those found in the Tao-te-ching. Sometimes it is written as if it is one person’s insight into a particular human problem, such as the story of the unjust suffering found in the Book of Job. Whatever form it takes, it is always, as Marcus Borg says in Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, “crystallized experience – compact insights about how to live generated by long experience of the world.” All wisdom literature says ‘this is what life is like, and take it from me, this message will help you on your journey’.

My purpose in bringing this up at all, is to offer wisdom literature as a touch point for learning about the sacred writings of other religions, for appreciating what makes the person who seems so different from you tick. What others consider to be sacred writings or sources are not all fantastical mystery and tales of miracles.

Have you read Ecclesiastes lately?

It is a cynic’s delight focused on the shortness of life and how random what befalls us is. Life live to the fullest, my friend, cause you don’t get long. Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” …so let’s keep dancing…

The collections of common sense sayings from the body of the world’s religions, all of them, not just the cynical ones, have an ingredient that is often missing from secular wisdom. You can’t read wisdom from the world’s religions without recognizing that they all say in one way or another that life isn’t is as simple as knowing the right things to do and simply doing them. This wisdom says that life is much more complex than that.

Religious wisdom does not offer a collection of answers to be followed by the uninitiated. It is rather it is a collection, a compendium of the world’s “ah ha’s”. What worked for some community and what might point the way to what might work for others.

All of the wisdom literature from the world’s religions ultimately says that it isn’t just about following wise sayings, we must open ourselves and be vulnerable to the engagement with life.
Becoming wise is not just finding the answer to “what should I do in a given situation”, it is rather a raising the question of “what kind of person should I be?”

Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions (Plus), tells this story about the Buddha.

“In his later years, when India was afire with the Buddha’s message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. (Not many people provoke this question – not ‘who are you’ with respect to name, origin or ancestry, but ‘what are you?’)

When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided a clue to his understanding of wisdom. ‘Are you a God? they asked. An angel? A Saint? No. Then what are you?’ The Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

Being awake, alive, fully interconnected with all is the essence of religious wisdom. At the moment we awaken to others who are in this world with us as human beings of worth and dignity we awaken to ourselves – to our human, finite, vulnerable, imperfect selves interconnected with all that is and ever has been.

Everything we need to know and our children need to know, and the generations that come after us need to live peaceful and good and prosperous lives is not found in one monolithic world view. Learn from being in relationship with all that is and all who are, as did Moses, and you and your children and your children’s children will become mighty in word and in deed.

Amen. Blessed be.
Assay – let the people make it so.
Namaste – the light in me salutes the light in you.

Shalom. A Salaam Aleichem.

– Rev. Ann Marie Alderman


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