This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

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This post is the first in a series of three on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference. Check back over the next couple days for the others.

Coming off a generally bad experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) (see reports: 1, 2, 3), the tone of Nazareth College‘s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC) was radically and refreshingly different. I attended IUC, which was in Rochester, NY from 4/11/10 – 4/13/10, to absorb as much information about the interfaith community outside of Chicago and to be recognized as a “Next Generation” leader. Though it was populated by a hundreds-strong diversity of religious, geographic, and age demographics – “intentionally interfaith and intergenerational, combining the wisdom of one generation with the vitality and hope of the next,” as they termed it – it was an intimate community motivated by a desire to learn from diverse others and permeated with optimism and action.

Opening

duffyMayor Robert J. Duffy of Rochester was among those who kicked off the event, reflecting on his childhood and how his mother taught him not to look down on people of other faiths, Rochester’s long history of social justice and interfaith, and his hopes for the conference. Said Duffy:

When I look at [religious] divisiveness, I know it is not the [fault of] faith itself but people using it as a tool. In our world and community we have many issues and challenges [but] nothing is insurmountable. As we gain greater understanding [of one another], we pull together as community and start to see disrespect and violence dissipate through greater education and understanding.

bravemanPresident of Nazareth College Daan Braveman – a Jewish man at a college with Catholic roots – also reflected on the history of the community and the college, and what this conference could mean:

Today we have an opportunity to give back and make a difference in the world. This conference is focused on encouraging and training students on the skills that encourage interfaith dialogue… I can think of no better way that young people can make a difference in the word, [to learn to see] religious differences not as a source of division but as a source of tremendous strength.

Plenary: “The Art of Dialogue”

After these and other rousing introductions, the conference moved into interactive plenary “The Art of Dialogue: Interfaith Dialogue Across the Generations,” hosted by Dr. Leonard Swidler, Becca Hartman and Hind Makki.

Swidler, Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University, was up first, and opened with a mantra he claimed to have used time and time again: “Nobody knows everything about anything.” He elaborated at length, acknowledging that not only is religion a complex issue but that there are many who try to simplify it:

It sounds perfectly sensible, right? What biologist would say, “I know it all”? What psychologist would say “Oh, there is nothing more for me to learn”?… And yet, the most complicated, detailed, far-reaching discipline of all is religion, because religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly based on some notion and experience… [It] is the most complicated [subject]. There are 6.7 billion people on this planet, and I guarantee there are billions of them who would insist [their religious position is] the right position… Remember, nobody knows everything about anything; this includes religion. So how do we get people to take that clear and simple mantra and translate it to the most complicated field – religion? The answer, I think, is dialogue.

swidlerHe expanded on what he meant by dialogue, saying that it is, “fundamentally not just ‘blah blah blah.’ It means saying, ‘I want to talk with you because you think differently, so that I can learn from you.'” He contended that, in the scope of human history, this is a relatively new concept:

In the past, people would talk to those who think differently so they could tell them “the truth.” That is not dialogue. We humans have been engaging in monologue since the beginning of time… we have always talked with people who think like we do – or should. We don’t talk to people who think differently so that we can learn… I would argue [that dialogue] is radical in the etymological sense of the word: it goes down to the root. In most religions people want to tell you the truth – it is a good intention based in enthusiasm – but they don’t want to hear, they just want to tell. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and all we’ve gotten are bloody heads… so we’ve got to turn around [and] develop deep dialogue – not just the surface stuff – related to critical thinking. We don’t want to share our ignorances but, together, search for the truth, and with our critical thinking issue an action complimentary to cooperation.

makkiAfter Swidler’s charge, Hind Makki (who I interviewed on this blog last month) and Becca Hartman of the Interfaith Youth Core demonstrated an example of interfaith dialogue by sharing insightful testimonials of their own experiences and then had conference participants do the same. Hartman said, “Everyone here has a story, and we want you to share them with one another.” Makki elaborated, saying, “Stories bring out the essence of why people do what they do… [they] create a space in which we can look for shared values from different sources. hartmanWe are asking you to build relationships off of shared values through storytelling and community, and then from that community to build bridges and move into action.” The experience of sharing stories with one another at the opening of the conference made it clear that this event was proactive about inviting participants to air their diverse experiences and have a sense of determinist agency as participants in the burgeoning movement of interfaith cooperation. In that sense, from the get go it was much more than a series of lectures; it was a constructive exercise of empathy and progress.

Plenary: “The Divine Feminine”

Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave the second keynote of the conference entitled “The Divine Feminine: The Foundation of the Abrahamic World.” Chittister was an incredible speaker, using humor and emotional mastery to deliver a message on the importance of recognizing feminine images of the divine in interfaith work. I found myself intrigued by her speech, but also found it knotty in a few places.

chittisterFor one, as someone who is not a member of an Abrahamic religion – let alone not even a theist – there wasn’t much that was applicable to my personal beliefs or to my work. The speech was clearly geared toward theists, so there wasn’t much for me to work with. Chittister said that “the way we see God is the way we see ourselves;” I understand the truth of this statement in the context of theism, but wonder what she might think it means for atheism, in which no god-image is present.

Additionally, I thought Chittister’s use of feminine versus masculine images of God was fundamentally and problematically rooted in a reliance on gender binarism and dichotomized approaches to gender. During the Q&A session, the great Rabbi Or Rose raised a similar critique – that it is too essentialistic to term the feminine as innately nurturing and loving and the masculine as aggressive and punishing. To her credit, Chittister was open to this critique and acknowledged that she was speaking on a multilayered issue in a small space of time.

Chittister is one of the world’s most prolific female Catholic speakers, with a wicked wit and a keen understanding of how to clearly and passionately articulate her worldview. Ultimately, her talk was engaging and interesting and elicited a good deal of conversation among participants, but as a non-theist it required a bit too much translation work on my part as it was fundamentally about images of God and was not as interfaith-focused as I might’ve liked.

All in all, things got off to a pretty great start at IUC – but they got even better as the conference went on. Stay tuned for the next two installations, coming soon, and follow my trek to Boston for multiple conferences on Twitter!

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