Rev. Bud Heckman

The Next Great Thing(s) in Interfaith

What do TIO’s March and April “Emerging Interfaith Voices” series tell us about the interfaith culture emerging globally?

Collectively they witness an appreciation for, among other things, the:

  • unique and under-realized contributions of women,
  • power of storytelling and value of direct engagement with “the other,”
  • life-giving and action-driven nature of young people,
  • transformative and healing effect of collective cultural uprisings,
  • speed, intensity and unbelievable reach of technology to advance a movement,
  • witness and lasting gifts of mentors and leading luminaries,
  • treasures of traditionally under-heard and -represented peoples meeting on their own terms and (re)claiming their own space and voice, and
  • value of standing beside and with each other in solidarity in the process.

We do not need to taste the whole ocean to know it’s salty. We need not see the whole ocean to know it is teeming with diversity beyond our knowing and imagination. The various ponds and streams of interfaith have now given life to a global sea. We might know our local ponds and streams well. It gets harder to know a sea, an ocean. Few have the privilege.

In the fledgling young ‘movement’ promoting interfaith relations, few have had the luxury to lift their eyes from the steady task at hand to make sense of what we are doing on the whole. We are relatively young and as yet defined as a ‘movement.’ In contrast, the ‘emerging’ movements that became environmentalism or civil rights, as just two examples, seem much clearer and well defined, at least now. Of course, it is difficult to see the shape of something when you are standing or, rather, swimming in the middle of it.

In recent discussion forums generously hosted by the Coexist Foundation, I had the pleasure of talking to a broad swath of leading interfaith leaders – NGO leaders, academics, activists, and funders – who are shaping the development of the movement for religious pluralism.

We can all see the signs showing how “interfaith” or the effort to create “religious pluralism” – the state of fostering positive relationships between people of different faith backgrounds, including none at all – is burgeoning.

Certainly, all the indicators are there for arguing the development of a “field”:

  • Academia has begun to recognize it as a discipline.
  • Directories, guides, and issue-specific resources have been created.
  • The number of institutions dedicated to it has grown at least twentyfold in a couple of decades.
  • Researchers and surveyors are focusing on it as a specialized subject matter.
  • Organizations within are finding ways to cooperate and learn from one another, creating professional fora.
  • Governments are taking an interest in it for partnerships, including the U.S. government.
  • Some new funders are finding their way into the field (finally!).
  • Niches and specialization are taking shape and being recognized and labeled.

As Bettina Gray shared in her December 2011 TIO article, with a measure of hope and a wisp of daring, she and Dr. Wesley Ariarajah mapped out these trajectories at an exploratory meeting nearly four decades ago. They got the heavy wheel slowly turning. It would be too easy not to appreciate what it took to get here, especially now that the wheel is starting to turn rapidly. We must thank them and the many who labored to get us all here.

Looking Forward

But what is next? What do these emerging interfaith voices tell us? I would like to suggest that several things are clear.

  • New forms of media, particularly social media, will transform our work and will need to be more deeply engaged.
  • Investments in training young leaders and in trusting their leadership will be a boon to all.
  • New forms of funding will have to come online and funders will expect measurable standards and social-scientifically based outcomes.
  • Creative new collaborations and cooperation will strength the web of connectedness and sharpen the foci.
  • Intrafaith dialogue is often harder than interfaith dialogue and will need to be fostered co-equally.
  • Statistics indicate that the number of people with hybrid religious identities and no religious identity are on the rise and so we will need to intentionally incorporate these streams.
  • Generation Y and those that follow take the fact of religious diversity for granted and yearn for religious pluralism in a way that will re-shape the whole process and terms.
  • The most important work is still local – done in religious institutions and individual hearts on the ground, with lay people and religious leaders alike.
  • Finally, the most important work is still centered on one-to-one encounters that build relationships and change attitudes.

You may have your own ideas about what is the next great thing in interfaith. Post a comment below, if so. Crowdsourcing may get us closer to owning shared expectations and goals.

Facing the Challenges

Soberly, we still face challenges and carry those forward with us. I will share but one example that bothers me, as one on the cusp of two great generations. Generational divides in terms of expectations and priorities can seriously muddy the waters, disabling us from adapting a clear, shared focus.

Older generations tend to come from defined religious traditions, appreciate traditional dialogue more, want to work with institutions, and feel that the rich transcendent dimensions to our discourse and the efforts to mitigate theological differences cannot be easily left behind. Younger generations tend to come to the process embodying with themselves identities with multiple religious streams, the spiritual-but-not-religious view, or, even, not be religious at all. Further they favor action over dialogue, want to work organically from common shared values, and frequently bracket the transcendent and theological mitigation questions.

We can’t solve such challenges. We must simply work through them and with them. We bring our cultural and personal baggage with us on our journeys.

As a concluding word, I urge that we start a conversation to get a clearer, shared definition for the teeming sea of things that advance ‘interfaith’ or ‘religious pluralism.’ If we seek to rally ourselves behind such a focus, we might get to where we all want to go much faster or directly. It would be like all the ships on the great seas agreeing on similar terms, instruments, and standards for navigation and etiquette. Eboo Patel recently shared that we should all be working on “effective approaches to reducing prejudice and increasing pluralism.” That would be a good start. Could we agree? What is your suggestion?

As Rachael Watcher remarked in her TIO report this month on a Pagan and Indigenous gathering, this interfaith business is a bit ‘chaordic,’ harkening a term coined by Dee Hock. That is to say, interfaith simultaneously embodies chaos and order in one flow. It might just be time for us to have a little more order, however, so as to advance ourselves and our common vision.