From Prejudice to Pluralism: Surfacing the Unconscious

“How do we measure effectiveness in interfaith work? How do we track progress? What outcomes are we after, and how do we know we are reaching them?” These are some of the probing and important questions that Eboo Patel asks in his new book Sacred Ground and in his speaking engagements around the country.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Patel address the students and faculty of Hebrew College and of Andover Newton Theological Seminary. Though he spoke with all the charisma, poise, and eloquence that he always brings to his public appearances, this talk was starkly different from that which he gave to our community four years ago.

Rather than an enthusiastic celebration of the work of the interfaith movement, Patel spoke of the insularity and overall ineffectiveness of interfaith programs that only reach those with shared views and values. Patel critiqued his own and others’ work that often serves to bring together left-leaning liberals of different faiths who already feel that they have more in common with one another than with less liberal members of their own faith. This, he says, is not interfaith work.

If we want to transform prejudice into pluralism in America, he argues, we must move beyond these affinity groups to work with those with whom we fundamentally differ. The work of the interfaith leader, as Patel described it, is to find the points of connection across these deep differences. To do so, he says, we must build on what we have in common with one another rather than what divides. This means putting forward those parts of our traditions, our values, and ourselves that resonate with those of other religions.

While I believe that this approach is hugely important and necessary, I don’t believe it is the only one that is needed at this time. We need to be working on many levels at once. Finding the commonalities between our religions is crucial, but without also probing what divides us I fear that the cooperation and friendship we build is without honesty. To create a genuinely strong foundation requires surfacing the recalcitrant, often unconscious prejudices and generational harm that each of us harbors. These parts of our faith legacy will continue to echo until they are brought to light.

To illustrate this point, in our discussion with Patel, Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College brought the example of an interfaith organizing initiative in Boston. The group, as he described it, was extremely effective in organizing around health care but when gay rights came on the ballot, the lead organizers founds themselves protesting on opposite sides of the issue. Coming face to face with these fundamental differences caused a crisis of faith within the organization.

The approach we use must depend upon the goal we are working towards. One goal, as in Patel’s work, is to bring folks of different religions with starkly different views together to begin to build a relationship. Towards this goal we certainly must start by finding points of commonality and putting forth the best of our traditions. However, I believe interfaith work must be happening on other levels as well.

For those of us who do know people of other faith traditions with whom we already share commonalities in our political leanings there is still much work to be done in order to make sure the interfaith movement is built on something real and lasting. Rather than continuing to run programs where we bask in the glow of our traditions’ shared commitment to justice, love, and peace, we must probe deeper.

At this stage of relationship I believe we must learn to share with one another the parts of our religious traditions that we find disturbing, to together sit with those aspects of ritual and scripture that we struggle with and the legacy of history that has left deep marks on our souls. A strong relationship cannot begin by each of us bringing the spiritual baggage of our tradition to the table, but neither can a real relationship be sustained if we are not honestly examining and in some way transforming those parts of our religion that cause us to feel distrust, disgust, or even hatred of the other.

All religious traditions have within them beautiful teachings and practices for how to lead a meaningful life. At the same time, these traditions have been created and shaped by human begins over time and are therefore an amalgamation of the best and worst of who we, as a species, are.

By witnessing and transforming the most troubling parts of our religions we will transform ourselves and, in doing so, our relationship to those of other faiths. This work must begin with each of us allowing ourselves to be aware of what troubles us about our faith, but this work cannot be fully done alone, or even just with those within our own community. Each of us uniquely mirrors aspects of Gd and those of us from different faith traditions have different lenses through which Gd is experienced. If a goal is for more of Gd to show up within these conversations, then we need one another.

A few weeks ago I shared a powerful experience with a group of students from Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Hebrew College rabbinical school as part of our CIRCLE group “Art as Inquiry into Interfaith Leadership.” Each meeting one person shares with the group a text or ritual from her religious tradition that she struggles with. We then use the Creative Process—engaging with art materials and then reflective writing in response to the text or ritual. The art is used as a way to tap into the unconscious elements of our experience and to process our thoughts and reactions. The goal is for each of us to delve deeper into the texts and theologies of one another’s traditions as well as to explore our relationships to each other as leaders of different faiths. The thinking behind our process is that by surfacing, sharing, and engaging the challenging parts of our traditions we come to understand our religion and ourselves differently.

By engaging with the Creative Process we move beyond a solely intellectual way of relating in which we are prone to debate an issue or judge one another. Using the art and writing allows us to work within the realm of the unconscious and to remain open to receiving whatever information or emotions come through us. It also holds the complexity and paradoxes of both the dark and the light of our religion and our reactions to others’ religious beliefs and practices without forcing a resolution or consensus reality.

In our session this past week Christian students in our group performed the ritual of communion and we, the Jewish students, witnessed. Rather than hear about communion or analyze its components, we simply watched and felt. It was powerful for the Christian students to have Jewish students in the room while enacting this ritual, and for the Jewish students to see and have a chance to reflect upon the experience of being observers. The Christian students shared their connections to and struggles with Communion. We then each picked a question about this ritual that felt alive for us and created art in response. At the end we shared our art and reflective writing with one another.

Through this process we were each able to work through our own emotions and reactions, share honestly with one another, witness one another’s struggles, and allow our relationship with communion to shift through the experience.

Though Hebrew College and Andover Newton are both progressive, liberal seminaries, and though we share much in common, in the past I have struggled to feel a sense of connection to ANTS students. In my experience, our interfaith events often emphasize our similarities, thereby covering over our differences. This makes me feel like our relationship is built on a false foundation. I can’t help but ask: what are we working so hard to cover up? I feel a much more real and deeper connection when share our struggles. When together we witness the challenging parts of our rituals, the scary parts of our scripture, and aspects of faith that divide us, I feel like an honest and real relationship has begun.


 My image via WikimediaCommons

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5 thoughts on “From Prejudice to Pluralism: Surfacing the Unconscious

  1. Thank you for saying this. I, too, have felt this uncomfortableness when we glaze over our differences. I find my relationship with others of different faiths deepens when we are brave enough to go to the places that make our religions a bit vulnerable.

  2. thanks for putting into words my own critique of Eboo Patel’s lecture. Make sure that Patel gets to read it himself (maybe, via Or).
    The story itself of sharing art was the most reflective for me of the false dichotomy that Patel set up in his talk. We CAN do interfaith work that both challenges and brings us together at the same time! We need to consider, still, who is in the room and who we are reaching out to through these processes, and that’s what I will take from the lecture most.
    Yasher Koach.

  3. Very good information. Lucky me I ran across your blog by accident
    (stumbleupon). I have book marked it for later!

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