On Embodying Interfaith Dialogue

Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

My mother was a former nun named Mary and my father was a carpenter named Joseph.” This was the first line of my application to divinity school. Where else, I argued, could someone like me go other than a divinity school? I had hoped to grab the admission committee’s attention with a singular story and show that I had a sense of humor, all at once. It seems I succeeded, but reflecting on these words now, I wonder how someone like me, caught between commitments to both Christianity and Buddhism, began as someone else, a child deeply devoted to his Catholic community and its imaginary, both sublime and warm, rich and sensual, yet sometimes rigid, hierarchical and even scary.

Interfaith engagement is personal for me, because I am a product of such engagement. It began in middle school after my parents agreed to reconcile after a few years of separation. They had been attending a Franciscan house of prayer, an alternative to the Sunday church-going routine that for some had become static and stale. The house was located in a farm house surrounded by soy fields. It incorporated meditation and contemplation, and in a quick transformation that I can neither fully remember nor look back on without bewilderment, it became an eclectic Zen center that drew on various traditions.

For a teenager interested in all things spiritual, it was nothing short of Disney Land. I had the chance to sit, discuss and practice with individuals from different traditions, with different ways of seeing the world. There was a couple – an orthodox rabbi too liberal from his own congregation, and his wife, who said she had been specially trained by nuns in Italy to be a mystic. I learned Buddhist meditation and began to see my own Catholicism in a new light.

I am realizing that interfaith engagement for me is no practice. There is little formal dialogue. Instead, it is embodiment. And for many, if not all, interfaith engagement is a dialogue going on within, as well as around us. To be sure, this is exciting, but its ethical implications are also daunting. To whom are we accountable, if we so easily exceed the boundaries of community? To whom or to what do we look, for moral companionship, for ethical mentorship? Where do we take our stands, when the ground of our moral and spiritual lives will not stay still? And how do we reconcile the differing traditions we embody in a way that does not smooth them over but allows the unique, moral critiques immanent in each to speak to our societies and communities in such great need of moral vision?

These are old questions, perhaps in new wine-skins. The only way through, as ever, is to drink deep.

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5 thoughts on “On Embodying Interfaith Dialogue

  1. Joseph, your reflection—specifically the distinction between practice and embodiment—was a joy to engage as a reader, a scholar, and as a person whose spirituality is largely informal, because I don’t engage regularly with any specific faith community. The questions you pose are pivotal ones, and I wonder, perhaps, if in asking them and “drinking deep”, as you say, we are creating a new brand of community, and simultaneously drawing its boundaries in some liminal space we can’t quite pinpoint; whether that is enough, however—if indeed it occurs at all—is another question entirely.

  2. Katelynn, thank you so much for your kind response! It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? So much of the sociology of religion these days are grappling with this question. I see this clearly in some Buddhist sanghas in the United States (white and middle class, mind you) where the participants are very aware that they are doing something new. And so many of the classical sociological scholars (Durkheim, for instance) also tried to capture what they saw as a change in communities driven by industrialization, the rise of the nation state, etc. The modern question seems in no small part to try to explore why we feel so different from what came before. Are we creating “a new brand of community” as you ask, or are we doing what we have always done, making a way forward with what we have at hand? I guess it depends on whether we think that there’s nothing new under the sun or that different combinations of opportunity, history, and social and economic production can make something new, or at least, something that is renewed. I’d like to think the later, with a heavy helping of continuity. But I do think we all embody multiple identities, which can cause anxiety but also comfort. And if anything is truly human, I think it is the personal exploration of the different communities that meet within each of us. Certainly reflecting on this and bringing it forth to engage others has to create something new, right? Or at least, something renewed?

  3. Katelynn and Joseph, I appreciate this discussion about “a new brand of community.” I think these new communities we are witnessing and embodying are largely because of a new understanding of identify–or at least a new willingness to identify in ways that were traditionally unavailable. How long ago was the idea of identifying as both gay and Republican (in the USA) unthinkable? Or both Muslim and Christian? For me this new brand of community should emphasis our humanity first and our other identities second. That is not to lesson the importance of these second identities in the least, but to recognize that we all share our humanity first and foremost.

  4. Hi there everyone, I certainly resonate with the thought of a ‘new community’ however I am also wondering if as persons of interfaith we are generally passionate about so many aspects of Sacred Activism and Social Justice issues that the globe will become our ‘Community Stage’ thus manifesting a naturally occurring community where we meld our ‘oneness’. Interfaith Community here in Australia is still in its infancy and I believe struggling to be understood, however, as in the USA it will evolve and community will become apparent and strengthen as we work toward bringing ALL Community together. Thank you for your inspirations. Blessings CiCi

    1. Hey Cici. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I’m wary of talking about the globe as a community. The danger there is to elide difference and particularity in a desire for oneness, as you say. But this can be a violent movement in itself, both in its consequences and in the assumptions we make about that community. We can force out particularities of others in order to fit them to what we see as one. On a practical level, for example, I have heard Buddhists complain about Christian interfaith efforts. Often the Christian dialoguers will arrange to have the meeting in the church building, and by talking about “humanity” and “global community,” they are really, though inadvertently, universalizing their own worldview at the expense of their guests. What you say, though, is really important and I think very important for interfaith efforts. How do we negotiate the levels of local community, nation and globe? What do we do with traditions when they make universal claims yet are lived only locally?

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