Last month I attended the North Atlantic Interfaith Network (NAIN) Connect in Detroit, Michigan. The history of interfaith cooperation was incredible in that city. I was amazed at the established interfaith relationships. I watched as individuals who had been friends for years, some for decades, reunite to talk about and share their city of Detroit. I was struck by their friendships. Why are interfaith friendships some of my most meaningful and profound relationships? Interfaith friendships are entered into by people who have examined themselves and their worldview. They have difficult and meaningful conversations. Seeing those relationships made my heart grow with excitement for the potential of the interfaith friendships that I have made over the past few years. My heart grew with excitement.
There were some distinctive differences in how we, the younger generation, talked about interfaith cooperation and engagement at NAIN Connect. Esther Boyd already wrote about the need for the inclusion of the secular voice and perspective into the current generation of interfaith. This is a huge part of the difference in the two generations.
The difference that seemed most prevalent to me was the idea of relativism verses pluralism. Over and over again we heard phrases like “we all have the same God/gods” or “the same God/gods loves us all.” After spending time in their midst, I knew that the individuals speaking were not trying to be exclusionary. They were operating under the language that had historically been acceptable. The argument can be made that the idea of relativism can be helpful, but ultimately that leaves us with a couple of problems. We are forced to exclude atheist, humanist, and other non-deist friends. Second, it forces our conversations into the shallow end of the pool, conversations that have vast and deep potential for discovery.
Relativism is an idea that has been described in a variety of metaphors. The one that is often the most efficient to use is the mountain metaphor. It says that religion is a mountain, and the pinnacle of the mountain is the discovery of ultimate truth. The mountain has a variety of paths up to the pinnacle. All religions are essentially their own paths up the same mountain. People are allowed to take whatever path they so choose, jumping from one to another, or blazing their own. Ultimately, we are all headed to the same truth. It’s really a heartwarming way to think about religions. It ultimately handicaps our ability to disagree with one another on deeply held beliefs about truth, yet maintain our commitment and friendship with one another.
The interfaith generation that I belong to is more apt to hold to the ideas of “pluralism” specifically as defined by Dr. Diana Eck in her book A New Religious America, and on the Pluralism Project website:
• “Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity”
• “Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.”
• “Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments”
• “The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism.”
These concepts have helped our generation bring individuals to the interfaith conversation that ordinarily would have disengaged at the idea of relativism. People who hold conservative religious, moral, or political traditions are now invited to the conversation with the space to explain why those ideals are fundamental to the way they live their lives. The atheist and humanist communities, so integral to our society, are given a space in which their perspectives are not only heard but valued. I have personally had the privilege to invite both a person who has a conservative voice and a secular voice to an interfaith dialogue. The result of the invitation was a profoundly emotional experience of them being told their perspective was worthy to be heard and welcome around our table. We want to hear how they experience the world, learn from them, and commit to being their friends.
Intergenerational interfaith allows me the opportunity to understand the history of the movement. As a historian, those experiences and institutional memories are invaluable. Pluralism allows me to hold my religious values with me at all times, and build sincere relationships. I hope to be the continuation of the work that so many wonderful people have built before me and carry the work to new depth.