Why I do not support interfaith work overmuch – answering my first reader question
Well, I got my first question almost immediately after my last post, and it’s a good one so I’m going to make a separate post to answer it.
“Anon” asks: “Why are you so adamantly against interfaith work? Aren’t there instances where it can be useful?”
I used to be very invested in interfaith work but I grew up. Ah, that’s a bitchy answer, I’ll admit, but after 20 years of interfaith work, it accurately describes my opinion of the whole experience. I attended the oldest interfaith seminary in the US, receiving my ordination and diploma in 2000, taught there for a couple of years, and then was Dean of second year students for a year. In the interim, I participated in various interfaith gatherings and conferences and found my opinion on the matter changing significantly and I’m happy to tell you why.
There are a couple of reasons that I no longer find interfaith work helpful or productive and in fact find it potentially deleterious to our traditions.
When I was in seminary, both as a student and a teacher/dean, there were a few troubling commonalities that I observed. Many, if not most of the students were attending seminary specifically to gain the accreditation necessary for performing interfaith marriages. At the time, I didn’t have a particular feeling one way or another toward interfaith marriage but again, over the years, I’ve become most definitely against it. (I should note that I don’t have the same negative opinion of it when it’s polytheist to polytheist of two different traditions. The worldviews tend to be compatible). It’s almost inevitably the polytheist in the equation who ends up compromising and sacrificing their traditions and faith. Then there is the question of children: if you’re not going to raise your children as polytheists, why are you here? If you don’t care about your Gods and traditions enough to pass them on as truth, as lawful good, as necessary, sustaining things, to teach piety and veneration to the next generation then you’re not helping. You’re not doing a damned thing for polytheistic restoration. Many of these questions don’t come up prior to marriage (I might point out that I’ve never seen an interfaith minister conduct effective pre-marital counseling. It’s one thing to be respectful of other traditions and another to have utterly no values, boundaries or requirements and all too often interfaith work ends up accommodating the lowest common denominator. One won’t challenge couples in pre-marital counseling because “all paths are one” or some such nonsense. No. Just no.).
As an aside, some Christian denominations have the concept of being “unequally yoked.” I think this is a very, very wise concept. What it means is that one should not marry someone who is not of the same faith, and the same commitment level to one’s faith and Gods because that will lead to inequalities and struggles down the road. We should marry those with whom we can walk hand in hand in our faith, supporting and sustaining each other, honoring the gods, and passing on those traditions. Marrying someone of a different incompatible faith is like trying to sit on a two legged stool when drunk. It doesn’t work so well. Anyway, back to the interfaith issue.
I’ve seen interfaith ministers with whom I taught refuse to include modules on African Traditional Religions because they have the sacrament of sacrifice. Likewise, they refused to include atheism because it made them uncomfortable. I detest atheism but if one is training in interfaith work, I think it’s necessary to understand it. The majority of interfaith ministers with whom I worked were, overall, very good at avoiding anything that made them uncomfortable and if interfaith seminary is supposed to train ministers capable of engaging with people of all faith traditions, comfort shouldn’t enter into it. There was absolutely zero encouragement in overcoming prejudice with respect to indigenous religions, especially indigenous polytheisms. If it was Wicca, ok. Anything else, anything that involved individual Gods made them –across the board, I might add in almost every interfaith gathering I’ve ever attended – deeply uncomfortable. It was, inevitably, the polytheist who was expected to compromise on their values, piety, faith, and devotional language in order to make the monotheist or new ager feel better. That is actually one of the major reasons I find interfaith work a lost cause:
There is always the assumption of a monotheistic norm. Anything that deviates from that is expected to comply or conform. In many cases, they’re not even aware of it. The accepted ritual structures are Christian/new age but no actual Deities can be named lest people be made uncomfortable. No standards can be maintained for the same reason. I remember a rather hostile student asking about my polytheism and complaining that by upholding my own religious taboos in my own personal practice, I was violating the spirit of interfaith. Sorry, sweetheart. My Gods are more important to me than your feelings and ‘interfaith’ isn’t a religion.
The Gods, any God even the monotheistic one, seem to have no place in interfaith work. It’s feel good pop religion, designed to present religion in a way that challenges no one. Moreover, it’s habitual to see sloppy language like “oh spirit” (what kind? Which one? Demons are spirits? If you can’t tell me which Deity is calling you to service then maybe you’re not ready for ministry. Likewise, way too many people came to seminary when they were suddenly interested in exploring their spirituality, not because they had vocations and not with any developed devotional practice to any Deity) and a deep antagonism toward specificity. Anything too far away from the monotheistic norm is typically rejected and to do interfaith work cleanly, there shouldn’t be a norm. There should be respect and common working goals.
What I see instead is a watering down of traditions, lack of comprehension of tradition, mixing and matching without respect to any Holy Power, eschewal of the Holy Powers as anything other than “all are one,” “Father/Mother God,” “Spirit,” or maybe even archetypes, and other such platitudes designed to erase the boundaries and differences between traditions. There’s deep discomfort with actively engaging and discussing those areas where traditions do not agree, and unwillingness to respect piety. Moreover, there’s always, always an arrogance in the monotheists or new agers toward polytheists, as though we simply aren’t evolved enough to recognize that all Gods are one. Interfaith work is monotheism dressed up in fancy clothes, maybe with some sage and the occasional meditation.
Most people that I’ve encountered are good hearted and want to be good people but their religious education is almost non-existent. The training at most interfaith seminaries, certainly the one I attended is pure fluff. It barely brushes the surface of the traditions presented and all one has to do to “pass” is largely show up. That’s not the way to turn out people into whom others will place their spiritual well being! Of course, the focus of the training is never that I’ve seen on serving or honoring the Gods. It’s always about people and there’s confusion when polytheists refuse to elide their Gods into this one nebulous “Spirit” to accommodate interfaith mores. Our Gods are not interchangeable, but this is incomprehensible to interfaith people.
I remember maybe 17 or 18 years ago attending a COG interfaith event. I was there by invitation and there was one other polytheist, a staunch devotee of Aphrodite (I don’t’ recall her name but she was awesome). I remember Michael York and another Wiccan complaining about the problems they had working with Heathens, Hellenics, etc. and they truly didn’t understand why. Then they made a comment to the effect (and it’s been nearly twenty years so I’m paraphrasing from memory) that they didn’t believe the Gods actually existed outside of one’s human consciousness and before I could object, this wonderful, beautiful devotee of Aphrodite stood up and said ‘that right there is why you’re having problems. That’s a line of piety that we will not cross. Our Gods are everything. Our practices begin and end with our Gods.” And truly, for a polytheist, that is what determines every engagement with the Holy, how one practices ritual, how one behaves, what one looks for in religious engagement. It really IS a line we cannot cross and … York and his compatriots found it incomprehensible. I’ve found that attitude across the board in the interfaith world and while it might be understandable in laity, it’s not appropriate in clergy.
It’s my observation that the sacred plays no part in interfaith work. The sacred is inhuman. The sacred challenges, it hurts, it’s terrifying, it forces change, it changes us and it can bring ecstasy and gnosis and inspiration and a thousand other things but first there is the intensity of direct engagement. It requires protocols for engagement, which is what religious traditions at their best are. I’ve never seen any of that in the interfaith community. There is a deep desire to be helpful to people, I think, and a deep (and by the very nature of interfaith work, deeply cultivated) lack of spiritual discernment.
I’m painting with a broad brush here and I’m certain there are very devout people dedicated to interfaith work, who will neither compromise on their traditions and with their Gods nor expect others to compromise. I haven’t met them. (Ironically, I’ve met plenty amongst the Jesuits with whom I work). Ecumenism should never mean sacrificing the sacred things and practices of one’s own tradition. (This is, by the way, and much to the amused horror – not sure which – of my Catholic friends that I’m very much against Vatican II, which watered down Catholic theology to pander to Protestantism. If that’s ecumenism, count me out. There are many things we can and maybe even should compromise upon but our Gods and their traditions and protocols are not one of them).
I do think there is a way to do interfaith work well, but first and foremost it requires that we all meet on common, neutral ground, that no one is unconsciously treated as an anomaly, one’s traditions met with arrogance and disrespect. I think it is possible to find common goals and maybe even common ground and to have incredibly fruitful discussions and do incredibly productive work (hell, I do it all the time with the Christians with whom I work) but only if all things are equal and where polytheists are concerned, the interfaith community isn’t.
Now, I haven’t experienced the same things at all when doing interfaith work amongst polytheists of various stripes. I think there are commonalities across polytheistic traditions in worldview and approach that make it much easier to find common devotional and working ground. Perhaps it is simply that those engaged in restoration understand the necessity of respect and piety, protocol and devotion and are unwilling to erase their Gods from the religious equation. We know what our traditions are going through and how hard the restoration is and there’s not generally the expectation that one will impinge upon one’s piety. It’s much easier to find common ground, perhaps not liturgically (though I also find that easier too) but certainly in discourse and community work. Perhaps it’s that interfaith work really started between Judaism and Christianity and later branched out and there was the initial assumption that everyone was worshipping the same God. Polytheism really complicates that assumption, doesn’t it?
I think we are a thorn in the side of monotheists – and let’s be honest, interfaith work is still largely a monotheistic endeavor. It’s one thing if it’s Jewish to Christian, or Muslim to Sikh, or Buddhist to New Agers but quite another when a polytheist steps on the scene. We are living reminders that their traditions did not succeed in our eradication and that there are options that challenge their entire worldview. I think that’s alien and threatening and with the sense of ingrained superiority that most of them have, when we then refuse to accommodate them, refuse to accept their ‘all gods one god/all goddesses one goddess’ dictum, but hold to the integrity of our own traditions, our contributions are largely ignored and our presence largely unwelcome. We are treated as infidels, interlopers, and perceived as less evolved or educated and our voices are silenced or ignored accordingly.
The truth is, we’re NOT all on the same theological page and we shouldn’t HAVE to be. But discussing those differences is verboten in most interfaith groups – it might lead to conflict, disagreement, which is viewed as intolerant and so there is no integrity and in the end, one must ask exactly how much of one’s energy one should expend in pissing into the wind. That energy is better spent building our own traditions, honoring our own Gods, teaching our children and passing a stronger polytheism down to the next generation.
These days the only interfaith work I find useful is polytheist to polytheist.