By Jim Burklo
Here at the University of Southern California, part of my job as Associate Dean of Religious Life is to staff the student Interfaith Council. This group of 15-20 students from many different religious backgrounds gathers every week for an evening of discussion over dinner. The students share about their faith traditions and spiritual journeys, and with fascination learn a great deal from each other. For the past two meetings, for instance, they have been playing their favorite spiritual music to each other on their computers and phones. We've listened to black spirituals, Coptic Easter anthems, Arabic Muslim and Indian Sikh chants, and rock tunes in which students find soulful inspiration.
Most of the students in our group identify with one or another recognizable faith tradition. But several do not. These students are nonetheless intensely interested in religion and spirituality. Since we usually have newcomers at each gathering, the students go around the room and identify themselves. Last year, one of our unaffiliated students described himself as "interspiritual."
That was the first time I'd heard the term. Since then, other students in our group have adopted this identity.
It intrigues me. It's different than the word "interfaith." People sometimes struggle to understand what interfaith work is really all about. Interfaith worship -- what can that possibly be? A formless mush of scrambled doctrine? A theological curry? A cacophony of conflicting chants? If "inter" means between or among, does that mean that "interfaith" is nowhere or nothing in particular?
In my experience, interfaith relationships are richest when people bring to the table the distinctive uniqueness of their religions, while being deeply intrigued by the particularity of the faiths of others. That place of fascination, curiosity, and soulful engagement is the "somewhere" of interfaith work. It includes beautiful, meaningful worship events that do not gloss over the significant differences among faiths, even while celebrating the commonalities.
But an increasing number of Americans -- now nearly 25% of young adults -- have no traditional religious identity. What do they bring to our dinner table on Tuesday evenings at the USC Office of Religious Life?
They bring their own stories of engagement with the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Who am I, really? How shall I live, and for what/whom? They bring their own language and imagery of expression of their souls' journeys. They bring a willingness to try out disciplines of spirituality they've never experienced before. Maybe they are not ready to commit fully to one traditional path. But they aren't afraid to risk that outcome by exploring existing faith traditions. They are eager to know the souls of other people, and the great Soul at the heart of us all.