Pagan Interfaith Work through the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy

[This week, we welcome guest contributor David Dashifen Kees, technical director of the Pagan Newswire Collective and interfaith activist. You can check out more of his writing at technowitch.org. Glad to have you on Patheos, Dash!]

David Dashifen KeesIn May 2012, a guest post over at the Wild Hunt introduced me to the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.  I was intrigued.  As an employee at a major American public university, I’ve worked with many student interfaith leaders, some of whom have gone on to work with the Interfaith Youth Core.  But, as a staff person, I was unable to partake fully in some of their activities.  One way that I was able to get involved was as a Pagan representative to various panel discussions and similar events at the university and to assist the Pagan students’ association in similar capacities.

Thus, it was with some excitement that I began to investigate the FRD.  Here was an organization dedicated to the very activities that I found so fulfilling over the last decade and whose work was focused on facilitating them between its various chapters.  I’ve been working with other Pagans as well as with John Morehead, the custodian of the FRD’s Evangelical chapter and an author of the above-linked guest post, to investigate the feasibility of a Pagan chapter.

I’ve found that not only is it feasible, but that I’m ready to make it happen.  Perhaps just as importantly, the FRD is excited to have us.

It is an ideal organization for us to be involved with.  It recognizes that a person’s deeply held beliefs are not likely to change.  Further, these differences, when not understood, are what lead to resentment between different religious and non-religious communities rather than understanding.  Thus, the foundation uses dialog—or as they term it, “honest contestation”—as a way to foster that understanding.

This is something that I personally find very attractive about the FRD:  it is not necessarily seeking common ground but, instead, works toward the understanding of difference.  Common ground exists, to be sure, but it’s fairly bland and relatively easily found.  Most ethical systems, religious or otherwise, frown on murder, for example.  But a discussion on why murder is wrong is not very interesting specifically because we’re already standing on that ground—that’s why it’s common in the first place!

Instead, the FRD wants to find the points of contention and talk about those.  And, through its dialogs, it seeks to foster an understanding of these differences to create an environment of “peaceful co-resistance.”

In a post on the Wild Hunt about a month ago, I approached the idea of working with Evangelical Christians.  The comments on that post focused on the pitfalls of doing so and of the value of doing that work in the first place.  But, a simple fact seemed to get lost during that discussion:  there are sixteen different chapters for the FRD, many of which are for non-Christian religions!  I’m not going to retread the same concepts over the next few paragraphs that I covered there, so please check out that post if you’re interested in it.  (You’ll notice that some of this document is the same as that one; forgive me for re-using my own words.)

Here at Patheos, we already have an ecosystem in which interfaith dialog can occur.  In my experience, we tend to read the articles on the channels for our own faith community, but the times that I’ve posted on articles in the Atheist or Christian channels have often resulted in a valuable, if brief, conversations.  Also, the recent efforts across all channels to post similarly themed articles (e.g. the ones regarding why a person has chosen to practice as they do) shows another way that Patheos can allow us to compare and contrast the views of the authors here.

But, imagine if the same sort of interaction that we can have here at Patheos wasn’t taking place in the comments on a blog post, but in a face-to-face conversation or video conference?  What sort of knowledge might we, as Pagans, gain if given the opportunity to compare and contrast our commonly held (though not universal) ideas relating to reincarnation with the Hindu and Buddhist chapters?  What might a Hindu practitioner think of Pagans using chakras as a part of our metaphysical framework?  How does Buddhist theology regarding karma relate to the Wiccan Law of Three?  Can the Jewish traditions relating to mitzvot (i.e. moral deeds) be related to Paganism’s action-centered focus on rituals and ceremony, and are these related modes of orthopraxy or different ones?

These are just conversations about things that are similar between us and other non-Christian faiths (not to imply that there’s nothing similar between us and some Christian denominations).  What if we had the chance to look at things in opposition?  For example, my limited understanding of Buddhism seems to pit the second of the Four Noble Truths somewhat in opposition with the Pagan reverence for the body, for this world, and for the experiences of both.

The second truth is, in short, the idea that the craving for pleasure, either derived from objects we own or from feelings we experience, is what can lead to “suffering.”  This idea of “suffering” is quite complex, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice herein.  Regardless, within that truth, I can hear the very Pagan words of Thoreau crying out, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!” But on the other hand, we hold that “all acts of love and pleasure” (emphasis mine) are rituals of the Goddess and, therefore, equally Pagan.

Having this conversation in a safe space with a willing Buddhist may go a long way toward shoring up my own theological weaknesses with respect to this specific tenant of their faith. It would give us a vehicle by which to share the theological and liturgical framework of Paganism with others who may have likely only heard of us in relation to stereotypes that we work to dispel.

Conversations like these require more than simply the comments at the bottom of an article on a website.  Website comments, especially if they remain on-topic, are of value, don’t get me wrong; just look at Teo Bishop’s site for some truly moving conversations taking place online.  But it’s harder, though not impossible, to focus on theological comparisons between faith communities within the structure of the web, especially if the “netiquette” of some members of the conversation is less than stellar.

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve begun to reach out to people who have shown interest in forming the Pagan chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.  I’ve spoken to bloggers like Teo Bishop and Kris Bradley, individuals who lead in their communities like Shauna Aura Knight, and even some Pagan interfaith leaders like Macha NightMare.  Some larger Pagan organizations, like Circle Sanctuary and the Covenant of the Goddess, have also shown interest in moving ahead with this sort of work.  But, these are just the people and groups with whom I have a personal connection one way or another.  To more accurately represent our Pagan community and all the diversity that exists within it, I need to cast a wider net.

And that’s where you come in.

The next step is going to be forming a core set of individuals—both individuals who simply represent themselves and those who can speak for larger groups—that will form the nucleus of the FRD Pagan chapter.  From within that group, a custodian will be chosen.  “Custodian” is their term; I suspect that this person will come to see the title not as a granting of authority, but rather as the freedom to receive more email and contact about the chapter than anyone else within it!

But that group will not be the entire chapter.  We’ll also be seeking members of specific Pagan and non-Pagan traditions that can work together to share with others what makes us unique, so that the other members of the FRD might not mistake Wiccan for Pagan and Pagan for Heathen.  In fact, I’d like to see the chapter organize some conversations between members from different Pagan and non-Pagan polytheist traditions so that we can come to understand each other more fully.

If you’re interested in seeing this process through to completion, whether you want to be a part of the core of the group or just want to be in-the-loop about our progress, please fill out this Google form.  This is a job for us all, not just me, and I hope that you will come along for the ride.

  • http://dashifen.com/ dashifen

    Thank you, Christine, for sharing my post with everyone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1542692508 Peter Dybing

    If Pagans are interested in engaging with an organization that’s leadership has made a carreer out of evangilizing to emerging religions, by all means join in. As for me I support our great established ties with Christians who do not seek to evangilize within the interfaith context.

    This organization seeks to go around the interfaith value of not evangilizing at the interfaith table. Not good for me and my opinion not good for the Pagan community.

    • kenofken

      It probably should not even be considered to be “interfaith” for the reason you mention. It sounds like more of a debate club or comparative religion forum. The issue I wrestle with is what pagans have to lose or gain by participating. I suppose we can always learn by talking to others, even those with an agenda, but can we learn anything through them that we could not learn through a traditional interfaith relationship? I don’t know exactly what the protocol is in the evangalism-free interfaith world, but I would think questions are perfectly fair game.

      It’s less clear to me what pagans have to gain beyond just knowledge in a format of “ethical persuasion.” If we’re playing the game for converts, even at long odds, what do pagans have to gain even if we “win” a particular debate? We’re not out for converts. We don’t have a Great Commission, and we don’t get time off of purgatory or frequent flier miles or even a Nag Champa and cat pee-scented Llewellyn 101 book if we convert someone!

      The only possible benefit I see for us is that debate might sharpen and deepen our own theological reasoning. Does the whole thing just become an informative stalemate? Does it just help evalgelists become more sophisticated at their game? Will it function as true diplomacy and help push evalgelical Christianity toward a healthy attitude of pluralism? I don’t know. Those are the sorts of questions I wrestle with before I can render any final judgment on the concept or whether I want to personally participate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

    In response to those who share Mr. Dybing’s concerns, I suggest that folks read the descriptive material at FRD’s website at http://www.fidweb.org. In particular, note the discussion of contestation and persuasion. I would also note that those at FRD are concerned about ethical forms of persuasion, and that not every conversation or relationship will include this element. We also have concerns about what has been labeled “predatory proselytism.” We have been involved with interfaith work for many years, but are offering something different in religious diplomacy. In part this recognizes shortcomings in interfaith approaches and seeks a different way forward. We believe that religious diplomacy is good for both the Pagan community and other religious communities that interact with them. We extend an invitation to dialogue on this in mutual good will, fairness, and self-criticism of our views and assumptions related to these matters.


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