Modern Paganism’s Role in Interfaith

While the concept of interfaith, constructive interaction between representatives of different religions, is truly ancient, its modern conception was largely birthed by the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions (re-dubbed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in more recent times) where representatives of “Eastern” religions (Hinduism, Taoism, Jainism, Buddhism) created lasting contacts with representatives from the “Western” traditions of Christianity and Judaism. The star of that parliament was Swami Vivekananda, credited by many for bringing Yoga to America, who spoke to a rapturous audience of over 7000 about the end of religious fanaticism and intolerance.

Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament

Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

Today, the modern interfaith movement continues its work to end religious persecutions, whether by sword or by pen, and modern Pagans have played integral roles in its shaping. Pagans currently serve on the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, play important roles within the United Religions Initiative (URI), and participate in several smaller regional interfaith councils. In some cases, Pagans can engage in kinds of interfaith dialog that more mainstream faiths can’t, as illustrated by Don Frew from Covenant of the Goddess.

Don Frew at the Parliament of the World's Religions

“Being a non-Abrahamic practitioner in dialogue with conservatives, Christians and others, has been helpful not only in talking to “exclusivists” but to non-exclusivist conservatives. Non-exclusivist Muslims and Jews who interpret their traditions and associated rules very strictly can feel excluded by what happens sometimes in interfaith settings. Because my own tradition has so often been excluded, they confide in me.”

That said, the interfaith movement has faced entrenched skepticism from some corners, including from many modern Pagans, who echo the question asked by Chas Clifton: “what do Pagans get from interfaith activities?”

“Were it not for the American constitutional tradition of religious freedom (and similar traditions in some other Western nations), I do not think that the Pagans would get a seat at the interfaith luncheon table.”

That skepticism is only enhanced when we see Catholics use interfaith as a way to criticize their guests, or when presidential contenders like Rick Santorum (who also happens to be Catholic) claim that the concept of equality comes only from his God, and is not found in other religions.

“I get a kick out of folks who call for equality now, the people on the left, ‘Well, equality, we want equality.’ Where do you think this concept of equality comes from?” Santorum asked the enthusiastic crowd packed into a restaurant here. “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from.”

American Muslim and Hindu groups were appropriately offended, and it caused many religious minorities to reiterate the question, do we get anything from trying to sit at the same table with faiths who seem to continually slander us? Rachael Watcher, a National Interfaith Representative with Covenant of the Goddess, says yes.

“A more pertinent question is “What DO Pagans get from Interfaith Activities?” (emphasis mine) The very most succinct answer that I can offer is legitimacy, respect, a place at the table. [...] If you think that this does not make a difference consider a comment from one United Church of Christ minister when told that individuals from a local Interfaith organization in Las Vegas had threatened to leave if Witches (In this case a full professor at ULV) were allowed to join. He wrote to the organization and then followed up with a call that boiled down to: “if they want to quit let them. You will loose nothing and gain a group of sincere people who are always the first to arrive (to be available for set up), the last to leave (to assure that everything is clean). They are not interested in trying to convince you of how important they are. They are simply involved to serve and share.

When Lady Liberty League and others were fighting for the right of Pagan Vets to have the pentacle on their grave stones, we were shoulder to shoulder with Ministers, Priests, and other Professional clergy who wrote letters and in some cases occupied the offices of the of the Veteran’s Administration. These religious leaders know who we are and respect us because of our long tradition of service. When Pagans are faced with violations of our civil rights, we are now supported, often by very well known and prestigious religious leaders. It pays to have friends.”

To emphasize their belief in, and commitment to, interfaith, Covenant of the Goddess is once again offering a scholarship contest for one young Wiccan/Witch to attend the upcoming 2014 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Belgium.

“The Covenant would like to see Wiccan youth involved in these historic occasions and has committed itself to providing the necessary financial support to be able to do so. We are beginning this call for applications early in order that young people can start the process of planning and becoming active in local organizations which in turn will help them with the experience that they will need to apply and participate in this call.”

As for my own opinion, I think Pagan involvement in interfaith, so long as we understand both the strengths and limitations of this movement, is a desirable and healthy thing. If the modern Pagan movement wants to have a voice as religious demographics shift and change, then we need to continually establish ourselves here and now. We need to make sure the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of our communities, and those of our allies, are not silenced by non-participation or the petty bigotries of  ideologues like Santorum. Interfaith can not only humanize us to the ignorant, but also create powerful bonds with those we can learn much from. In addition, I believe that those of us who are engaging in interfaith need to take those skills and bring them back to practice them within our own movement, to bring better communication between faiths and traditions that have, at times, chaffed under the crowded “Pagan” umbrella.

What we “get” from interfaith is a chance to change the very fabric of mainstream religion through dialog instead of violence. It drops a pebble in the waters of faith, and ripples forward through time. Just as 1893 saw Hindu and Buddhist voices establish themselves in the consciousness of America, so too does Pagan participation in modern parliaments, and similar gatherings, establish our thoughts and values to those who would find our ways alien and even dangerous. There is no instant radical change in interfaith, but the ripples are already starting to be felt, and it would be folly to draw back just as we are starting to emerge as a worldwide religious movement.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Anonymous

    I take issue with this quote from Rachel Watcher (as mentioned above):

    “The very most succinct answer that I can offer is legitimacy, respect, a place at the table.”

    Legitimacy? We have to ask permission for our religions to be legitimate? (insert appropriately skeptical tone here)

    • http://dashifen.com dashifen

      As a Pagan, I agree with you. Our legitimacy should not be up to members of more populous faiths. Nor should we have to seek validity based on our responses to questions from members of the more populous faiths.

      I also don’t think that Ms. Watcher was implying that we need to ask permission for our religion to be legitimate. However, gaining a seat at the table with other world religions does help to legitimize our faith in the eyes of those religions and in the eyes of the followers thereof.

      I suppose you could construe the fact that at most interfaith events one has to either be invited or register to attend and, in some way, that’s sort of asking for the legitimacy in order to be at the table, but I don’t think that’s what Ms. Watcher was saying.

  • Obsidia

    When I was helping to organize a panel discussion about how different religions dealt with sexual orientation, I casually made the remark, “I wish MY religion would be represented on this panel.” The organizer asked me my religion (I said “Wicca” at the time) and promptly asked me to be on the panel. I accepted (not without some trepidation—there were priests and ministers on the panel…would I be out of my league?). At first she wanted me to be the first to speak. I asked if I could be the “middle speaker,” which she accepted. At the event, I felt like, for the first time in my life, I was really speaking publicly from my heart and soul. Throughout the discussions of all the different religionists, there was an outpouring of genuine connection with the audience and many laughs were laughed and tears were shed. I really believe that my participation catalyzed the discussion and gave it a push into being truly relevant and engaging and real. Not because of ME, but simply because of including my unique perspective as a Pagan.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    “legitimacy, respect, a place at the table”

    Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

    The truly sad thing is that the exact opposite is the case. It is Christians who gain legitimacy and respect (from the naive and the easily duped) by occasionally participating in these interfaith charades, thereby making themselves look “tolerant”. In the meantime every single major Christian denomination remains wholly committed to missionary work whose only goal is the eradication of all non-Christian religions.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      You raise piquant questions. When you say Christians gain legitimacy by a charade, by looking the right way, you of course mean they think they gain these things.

      So, in whose eyes do Christians think they gain these things? These folks think they make the rules and do the judging. If satisfied with themselves, whom else do they need to please?

      Answers to these questions will tell us what the Christians think they are getting our of interfaith. Then we can discuss whether what we are getting out of it is worth it.

  • Risti Sierce

    as a young pagan, I would love to help preserve our collective history, the issue with might be that there is SO much of it and there would need to be a collective voice on what we as pagans represent, which is kinda debatable at the moment.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As a Unitarian Universalist Pagan I have “interfaith” in my DNA. Thanks for running this piece.

  • Kilmrnock

    I agree we, the pagan community, don’t need the monothiests to legitimise us , but i’m not sure that was what was meant by that statment. I do however believe interfaith work will benefit us . Once pagans participate in these groups , people from other faiths will become familiar w/ what we really are . People fear what they don’t understand , by us being there we can difuse that misunderstanding.By our just being there and participating people will get to know us , we can also develop valuable allies . Just as Lady Liberty League did.This is how i beleive interfaith work can be of good use to the pagan community, how we can benifit from it . To answer one commentor , what we get . Kilm

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Kilm, when the Lady Liberty League gathered interfaith allies in the Headstone Quest, they could do that because they were legitimate *in the eyes of those allies*. That kind of appreciation is (as we each learn personally) far from automatic. Getting it requires years of spadework, of just the sort Jason describes and participates in.

  • Kilmrnock

    In responce to Risti. Most Pagans and heathens share some form of earth goddess/god based theology . Most of us revere our mother earth .Outside Wicca and even most Wiccans , most pagans and heathens worship an earth Goddess/god based religion. This is a place to start, common ground amoung most of us .We all revere our mother earth in one way or another. Most if not all of our deities are tied to the land or our ethnic homelands , or came w/us when our people migrated.Our belief in a earth mother diety, reverence for the earth is a common theme in most pagan faiths . Kilm

  • Kelly NicDruegan

    When you can have a major political figure like then Presidential candidate George W. Bush stating publicly that he does believe that Wicca is a “real” (read legitimate) religion” and therefore is not deserving of First Amendment protections, or not-so major a political figure like Rick Santorum making yet another asshat comment such as the one quoted above, having a place in such a prominent interfaith organization as the Parliament of World religions delivers a clear message that yes, Paganism as a class of faiths IS legitimate and deserving of the same respect and Constitutional freedoms as any other class of religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

    I believe this is what was meant by Ms. Watcher’s statement that we gain legitimacy. It also helps us to gain the very respect from other faiths as a viable and true religious that we have been demanding for the past 4 + decades.

    Do we *need* that acceptance from other religions in order to be seen as legitimate? Yes, and no. In our own hearts and minds, in the eyes of our own community, no. Do we need it in the eyes of local, state, and federal laws and governments? The technical answer may be “no” because of the First Amendment. However, in *reality* though, we have all seen that even constitutional rights tend to belong only to those willing to stand up and fight for them. And as we have seen far too often reported in this and similar blogs, Pagan families are still getting the shit end of the religious stick on a regular basis. And often, when local governments have finally been forced to backed down and change policies, it has been when state and national *interfaith* groups have stood up along side of us to offer their support. So, yes, we do need them.

    What do Pagans gain from interfaith activities? Allies. Christian allies. Jewish allies. Hindu allies. Muslim allies. We get allies willing to stand beside us and say YES, Paganism is a legitimate class of religions entitled to the same privileges, rights and and responsibilities afforded to traditional, mainstream faiths. That number of adherents, unity (or diversity) of dogma, or how many years it has existed have no bearing on whether or not a given faith or class of faiths is entitled to the same Constitutional freedoms as the three major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    This is not the same as seeking “approval” or “validation” from those outside of Paganism. It’s seeking allies willing to raise their voices in unison with our own as we demand the recognition we are entitled to as we are a legitimate spiritual path.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Thank you for the history lesson and photos. That was awesome.

    The few times I’ve participated in Interfaith events, sure, it’s been about gaining legitimacy for Pagan religions. It’s also about learning other folks’ holidays, traditions, taboos, faith issues, and what is important to them. There was often a common goal.

    If a few people are snots, ignore ‘em. There are plenty of decent, kind, fun people to hang out with.

  • Peter Dybing

    Many of the individuals from the Pagan community doing interfaith work have been doing so for years at their own expense, the expense of their jobs, families, coven mates etc. Thank You for highlighting their efforts. This group may be as close to modern Pagan heros as we shall ever come.

    To those so focused on the legitimacy issue. No one is suggesting that other mainstream beliefs assign us legitimacy. It is gained by participating in a dignified, honest and service oriented manor at these international events. International religious leaders return to their organizations talking about how knowledgeable and insightful the Pagans they met were, what is wrong with that?

    • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

      Well, yeah, international events are important. So are interfaith meetings at home. Yet so are interfaith projects… collecting mittens and scarves for kids, planting trees in a park, working on a literacy project in a public school, feeding Vets on Thanksgiving… with a bunch of folks of different denominations right here at home.

      • Obsidia

        Good point, Alice, about doing local outreach. It reminds me of when Circle Sanctuary got started….the surrounding community had trouble accepting them. But then, when the community had some hard times (I believe they had some tornados, etc.), the Circle people rolled up their sleeves, pitched in, and helped out. After that, they were accepted and welcomed by most of their neighbors.

  • http://inkshaman.dreamwidth.org/ InkShaman

    In the Circle i was raised in, magically speaking, interfaith was the word from the word go: my mentor/teacher was a reform Thessalanian, my male elder figure a northern Druid, and the path i had chosen for myself was one that could most easily be described as messianic kabbalism. Other members of our circle included a young woman who could most easily be described as a hermetic tantricist with what would be called, in today’s PC environment, dark tendencies; another was an earth-based lunaralist. Our common language was that of the Goddess and Her Consort, and we were able to put aside all of our own paths to come together.

    i know that this kind of Circle is a rare one, but it goes to show that when people want to, ecumenicality in the magical community can be achieved. And whether Christians want to admit or not, Moses’ parting the Red Sea was an act of (albeit monotheistic, God-centric, patriarchal, Divinely ordered and supported) faith-based magic, as were the New Testament miracles such as the feeding of the multitudes with the loaves and fishes (how many of us have blessed food and wine, fed our friends? Called upon Her to sanctify the pot of perpetual soup?); even the Dispensational expectations of Heaven aren’t too far off from our own private expectations of the crowds of friends some of us hope to see in The Summerlands. If that’s not ecumenicality of a kind, well…

    Lastly: one of the other things i think we need to keep in mind, regardless of who’s particular path we’re treading upon, is the line from Suze DeMarchi’s song “Waste of Time”: we’re all prey to the same gods. If we all draw from the energy of the Earth in one way or another– something i truly do believe– then isn’t it also worth entertaining that we’re all drawing from the same Divine wellspring/womb, just using different symbology, language, and ritual so we can wrap our minds and souls around it?

    Ah, Brothers and Sisters; therein lies an interesting rub.

    • Liz Morgan

      Pardon, we’re “prey” to our gods? I certainly don’t see myself or anyone else that way.

      • http://inkshaman.dreamwidth.org/ InkShaman

        ‘prey’ as in we can be used, manipulated, put in place, etc., not in the traditional sense of being eaten. i always took it, interpretationally, as that we were all servants of one wellspring, and that we needed to wrap our heads around that using different schools of thought.

  • FireroseNekowolf

    I know this comment doesn’t have much to do with the article, but, I read that quote by Santorum, and I just thought it immediately.

    Santorum, you are an idiot. The Islamic God, Allah, IS the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob! The Christian God, the Jewish Yahweh, the Muslim Allah are all the same divine being! All of them hail originally from Abraham! Hence why they are the “Abrahamic faiths,” yes, even Islam!

    *facepalms*

  • R Watcher

    As an adjunct to this report I am going to India in March to participate in a non-Abrahamic international interfaith conference with indigenous and Pagan folks from all over the world. It is sponsored by the International Center for Cultural Studies who’s web site is located at http://iccsus.org/. Please visit their site for further information on their organization, its purpose, and this event. I look forward to reporting in more detail upon my return.

    Rachael Watcher,
    National Interfaith Representative, Covenant of the Goddess

    • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

      Looking forward to your report, and photos, photos, and more photos, hint, hint.

  • R Watcher

    Wow! Isn’t it absolutely wonderful how one simple word can evoke such a variation on connotation? It soundly reminds me that the dialogue that we use in interfaith work can vary greatly from that which we use in intrafaith work ie. the work that we do among our own.

    On a personal level interfaith is meant to help us explore the faiths and practices of others which in turn helps us better understand our own; and before you go off on another tangent, there is always room for growth and new ways of understanding here, some of it in the most unexpected of ways. Given this, it should be clear that the “legitimacy” of which I spoke, has nothing to do with the way in which we see ourselves and everything to do with how “the other” perceives us.

    In the bluntest of terms, I am not going to ask someone that I don’t know to teach me to pack a parachute. That person may be a top notch expert in that field, but I don’t know him from Adam’s off ox and I am not about to consider him legit unless and until I know more about him. If we don’t sit down together and talk how am I to accomplish that? We are the new kids on the block and its only fair that we give others the opportunity to get to know us.

    I delight in this conversation. It is a very well known, accepted, and oft stated fact that work among other religions, traditions and spiritual practices is sooo much easier than working among your own. For a case in point please see the above.
    In Love and Light

  • Anonymous

    After reading the article & the comments, three responses come to mind:

    1.The word ‘legitimacy’ has several different meanings, and in the context of her remarks, Rachael Watcher made it quite obvious that she wasn’t talking about ‘being given permission’ to practice our religions, but rather about about the ‘respect’ and ‘acceptance’ that our religions can gain from participation in interfaith dialogue. Permission, if anything, is granted by the Constitution; but the reality is that respect, acceptance, understanding and inclusion have to be earned.

    2.While it is certainly true that some Christians use interfaith events just as a way to make themselves appear more tolerant, to tar all Christians with such a wide brush is extremely simplistic and inaccurate, to say the least. A lot of liberal Christians have been harshly attacked within their own communities, and as a result have lost substantial credibility and standing, simply because of their unwavering commitment to interreligious dialogue, or because they uphold the rights of minority religions, including pagans. There are some influential ‘interfaith’ bodies that regularly take potshots at organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions or the URI, as a result of their having elected pagans to their Boards, yet the Christians in those two organizations continue to be very openly supportive of our presence there.

    3. It isn’t just a question of the ‘legitimacy’ that pagans can gain from participation in interreligious dialogue, it is also very much a question of the contributions which we can make. Given the opportunity, pagans bring to the interfaith community important perspectives on such very relevant topics as the sacrednes of the natural world, the role of women as clergy, religious discrimination, same-sex marriage, the Sacred Feminine, separation of church & state, reproductive rights, issues involving minority religions, the plight of indigenous communities, etc. And we can teach the rest of the interfaith movement a thing or two about creating truly inclusive & meaningful interreligious ceremonies.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Swami Vivekananda: “All religions are, at bottom, alike. This is so, although the Christian Church, like the Pharisee in the parable, thanks God that it alone is right and thinks that all other religions are wrong and in need of Christian light. Christianity must become tolerant before the world will be willing to unite with the Christian Church in a common charity.”

    Question: Since 1893, which Christian denominations have renounced the claim that Christianity “alone is right”?

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Several denominations acknowledge that salvation may be found outside Christianity. The UUs, ELCA, even The Greek Orthodox Church…

      http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8089

      As for prominent Christian leaders who have renounced that claim, there are plenty, Spong, Tutu, Fox, etc.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        From Rev. Papademetriou’s article: “Relativism and syncretism are denied. And the view that Christianity is simply one of the world religions offering the blessing of salvation is not accepted. The focus, rather, is on the Spirit of God, the Paraclete, who leads us ‘Into all the truth,’ where in Christ all become one.”

        Hmmm. “Inclusivism” sounds promising, although the Reverend makes it very clear that his idea of “inclusivism” is incompatible with what he terms “syncretism” and “relativism”. And if one reads the fine print, it is even worse than that.

        “Inclusivism”, according to this very liberal (by Orthodox standards) view, simply says that non-Christians may be saved from eternal damnation, but only at the discretion (“by the grace”) of the Christian God, and this salvation is granted “in spite of the religion he [the non-Christian] practices”.

        And just to make everything perfectly clear, here is the how of “relativism”, which Papademetriou not only personally rejects, but confidently announces is “denied” by Orthodoxy itself, is described: “the view that Christianity is simply one of the world religions offering the blessing of salvation is not accepted”.

        Executive Summary: Christianity is here explicitly promoted as the only religion which “contain[s] saving truths”. Period. Full stop.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        The ELCA??? The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America proudly proclaims that the The Athanasian Creed is one of the three “true declarations of the faith of the church” (along with the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed).

        The first two bullet points of the The Athanasian Creed are:

        1. Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith.

        2. Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.

        Besides, as Lutherans the ELCA is tied to one of the most violently intolerant and bloodstained figures in the history of Christianity, and that is saying something. Oh, and Luther was one of the most insanely antisemitic figures in Church history, too, and that is really saying something!

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Your final paragraph is irrelevant; the question you posed concerns history since 1893.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            To call oneself a Lutheran is to make a choice, and to make a statement concerning Luther’s theology, a theology that is completely incompatible with even the most attenuated version of “tolerance”.

            A Lutheran cannot honestly claim to embrace religious tolerance. That will always be true, regardless of what year it is.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            You might not get agreement on that from a lot of Lutherans.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            You might not get agreement on that from a lot of Lutherans.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            My apologies for the duplicate. Disqus is getting quirky.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            The violent intolerance of Luther (along with Calvin and the so-called “Reformation” in general) is a simple matter of historical fact. To this day Protestants continue to make the Catholics look relatively open-minded and humane.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            The violent intolerance of Luther (along with Calvin and the so-called “Reformation” in general) is a simple matter of historical fact. To this day Protestants continue to make the Catholics look relatively open-minded and humane.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        As far as the UUs go they have by their own actions provided strong evidence of the mutual incompatibility of Christianity and religious tolerance.

        The more tolerant the UUs get, the less Christian they are, and, in fact, it is far from clear (to many UUs as a matter of fact) whether or not the UU “church” can any longer be considered Christian at all.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          As a UU I must concur with Apuleius on this point, in fact state it more strongly: Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian religion per se, but one that includes Christian UUs in non-creedal fellowship. Unitarians were in fact refused membership in the National Council of Churches in the early 20th century because its intended representatives could not guarantee that each individual Unitarian had a special relationship with Christ.

        • Jhamm77

          It’s true that UU’s are getting less and less Christian. But I think you misinterpret the reason why.

          The demographics of UU congregations is mainly composed of those seeking to get away from Christianity, and from any mainstream religion in general. It is composed of atheist-leaning secular humanists as well as a variety of spiritual practitioners (you know…the kind of people who make a huge distinction between “spirituality” and “religion”)

          It is not simply an issue of “being more tolerant” which has led them away from Christianity. What happens instead is that, as Christian churches get more and more conservative, people look more and more for an alternative, and that is the niche that the UU has fallen into.

        • jhamm77

          It’s true that UU’s are getting less and less Christian. But I think you misinterpret the reason why.

          The demographics of UU congregations is mainly composed of those seeking to get away from Christianity, and from any mainstream religion in general. It is composed of atheist-leaning secular humanists as well as a variety of spiritual practitioners (you know…the kind of people who make a huge distinction between “spirituality” and “religion”)

          It is not simply an issue of “being more tolerant” which has led them away from Christianity. What happens instead is that, as Christian churches get more and more conservative, people look more and more for an alternative, and that is the niche that the UU has fallen into.

      • kenneth

        I’m not sure the mere assertion of exclusivist doctrine is enough to pose a fatal barrier to co-existence and even some degree of interfaith dialogue. I’ve run into a number of Christians who will maintain that theirs is the only true path, but yet also have a degree of humility which allows others to travel their spiritual journeys as they will.
        Very much of Christian culture, at least in this country, of course does not promote that kind of forbearance, but it is possible. As odd as it seems, there ARE even a few die-hard evangelicals who have a live and let live ethic. One of my favorite tactics for annoying dominionists these days is to point out, accurately, that Baptists invented the modern notion of separation of church and state! They may well have done so out of pure self-interest as a minority, but even they understood that winner-take-all triumphalism is an ugly business.

        The problem I have with Christianity is not in its assertions of exclusive salvation per se. There are plenty of pagans who will insist I’m doing things all wrong. No, the problem comes in when their belief in that doctrine leads them to assume that they can hijack my government or use any other methods necessary to “save” me against my own will.

        That, it seems to me, is the whole value of interfaith dialogue, to engage that subset of people who are somehow able to respect us even if they think we’re delusional and hell-bound. Those sorts of folks ought to be engaged and embraced wherever possible because our whole system of pluralism is utterly dependent upon them.

        The lessons of the long run of history shows that religious or ethnic minorities don’t survive by being dependent on good will, and they don’t do it by force of number or by money or force of arms (at least not for long). They survive if, and only if, their host country has a strong legal and cultural tradition of mutual respect. We’re fortunate enough to have a powerful system of laws in that regard, but they will not survive over time if the underlying culture of pluralism is allowed to die out or be shouted down by radicals.

        • Jack Heron

          I agree. There’s a real and important difference between someone saying “I think you’re quite wrong” and someone saying “I think you’re quite wrong and you are therefore thoroughly stupid and not worth including”. The former is, after all, how we conduct ourselves in so many other areas of life – grown-up politics, academic discussions, debates in the pub. The latter is a child shouting down anyone who disagrees.

          This gets even more complicated when we come to the topic of Christianity where the question of faith-influenced salvation comes into play. You can find all sorts of different kinds of exclusion and acceptance in often unexpected combinations:

          “Christianity is the One Truth Path and all who disagree are damned”
          “Christianity is the One True Path, but God’s mercy will save those who honestly chose different paths and lived them faithfully”
          “Christianity is one path among many and all are equal”
          “Christianity is one path among many, but notably better than the others”
          “Christianity is the only theologically correct religion, but being Christ-like is the important thing, not being Christian”

    • http://quakerpagan.org/ Cat C-B

      Since 1645, the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers).

      (Cue Apuleius’ standard anti-Quaker cherry-picking of religious history…)

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Thank you for that very nice set-up, Cat!

        First of all, here is an article by a young Swedish Quaker titled “Quakers participated in cultural genocide against Indians”.

        As another example (beyond what Erik Geijer discusses in the article linked to above) Quakers were behind the criminalization of Native dances in parts of Alaska during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This legal ban was only recently overturned in a move that was rightly praised here at the Wild Hunt, although I believe I was the only one to point out who had been behind the ban in the first place. Here is a quote on this subject from Maria Sháa Tláa Williams’ The Alaskan Native Reader”:

        “The Friends or Quakers came to the Kobuk area in 1887. The nine villages in the Kobuk area had their own indigenous spiritual practices, including shamanism; prayer was expressed through ceremonial music and dance as well. The Friends believed in English-only as the best method of not only converting the Kobuk Iñupiaq into Christians but also changing their life-ways, social structure, clothing, and even house construction [the Friends taught the Iñupiaq that good Christians must live in houses with corners because round houses are of the Devil]. They also frowned upon any type of dancing (western and especially indigenous) … To this day [the book was published in 2009], of the nine villages in the Kobuk area, only one village (Kotzebue) has a traditional dance group.” [p. 156]

        Two pages before that Maria Sháa Tláa Williams writes: “The American missionaries, especially the Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists and most of the Catholics wanted to eradicate Native languages and incorporated very strict punitive measures to do so. Further, the American Christians viewed music and dance practices and shamanism as dangerous and evil; it was common to see racist ethnocentric descriptions of Alaska’s indigenous people, apparently made to justify the harsh means” that were employed by the missionaries. [p. 154]

    • Anonymous

      It shouldn’t be at all surprising that most Christian institutions are still promoting the “one true faith” more than a century after Vivekananda’s speech – institutions, as a rule, take much longer to change than individuals. And the hierarchies atop those institutions, who typically represent a conservative viewpoint, rarely participate in interfaith forums.

      On the other hand, within the interreligious community, which attracts the more liberal Christians, it’s actually fairly commonplace to hear prominent Christian leaders – theologians, bishops, professors, writers – speak openly about Christianity being just one of many paths to the divine. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several who’ve said as much in my presence: Prof. Hans Küng, Archbishop Samuel Ruiz, Dr. Raimon Panikkar, Prof. Leonardo Boff, Rev. Matthew Fox, Sister Joan Chittister, Father Thomas Berry, and Father Ernesto Cardenal. And, closer to home for me, Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the Parliament and a Presbyterian minister, (in)famously made a speech at a national Presbyterian convention where he argued that the paradigm of “salvation only through Jesus” is irreconcileable with a pluralistic world and that “God” is at work both within and beyond the Church, raising the question that “…if God is at work in our lives whether we’re Christian or not, what’s the big deal about Jesus?” For that, he’s been pilloried and accused of heresy by conservative Presbyterians over the past decade.

      • http://korakaos.wordpress.com/ Kora Kaos

        I am one of those Christians- Roman Catholicism being my cult of initiation and choice- who agrees with Aleister Crowley and so many others that all religions are in their quiddity identical. It is how I was raised and I have known within myself always that this is true. Even the catechism will say this, even if it does have a bias toward Catholicism, obviously. It is like me saying that all jobs are good, but acting is the best- because it’s mine. It’s just personal fit, personal preference, personal talent and skillset even.

        “what’s the big deal about Jesus?” It seems very simple to me. I see no reason why any “different” faiths would have “different” opinions. The Cosmic Christ is omnipresent. He (and We) are God. We are omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, without end, immortal, eternal, divine Love. We are the omnipresent Universe. So, of course he is the “only” God, the “only” Son of God, and the “only” way to the Father, because he is the “only” Everything, the “only” Universe- he was a human being who had realized his “Krishna consciousness” or w/etf you want to call it, just like any other human being in the world is capable of doing. And we are all divinely special. Of course, so many people interpret this in a very strange way- by taking certain phrases “literally” but quite incorrectly. It would be like reading Paul saying that we ought to be like bread and so interpreting it to mean that we ought to change our molecular structure to be more like that of bread. Some do not realize the deeper meaning in the artistic metaphors the cosmos uses to express itself through human language. Like Mr. Santorum, whom I think needs to have a good long silent, still meditation to look within himself if he wants to be such good friends with Jesus.

        As for legitimacy, I will respond to that as well so long as I am here- so as for that- no one needs to care about what other people think of them. However, in interfaith anything, I should think that everyone ought to view everyone else’s faith as legitimate. I see no point in it otherwise. Why would you care about sharing your own faith, if you think the other person is worshiping something totally unreal? We are all after the Way, the Truth, here. We’re not after the unreal. We’re after what is really here in our holy reality.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        AndrasArthen: “It shouldn’t be at all surprising that most Christian institutions are still promoting the “one true faith” more than a century after Vivekananda’s speech – institutions, as a rule, take much longer to change than individuals.”

        Christianity has existed for two millennia. In your estimation, approximately how much longer is this going to take, plus or minus a century or two?

        • Anonymous

          Apuleius Platonicus: “Christianity has existed for two millennia. In your estimation, approximately how much longer is this going to take, plus or minus a century or two?”
          ——————————————-
          Irony aside, it depends – if you’re talking about the existence of Christianity, I imagine that might take several more centuries, as it morphs and is syncretized into less-recognizable forms. If you’re talking about the influence and relevance of Christianity in Western culture, I’d say that by the end of this century, maybe the next, Christianity will have experienced a huge decline. But, of course, it’s been gradually declining ever since (though not just because) it started spreading beyond Europe to the rest of the world, even if a cursory view of world history might seem to indicate otherwise.

          At this point, Europe is predominantly secular, churches are closing left and right, and governments are rescinding the subsidies that have supported religion for hundreds of years. Most ‘Christians’ there are so in name and tradition only – give it a couple of generations, and it’ll be a very different picture. The very same is more gradually happening in this country, despite all the hype & rhetoric to the contrary. A lot of the extreme Christian conservatism we’re experiencing amounts to the desperate struggle of people who are helplessly swimming against an unrelenting current, and realizing that they’re in danger of drowning. The same thing is true for the rest of the English-speaking world and Latin America.

          It happens in fits & starts, but modernity is the inexorable enemy of institutionalized religion, and while temporary setbacks (such as a widespread health crisis or economic downturn – the current situation in Spain is a perfect example) may stem the current for a bit, I can imagine that only a major worldwide catastrophe would actually turn the tide. In that case, all bets are off.

          • Charles Cosimano

            With approximately 2 to 3 billion adherints, any statement that Christianity is dying is premature to say the least.

          • Anonymous

            Charles Cosimano: “With approximately 2 to 3 billion adherints, any statement that Christianity is dying is premature to say the least. ”
            —————————

            Not really — those kinds of numbers are essentially meaningless. For one thing, they are often supplied by the churches themselves, so they tend to be very inflated. For another, they don’t provide any useful demographic information, such as rates of growth or attrition in various parts of the world. In Europe, for instance, roughly 75% of the people are supposedly Christian, a figure which represents about a fourth of the total Christian population worldwide. At the same time, various polls taken in Europe over the past decade indicate that close to 70% of Europeans consider themselves to be secular, that they don’t attend church services, and that religion does not occupy an important place in their lives.

            For the most part, Christianity is doing well and growing in Third World countries, but that’s not where its money and power come from. Those come mainly from the West, where the attrition rate has been growing exponentially over the past 50 years. It’s not a question of professed beliefs or of cultural identification (both of which are extremely misleading parameters), but of who actually shows up in church and drops their tithe in the collection plate.

        • http://korakaos.wordpress.com/ Kora Kaos

          When we all become crazy New Age fuckers on December 21st, 2012, and recognize that we are all One, and that there is no such thing as “Catholicism” or “Judaism” or “Paganism” or “New Age”. lulz. No. I know you didn’t ask me, but I don’t see why, or how, in the world, we could guess a point in timespace when everyone will awaken and stop claiming that only they themselves are in the right. Even the angels don’t know how to work that shit.

          Angel 1: When/where are we?
          Angel 2: 2007.
          Angel 1: Oh, no wonder then.
          Kora: Thank you for the rescue in this hallucination. Although- it is 2009.
          Angels: W/e, timespace is an illusion. Now cheer up and go save the world like a good human before Kali Ourania, the Universe, steps on you again.
          Kora: DX

          Could be another couple millennia. *shrug* Or two days. That’s up to people and their own willingness to look within and awaken.

      • Holli Emore

        My experience mirrors your, Andras, that educated religious leaders are the most open of us all.

        I will point out that in my experience, it is not the Christians who repeatedly state that “we are all the same,” but it’s the Eastern religions, e.g., Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu. I understand that they mean well, and trust that as our relationships deepen we will be able to talk respectfully, appreciatively, about how we are not the same.

  • Kilmrnock

    In responce to Baruch . Thats what i meant by the other faiths getting to know and understand us . By getting to know these people on a personal basis , we will be legitamite in their eyes. Kilm

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

    As the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), and the Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (www.fidweb.org), I would love to see pagans involved in interfaith dialogue, and perhaps even have their own chapter in the FRD. If someone might be interested please get in touch with me and I’ll connect them to FRD’s founder, Charles Randall Paul.

    • Obsidia

      Thanks….I wasn’t aware that there was an organization like yours around! I love your idea of “interreligious diplomacy.” Very positive!

  • Holli Emore

    One aspect of Pagan involvement in interfaith work which is not clearly identified in the column is the impact such work has on *us*. The blanket assumption made by some, that the main reason Pagans should participate in interfaith is to claim our equal place at the proverbial table, perpetuates an oppositionality that is best employed strategically rather than continuously.

    The truth is that many, many people of faith are curious about Paganism and want to learn more. What I often find is omitted from the conversation is that Pagans also have much to learn from others. This is not the same as diluting our beliefs or practices, nor is it the same as embracing the religions of others.

    Interfaith is an engagement between humans who are seeking both our common denominators AND how to understand our differences. Unfortunately, one often hears in interfaith circles the idea that “we are all one, all religions have the same root,” etc. To me, this indicates the need for more dialogue, more honesty. It’s an issue that Interfaith Partners of South Carolina (where I serve on the Steering Committee) is beginning to cautiously approach even now.

    Wild Hunt readers may recall a story last May about my own breakthrough with IPSC. I have indeed persisted in order to claim Pagans’ place at the table. But there are so many other reasons to be there. Only in the context of my interfaith experience have I felt some glimmer of understanding of at least one world religion which greatly troubled me. Standing at the microphone on the steps of the often-notorious S.C. State House in December – as a Pagan minister – inspired local Pagans to tears, so accustomed were they to lurking in the corners or even the broom closet. Then there are the many new friends I have made. And yes, I still enjoy the surprise on their face when they ask my religion and I reply, “Pagan.”

    Some of you may find the material posted at http://osireion.com/blueprint/ to be interesting and/or useful. You’ll see that it is a work in progress, but addresses some of the rationale I’ve mentioned in this post.

    To folks like Andras, Rachel, Don, Phyllis Curott and Deborah Light, I want to thank you for leading the way in the past decade. Your work has given me a more solid ground to stand upon as I stepped into the waters here in South Carolina.

    One more note – interfaith is one of four main topics being covered in the 2012 Cherry Hill Seminary Leadership Institute, “Transforming Our World.” More about that here: http://www.cherryhillseminary.org/students/conferences/

    Holli S. Emore
    Executive Director
    Cherry Hill Seminary
    http://www.cherryhillseminary.org

  • Don Frew

    In 2002, Rowan Fairgrove and I represented the Covenant of the Goddess at the first Global Assembly of the United Religions Initiative, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I had just been elected to the URI’s first Global Council (Board of Trustees). At the end of a day-long, city-wide celebration, we participated in a program that was broadcast on CNN Latin America. I was asked the question “Why should we do interfaith work?” I said…

    We all want to see changes in the world. Many of us in the interfaith community want to see the same changes: an environmentally sustainable relationship between humanity and the rest of the Earth, equal rights for men and women, increased literacy and access to health care, and more. Well, the only REAL and LASTING changes come through changing people’s minds. Nothing has the power over people’s minds that religion has. Therefore, religions and faith traditions coming together to cooperate for change has the potential to be the the most powerful force for good and positive change on the planet. As an ethical person, as a priest of my faith tradition, how can I NOT be part of that promise?” This was broadcast every hour for the next 24 hours across Latin America.

    Interfaith work offers an unprecedented opportunity to live our principles, to meet and build understanding with others who share them (including, but not limited to, those of the many Earth religions), and to act upon them in the world on a scale that is beyond the resources that any of our groups can muster individually. Through our support of interfaith organizations we can help bring clean water to people, help reforest the world, help keep elections honest, help women establish financial independence, help end religiously motivated violence, and much more.

    Every time we come together in a Parliament of the Worlds Religions or a URI Global Assembly or whatever, we create in microcosm what we want to see in the world — a community of people of different faiths who aren’t just “tolerating” each other, but reveling in the opportunity to make new friendships across a divide that used to be insurmountable, that of one’s faith tradition. Hmm… creating in microcosm the effect we want to see occur in the macrocosm. Where have I heard that before? That’s right. Interfaith work is, in one sense, a great and powerful spell being worked on behalf of all the Earth. I like to say about ANY interfaith gathering: “Come see what the world can be!”

    Interfaith work is the greatest opportunity for engaged spirituality that has EVER been presented to the Pagan community. I, for one, am both excited and humbled to have had the opportunity to be part of it, and I look forward to ever more of our people getting involved. It sounds trite, but this IS our opportunity to “be the change we want to see in the world”.

    Blessed Be,
    Don Frew
    National Interfaith Representative, Covenant of the Goddess

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gus-DiZerega/27803591 Gus DiZerega

    I think Jason has written a very valuable account of the importance of interfaith activity by Pagans. I have no interest in getting involved in the debate over whether Christians have changed their views with respect to interfaith activities by those who have not themselves engaged in them. I know that many have. Further I know that Christianity, like every other religion, once political enforcement of doctrine has been removed, splits and splits again becoming less and less monolithic. Encounters with other beliefs helps this splitting and differentiation. Some interpretations get increasingly liberal and individual members of a tradition often have personal views at variance with the established hierarchy. Finally, interfaith work removes the serious problem of it being easy to demonize those with whom we have no contact.

    It is slow, it is not for everyone, and it is immensely valuable to us as a community.

  • http://www.paganawareness.net.au Gavin Andrew

    Quite frankly, some of this debate smacks of people using Interfaith as a stalking horse for their favorite activity, which (seemingly) is Christian-bashing.

    Yes, Christians by and large don’t like or respect us Pagans. I wrote a book on the subject. The thing is, some of the most violent condemnation from Christians (especially from the Fundamentalist end of the spectrum) comes from people whose views are founded in ignorance, who wouldn’t know a Pagan if they drove over one in a Prosperity-Gospel Humvee, much less know what we do, or why.

    The value of Interfaith is that it raises our *visibility*. It is easy to demonize or be dismissive of people you’ve only read about, more difficult to do so when you’ve met and shaken hands with them, listened to them speak, realized these people (in many cases) have doctorates or may represent hundreds, or even thousands of people – recall we are dealing with a congregationalist mindset. Actually, I agree with Rachael Watcher’s remarks about garnering legitimacy and respect: I would only qualify that by saying that these things are to be taken rather than asked for, and we do that by being the change we wish to see.

    Raising our visibility is a win-win. It offers a forum for us to talk to those who wish to be less ignorant. We get our point of view across, so that even if they disagree, they see that there *is* another point of view. And for those who do not wish to be less ignorant, our presence at the highest levels of Interfaith rubs their noses in it, in a very satisfying fashion – and possibly communicates the message that we are no longer easy meat for moral panic such as we saw in the 80s and the projection of their own fears and insecurities.

    Leaving all that aside, international Interfaith forums like the Parliament of the World’s Religions allow Pagans from all over the world to come together and network. The 2009 Parliament in Melbourne fostered exchanges and dialogue on a level that was unprecedented for the local community, to the enrichment of all.

  • Tinkergld

    I’d like to thank Jason for his timely report on Pagans and interfaith.  The work of Don Frew and Rachael Watcher, Angie Buchanan, and a number of others, has opened important dialogue in a previously nonexistent realm.  I also appreciate Peter Dybings comments regarding the importance of our community’s support of these pioneers. 

    So far, comments have mostly been focused on how interfaith helps others to better understand Paganism.  I think there is an even more important aspect that should be mentioned.  Pagans participating in interfaith have opened the opportunity for members of our community to do service for others worldwide.  We now have people like Don and Rachael helping indigenous peoples in South America to preserve their heritage and to improve their circumstances.  Paula Johnson, traveled to Haiti to help youth there after the disaster.  Peter Dybing, raised funds to help the Japaneese after the quake.  I had the honor of facilitating peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The list goes on and on.

    In the past, we as Pagans have mostly been marginalized in our ability to openly contribute to the world even though our guiding principles emulate world peace, the interconnectedness of all life, and the importance of community.  Thanks to those mentioned in Jason’s article and to many who are still unknown to us, Pagans are having significant impact worldwide and are changing the future of our planet. It’s a special kind of magic, and it’s working!

    Patrick McCollum


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