Interfaith: Risks, Rewards, and Boundaries

Interfaith: Risks, Rewards, and Boundaries March 19, 2013

I once heard a story* of an old rabbi who was preparing to attend an interfaith luncheon. His young assistant urged him not to go. “Rabbi, there are many closed-minded Christians in this group. They believe our religion is false and they will not treat you with the respect you deserve. Please don’t go.”

The old rabbi smiled. “What can they do? They will try to convert me. They will fail. Then we’ll sit down, have lunch, and go about doing God’s work.”

The questions of interfaith work and Pagan-Christian relations have been discussed rather loudly over the past several days. John W. Morehead, a Christian and an advocate for Pagan-Christian interfaith dialogue had a guest post on the Patheos Pagan channel titled Pagan-Christian Dialogue, Mistrust, and a Difficult (But Needful) Way Forward. Then on Saturday’s Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters (who has participated in panel discussions on this topic) linked to this post with a brief quote.

Comments to both posts have been strong and generally negative. A few support the work, while some are using the opportunity to rehash old complaints with Christianity. Many are skeptical about Evangelical Christians’ commitment to dialogue and interfaith work with Pagans, assuming they’re there either to proselytize or to research Paganism to develop more effective approaches for proselytization.

This presumption of bad faith is not helpful to Pagans as individuals or to our movement as a whole.

The ground rules for interfaith work begin with the assumption of “no proselytization.” Dialogue is intended to help followers of different religions get to know each other as people and learn about other religions. It’s not intended to gloss over our theological, ethical and political disagreements, but to emphasize we all share one world and to work together on the matters where we do agree.

Do some Christians ignore the ground rules? I’m sure they do, and if they do they should be called on it: gently at first, more firmly if it continues. But what’s the risk for us? That someone will try to convert us? As the rabbi in the story said, they will fail.

The risks of participating in interfaith dialogue and projects are very small.


It pains me to confess, but in my younger days I was homophobic. Not hateful or mean-spirited but literally homophobic – afraid of the Unknown Other that was gay people.

And then I met Charlie. Charlie was a co-worker; a scheduler in a factory where I was an engineer. Charlie’s sexual orientation was the worst-kept secret in the plant. But he was a good guy – he worked hard, did quality work, was very dependable, told good jokes and was generally fun to be around. It was very easy working with him.

Charlie put a face and a name on the Unknown Other of gay people – and then they weren’t Unknown or Other any more. My fear melted away.

Last week we saw a shift in the debate over marriage equality when Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio changed his position after learning one of his sons is gay. This pattern has repeated over and over and over again – someone who was homophobic and/or opposed to marriage equality changes his mind because he realizes someone he knows is gay. Those who come out make the way easier for those who come after them.

There is still a lot of misunderstanding about Paganism. Few believe we’re evil any more – now our detractors simply think we’re flakes. Participating in interfaith work and talking with folks from other religions puts a face and a name to the Unknown Other that is “Pagans.” Then when they hear someone speaking of Pagans in inaccurate ways, they’ll compare that caricature to “Sally from the interfaith lunch” or “Joe from the shelter project” and realize our detractor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

The main benefit for our movement isn’t that Christians think more highly of us. The main benefit for our movement is that the next time these Christians encounter a Pagan, they’ll treat her with more respect.

Paganism is still a very small, very new religion – we have little infrastructure. There are many times when if we want to do more than write a check we have no choice but to join in with an existing group, which may very well be a different religious group. Interfaith dialogue opens up opportunities for service to Pagans and others, which helps both the giver and the receiver.

The rewards of participating in interfaith projects and dialogue can be significant.


There are risks and rewards with interfaith work. There are also boundaries.

Despite my soft spot for the Catholic church, I have serious issues with their theology and doctrines. But I will happily set those issues aside and work with Catholics to end the death penalty. I have problems with Calvinism, but I will happily set those aside and work with Presbyterians on immigration reform. I have problems with aggressive atheists, but I will happily work with them to support good science education.

I can’t see any circumstances under which I would work with the Westboro Baptist Church on anything.

I don’t care if the people sitting across the interfaith table believe I’m going to hell – I do care if they act like I’m a danger to the souls of the community. I don’t care if they believe women shouldn’t be ordained – I do care if they treat the women we ordain (or initiate or elect) as equals.

Interfaith work is founded on the principle that what unites us is greater than what divides us. At some point the separation becomes too great. I can’t tell you where to draw the boundary – all I can tell you is that purity for the sake of purity isn’t much of a goal.


Talking with people of different religions is a good thing. Working with people of other religions to make our world a better place is a good thing. There can be problems, but the risks are small and the rewards can be great.

* If anyone knows the origins of this story, please let me know in the comments.

"I'm not disagreeing so much with your reasoning for the paucity of Irish witch trials, ..."

Dealing With Religious Uncertainty: Hold Loosely ..."
"So much wonderful stuff here for all of us Pagans!"

Dealing With Religious Uncertainty: Hold Loosely ..."
"Water.Other than that, just the usual wine / whiskey / bread / etc."

"If you do not mind me asking, John. Do you have certain objects you associate ..."


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Susan Thornton

    Hi John,
    I’m about to embark on volunteer work with the American Red Cross. I live in a rural community that thinks that “different religions” means different Christian churches (I’m an urban girl and old Dentonite, though I’m not fortunate to be able to live either place now). I’d be really interested to here from Pagans who have worked with the Red Cross or other secular organizations. I don’t mind being “out” as a Pagan, but I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable when the point of the exercise is to help our fellow man. I’m a bit nervous, as I want this to be a fun and fulfilling endeavor, plus I’m trying to network to get a job. Any words from fellow Pagans would be greatly appreciated!

    • Susan, you should talk with Galina Krasskova on her experiences with the Red Cross (which, sadly, weren’t good…which doesn’t mean yours won’t be, but nonetheless). The nature of the volunteer work you do will have a great deal to do with how you’re accepted, I think, on a religious basis. Whether the Red Cross is actually as secular an organization as they’d like everyone to think remains to be proven…especially since their Muslim counterpart is the Red Crescent, and if they truly were secular, such distinctions wouldn’t have to be made.

      • Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I grew up as a Red Cross volunteer – from the age of 11 until parenting and full time work made it impossible to do so. I was taught that the reason for the Red Crescent was because in an Islamic country, a Red Cross would be associated with Christianity, and they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Perhaps you’ve heard a different story? I can only say what I’ve been taught. I’ve never had issues with volunteering for the Red Cross, or any other organization, as a Pagan.
        In fact – true story – I once worked as a FT Child Care Director for a YMCA in a rural area…that just happened to be located in a Salvation Army! And I’ve been “out of the broom closet” for many years. I was welcomed at the YMCA, and in the Salvation Army, even though both organizations knew my faith was different. Nobody EVER tried to convert me. They treated me as a professional, and as a friend.

  • I think almost all of what you’re saying here is good, John.

    I’m not quite in agreement on the point of the “pagan interfaith” parallel with “coming out,” though. Yes, one can hope that a similar tendency does eventually take hold, certainly. But, the biggest difference in them is that among many Christian homophobes, the question of homosexuality is evaded, to an extent, by the lack of choice that LGBTQ people have over their orientation. When lack of choice becomes a factor, then compassion and acceptance are that much easier to achieve.

    The difference with religion, however, is that religion is always a choice. From a Christian viewpoint (and they are right on this), it’s only a matter of other people realizing that they’ve made the wrong choice, and then making the right choice of “coming to Jesus” to make everything all right…which, thus, means that proselytizing is simply giving people motivation to make the right choice. That choice in religion is a federally-protected status under the First Amendment itself, whereas non-discrimination against queer people is not protected (despite it being increasingly considered both generally and by science as “not-a-choice”), is quite unjust. But, where there is the possibility of choice, certain people will never look at anything other than their own preferred choice as the “right” choice, and this is certainly the case with many religious people.

    It’s a complex issue. to be certain, but because of this element in the issue, it will never be easy for Pagans with many Christians who have chosen to see their religion in this exclusively correct and moral fashion, and who will continue to view all other people as having made the wrong choice.

    • PSVL, your assessment that many Christians see their religion as the only right and true way is accurate. But as Pagans, we aren’t concerned with changing their beliefs. We’re concerned with changing the way they treat Pagans.

      I don’t have nearly enough first-hand experience with interfaith work to make a definitive statement. Some Christians may give a frosty greeting to a Pagan on a 14-Christians-and-a-Jew interfaith panel. But once they get to know him or her, I have to think that even a my-way-or-hell Christian who interacts with a Pagan in interfaith work is going to come away with a more “neighborly” attitude toward Pagans in general.

      • Having had a lot of experience as the only Pagan in the interfaith room, it’s usually not that bad. People who are already interested in interfaith work are unlikely to be against the idea of learning more about other faiths.

      • We certainly continue to do this kind of work with that hope in mind.

        I was disappointed that in one of the interfaith discussions I was a part of, the Catholics were present, and the evangelicals were present, but the Church of Ireland (i.e. equivalent to Episcopal/Anglican) chaplain of the college utterly refused to be there if I was on the panel. He had been nice to me before he knew I was pagan, but once he knew, he was ever-more-wary of me and increasingly unfriendly.

        I know this is just one person in just one situation; but, even as humanized as I was in his eyes, and even as we had a bit of a good rapport going before he knew my religion, it was all ruined by my revelation. I don’t feel bad about having done it, but I do know that for some Christians, they will never really see us as equals or as humans for making the choices we have…and, I think in some cases (likely this one included), the more educated and erudite we are, the more of a “disappointment” it is to them, because they assume that any and all rationality there is to be had in the world presupposes their viewpoint’s validity. Alas, no! But, in any case…

        • Thanks for sharing your story – I understand your original comment much better now.

    • I do not have a choice about being Pagan. It’s part of who I am.

      I think interfaith dialogue is important, because we need to break down our own stereotypes about other religions, as much as we need to break down their stereotypes about us.

      Yes, it was uphill work when I went along to interfaith, because I and my then partner were the first Pagans who attended, and yes there was one Christian who objected to the talk I gave, but most of the Christians there were receptive and interested (especially two nuns who said they liked going to Pagan open rituals). But we smoothed the path for other Pagans who go to that interfaith group, and we presented an image of a real Pagan to substitute for any stereotypes people might have had in their heads, which will make it easier for other Pagans whom they might meet.

  • Eric DeVries

    I had many experiences like you describe growing up where a certain group was ‘them’ until I met someone within that group. I saw today that the Pope was reaching out to people of a lot of different faiths and even calling on those who don’t believe to commit themselves to a vision of a peaceful and just world. I think that reaching out and working with people of other faith breaks down barriers. It’s easy to feel like Pagans are…fill in the blank but if you know a couple Pagans and see that they are decent people it may break that down. The next time someone is speaking ill of Pagans you may stand up. For me that’s what it’s about, reaching a level where the stereotypes break down and we can all be civil. If that means I have to put up with someone trying to convert me every now and then I don’t mind, i’ve got LDS family members that come at practically every time they see me, it doesn’t stop us loving and respecting eachother, i get that ministry is important to them. There are elements in our community that have ugly biases and even hatred towards other faiths and I don’t see how we can demand tolerance and even respect when we are unwilling to extend it. It’s better to try and build relationships, like the Rabbi said – ‘what can they do?’

    • “For me that’s what it’s about, reaching a level where the stereotypes break down and we can all be civil.”

      Yes, exactly – thank you!

  • Thank you for mentioning my work, thank you for coming to the same conclusion as I that much of the commentary on these recent discussions has been negative in the Pagan community, and thank you for the fair consideration of my proposal of more positive forms of Pagan-Christian engagement. I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion that “This presumption of bad faith is not helpful to Pagans as individuals or to our movement as a whole.”

    • Thanks for reading, John. I know too many good Christians to begin with a presumption of bad faith… and I’m married to one of them.

      • You have a keen insight there. When we actually know someone of another religious tradition and are in relationship we tend to have a more positive view of them and their tradition. This is part of the social psychology behind FRD’s Way of Openness in interreligious engagement. May more of this happen so that we increase the presumption of good faith.

  • Christians used to be the Other to me. I grew up in an atheist household. My first experiences with Christianity was being bullied in school because I wasn’t a Christian. I’ve hated Christians and Christianity for most of my life. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that certain Christians started to change my mind.

    I’ve come a long way, because a year ago this Sunday, I had a Christian minister perform my wedding! He’s the minster of a local United Methodist Church, and did a great job performing a pagan-style handfasting for us. He great at performing effective public rituals (which wedding are!), and has done interfaith and same-sex marriages, as well as pagan handfastings before. I decided to go with him instead of some of my pagan friends who volunteered, because I wanted a “professional”. Plus we were going to have more conservative family members in attendance, so I wanted it to look like a “real wedding” to them. I was a very satisfied customer! He’s into Creation Spirituality, and even asked if it was OK if he wore his stole with crosses, or if that would offend. Since that was the prettiest stole he had, I told him it was fine. I figured since he’s a Christian, it’s fine for him to wear crosses, as long as no one else has to.

    I guess my point is there are all kinds of Christians, and while many if not most of them are probably hostile to pagans, the ones that go to interfaith things probably aren’t those kinds of Christians, and are probably more like the Christian who performed my wedding, ones of the “there are many paths to God” type who are OK with the existence of other religions. I think the only way Christianity is going to survive for another thousand years is if more of them take this viewpoint.

    • I’m glad you brought up Creation Spirituality. This is another area of common ground between Pagans and at least some Christians. I don’t care if you live sustainably because you think the Earth is God’s creation or because you think the Earth of the body of the Goddess. I just want you to live sustainably.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    We can hardly wait for the Christians to come to us, as there are less of us. By going to meet with them we put a face on Pagans and some of them are going to like us as people. Those people will be our allies when someone attacks Pagans as being evil. sure some will never change, but there are a great many who only need to meet a Pagan to become less afraid. Less fear means less chance for violence, less fear puts those that hate us into becoming a minority in their own religion. No minority has ever made a safe place for themselves by hiding out from the greater society. If we don’t show them what Pagans are, we leave it to others to define us, that may not have our best interest at heart. Can we afford to leave defining us up to others?

    • No, we most definitely cannot let others define us. We also must define ourselves in terms of who and what we are and not what we aren’t.

  • On a related note, I have just published a post entitled “Those who are not against us are with us” about defining Paganism by what it is, not by what it is not, and building bridges rather than digging defensive ditches.

  • The point of Interfaith communications is not to convert each other to your faith. The point is to recognize that people of each faith and all faiths are good people worthy of respect from each other. I recently returned from the Spring Mysteries Festival sponsored by Aquarian Tabernacle Church. The Arch Priest of ATC, Pete Pathfinder Davis, was chair of the Seattle Interfaith Council for 3 years and had to resign rather than get re-elected again. Meeting other religious leaders over dinner and discussion puts a personal face on each other’s religion. When you break bread together its a lot harder to go out and condemn each other on Sunday. I have personally led non-sectarian “worship” on Sunday morning at the Boy Scouts Philmont Scout Ranch training for Scoutmasters. I slowly educate my brother on Pagan values even though he joined the Mormons and believes their faith. Can we get along? Sure we can if we respect each other. Interfaith councils are deliberate way for good people of all faiths to gain understanding and respect for each other.
    Blessed Be