Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Do You Believe in Interfaith?

A few years ago, I asked the director of a United Kingdom think tank focused on religion and society if organizations like hers were more comfortable with atheism than with religions outside of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She answered affirmatively, stating that a lack of faith is “more familiar” than any non-Abrahamic tradition. She is not alone in this sentiment.

Holding a mass-produced sign promoting atheism at the Reason Rally 2016

Interfaith most often means intra-Abrahamic. There is a shared heritage between the three large monotheistic faiths that can provide a natural starting point for dialogue between the traditions. If an atheist presents an argument regarding the existence of God, that argument is necessarily part of Abrahamic dialogue. By agreeing that the discussion concerns the immanent reality of God, the atheist agrees to terms that are innately bound to an Abrahamic worldview.

For those of us who belong to faith traditions outside the Abrahamic sphere, the fundamental assumptions of standard interfaith conversation do not necessarily apply. Many well-meaning and openhearted people in the interfaith world declare that “there are many paths to God.” This is a progressive position to take when trying to bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims. However, it leaves practitioners of polytheistic faiths outside of the tent. The atheist who asserts “there is no God at the end of the path” is more welcome than the polytheist who states “there are many gods along the path.”

The atheist and the follower of an Abrahamic tradition are part of the same conceptual world; they are arguing within a culturally bound structure. The polytheist does not agree to the basic premises of this system. For someone who shares the world with gods, goddesses, wights, giants and other powers, the concept of a single, omniscient, omnipotent God moving over the surface of the waters is as foreign as the idea of elves and spirits deciding the fate of a Member of Parliament would be to a Muslim.

My own tradition is Ásatrú, a modern iteration of pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic religion. The international Heathen community is relatively small, but it spreads across many regions of the planet and encompasses a great diversity of belief and practice. My own Worldwide Heathen Census found practitioners in ninety-eight countries, with the United States having the largest number of adherents and Iceland having the highest Heathen density.

My ritual drinking horn, Thor's hammer pendant, and oath ring

The archeological, historical, and literary record relating to the roots of the Ásatrú religion encompasses a great variety of source materials from the past 4,000 years: Bronze Age rock carvings in Scandinavia, records of interactions between the Roman Empire and continental Germanic tribes, royal annals describing wars of conquest and conversion against the pagan Saxons, chronicles of Heathen-Christian clashes during the Viking Age, the preservation of myths and legends in post-Conversion Iceland, and folk practices that survive into recent times.

The modern revival dates to 1972, when Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson founded the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in Iceland. Ásatrú soon began to appear around the world in the form of national organizations, regional groups, small communities, and individual practitioners. It is now Iceland’s largest non-Christian religion, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in approved Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) as a recognized emblem of belief for military grave markers in 2013.

What place is there for Heathens in interfaith organizations? I have yet to find even one national-level interfaith organization in the United States that has a single Ásatrúar on its board, advisory panel, administration or staff. Last year, the rabbi who co-founded an interfaith journal told me that his group’s “Board of Scholars and Practitioners” (with over fifty current members) had no place for a Heathen – there was simply no room at the inn.

On the other hand, these interfaith advisory boards seem to have little actual impact on the organizations they supposedly advise. The editor-in-chief of a religion news organization that covers the intersection of faith with politics and culture told me that her group’s “Advisory Council is (as is the case with many non-profit orgs) in name only. It has absolutely zero to do with our coverage. We don't talk to them, or they to us.”

Why do organizations bother with these advisory panels full of faith leaders, then? To understand that, we need to ask what a religion think tank, an interfaith journal, and a religion news organization have in common – aside from their purported dedication of openness to varied faith perspectives. There is a clear way to find the answer: follow the money. They all receive grants from government agencies, corporate foundations, anonymous donors, and others who are attracted by the supposedly inclusive idea of “interfaith.” By pointing to a list of advisors from across a spectrum of religious traditions, the organizations can claim a multicultural approach that is attractive to granters.

From a broader faith perspective, however, this version of multiculturalism is really monocultural. Where are the voices from outside the Abrahamic axis? Apparently, they can’t pay the price of admission.

The price of admission keeps getting higher.

This influence of cash on inclusivity is not a secret. When I asked one of the organizers of a global conference focused on religions of the world if the event would include representatives from minority faith communities, he gave a financial answer: “Of course we are committed to reaching out to everyone. Financial requirements limit the things we can do. But that's the case with everything it seems. We aspire to better things, and then money has its say.”

Money does indeed have its say. As the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States showed us, members of religious traditions that can muster cash and votes can directly influence the course of public life. Those without such assets – like the members of the Native American Church that were less successful in their own Supreme Court case – do not have the ability to break through into the nation’s dialogue on religion.

I can already hear the rebuttals from staff members at interfaith organizations: none of us make real money working in this field, we depend on volunteers, we include everyone we can, we had a Wiccan once, etc. However, the young man who handles “mass communications” for a large interfaith youth organization told me, “You’re spot on about many interfaith groups keeping mostly within the Abrahamic traditions. Whether or not this is a result of those religious groups already being very large and generally privileged is up for debate, but I think that plays a big role.”

Without being able to deliver large amounts of cash or numbers of voters, how do those of us who belong to small minority traditions break into interfaith dialogue? The rhetorical focus on Abrahamic monotheism and the exclusion of our communities from leadership positions seem to provide insurmountable obstacles.

I do think there is a solution, but it depends on the dedication of those within existing organizations and on the level of their commitment to real interfaith work. There are two things that need to be done immediately and with sincerity. Tokenism and superficial fixes will make no lasting difference.

First, interfaith organizers need to take a good look at their programming. In order to achieve a more diverse participation in interfaith events, a conscious effort must be made by organizers. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s no longer enough to book an imam for a Passover celebration at a Catholic church and think you’ve checked off all the boxes. Interfaith groups need to figure out ways to take the dialogue out of the Abrahamic box and open it up to all traditions.

It's time to broaden the definition of interfaith.

There are many topics that would be interesting to monotheists and polytheists alike. Examples include:
• How do members of a religious community strike a balance between adhering to ancient forms of their faith and responding to realities of modern life?

• How do we create a discursive space in which believers in the literal reality of a tradition’s mystical elements can engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with practitioners who see ancient texts as cultural or metaphorical

• What weight should religious people give to scholarly works on their faith written by academics who are not part of their faith – or are even hostile to it?

• When the perpetrator of an extremist act claims allegiance to a religion, how should members of that tradition publicly react – and how should they deal with inquiries from the media?
None of these questions privilege any faith tradition or suggest that answers from, for example, a Presbyterian minister and an Ásatrú goði have different levels of importance. A forum on these sorts of issues would create a level playing field between all faiths, regardless of how many gods each one has.

Unfortunately, merely asking these types of questions will not be enough to bring members of marginalized faiths to interfaith events. A sincere move must be made to bring in those who have been shut out. It may be difficult for interfaith organizers to find members of minority faiths in their region. If so, time will be well spent searching the internet for minority organizations, small groups, or individuals and then reaching out personally. You may be ignored, and you may be rebuffed. It will take some time to convince people that your tune is really changing and that you honestly want to hear their perspectives on the issues – and that you aren’t simply seeking greater ticket sales or the ability to pencil the name of another faith into a grant application.

Even Google privileges the Abrahamic religions.

This leads to the second thing that needs to be done: interfaith organizations must engage in some serious affirmative action. To pick just one of innumerous examples, when I looked at the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee’s board of directors in 2014, it had thirty-two Christians, three Muslims, two Jews and two Buddhists. All of them were identified with an established church or religious organization. Here and in other interfaith organizations, participation at the leadership level seems linked to affiliation with an existing organization. In other words, the requirement to be part of the system is that one is already part of the system. Where does this leave Heathens, many of whom are lone practitioners, worship with their families, or belong to small kindreds unaffiliated with any large regional or national group?

According to the editor I quoted earlier, these boards often are nothing more than a list of names on a website. However, to the members of a minority faith who looks into an interfaith organization in their region and sees a list like that of the Milwaukee group – a list that was ninety-five percent Abrahamic and had no representative from a polytheistic tradition – there is simply no reason to imagine that they would be welcome. It’s time for the organizations to make some room at the inn, even if they think they can’t possibly fit another name into the HTML code for the web page listing their board members.

If the organization’s actual leadership – i.e., administrators and staff – contains no one with a background outside of the Abrahamic tradition, there is very little reason to expect programming to change in any fundamental way. If no voice on the planning committee argues passionately for inclusion of minority perspectives or questions the inherent Abrahamic bias in the way that many interfaith events are presented, nothing will change. Now is the time for all good people of faith to fight for the inclusion of underserved communities at all levels of their organizations.

Maybe you’re involved in an interfaith organization that truly is inclusive, that has really freed itself from the Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogical track, and that has actively recruited members of minority traditions for real leadership positions. If so, hail to you! I would love to hear from you and learn how you made this needed change.

Progress does happen. Three years later, the board of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee now includes four Sikhs, three of whom are listed simply as belonging to the Sikh community. We should all applaud this group both for growing more inclusive and for realizing that it is sometimes more important to turn to members of a religious community than to engage only with the leaders of established churches and religious organizations. I hope that they build on this inclusiveness and reach out to practitioners of Hinduism, Bahá'í, Ásatrú, and other religions in the Milwaukee area.

Inside the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin

Maybe you’re a Heathen and think this is all a bunch of hooey, that Heathens should go it alone, and that we should simply give the finger to the interfaith world that has ignored Ásatrú for so long. I respect your position and wish you all the best as you work within your own community. I do not claim to be a representative of Heathenry or to speak for anyone beside myself.

Personally, I think that including perspectives from Ásatrú – and from Dievturība, Rodzimowierstwo, Romuva, and other revived pre-Christian polytheistic traditions – can only bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the wider interfaith discussion. If you truly support the free exchange of ideas between all religious traditions, there is no real way forward but to throw open the doors and seek out those whose voices haven’t been heard.

If you believe in interfaith, it’s time to act.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Interfaith Ramadan.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for writing this article!! I've personally never been involved in an Interfaith organization (although I definitely plan on being involved in college), but I've noticed this trend in other places too. When we learn about "world religions" in religion class, we cover Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and pay no mind even to more well-known religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. And I don't think I'll be seeing any polytheistic faiths in our curriculum. And I'm really surprised that in Milwaukee, there's SUCH an abundance of Abrahamic religion practitioners involved, especially since I've heard that there are more pagans up there? For there to truly be a productive discussion, people with vastly different opinions should participate!! Anyway, I really learned a lot from this so thanks!

Wayward note said...

Thank you for your article. It left me with the question what is to be gained by interfaith interaction? Perhaps that may be a point to address further.

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