Friday, February 3, 2017

Creating the Beloved Community by transcending not only religious differences, but by transcending religion itself

One of the strong points of southeastern Michigan’s interfaith social-action dialogues is their transcendence of not only religious difference, but of religion itself. A key theme I’ve noticed in our discussions is an emphasis on our shared humanity, rather than on the idea that we are all children of God.

This isn’t to say that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others put religious beliefs or God aside to find some common denominator with people who believe differently. What it says is that, while we do bring our different spiritual perspectives to the discussion, we realize that connecting with people’s human experience beyond the framework of our beliefs is more important to our unification efforts than connecting over God or emphasizing commonalities in our spiritual beliefs.

The religious frames of reference represented at the first 2017 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC) were Catholic and Protestant Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Nichiren Buddhist, and pagan. The latter in particular struck a chord with me, because it was the first time I know of that a practicing pagan has participated in our circle.

Jane Pierce, a tarot and astrology specialist and member of Pagan Pathways Temple in Madison Heights (who also maintains spiritual ties to her Catholic roots), addressed the subject of paganism’s historical lack of representation in interfaith dialogue. She expressed that she has hesitated to join interfaith initiatives because of potential backlash stemming from people’s misconceptions about paganism.

“It’s hard enough to get the Abrahamic religions to work together,” she pointed out; throw in people who have a concept of the divine that contrasts sharply with the Judeo-Christian father-God—such as seeing creation as the work of Goddess or a collaborative team of deities—and dialogue often stalls.

Pierce made these points without any indication of animosity or resentment, acknowledging them instead only as an unfortunate reality. She made an important first step toward changing this reality by showing up at last Friday’s meeting, and an even bigger step by agreeing to talk with Peggy Dahlberg (president of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro-Detroit) about being or nominating a pagan presenter for WISDOM’s next “Five Women, Five Journeys” interfaith panel discussion. I overheard Dahlberg, who is Christian, say that WISDOM has yet to feature a pagan perspective in its community-education programming, so I was very pleased that she took the initiative to invite Pierce to participate and finally get this long-overdue dialogue started.

I wrote a few months ago about turning one of our main sources of division inside out, by acknowledging difference in a good way instead of automatically equating such acknowledgment with prejudice. The point I made in that post against “color-blindness” as a solution to racism can also be applied to seeking to homogenize away religious difference by emphasizing only what we think we spiritually have in common—the “children of God” idea I mentioned earlier. In addition, steering clear of over-emphasis on seeing us all as children of God is especially important when we consider that such emphasis alienates practitioners of religions that don’t envision God the way Abrahamic monotheists do, and those who don’t envision a central deity in their spiritual practice at all.

I think the success of the professional, religious, and social partnerships that have come out of networking with the MPC indicates that this non-incorporated alliance of diverse professionals does in fact see that our differences deepen the pool of resources and value-adding perspectives way more than we would if we treated our religious differences as incidental.

While religious and cultural differences are acknowledged and respected, they are not used to type-cast people of certain groups only into certain roles. For example, a Muslim woman wouldn’t only be referred to work in Islamic community outreach—One such woman was commended by a Jewish colleague to be the coordinator of an inner-city program for at-risk youth, few if any of whom are Muslim.

I’ll share more of the great points made in last Friday’s dialogue in my next post. To read my other posts about it, please click herehere, and here.

Image: "Welcome of the Trees" by Karla Joy Huber, 2001; colored pencil

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