Friday, March 10, 2017

The main point of interfaith is uniting people, not uniting religious institutions

I attended the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation last Sunday with my best friend Dan M, who has always been passionate about not only studying but personally experiencing the religions he encounters. Before I decided in 2015 to dedicate myself fully to Nichiren Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai International, I did much the same thing. 

Ironically, my personal introduction to Nichiren Buddhism had nothing to do with interfaith involvement—I was introduced to it by my favorite Starbucks barista. The local SGI did participate in the World Sabbath a few years ago, and even had the audience say “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” but I had completely forgotten this by the time I heard Tony say it. The chant sounded familiar, and it wasn’t until months later than Dan pointed out why: We did hear it at an interfaith event.

My interfaith involvement started out with me as a spiritual seeker wanting to experience different religions; in 2016, I shifted my focus from the religions themselves to unity in diversity without the labels. By “without the labels” I don’t mean separating the religious contexts from the people, because that would negate one of the most important aspects of people’s sense of self. It would be just as counterproductive as saying “race doesn’t matter,” because our experience as part of our racial, cultural, and religious communities is a—sometimes the—dominant factor in what makes us who we are.

I’m not the only SGI Nichiren Buddhist involved in interfaith work in southeastern Michigan, but I might currently be the only “regular.” As such, I see my role in interfaith relations as a bridge-builder—not only between Nichiren Buddhism and other faiths represented in this network, but between people of God-centered and people of non-theistic religious practices.

I use the term “non-theistic” minimally because I don’t like defining things by what they are not; I use it here only to help clarify the context I’m using the word “humanistic” in. Non-theistic means a religion that does not involve “God” by the conventional monotheistic definitions, and thus humanism fits into this category. Humanism is a spiritual practice that is motivated by benefit for humanity, not for praise or promotion of God or a particular God-based religion.

As I said in my previous post, one of the misconceptions about interfaith involvement is that people think this implies an immersion-experience in different religions. While some level of religious literacy is useful, such as knowing enough about a religion to know what it is not (which is particularly important regarding Islam these days), people’s misconceptions about interfaith relations often stop them from participating at all. The truth is that unless the interfaith event is a house of worship tour or a seminar about specific religions, such immersion isn’t a necessary component of interfaith involvement.

Another misconception, which I’m hearing more and more lately, is that there is no room in interfaith for people in humanistic or polytheistic spiritual practices. As I said in my previous post, I can’t fully empathize with people who’ve never had a God-centered practice, because I did used to practice God-centered religion; that being said, I do see why some people may feel turned off or alienated by the God-focus in certain interfaith events.

That may mean that events such as the World Sabbath are simply not their style; that doesn’t mean they can’t still find their place in interfaith work. An alternative to this is, instead of simply expressing disapproval of the lack of inclusivity of non-theistic or polytheistic spiritual practices in interfaith programs, we can choose to represent our constituencies that we feel are lacking, whether Buddhist or pagan or something else I haven’t mentioned yet.

My experience at this year’s World Sabbath was an inner turning point for me. Previously I’d wondered how I still fit—and if I wanted to still be involved in—interfaith relations as a Buddhist. In Nichiren Buddhism, we are encouraged to find our own way of supporting kosen-rufu, and I realize now that this kind of inter-community bridge-building is my unique way of helping people form a beneficial connection with Buddhism.

So, if you’ve resonated with any of my words on this blog, then congratulations—You have formed a beneficial connection with Buddhism.

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Image: “From Diversity to Pluralism” by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; mixed media

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