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Eight Pimers are followed by Additional Guides

Eight Interfaith Primers
Articles by David Nelson and Vern Barnet

See also our Interfaith Guidelines

This month (Many Paths 2008 March) we gather into one place eight previous essays, some revised, to encourage wider interfaith practice. 
      The Rev David E Nelson DMin is CRES associate minister, president of The Human Agenda, and past convener of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. 
     The Rev Vern Barnet DMn is minister emeritus of CRES and convener emeritus of the Kansas City Interfaith Council.
    For a PDF version with images, see pages 9-12 of (Many Paths 2008 March).
    For an overview of world religions, visit The Three Families of Faith.

1. Why Interfaith?

For two weeks in 2007 June, Kansas City hosted the  National Interfaith Academy.   I had the honor of leading Evening Prayer for the students and faculty. Here are my five talking points from my homily.

I began by reporting that I am often asked, “Why do I want to engage in Interfaith conversations and activities?” Here are five reasons.

1. Because I am curious.  Marley, our granddaughter, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is always exploring, touching, and wondering. I attended the 1989 North American Interfaith Network’s “Assisi” in Wichita more out of curiosity than passion. We have to be taught and conditioned to stop exploring differences. I want to know why some men wear those little hats and why women wear scarves or cover their entire body. I want to know what goes on inside that temple, shrine, tent, or that home.

2. Because it is life changing. I share the Marvin and Lincoln story on my blog under STORIES. I really like the evolutionary progression: 
     tolerance -->
     respect -->

Appreciative Inquiry is my model for relationships both professionally and personally. I can’t imagine my life with out sweating with Lakota Sioux, sitting with Buddhists, dancing with Sufis, debating with Jews, fasting with Muslims.

3. Because it is liberating. Such new freedom when I don’t have to determine who is right and who is wrong! Christianity has become “a gated community where you can live with only a tiny fraction of your brain functioning.” The Eastern mindset is so liberating in contrast to much of my conditioning that if — I believe this and you believe that — one of us must be wrong. The Life Connections Program at Leavenworth: One of my friends in the program shared how he wanted to take revenge when his brother was murdered, but he kept hearing in his head the voice of his mother, “Never return hate for hate. Return love for hate.” His Mother is right.

4. Because it is necessary. Others can debate the role of religion in creating our current global conflicts, but it is very clear to all of us that religion can play a huge role in addressing the challenges of today – 

5. Because it is so much more fun.  Such an interesting and beautiful world. Only need to open your eyes and behold the wonder of creation to conclude that the Creator enjoys diversity. Only need to listen and watch in almost any neighborhood to realize there are so many stories of transformation, and healing. Myhu Indians of California: Earthmaker, after conferring with other parts of creation, decided to give humans “hands like mine so they can continue the work of creating and caring for creation.”  —DN

2. Heart Keys 

It’s an affair of the heart. You meet these wonderful people, full of compassion and doing good things. You want to know them and know what energizes them, to understand the religious perspectives which give their lives meaning.
     That’s how I fell in love with interfaith work. It’s by knowing people and enjoying their company that our sense of community is strengthened.
     The wisdom of many traditions in our neighbors also provides us with keys to open doors to the sacred, keys from others that may work for us.
     Here’s a superficial example. My own heritage is Christian, and I thought I knew what church bells meant. Bells routinely say, “The service is about to begin.” I had heard them at home; I heard the cathedral bells in Europe. In fact, I had even rung the bell when I was a student.
     It wasn’t until I saw a child swinging a rope with a striker at the high end at a Shinto shine gong that the church bell took on deeper meaning. I learned that the intent at the shine was to awaken kami, the god, to attend to the devotee, and that paradoxically the act awakens the devotee to the presence of the god. 
     This key experience helped me understand that the church bell does not merely call people to church, but also can awaken the presence of the sacred in us; the bell is not just an external ringing but also an internal resonance. It is not a Pavlovian bell compelling us to go somewhere; it is rather an alarm clock awakening us from self-centered slumber.

You may not have needed that particular key, but I did. Behind the doors of our own faiths are obvious and sometimes profound truths we forget or have yet to discover. Someone from another faith may hand us a key.
     Here are a few keys, A to Z. From the American Indian, the key to solving our environmental problems— and energy issues in particular—may be more in revering nature than in any technological fix. A Bahá'í key may be their architecture which models human kinship. Buddhist techniques can free us from mistaking transitory things for the permanent.
   Christianity reveals the redemptive power of vicarious suffering. Hinduism’s myriad images of the divine may caution us about worshipping anything finite. Islam’s weighing of individual and group interests may restore us to better balance. The Jewish impulse, tikkun olam, repairing of the world, reminds us the world is not the way God wants it to be and offers transcendence through service.
   Pagan practices show the power of natural ritual. The Sikh is literally a “learner”; so should we all be. The Sufis remind us that faith can be ecstatic. The Unitarian Universalist openness to new ideas is a yeast for our culture. In Zoroastrianism we find ethical commitment characterizes the cosmic drama in which we participate.
     And Free-Thinkers (atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists, and such) help the rest of us remember that  our civil life is founded in mutual liberty, rather than on the dominance of one religious group over the others.
     You know you are really neighbors when you exchange keys to each other’s homes. —VB

3. Wells and Waters

As I work in the community, people sometimes ask, “What is your own faith?” I usually avoid a direct answer because it is more important for the reader to focus on his or her religion, not mine. I hope I am an honest broker treating those of all traditions with respect even when I personally disagree with a particular belief or practice. 
     So I sometimes say, “On Mondays I’m Sikh, on Tuesdays Buddhist, Wednesdays Hindu, Thursdays Wiccan, Fridays Muslim, Saturday Jewish, Sundays Christian.” 
     “Oh, so you pick and choose what you like.” 
     I would like to think that 35 years of studying religions of the world is not a casual cafeteria approach to faith. A sage has said that when one needs water, it is better to dig one 100-foot well rather than a dozen 10-foot wells. 
     Those who have failed to dig beneath the obstructing rocks in their own traditions sometimes seek easier ground for their religious questions, but remain on the surface because they cannot turn the stones in the new plot, either. 
     Still, it is possible to find fonts of spiritual refreshment in all faiths. I can drink from any well and quench my thirst. 
     This is not to say that all religions are the same. To say the Kaw is the same as the Nile or the Ganges or the Amazon is to misunderstand the importance  of geography, history and accessibility.   The familiarity we have with one stream does not necessarily mean that a distant faith is less worthy to those whose waters it refreshes —  or that the powers of its waters will somehow bless us in ways that our own river cannot. —VB

4. Whence Breath?

What does it mean to be spiritual? Is there an answer to this question that applies to all religious paths?
     In Hebrew, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek, similar   expressions use “breath” as a metaphor for spirituality. In English, “spirit” is part of words like “respiration” and “inspiration.” So one way of describing spirituality is “breathing with a sense of the sacred,” living so that every breath we take reminds us of the ultimate mystery of our existence. 
     1. The first stage of spirituality might be a sense of awe and wonder. Many of us may marvel when we contemplate the Grand Canyon, the experience of love, the history of a nation or profound questions like, “Why is there anything at all and not nothing?” But when we are truly spiritual, we marvel at even the most commonplace situation and everyday event. In the life of the spirit, every moment is fresh and every breath is a miracle. 
    2. A second stage of spirituality is gratitude. The amazement we feel at simply being alive is transformed into thanksgiving. We live as if we receive an unending flow of gifts. 
    3.Still, we cannot be content unless we are sharing with others what we have received. In a third state of spirituality, gratitude matures into service. Spirituality is not an escape into a private bliss but rather an engagement with the most intractable pain and sorrow within a perspective of universal interplay that removes any sense of isolation from others. 
     Spirituality, then, is not disembodied sentiment or abstract vision. Arising from the physical metaphor of breathing, spirituality is both a signal of our palpable, fleshy nature and of the elusive mysteries to which we must surrender, as we live without knowing whence our next breath comes and whither our last breath goes.  —VB 

5. Three Attitudes

Scholars have various ways of naming different attitudes toward religion. Here is one simple scheme.

     1. Superiority.— Some believe that one religion (namely theirs) is so superior to all others that they need know little about other faiths, or even that such information may be harmful. With this attitude, theologians such as Karl Barth proclaim the one true religion.

     2. Universality.—  Others say that religions are fundamentally the same. The languages and images may be different because religions arise from varied cultures, but all faiths point to the same Reality. Something like the Golden Rule can be found in almost all scriptures of the world.

     3. Kinship.— My own view is that we are all neighbors and must come to know each other better without assumptions about either superiority or universality. Only later, after many deep encounters, are we ready to discuss superiorities and universalities.

     Studying yoga does not mean I become a Hindu, any more than eating Chinese food converts me to Confucianism, or standing in awe at Caravaggio’s painting, “St John the Baptist” or the Guanyin statue at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, means that I am a Christian or a Buddhist. 

     I have something to learn from every tradition that enriches and helps me understand my own. Such acquaintance affirms my kinship with all peoples. —VB 

6. Toward Pluralism
How should we regard religions other than our own? Evidence of religious diversity is all around us. How do we respond to this reality?
     Harvard’s Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project there, asks us to imagine seeing a sincere person praying at a Shinto shrine. Do we suppose our God is listening? If not, why not? Does the maker of all things (John 1:3) accept prayers of adoration only if the devotee belongs to one particular denomination or religion?
     1. Exclusion— The “exclusivists” say only one faith can be the path to salvation; all other ways lead to perdition. An example. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod suspended minister David Benke because he prayed “in the precious name of Jesus” 12 days after 9/11 with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders in Yankee Stadium. Authorities in his church said Benke should not have dignified other faiths by sharing the “Prayer for America” with them.
     2. Inclusion.— The “inclusivists” say that their faith is large enough to include all others. The Christian God, for example, saves well-intentioned Buddhists even if they have never heard about Jesus because such a Buddhist would certainly become Christian if given the opportunity.
     Eck said the “melting pot” idea is a civil expression of this perspective. People from everywhere are welcome to become Americans so long as they shed the peculiarities of their appearance and customs and adopt American ways. The “come and be just like us” invitation requires assimilation and conformity. In religion, it erases differences in favor of uniformity. Eck called the melting pot “anti-democratic” in expecting people to give up what they cherish in order to be accepted.
     3. Pluralism.— The “pluralists” want neither to reject nor to assimilate others; they want to encounter those of other faiths. Using the metaphor of jazz: in order to improvise well, one plays one’s own distinctive part as one listens closely to the other players. We can embellish the tune of religious liberty noted in the Constitution by listening well to others. 
     Eck, whose book A New Religious America argues that our nation is the most religiously diverse place on the planet, recognizes the many issues that arise in a nation of many faiths, from the Air Force chaplaincy scandals to the arguments over the posting of the Ten Commandments. 
     But she seems optimistic about America’s future when she cited progress in the relatively recent acceptance of Jews in the life of Kansas City, in the once-prejudiced Ford Motor Company now having its own interfaith council, and in the outpouring of support for Muslims who had been attacked following 9/11.
     In Eck’s view, the pluralist approach is the healthiest way to respond to the fact of diversity.  —VB

7. Mirrors of Faith

1. Many folks in the community have let me know they understand the dangers of religious prejudice. They believe that everyone has the right to one’s own religion, or none. 
   This is an advance from the days when people were forcibly converted to another faith or denied opportunities because of their beliefs. Home associations can no longer prevent Jews from buying in their areas. While Wiccans and other minorities still encounter discrimination from time to time, we have come a long way. 
   But are their deeper levels of engagement with faiths other than our own? 

    2. We can move from respecting others’ right to their own faiths to respecting their faiths. This is a subtle but crucial distinction. It is one thing for me to agree you have the right to have whatever painting you wish in your living room, and it is another thing for me to learn why it is beautiful to you, even if I do not want it in my living room. 

    3. We take another step toward deeper understanding when we participate in interfaith exchange. I need a mirror to see myself. When Christians discover why Jesus is so revered by Muslims, when Tibetan Buddhists and Jews tell their stories of suffering, when Hindus and American Indians share dances, all can see their own heritage more clearly with the mirror of the other. 

     4. But there may be an even fuller engagement possible for us. The mirrors of faith transmit and reflect the holy from many angles. Bringing and focusing them together, a powerful, curative light can shine to heal the three great crises of the loss of a sense of the sacred: 
     * the endangered environment, 
     * the violation of personhood, and 
     * the broken community. 
     This may be the key religious task before us.  —VB

8. Three Crises

Why learn about other religions?     Though we are different, we are all kin. To get along, we need to know who we are.
     In addition, learning about other faiths helps us understand our own. Kipling once asked rhetorically, “What knows he of England who only England knows?” Do I really know Kansas City if I have never been anywhere else? 
     Similarly, a pioneer in religious studies, Max Muller wrote, “He who knows one religion knows none.” We know our own tradition best when we can see how it looks with others.
     But the most important reason to study other faiths may be that we need all of them to face three great issues today, three great crises of our age: 
    * the endangered environment, 
     * the violation of personhood, and 
     * the broken community. 
     Embedded in this overview, and acknowledged with quotation marks, are the inspired summaries of thousands of years of experience achieved not from academic investigation but through the acquaintance and trust developed among those of us here in the Kansas City area who are committed to celebrating both our kinship and our diversity, articulated by the 250 folks welcoming all these faiths, primal, Asian, and monotheistic, at the 2001 Gifts of Pluralism conference, in the unanimously approved Concluding Declaration.

     * The Environment.— Are we polluting and desecrating the world? Primal religions, such as the American Indian ways, may help us recover a sense of the sacred in the world of nature, and find deeper messages in our own scriptures about our relationship to creation. From the Primal religions, we learn that our environmental problems cannot be addressed merely by technological fixes;  rather a spiritual reorientation is required to transform our abusive practices into patterns of reverence.
    “The gifts of pluralism have taught us that nature is to be respected, not just controlled. Nature is a process that includes us, not a product external to us that can just be used or disposed of. Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility. When we do use nature as we must – for food, housing, and other legitimate purposes – we should do so with respect and care, preserving its beauty and mindful of its connection to the Sacred and ourselves.”

     * Personal Identity.— Does the loss of a wholesome sense of self lead to addictions like substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, and compulsive shopping? Oriental religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, focus on the inner life, and can lend us methods like meditation to heal the wounds. From the Asian faiths, we learn that the key to our personal wholeness lies not in achievement or worldly success, nor in wealth, pleasure, status, or influence (though all of these can be good for us and for others), but rather in emptying ourselves in compassion for others, acting because the act is good, rather than for reward. 
   “We have also learned that our true personhood may not be in the images of ourselves constrained by any particular social identities. When we realize this, our acts can proceed spontaneously from duty and compassion, and we need not be unduly attached to results beyond our control.”

    * Social Covenant.— Why have crime, power struggles, and moral decadence diminished our sense of community? The monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can teach us rules and attitudes by which justice and compassion can be realized. From the Monotheistic traditions, we learn that we are not isolated individuals but strands in a social fabric that now is so frayed that urgent mending is required. This can happen when the focus on the bottom line yields to work whose mission is to benefit the community more than private enhancement. There is nothing wrong with fair profit, but the chief mission of any organization, including business, should be to provide a useful product or service to others, not simply to make money. The “win-at-any-cost” mentality has corrupted our politics and economic system, and endangered education, medicine, the arts, and certainly religion.
     “Finally, when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service, the flow of history towards peace and justice is honored and advanced.” 

THE ETERNAL QUESTIONS OF FAITH are lodged in such issues. In short, interfaith relationships can heal the disease of our super-secularistic/faux-religious/ersatz-spiritual, fragmented, fractious civilization; interfaith keys open the doors to the sacred everywhere. —VB

[For Vern's response to the desacralization of our age, see

Additional Guides

(c) 2008 by Vern Barnet, Kansas City, MO 

The key to interfaith understanding is simply building relationships. Books and travel can help, but relationships are the key. Relationships can be furthered by asking questions designed for sharing experiences rather than argument. Religion is more about stories than about theology. Christians often want to ask about beliefs which are relatively less important in other traditions.
   How can you listen to others without feeling they are trying to convert you, and how can you present your own faith without appearing aggressive? 
   Can two people with different levels of knowledge about religious matters have a discussion on an equal basis? 
  The answer to these questions is yes — if the conversation focuses on not who is right and who is wrong but rather on personal stories. You cannot dispute someone’s own life experiences. 
   A structured exercise can get the process going. In a conversation between you and your friend, start with five minutes each to speak without interruption as the other listens. 
   It is sometimes helpful to begin with question. Here are some examples designed for almost any religion. If you know something about your friend's faith, you may be able to phrase such questions in a more specific way.

1. Who are some people in your tradition of whom you are proud? 

2. What holidays and practices of your faith do you especially like? 

3. What would you like others to know about your faith? What kinds of misunderstanding of your faith have you experienced? 

4. Can you tell me a time in your life when the universe seemed to make sense to you or when you were overcome with a sense of awe or gratitude? 

5. Can you tell a story or describe a situation when your faith was especially meaningful to you? 

6. What experiences have you had that point to the ultimate source of life’s meaning for you? 

7. Was there a turning point in your life as you considered spiritual questions that helped shape who you have become? 

8. When have you felt closest to God? -- or -- 
8a. When has life or the universe made the most sense to you? 

9. What assumptions do people make about you that give you pause or make you uncomfortable? 

10. Was there a moment when you felt especially pleased or special in the American environment? Was there a time when you felt uncomfortably out of step with some of American culture? 

11. What do you especially value about your tradition? Most 
traditions also deal with some problems. How do you support your tradition in dealing with any problems? 

12. What would you like others to know about your faith? What kinds of misunderstanding of your faith have you experienced? 

13. Are particular foods or dietary practice meaningful to you? Do men and women of your faith have a distinctive dress code? 

14. How does your faith affect your family life and friendships? 

15. Has your faith ever guided you in dealing with a problem or opportunity in a personal relationship? Does it guide you in getting along with others? Has it ever inspired you to help or intervene on behalf of others? 

16. How has your faith shaped your views about peace? about the environment? about other social issues? 

17. When does your faith help you feel close to others and when does it make you feel distant? 

18. How does your faith help you deal with suffering, your own and of others who have done nothing to deserve their agony or misfortune? 

19. Have you ever seen a painting or heard music or walked on the beach or in a forest or played sports or seen a sunrise or learned about science or worked a math problem or held a child or made love when you felt lifted out beyond your ordinary sense of self? 

20. Many faiths have inspired works of art -- architecture, music, painting, sculpture, calligraphy, dance, pottery, ceremonials, poetry and other forms of literature, dress, cuisine, theatre, film, and other forms of cultural expression. Do you have a favorite from your tradition? 

21. How did you become an adherent of your faith? How do you view other traditions? How can folks of different faiths learn to cooperate more? 

22. What about your faith would you most like to share with me? 

     With appropriate wording, questions like these welcome atheists, agnostics and humanists as well as adherents into the conversation. 
     In listening to someone answering such questions, it is important just to listen. It is not useful, even in your head, to criticize your friend’s choice of words or theological framework. 
     What you want is to understand the experience as a genuine expression of what is precious or even sacred to your friend. 
     Spiritual ideas cannot be fully comprehended except as they are embedded in stories and rituals. Religious terms can mean one thing to you, another to your friend. By listening to how your friend uses words in the context of your friend’s experience, your own ability to use the languages of faith will be expanded. 
     Religion is really about stories. There are the stories in the sacred texts, and there are the stories of your own and your friends’ adventures in seeking to find guideposts within the overwhelming mystery of existence. 
     It can be a privilege and a treasure when you and a friend exchange intimate details of that adventure. 


   Personal. Is my life fulfilling and useful? Do I really know myself? Where is my greatest love? How do I fit into the larger scheme of things? 
   How do I find peace of mind? How should I deal with disappointment and betrayal? What do I do with feelings like guilt and shame, devastation or elation? 
   On whom or what do I ultimately depend? What does it mean when I’m overcome with a sense of beauty or transcendence beyond the ordinary? 
   How can I be less judgmental — or when should I be more judgmental?

   Social. How do I deal with people claiming to have answers they want me to accept but that I don’t understand or that don’t work for me? 
   How should I evaluate political issues from a cosmic perspective? 
   What is the right amount of wealth I myself should enjoy and how much should I give to benefit others? 
   How can I believe in a universal moral order when wicked people prosper and good people suffer unjustly? 

   Environmental. Do earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters* arise from forces beyond nature? And does the beautiful day I wanted just happen or am I being rewarded? 
   How can I be responsible for protecting the environment for future generations when I live in a culture mostly consuming instead of renewing the environment? 


For a panel during Martin Luther King Jr celebrations

Q1. From the perspective of your faith tradition, why is King worthy of honor? Include some relevant basics of your tradition, perhaps the conception of personhood, the nature of society, or the role of justice.)

 Q2. Why are folks uncomfortable with religious differences? How do you feel when folks want to ignore what is distinctive and precious about your faith because they want to look at only or mainly  what they think all faiths have in common?  [If you can tell an anecdote, it will enliven your answer.]

 Q3. What questions have you found useful in modeling creative interfaith exchange in a one-on-one or small group situation?

 Q4. How do you evaluate the media in presenting religious diversity?

 Q5. From your experience, how do you think our metro area is doing in building interfaith relationships and understanding?

 Q6. What projects or activities do you support and would you encourage to strengthen interfaith our climate? (Habitat for Humanity Abraham House, Interfaith Chapel at airport, Let the Children Play, etc).