Interfaith Challenges – “Common Ground” Isn’t

Much of my work is interfaith either deliberately or incidentally. Representing small, mostly-modern, polytheistic, animistic, sex-positive, radically inclusive faith traditions in a context where most folks are at best quietly politically moderate, and almost entirely monotheistic, presents a number of challenges.

You’d think the biggest would be the polytheist vs. monotheist gap, and I suppose it could be if I pushed the polytheism more in those contexts, but mostly I don’t. I’m well aware that it takes more than explanations to get someone’s brain to flip that particular switch, and I don’t see any reason why they should be obliged to understand, as long as they aren’t rude when they don’t. Most aren’t rude – or are least not intentionally.

What I find to be the biggest conflict is actually the constant push to find “Common Ground”. It’s pretty easy for Christians to find common ground amongst themselves, and not too much harder for Christians to find common ground with Jews and Muslims. Zen Buddhists seem to have a natural talent for finding common ground just about anywhere. Other forms of Buddhist have learned not to push too hard, kind of by definition. After centuries of colonialism, the various Hindu traditions have long since sorted out how to present themselves within acceptable parameters to overbearing monotheists, emphasizing their monism over any appearance of polytheism. And that’s the usual requirement – figure out in what way your tradition is really some kind of monist, monotheist, or pantheist in order to be acceptable, or be rejected (at best) as “obviously” wrong.

These days most interfaith gatherings are far too polite to present it that way. (I get the “obviously wrong” line more from staunch atheists than other people of faith.) But when offering up what they presume are points of common ground the vast majority of people of faith nevertheless jump to some form of “We are all one”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a pantheist on the deepest levels of my theology. Technically, I DO share that common ground with the people I’m talking to.

But sharing it doesn’t solve ANY of our conflicts!

It amounts to sticking our fingers in our ears and saying “La la la la these differences don’t really exist!” in the hopes that the conflicts will go away. And honestly, that’s exactly what I’m finding. Sincerely interfaith people are often conflict avoidant to a fault.

I find people objecting to the politicizing of our efforts. “This is not a political forum!” they claim, as though declaring it will make it so. I disagree. Vehemently. Interfaith is innately political. It’s diplomacy between multiple groups of people who disagree on cultural, ideological, practical, and/or doctrinal grounds. How could that be anything other than political?

I end up unpopular sometimes, not because I’m a polytheist, but because I don’t go along to get along. I disagree regularly because the Common Ground model isn’t actually inclusive, it’s just drawing the lines in a new place to exclude people you haven’t noticed yet.

That’s why I agree with Dr. Philip “Boo” Riley, one of the professors I had the joy of studying with at Santa Clara University. He taught me why Common Ground is a flawed method for interfaith, and that Hospitality is a more functional model.

Instead of trying to find ways in which we are all the same, Hospitality allows us each to be who and what we are, and invite others to come partake of what we have to offer on whatever terms they can. Ironically, it IS a form of Common Ground, in that Hospitality is a sacred duty in almost every tradition on the planet. But all it asks of us is that we be who we are, and be as honest and respectful towards each other as we can. When you are the host, offer what you have, give your guests the benefit of a doubt, and accept their limitations. When you are a guest, accept what the host has to offer unless it conflicts with your own limitations, and be respectful and polite of their boundaries to the best of your ability. Hospitality teaches us not that everyone has to belong, but rather, how to treat those who don’t belong with respect and compassion. Hospitality teaches us that “stranger” is not a synonym for “opponent” such that we have to find a way to make everyone a “friend”.

Hospitality is, I believe, the key to all successful interfaith efforts, and possibly the key to all successful inter-group efforts. I want to continue promoting it in both mainstream and pan-Pagan interfaith contexts.


P.S. Dr. Riley wrote an essay called “From Common Ground to Hospitality: Lessons from Silicon Valley’s Religious Landscape” which was published in the April 2006 Interreligious Insight. Unfortunately, I can’t find any online versions of his essay to show you. He does cite the book When Faiths Collide by Martin Marty as his inspiration.

About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
This entry was posted in Interfaith, Politics, Praxis, ST4R and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Interfaith Challenges – “Common Ground” Isn’t

  1. Hodge-Podge says:

    Similar ideas have been beebopping around my brain for a while, so your post was very timely indeed. Thank you for sharing your insight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. aeddubh says:

    Excellent post. I’m reminded of something a Pagan associate once said to her kid: “Remember your god manners, and be courteous about your neighbors’ gods… when you meet somebody whose gods confuse you, say something like I don’t understand, rather than something like That makes no sense. You might learn something.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • EmberVoices says:

      Yes! Exactly!

      “I don’t understand” and “Could you please clarify/rephrase that?” are always much better than “That makes no sense!”, but it requires that we be willing to *admit* when we don’t understand, and many feel vulnerable and weak doing so.

      Vulnerability is necessary, and I believe a good thing, when connecting to other human beings, but it can be scary. And when confronted with something that breaks our worldview, it’s very, very hard.

      So really, no matter how we deal with all of this, it’s *work*. But I do believe it’s some of the worthiest work we can do, to better understand each other.



  3. aeddubh says:

    Reblogged this on The Words Swim, Waiting and commented:
    An excellent discussion of interfaith in Pagan contexts. Hospitality is a much better basis than “common ground”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wayne Earl says:

    Hello Ember,

    Greetings from one who hears words whispered within the mound. It’s been a very long time, far too long. Im certain that news of my return these past few months has caught your ear, or at the very least, annoyed your ear somewhat. It’s true, I currently have the largest blood clot in my leg any living human being has ever had, for almost five months now, daily battling the certain threat of embolism and stroke, with the embolism I had two weeks ago making it ten times in two years I have directly escaped death.

    Every moment was always a gift, every breath, a blessing. Now, at the threshold of death I find how beautiful, precious, and rare this brief life is.

    I really appreciate your thoughts here on hospitality and “common ground”. Finding “common ground” is similar to the experience of “having an open mind” – if your mind be open, then for gods sakes, shut it now before everything falls out of it.

    I find it useful to remind myself that, basically, most people have good intentions, and we are all doing the best we can. but that the world has endless experiences, and all are forged differently with each moment passing, with every choice and consequence. If im able to keep this in mind, then I find that hospitality naturally arises more often then not.

    The depth and richness of your blog is wonderful, Ember. Thank you for your thoughtfullness, and I hope that our paths will cross again soon in Midgarth, while they still can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • EmberVoices says:

      Hello Wayne! Thank you for the encouragement.

      I had heard at most a week ago that you were staying with a mutual friend, but not of your circumstances!

      We had luck, once in Seidhjallr, dissolving a clot in another friend’s leg using a galdr of “Hagalaguz” (Hagalaz -> Laguz) while pulverizing beets in a mortar and pestle. Perhaps a similar working can be done on your behalf?

      While I can honestly say that I have some grievances with you over past interactions, they are most certainly not worth your life, nor ignoring the threat to it!

      I hope you come out of your current circumstances hale and well, and wiser for the experience!


      P.S. I don’t believe my email has changed since last we spoke. If you want to talk more, that might be better than here in public…


  5. Reblogged this on facingthefireswithin and commented:
    I strongly feel that Hospitality is the most important Heathen Virtue, by whatever means you use to define or measure.


  6. I strongly feel the Hospitality is often the most important virtue. May I reblog this?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. nicstoirm says:

    This has been bugging me recently as I try to wade into the waters of interfaith discussions (both attending an interfaith table talk and going to UU sermons.) Thanks for sharing and putting into words what I also have been feeling, especially this part: “It amounts to sticking our fingers in our ears and saying “La la la la these differences don’t really exist!” in the hopes that the conflicts will go away. And honestly, that’s exactly what I’m finding. Sincerely interfaith people are often conflict avoidant to a fault.”

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s