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.