A number of weeks ago the idea popped up about doing an interfaith synchroblog to encourage dialogue between Christians, Pagans and people from other paths. And so, in our collective wisdom, we decided that the first one should simply be on “interfaith”, and this is why I find myself writing this now.

So, welcome to the inaugural interfaith sychnroblog.

But you know, the question that emerges for me is, is all this talk about “interfaith” too Christocentric to begin with? I mean, faith is a very Christian word when its all said and done. Few pathways emphasize faith as much as Christianity. Judaism and “Pure Land” Buddhism and certain strands of “Bhakti” Hinduism come to mind, but not too many others.  So the very language of “interfaith” is something I find highly problematic

What’s more, it suggests Atheists are excluded from the conversation. This is something I find deeply problematic too, as Atheism is as much a religious option as Christianity and Paganism, in a negative kind of way. I mean, it’s like talking of hairstyles and excluding the skinhead option from the discussion.

You see, all too often I think conversations between Christians and Atheists degenerate into a bipolar “theism versus atheism” thing that I find most unhelpful. I prefer broader, more pluralistic conversations that welcome MONO-theists, PAN-theists, POLY-theists and A-theists to the one round table.

What do you think?

  • Are atheist versus theist conversations too narrow?
  • Do you have any experience with dialogue with pantheists or polytheists?
  • What do you think would be some interesting issues to explore?
——- Participants ——-
This Synchroblog is a new experiment with a group of folks from many different faiths and religious traditions.

23 thoughts on “Is Interfaith Interfaith enough?

  1. this is a good question (as yours often are), but it also has the potential to become the sort of conversation that is now raging in nowhere land about emerging vs. emergent.
    i suspect that no term would be perfect, since the word “religion” is pretty well taboo these days. i would argue that atheism is as much a religion as christianity, and also requires an act of faith. but what do you say to the folks who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” for instance?
    ah, the splendours of the post-modern morass.

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  2. Lot’s of agreement from me on both substantial points: the ‘interfaith’ label is more suited to some kinds of ‘religion’ than others. What we call Hinduism seems to be more a coalition of ‘faiths’ that somehow agree to recognise one another; and how come Buddhism isn’t ‘in’? (Actually I know the answer, but the rhetorical point remains). I’m reminded, as a linguist, of the difficulty in defining language and dialects in relation to one another. Sometimes the definitions are political rather than about mutual comprehension. Related to this is the way that much interfaith stuff seems to presuppose that ‘religions’ are all about the same sort of thing and it seems therefore to impose an a priori definition.
    That then relates to the atheist thing, because the only reason that tends to be excluded, I think comes down to that sort of essentialist definition of religion and faith. I really like the haircut illustration: that puts in an image something I have been saying for years in ‘religious diversity’ settings.
    I have become allergic to the phrase “all faiths and none” because it seems to allow ‘secular’ philosophies off the hook (and I scare quote the secular because some would argue that Christian faith is or should be fairly secular) of being involved because it seems to grant a supposed neutrality to them, when in reality they supply perspectives and values that function in the life of their adherants similarly to ‘religious’ beliefs.
    So, yes, I think you’re right. As to ‘spiritual but not religious’; no problem: anyone who has a worldview and values is part of the debate. Some people have organisations to help represent them and to enable corporate expressions of belief, faith or spirituality. Some don’t. British legislation on religious diversity includes ‘philosophies’ in the mix.
    Perhaps the real issue is about institutionalised faiths or beliefs versus individualised?

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  3. Well, Matt, I never come to you blog with nothing to take away … always makes me think, even if I do not drop some comments about my processing. Good questions. Here are some thoughts:
    ATHEIST/THEIST CONVERSATIONS TOO NARROW?
    All theist/atheist “conversations” I recall being in become debates – and usually degenerate into apologetics, leave niceties for coarsities, and ultimately with no apologies. I find it has about as much chance of “succeeding” as arguing with a sibling over their choice to abandon a perfectly wonderful spouse.
    However, when theists and atheists are included larger settings of faiths and philosophies, it seems to work better – especially when there’s an agreement to discover and explore one another’s reasons for our choices, instead of debate and excoriate over them. (In a spontaneous blast of synchroblogging, I’ll be posting a story about that on my blog shortly.)
    DIALOGUES WITH PANTHEISTS/POLYTHEISTS. Yup. And they are often quite fascinating explorations of understandings and finding some common ground. Those are stories for another time …
    ISSUES. Suggestions for interesting issues, topics, projects that I think could challenge everyone in such dialogues, regardless of background, giving everyone a chance to shine where it’s easier for them, and to stretch where it’s not.
    * Are faiths philosophies, and philosophies faiths? (That could appeal to the more abstract-minded.)
    * How do your values and beliefs affect the ways you create culture? (That could appeal to the more concrete-minded.)
    * If you could suggest one person from your own faith/philosophy as a “world class role model” of what it means to follow that faith/philosophy, who would you choose and why? Once each participant has had a chance to do that, go another round and ask the same question, only this time, recommend a role model from adherents of another dialogue member’s faith/philosophy. (That could appeal to both the more relationally- and informationally-minded.)
    Final thought: If we frame the dialogues as on “issues,” or even as “topics,” that may get things off onto a more information-oriented base. That’s in part why I suggested the last item above, on role models and heroes. It’s more about people, stories, relationships then.
    And that is all for now. Off to synchroblog …

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  4. +dale, I agree. I can’t think of an obvious alternative to “interfaith”, as “interreligious” is just as problematic too for all the reasons you identify, and everything else I can think of seems too cumbersome. But I think part of interfaith dialgue is acknowledging where your biases are, and so I want to kick this off with the acknowledgement that the word “interfaith” is itself is biased towards Christianity in particular and organized religions more generally. Like Andii, I also want to question the supposed neutrality of Atheism and any suggestion that Atheists can politely (or otherwise) distance themselves from the round table and sit down at a separate one across the other side of the room. Every perspective is a bias. Everyone has values and beliefs, even “unbelievers”. Brad I really like your questions, I think they’ll be good ones to take up in future synchroblogs.

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  5. Okay, in this comment, I’m going to focus on answering your questions:
    1. Are atheist versus theist conversations too narrow?
    Absolutely! As a Pagan, I find such conversations both amusing and annoying. Generally, both sides of the conversation are assuming that “religion” is synonymous with “monotheism” at best and “evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity” at worst. There is a much greater diversity of religious belief and expression.
    2. Do you have any experience with dialogue with pantheists or polytheists?
    I am a polytheist, as are many of my friends. So yes. 😉
    3. What do you think would be some interesting issues to explore?
    I think that a big one is the nature of Divinity and man’s relationship to it. (Yeah, I know it still leaves out the atheists. Sorry.) I’ve come to learn over the years that one of the big struggles people have when it comes to understanding my faith is coming to realize that my understanding of my gods are very different from the monotheistic concept of God.
    I also personally find that a discussion of the importance of orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy in various religions can also prove interesting.

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  6. Also, I’m not convinced that faith is an entirely Christian word. I simply think that the Christian understanding of faith is too limited.
    To me, faith is about acting in accordance to some ideal. That ideal can be a command from God, a virtue that is held in high esteem according to one’s personal philosophy, or just about anything else. In this way, I tend to think of faith as an expression of loyalty to someone or something rather than a belief in someone or something.
    Perhaps my own understanding of faith is just an idiosyncrasy with no further basis beyond my own mind. But it enables me to find the term “interfaith” as being far more broadly inclusive.

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  7. Jared – I am also uncomfortable with the term interfaith dialogue. For me it conjures up an image that says “Christians are running this thing”…which might be why we seem to have so many christians in this synchroblog at the moment. Maybe we need to make sure that we include some language that would directly be associated with atheists polytheists pantheists etc.

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  8. I used not to like the term faith to describe my spiritual path, but last year I found a wonderful quote from Alan Watts:
    “Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

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  9. Jarred commented about on topics to explore: “I think that a big one is the nature of Divinity and man’s relationship to it. (Yeah, I know it still leaves out the atheists. Sorry.)”
    Picking up on that, could I suggest a way with potential to be more inclusive of atheists – or at least some kinds of atheists. How about explore “the nature of Divinity, or whatever other ultimate, transcendent or immaterial aspects of humanity make us us.”
    Even Philip Pullman of *His Dark Materials* fame deals extensively with the issue of “the soul” in the HDM trilogy and in interviews, as those with Donna Freitas, co-author of *Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials.* Perhaps there’s something there to find common ground, at least in the process of finding something within that is also beyond … even for those atheists who identify with The Will as the ultimate immaterial aspect of being human.

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  10. Jared, welcome aboard. Good to see some polytheists in the discussion already. I hope we can broaden this up considerably as the synchroblog finds its legs. On the nature of Divinity, I don’t think that necessarily leaves them out, we just have to accept they’d probably see divinity as a fictional construct. I would like to see how they would engage with folk such as yourself, whether they can ask some deeper questions. And I agree, monotheistic and pantheistic understandings of divinity can be very different. I would suggest, for instance, again presuming we Christians all see YHWH as the Jewish equivalent of Zeus, except without the wife. And I know we Christians can have difficulty coming to terms with the shear variety of Pagan understandings. That sounds like a good one. Orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy could be interesting too, though I’ll say up front that I’d also be taking a sledge hammer to overly intellectual understandings of Orthodoxy in the process (literally doxa means worship, not theology). On faith, I understand its not an exclusively Christian word, but faith is far more central for Christianity. I don’t for instance hear too many Pagans talking about polytheism as their “faith”. That’s more where I’m coming from.
    Grace, yeah that’s sort of where I was coming from.
    Yvonne, yeah, I would say that definition of Alan Watts is far closer to what the ancient Hebrews meant than what some moderns understand by the word. I’ve said before that faith can only deepen through being prepared to face your doubts and fears. Clinging attitudes actually suggest immature faith in my experience. Misunderstandings about faith, propagated by immature Christians as much as anyone else, is something I’d be happy to explore. Thanks for the suggestion. So, you’re UU with a leaning towards Paganism, is that correct?

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  11. Oops, missed Brad’s comment. yeah, I agree. What is their understanding of the ground of existance is another way I might put it. Is it oxymoronic to talk of atheist spirituality? If not, in what way not?

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  12. How about exploring the experience of Gnosis from different perspectives?
    Gnosis being the sense of knowing and being known by oneself, one’s God/s, one’s significant others (as opposed to Gnosticism, being a religion built around an interpretation of Gnosis)?
    However we differ in our interpretations, and the faith bodies we participate in, is the essential experience of Gnosis something we share, or not?
    And if it is, does it help us cross linguistic and cultural barriers?

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  13. Not sure I see how the term “faith” is Christocentric.
    Wikipedia recognizes a broader understanding of the term “Faith is a belief in the trustworthiness of an idea. Formal usage of the word “faith” is usually reserved for concepts of religion, as in theology, where it almost universally refers to a trusting belief in a transcendent reality, or else in a Supreme Being and said being’s role in the order of transcendent, spiritual things.
    Informal usage of the word “faith” can be quite broad, and may be used standardly in place of either as “trust,” “belief,” or “hope”. For example, the word “faith” can refer to a religion itself or to religion in general. (For informal uses of the word “faith”, see Faith (word)). As with “trust,” faith involves a concept of future events or outcomes.”
    Oxford Dictionary recognizes the same broad context and even uses the reference to religion you suggest.
    “1 complete trust or confidence.
    2 strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
    † a particular religion.”
    maybe you can explain why the term faith demands a Christian worldview?

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  14. Matt,
    Concerning “faith”, a good point.
    As Robin Lane Fox says in his book “Pagans and Christians”:
    Source: Fox 1987:31.
    ‘”Paganism” is a Christian coinage, a term that suggests a system of doctrine and an orthodoxy as Christianity knows one. But pagan religion was essentially a matter of cult rather than creed. No group of pagans ever called themselves “the faithful”. There was also no pagan concept of heresy – to pagans the term meant a school of thought rather than a false and pernicious doctrine. Among pagans, the opposite of heterodoxy was not orthodoxy but homodoxy, meaning agreement.’
    Of course he was talking about paleopagans rather than neopagans, but it’s still a point worth bearing in mind.
    Also, in the RIME Religion conference that preceded Religionrap a Baha’in participant annoyed some of the Jewish participants by referring to “the Jewish faith” and “members of the Jewish faith”. The Jews replied that the preferred terms were “Judaism” and “Jews” respectively.

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  15. Wow–great dialogue!!
    It reminds me of a seminary class in which we had to ‘force’ a dialogue between a Christian theologian and a Buddhist teacher. I picked Mother Theresa (because of her pragmaticism) and Thich Nhat Hanh (for the same reason). It ended up being a really enjoyable and deepening exercise to have them talk about key points: the nature of evil, the goal of salvation/enlightenment, sin (there isn’t an equivalent in Buddhism, but there was great talk about that), cycles of existence/end of the world. Even though I’m sure it wasn’t anything remotely like what a real conversation between those 2 heavy-weights would have done, it was helpful to do, because it kept me solidly ensconced in the thought system of each as I worked with each reply.
    Great questions you propose…
    Here are some other topics I would like to bandy about with some atheists, polytheists, pantheists (which I resemble in some ways). Some are already mentioned: gnosis, the nature of evil, the nature of humanity.
    It would also be a fun exercise to take something like the Nicene Creed or the Lord’s Prayer and have everyone in the dialogue respond to the various phrases in that creed or prayer.
    Just some thoughts–thanks for this great post!!

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  16. Hey Steve, you wrote, “‘”Paganism” is a Christian coinage…”
    Really? Christians “invented” the term Pagan?
    I think if you do a little research you will find that claim dubious. Ironically, the early Christians were considered Pagans by the Romans because they rejected the pantheon of gods. So maybe the usage of the term has changed and Christians adapted it, but it was not coined by Christians.
    Still not sure I get why the term “faith” is Christocentric when the common usage, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is not Christian?

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  17. JR, do you think the English language is religiously neutral? Christianity has been shaping the English lanuage for centuries. It will take more than a few decades of secularism and pluralism for that to erode. Assume nothing, except this, that we have biases we’re not conscious of.
    But besides all that, note it didn’t say “faith” was a Christocentric word, I said “interfaith” was. Important difference. I acknowledge other religions have competing understands of faith. What I have observed though is that few religions emphasize faith to the extreme where they can speak of their whole religion as “a faith”. Referring to your cited Oxford Dictionary definition, I could well imagine many religions affirming the interpretation of faith as “complete trust or confidence”. This is precisely what Yvonne picked up from Buddhist teacher Alan Watts. But the third definition, “a particular religion”, is itself peculiar to Christianity. As for the second definition, “…based on spiritual conviction rather than proof” well that verges on god-of-the-gaps deism. It’s so peculiar to “western” science versus Christianity debates that even I have trouble affirming it. In short, since the word “interfaith” is commonly seen as being dependant on the third definition of “faith” mentioned here, it involves a high degree of Christian projection, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

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  18. “Faith”, in the sense of a religion, does seem to be particularly Christian. Judaism emphasises it much less, I know many people who are Jews, and who’s friends consider them Jews, who wouldn’t even be “Jewish” if we had the same definition of a faith-community as Christianity. It’s commonplace even in synagogues to see people who aren’t praying, and people who don’t even say they believe in G-d in some cases. (Though outside of Chabad, this is unusual in Charedi synagogues; but even so, as far as belief goes, a lot of different levels and types of belief are found as long as they aren’t Xtian.) (A Jewish xtian who openly professed such a faith wouldn’t be welcome, though interestingly I’ve seen Jewish Hindus and Buddhists who weren’t shunned; this is probably more due to that leaving Judaism for Xtianity is viewed as sort of a betrayal of the Jewish people, and those are just seen as a sign of someone with an open mind who perhaps is too non-traditional, but not a traitor!)

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  19. Thanks for your comments Joshua. Oh, and I should mention, if anyone from another faith (just joking) is interested in joining us for the next synchroblog, please let me know. We’re looking for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, you name it. Don’t be shy.

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  20. I am member of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. This organisation is set up by God Himself through a living prophet, therfore receive information from heaven for us in our day.
    we are given knowledge about Godhead and it is very clear that there are three separate and distinct beings who form what is called “A grand Council”-God the Father, His Son jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost or The Spirit. They have perfect unity, therfore the saying goes therei is only one God. We are children of God and are here to become gods and godesses by the teachings of Guru even Jesus, who is author of all denominations wether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews or Christians. so as Saint Paul declares,” there are gods many and lords many, but unto us(this planet)is given only one God and Jesus Christ.” To the spitual minded and open minded the truth is simple and beutiful and they accept it but to the fanatics the higher knowledge is denied. There is hope of world peace only through Jesus and none else. Jesus is Ishvar or Guru to the Hindus and sikhs, Ruh-Allaha to Muslims and Jehovah to the Jews. He is known by many Names and Titles in various scriptures throughout the world. He is the only name given under heaven and in Heaven by which manknid can achieve their true potentials. I have a sound knowledge of this.
    BY Yaqub Masih

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  21. JR Miller,
    The origin of the word “pagan” is disputed, but the historian Robin Lane Fox has established that in the Roman Empire Christians referred to non-Christians as “pagani”. Pagan Romans never called Christians “pagani”, they called them “atheists”.

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