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“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”  I’ve heard that this is an Irish proverb, but whatever its source, it gives voice to the attitude that made an interfaith project succeed.

Thinking Together was the name given to a project of the World Council of Churches brought into being by Hans Ucko, Anant Rambachan and a few others.  The idea was to bring together a group of 15-20 scholar/practitioners from 5 of the world’s religious traditions, and from different parts of the globe, for sustained conversation on matters of common concern.  I was honored to be included.

This could have been a recipe for more dry-as-dust academic trading of papers and responses, etc., but it was not.

One of the reasons this effort worked was that the people chosen as participants were 1) deeply knowledgeable regarding their own traditions; 2) knew at least one other tradition other than their own; 3) practiced as faithful members of their own tradition; and 4) had experience in interreligious dialogue.  In addition, each of the participants was able to be critical of their own tradition, as well as comfortable in it.  All were attuned to, and appreciative of, the cultural diversities within their own religious family, and able to navigate cultural differences in engagement with one another.

While this may sound like enough, there were a few participants in the course of the 10 or 12 years of this project who did not work out, and were not invited to return, because they brought conversation to a standstill, or into a knot.

We learned –again– that what was and is needed for thinking together to actually take place is the attitude of the Irish proverb:  We need each other.  In order to live.

This is a basic affirmation, that the Thinking Together group made, even though I’m not sure we ever talked about it directly.  It is the affirmation expressed so clearly in the title of a book by Wesley Ariarajah, one of our number: Not Without My Neighbor.   Each of us believed that our traditions have to have room for our neighbors.  More, we were convinced that unless our traditions can honor and appreciate our neighbors, they are inadequate, not truly realized or rightly understood.

It is only in the shelter of each other that religious people, too, can live and flourish.

One product of our time together has finally been published.  It’s called Religious Conversion: Religion Scholars Thinking Together, edited by Shanta Premawardhana, and  published this year  by Wiley.  See


Like the day of an equinox, memory is half light, and half dark.

I began thinking about memory, and the many ways in which memories shape us, during the commemoration of September 11, 2001.  Many memories were shared that held up loss, violence, and confusion. Other memories illuminated the sense of being spared, and the sweetness of life, of still having loved ones.  One of my own strongest memories of that morning is of my denial:  Going about my business in San Francisco, with Judith at home in NYC, it took about 6 hours for me to stop my programmed movements, and let the realities of what was happening get to me.  What we remember of that day, and of other days, shapes us.

Memories are not just spontaneous events, though they sometimes come to us unbidden.  Memories are also things that all of us use in building an understanding of who we are.

Memory, and specific cultural, ethnic or national memories, are used, as well, as social tools:  Specific memories can be used to incite anger or resistance; to move groups to solidarity and action; to invigorate faith or communal participation; to prompt reflection or invite change.  Which memories are repeated by leaders, and put forward by media, affect how we feel and what we may do in any situation.

In most of our religious communities, there are also practices that call us to remember who we are, or what has been given us.  These usually help us to re-member ourselves as well, that is, to understand again how we are part of one another, of this community, and related to God, or Ultimate Reality.

Unfortunately, we can and do use memories, even religious memories, to reinforce divisions, and to perpetuate the sense of being victims, or outsiders.  We also use them to recall experiences in which divisions have been overcome, and times of being welcome or safe.

Memories of trauma, and of being spared in the midst of violence and chaos, are especially strong; they make a deep, and lasting, mark on us.  Memories of trauma can be so powerful that those carrying them often try various ways to forget, or bury them.  It is common, too, for those who have endured trauma to get stuck in the memories – they “play” them over and over, and continually re-member themselves back into the trauma, until their suffering becomes a controlling (sometimes unacknowledged) part of who they are.

To build relationships, or to overcome conflict, we have to welcome and understand both the darkness and the light that the memories of those involved (and our own memories!) bring and carry.  Dwelling too much in the light, or in the dark, will leave us stuck.

A (true) story from the Summer of 1998 0r ’99:  At lunch time one day, an American Muslim Imam was listening to a Palestinian Muslim Imam say that he would be sure to tell his children everything that had happened to him, and the violence he and his family had endured in the Occupied Territories.  He wanted them to know who had done this to them!  The American Muslim, an African American who had grown up in segregation, insisted that he should not do that.  He could not do that if he wanted to give his children a less hate-filled basis for living.  Islam was about turning from such hatred, not passing it on!  Their conversation was urgent, and deeply engaged.

In the years that followed, that Palestinian Muslim turned away from the hate that his memories of violence had fueled in him.  He took part in dialogue with American Jews and Christians, and preached coexistence and peace.  Then the U.S. government, urged on by certain persons who kept repeating the reports of what this man had done in the more distant past, took away his green card, and deported him.

Memory can be used for darkness, and it can be used for light.

Recently, I’ve been trying to read The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully, by Joan Chittister.  I find it a very uneven book:  insightful in some places, it seems shallow or rigid in others.  I think I have finally put my finger on what bothers me about it.

In dealing with the many dimensions of this challenging journey of aging, Chittister often paints pictures of how one’s experience and understanding of  “Adjustment” or “Fulfillment”, or other topics, change.  In doing this, she frequently focuses on only one experience of the topic at hand–sometimes a very conventional one–and often in a way that suggests that it is this way for everyone.

Partly, this is a matter of her writing style, which is awkward, and veers from oddly poetic passages to descriptions of imagined lives that are not, in fact, very thoroughly, or humanly, imagined.

But the larger problem is that she fails to leave much room in the perspectives she presents for individual variations, and not enough room for real empathy or accompaniment.  The result is a sense of distance:  Too often, she may pin down just how a certain type of person encounters a certain issue, but there is no sense that she is there with that person, or with us, in dealing with this part of life.  The result of this distance is that she ends up presenting views of things that have very little, or no, room in them for movement, or for shared journey.

In living with others, and especially when we engage in the intentional nurturing of relationships between those of different culture, religion, or conviction, we need a perspecitve that has a lot of room in it.  Very often, those working to build or repair relationships are the ones who need to bring such a perspective.

In situations of conflict, alientation or estrangement, those involved often view their situation from a perspecitve that does not have much room, if any, for the others to change or welcome or understand.  The perspective that offers room to breathe and move and venture often has to come, at least at first, from an outsider.  Or, better, the view with room for the others emerges from some few gifted leaders, and can be supported by a relationship builder.

The view with room for the others is essential.  I don’t think real engagement or change is possible without it.


Is this a good title for a book or collection of essays on building interfaith and inter-cultural relations?

When I was in France, I actually did an outline of a book.  It has changed since then.  But that is part of the practice, I think:  building and living in such relationships requires the ability to create as we move along together.

I’ve been looking again at books that have really nourished me in my own work of building relationships.  One is We Make the Road by Walking, which is the record of conversations between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire.  It touches on many topics, but two related emphases come up repeatedly.  First, be prepared to radically alter, or even discard, whatever theoretical framework you prepared ahead of time, in order to get, and to keep, learning underway.  And second, the path of movement into change is a path discovered together with those involved, and in the doing.  Lots of trial and error; no one person necessarily in control or steering; requiring the practice of welcoming new insights, otherness, and creative lurches ahead.

Another important book for me is The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Peacebuilding, by John Paul Lederach.  In this book, Lederach asks, “What disciplines, if they were not present, would make peacebuilding impossible.    He finds that these disciplines are “relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk.”  The book looks at these in detail as that which lies behind or along-side the analysis, techniques, and the sheer work of peace-building, bringing it to life.

I think that these sorts of attitudes and practices also are central to the building of authentic engagement between those of different religions, cultures and ethnicities.   And to me, “vulnerability” describes what all of these, and a few additional, disciplines require; vulnerability is their source, or at least necessary for their actual practice.  And together these disciplines, and the vulnerability at their heart, shape what might even be called a spirituality, or way, to interfaith and intercultural engagement.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change,” says Brene Brown, in her latest TED Talk

Vulnerability is also the birthplace of relationship and creative engagement among peoples.  This is what I want to explore and describe.

What do you think?  Does the title work for you?

It’s been noted by many that we humans live as much in a web of words as we do in an ecosystem of air, water, and living things.  Cut off from either the stories and words with which we understand ourselves, or the physical sources of life, we shrivel.

But sometimes the river of words overflows the banks, and inundates a gathering of people.  There is such a thing as too many words.  I just returned from a national “dialogue” event which was nearly swept away by words, so I am once again thinking about this.

In the course of two days, there were to be two presentations, two responses to those presentations, and two text study sessions.  Not an unusual set up, allowing each community to offer a presentation on a topic, and also to lead a study on related texts from their religious tradition.  This time, however, the responders did not respond to what was presented, and one of the text-study leaders took more than the time alloted to give an additional presentation.  So, we ended up with 5 presentations, and one text study.  The sessions devoted to processing all of this input were too short to get to much more than more talk about the concepts, rather than exchange about what they had to do with our lives, or why they mattered to us.  I found it deadening.

Dialogue requires silence as well as words; deep listening, and time to allow what has been said to resonate within, as part of the process of engagement.  This is especially true, I think, in a culture such as ours, so crammed with noise, images and information– a flood of words and pictures that come at us from so many different sources that orientation is distorted and actual communication nearly jammed.

Dialogue does not have to be this way, but it takes careful attention to limit the river of words and allow the other parts of communing to have their place.

I came away craving silence, as I realize that I often do.  And so, I turned again to Rumi:

I see the face that was my home.

My loving says, I will let go of everything for that.

My soul bgins to keep rhythm as if music is playing.

My reason says, What do you call this cypress-energy that straightens what was bent double?

All things change in this presence.  Armenians and Turks no longer know which is which.

Soul keeps unfolding inward.  The body leaves the body.

A wealth you cannot imagine flows through you.

Do not consider what strangers say.  Be secluded in your secret heart-house, that bowl of silence.

Talking, no matter how humble seeming, is really a kind of bragging.

Let silence be the art you practice.

(“I See the Face”, in Coleman Barks, Rumi: Bridge to the Soul (ghazal 122, Furuzanfar’s Kulliyat’e Shams (Tehran: 1957-66)))

Here in the U.S., we are in the waning hours of Veterans’ Day, with an appropriate focus on the people who have fought our wars.  My preference, though, is to call it Remembrance Day, because we need to remember not only the people, but also the wars and their history, and so much else.

Memory is endangered by our mass culture, the web, and 24/7 “news” media.  If we watch and listen to television and radio and web-postings closely, we can see “facts” and whole fictional histories being created by skillful (or at least persistent) personalities who simply say certain things often enough.  Constant repetition and a non-stop flow of information are mind-numbing, and can, in fact, erase real memory.  Real memory is the voice of the child who blurts out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

“Zachor”! Remember, and “zecher”, a reminder or remembrance, are important words in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Jewish tradition.  Remembering who we are, and what has been done for us, as well as the relationships with God and others that sustain us, is the basis for grounded living.

In my own Christian life, I treasure Ash Wednesday, and the annual statement of the inescapable truth:  “Remember, from dust you came, and to dust you will return.”

At a zendo in New York City, meditation ended with the ancient Buddhist teaching:  ” Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your lives.”

Remembrance can surely lead us to wallow in episodes of the past that stir up pain and confusion, or it can serve as a door into well manicured and maintained trophy  experiences of being wanted or prized.  Out of such memories we can continue to feed certain set visions of ourselves or of our society.

But memory also allows us to take a look at what is most deeply true about life and ourselves. In remembering we have an opportunity to enter once more into our lives, and into the deepest truths about living.  Thus, we Christians re-constitute our participation in the Body of Christ, as we remember his life, death and resurrection around the Lord’s Table.  Muslims re-member that they are part of the  faithful Ummah, all equally God’s servants, as they take part in the Hajj.

So, this day tells me that we have yet another area to explore together in our ecumenical and interfaith encounters:  Remembrance and how it functions in fashioning us, in binding and freeing us, and in our truth-telling about being human.


This is my first posting in a while.

There are many reasons for this. I could say that I fell into a hole.  I could mention getting used to new responibilities, and a new era in my life.  I could talk about the teaching that I am doing now.  All would be part of the story.

Recently, I went on a journey to see friends in New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.  I did not know how much I had been missing them until I was with them.  And being with them helped me realize that another part of my story, these days, is making sense of past and future in a time of transition.

It turns out that this business of aging, and moving from era to era, or stage to stage, in life, is something that all we humans do.  It is also something that our religious traditions, and our cultural backgrounds, either help us do, or hinder us in doing.

If our religious traditions are supposed to help us change–and I believe that they are–then here is another part of living that tests whether the traditions in which we are engaged are alive and vital, or not.  If not, we probably have hold of a stunted, or too rigid, or somewhat twisted version of our tradition.  Or we are holding on to pieces of text, or practice, or belief, as if they were life rafts from a smashed up boat, and we in some kind of shipwreck; when we would be better off looking around at what is in our vessels for a new time or situation.

During this time, I’ve been dreaming a lot about houses, rooms, places to stay, light and dark.  I think I may be building some sort of new structure to live in.  Or not.  Maybe it is more like what Rumi describes in his poem, Soul Houses (translated by Coleman Barks):

Who is this king

that forms another king out of the ground,

who for the sake of two beggars

makes himself a beggar?

Who is this with his hand out

saying, Please, give just a little,

so I can give you a kingdom.

He heals.  He enlivens.

He tells the water to boil

and the steam to fade into the air.

He makes this dying world eternal.

His greatest alchemy

is how he undoes the binding

that keeps love from breathing deep.

He loosens the chest.

With no tool he fashions where we live.

Do not grieve for your rusty, iron heart.

He will polish it to a steel mirror.

As as you are being lowered into the ground,

closed away from firends, don’t cry.

He turns the ants and the snakes

into beautiful new companions.

Every second he changes cruelty

to loyal friendship.

Remember the proverb, Eat the grapes.

Do not keep talking about the garden.

Eat the grapes.

From a rough stone ledge

come a hundred marble fountains.

Out of unconditioned emptiness

comes this planet with all its qualities.

Lakewater over there.

Out of one huge NO

comes a chorus of yeses.

Rivers of light flow from human eyes,

and consider your ears, where language

alchemizes into amber.

He gives the soul a house,

then another and another.

He descends into the dirt

and makes it majesty.

Be silent now.

Say fewer and fewer praise poems.

Let yourself become living poetry.

My friend and colleague Lucinda Mosher drew my attention to an article on Huffington Post, by Carl McColman, “Curiosity May Be Hard on Cats, but It’s Great for Interfaith Friendship.”

McColman says, “The youngest member of my family is our one-year-old cat, Margery. She is a most inquisitive creature …[and] gets into everything….  her eager exploration is rather inspiring to me…. every corner of the house represents a new frontier for investigation, learning, and insight. In fact, I think her inquisitive nature is a good model for me — and for all of us, living in this age where (sic) people of different cultures and faiths live as next-door neighbors.”

He describes an interreligious conversation that was motivated not by competition about religious truth, but by desire “simply to learn, to discover, to gain insight on how different traditions understand experience, interpret it, and explain it, in a way that can help to make sense of the interface between human spirituality and the ultimate mystery…. we were all simply inquisitive, seeking in our curiosity and thirst to learn about each other’s faith and experience, more light for understanding and making sense of our own.

“Because of this, we could find joy in our conversation. We came together in a spirit of celebrating diversity and finding wonder in the mysteries of life and language, without needing to fix or solve anything. And this, I believe, is the model for how interfaith conversation and indeed interfaith spirituality can take place in our world….  Every time I relate to a person of another faith with an open and kind heart, rather than any desire to convert or control, I in essence am casting a vote for … a hopeful future. In essence, I am choosing curiosity over competition.”

Along with the importance of such curiosity, though, I hope we will look closely at the dynamic role that such “wonder,” or beauty, plays in our relationships.  It is beauty, I think, that not only provides much of the motivation for the kind of curiosity that McColman describes, but also is a more essential dimension of existence and experience.

What often attracts me, or moves me in relation to other cultures and religions, and the people who live them, is that I see and hear and feel beauty in them.  I have been affected and opened by the experience of beauty in and through the rituals of other traditions; the sights and chants of others at prayer; cultural ways of saying and understanding things that open up whole new dimensions of possibility in them;  experiences of God’s presence never encountered before.

Perhpas this is not surprising for a Protestant Christian such as myself, schooled by the Westminster Catechism to believe that the chief end of being human is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  Attention to, and delight in, all of the manifestations of God’s glory in the world is both a natural, and a religious, starting point in relating to all of God’s creation.

“We have been placed here, as in a spacious theater, to behold the works of God, and there is no work of God so small that we ought to pass by it lightly, but all ought to be carefully and diligently observed,” said John Calvin, in his Commentary on Isaiah 57:1.  In his Institutes, he speaks of God “enticing us to desire” of intimacy with God in Christ, and of the soul being “ravished” by God’s beauty.  While scripture provides the “spectacles” through which we can properly understand creation, “the undeniable evidence of God’s grandeur lies in the symmetry and beauty of the created world” (p 29).  Creation shines with “God’s restless desire to communicate the divine love and beauty to others” (p. 31).  [For more on this, see the new book by Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality, Oxford University Press, 2011, in which the last citations appear.]

It is, of course, possible, to find the shocking and ugly among people of other cultures and religions, as among people of our own culture and religion.  But  why not let the beauty we find entice us to be curious, and, more, to let such beauty move, re-mold, and delight us?  In coming together  in appreciation of those who differ from us, we understand and connect more deeply with them, and at the same time see more of the beauty with which God has infused the world, for our joy, our learning, and our transformation.

Many times I’ve been asked how to get started in the area of interfaith relations.  There are a variety of ways to answer this question, and, as is often the case, the most useful answer depends on the person asking it.

For the careful, one might suggest some study first, especially of one’s own tradition, before actual engagement with people of other religious traditions.  For those ready to harmonize all religions together into one mush of “spirituality”, a visit to a startlingly different tradition may be the place to start.  For those with some basic grounding in their own tradition, person-to-person conversation across traditions is often the best beginning.

This question always startles me, though.   Some part of me wants to say, “What’s to discuss?  Just start!”

The reason for this probably lies in my own childhood and family.  I learned, very early and without being able to articulate it, an awareness of how differently the same events and things looked to different family members, depending on their different religious traditions (or different Christian traditions).   The gift of a Bible every year from our Jehovah’s Witness branch of the family was received with reasonable suspicion by my Jewish father, and with a resigned tolerance by my Christian mother.  Our resolutely secular household, in which no religious tradition was practised or taught,  nevertheless found ways to honor the religious celebrations, by other parts of the family, of Passover, Easter and other holidays.  And the golf ball from the hole-in-one shot by my mother’s father sat in a glass case, bearing the name of the country club which would not have acepted my father as a member.

Outside our home lay the crazy quilt of Pittsburgh, PA, and its ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods.  My parents’ friends, medical colleagues and patients included Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, African Americans, WASPS; mill workers, labor negotiators, restaurant owners, etc.  Each group seemed to have their own picnics, which we attended, and food — and ways of seeing the world.

Out of all of this, it became second nature to me, when entering any situation or group, to quickly try to orient myself:  to ask, Where am I now?  In whose world?  What are the parameters? Where are the “do not enter” markers?  The most natural starting point for me in relation to people of other religions, cultures, walks of life, is that of orienteering.

One conversation in particular crystallized my understanding of the basis for this approach.  At a gathering in Santa Fe, NM, a film-maker from the Taos Pueblo said, “People come to see our dances.  And they wander all around the pueblo, taking pictures and looking at everything.  They walk all over sacred places, and go into areas where no one should go.  I just wish that they realized that once they step over the boundary and onto the pueblo, they do not know where they are!”

To get where you want to go, you need to know first where you are.  In building relationships between people of different cultures and/or religions, if your destination is better understanding or friendship, step one is to ASK where you are!

In some situations, especially those in which there has been injury, violence, or conflict, this may take patience.  We might need to ask, and ask, and ask again, before being admitted even the least bit into the world of another human being or community.   We are, after all, asking for nothing less than an orientation into another’s reality.

When I began to write about evangelism and interfaith relations, I chose the title “Missing in Action” because of its military implications.  Those in the U.S. are used to the black flags and car stickers that keep the issue before us re:  those unaccounted for in military engagements, as well as those who are taken prisoner.  P.O.W./M.I.A.

Evangelism is often undertaken through “campaigns.”  It is sometimes “targeted” to “reach” certain groups.  Whole areas or demogrpahic groups are to be “satruated” with fliers, CDs, callers–sustained efforts that remind me of saturation bombing.  Evangelists are soldiers of Christ, carrying the gospel in “crusades”.  Carried out by folks who have not, and may never, consider the recommendations of “Christian Witness in a Multireligious World” (see preceding post).

Frankly, the goal of too many efforts is to “win” more converts to Christiaity.  This document is careful to use the term “witness” throughout, and to stress that what is incumbent upon Christians is to be witnesses, in our words and in our living,  to the transforming and liberating power of God in Christ.  But it does not make clear enough that there is a line, a limit beyond which “witness” cannot go without becoming agression.

One of my colleagues on the staff of the Presbyterian Church regularly urged new mission personnel not to forget the “urgency” of the evangelical task.  By this he meant the urgency to make sure that all people had heard about Jesus, and had the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with him.  But isn’t the urgency rather to extend love and care to God’s people?  Not to deliver “the saving truth,” but to be present and to offer God’s love in whatever forms it is needed?

While there is a continuum between these two approaches, they are not the same.  For my colleague, belief in Jesus is the goal, and is what makes the ultimate difference for people.  For me, it is the example of Jesus in the offer of education to all, of healing for all, of caring to all, that is transformative  This MAY lead some to embrace the way of Jesus, as it did me; but this is not our concern, cannot be achieved by us, and, I think, should not be our goal.

Where, after all, is the mutuality in an approach that is oriented to “get” others to “accept” Jesus?  It can be done lovingly — I have seen it being done lovingly.  However, for me, this approach is marred by its own certainty.  It remains agressive: those with the truth vs. the others.  It lacks true mutuality– the sincere invitation to sharing life, and the practice of shared life,  in God’s kingdom, that is at the heart of the message of Jesus.

One more thing:  There is a war of sorts going on about this within the Christian churches.  There are those who go missing because of this.  And, too often, those on either side deal with the disagreement by staying silent, and avoiding those who do not think as they do.  Too many of us are missing from this conversation.