Interfaith Issues
Adam Blatner

November 3, 2005

In part catalyzed by a seminar titled “Common Ground” held at The Crossings–a holistic learning center in Austin, Texas, this last September, I have been pondering a number of issues related to the trend towards re-thinking ways of developing spirituality in the 21st century.

1. Can prayer include simple chants, popular songs, certain poems, and so forth? What lifts and aligns us, turns us toward the light? Must these be restricted to roots in traditional religion?

2. Some have stated their belief that spirituality must be channeled along a well-trodden path, some “deep” tradition. Others have asserted the claim that spirituality can be valid even when created anew, with elements drawn from many sources. I confess my tending to agree with the latter position for a variety of reasons.

First, what are the boundaries of what the traditionalists might define as an established path? For example, Judaism: The problem with this tradition, though, is that it is and has been “traditionally” a most evolutionary, diverging, reforming, tradition, ever re-defining itself on all levels. So which path can be followed?

Second, what if one’s spiritual vision requires some significant integration of elements–e.g., the discoveries of science, depth psychology, and the frames of reference and aesthetic elements introduced by postmodernism, science fiction, humor, comparative mythology, anthropology, and so forth–that weren’t available to those in the past, those who developed “well-trodden paths.”

Third, what is depth, anyway? Who is to judge how “deep” or “established” some “path” is, or even the boundaries of a “path”? What defines this ambiguous term?

How new can an established path be? What about the Bahai religion? Can it be just a few centuries old?  What about sects? How about an established path being only a few decades old, or even just a few years?  Or does it require a minimum of a million adherents?  Or a hundred thousand?  What is the rational basis for drawing any boundaries in this direction.
    Other issues addressed in Utne, about 2 years ago.

3. What are the most dynamic organizations furthering interfaith spirituality?
    What if most of them don’t think of this as one of their explicit goals, but might come to agree that they are in fact furthering that goal as well.
    What if one of the goals of Common Ground might be to operate as a clearing house for some of these organizations? I haven’t seen anyone try to coordinate them, or even introduce them to each other?
    What if one of the elements of interfaith spirituality might be to encourage each and every organization to develop a liaison department who will actively explore their boundaries, interfaces, degrees of synergy, inclusiveness, etc.

    Some possible organizations to begin this process:
        Institute of Noetic Sciences, New Thought Alliance, “The Forge” (?),
    International Network for Personal Meaning, General and local Jung Institutes, Association for Transpersonal Psychology, other transpersonal associations
Various colleges, e.g., Saybrook, JFK University, & CIIS in the SF Bay Area,
Esalen, Omega, Crossings, and other Growth Centers
Institute for Transpersonal Psychology and other institutes
Private practitioners, schools, who emphasize psycho-spiritual developments
Religions that emphasize an interfaith connection–e.g., Bahai, etc.
Journals and magazines: more popular, Yoga, New Age; more professional: Journal of Consciousness Studies, ReVision; more balanced: Shift, Parabola, etc.
Related approaches that aren’t particularly oriented to this mission, but some of their
  practitioners would be:
    Theatre artists, drama therapists, psychodramatists, other psychotherapists...
    Educators, Waldorf, Montessori, other pioneers and visionaries
    Business coaches, consultants, trying to develop more transpersonal or spiritual business climates
    Social and Emotional Learning movements, emotional intelligence

        Please write me and add to the list!

Philosophical centers–especially the Center for Process Thought (dealing with the trans-denominational and spiritual ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne)

- Listing issues to be added to the list of issues: (smiling). What are the issues to be considered? What themes seem taboo? What are we avoiding sharing for fear of offending, hurting, bruising widely held sentimental attachments?

 – how much overlap is there between interfaith spirituality and philosophy?
    How can philosophy–or at least some types of it–be brought into contact with this trend?

 – ditto for politics?  Economics?  

5. It has become “politically correct” to express compassion and non-dualistic ideals regarding all humans. What about the problem that some folks reproduce irresponsibly? That there are major population explosions among the “have-nots,” and this trend is actually encouraged by certain religions? Dare anyone speak to this problem? Are the “haves” obligated to subsidize the reproductive irresponsibility of the have nots?

While there well may be a place for charity in this system, how much are we obliged as a matter of public policy to care for those afflicted with misfortune? (That is, by enforced taxation and re-distribution of resources?) Can such hard-hearted-seeming questions even be raised?
    (This relates to the need to recognize the taboo boundaries–the unspoken collusion in “that which must not be spoken or even thought–in all human endeavors.)

Another issue recently raised, for example: New technologies are coming in that promise to raise both the quality of life and quantity of years lived. However, such technologies cost money–some have estimated to be about a thousand dollars per each person per extra year lived–and some technologies would cost ten thousand dollars, or a million dollars? Where’s the cut-off?

Dare we begin to say, in the backwash of a tsunami, rising oil prices, diversions of military expenditures in various chaotic regions, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so forth, that perhaps we (collectively) cannot “afford” all possibly desirable goals, and that systems of priorities, rationing, restraint, humility, and the like are necessary? Can we afford the self-indulgence of responding generously to every high-profile misfortune while at the same time ignoring the tens of thousands of low-profile misfortunes that don’t get political traction?

Can all the high-blown rhetoric in the world get us over really facing and making these hard choices?

7. Is there a place for a kind of self-policing of vague generalities (also more recently identified as “bulls**t,”)? How can we bring a sharper level of discernment to the noble goals of interfaith spirituality?

For example, shall we assume unquestioningly that:
    – enlightenment is possible, desirable, and attainable?  Is there any evidence whatsoever for such assertions? Or that this state is measurable, able to be assessed, and not simply a product of group consensus, seeking a “leader,” and other less-rational projective dynamics?
    – ego-less-ness, self-transcendence, non-duality, and other spiritual goals are other than illusions, claims of possibly narcissistic or megolomanic sociopaths, or other forms of self-delusion?
    – questioning these extreme claims need not be an assertion of the opposite, a totally cynical or materialist position. Perhaps a middle position is possible, affirming the value of some relative movement in these directions?

8. Just as we asked about the politically incorrect themes of compassion as public policy, perhaps also we might ask about other touchy subjects:
    -- the “right” of parents to impose their own belief systems on their children
    -- the idea that there are no “rights,” only collective agreements, and that it is appropriate to re-evaluate all collective agreements in a multi-cultural and changing world.
    -- might meditation and other acts of piety be recognized as expressing a spectrum of activities that range from simple brief re-alignments with deeper values and mythic connections to a self-indulgent and self-delusional attempt at spiritual materialism? That this range may reflect the amount of time spent in prayer, meditation, and so forth?    Is it even possible to suggest that more than 30 minutes a day at such activities diverts too much energy from the needed tasks of helping to make the world a better place? (Just for argument’s sake). Can such questions be rationally discussed?

9. What are the requirements for an ideal spiritual path or religion?  How can we support a religion–as a social organization that supports spirituality–while minimizing the pitfalls of social organization in general?

10.  Can any religion overcome its own weight of tradition, dogma, orthodoxy, the influences of its more conservative elements? Can a religion be reformed from within, or must new alternatives, sects, outside religions, be formed anew?  What is so wrong with the latter alternative?

11. Can we introduce a process of discerning the difference between mythic and factual modes of discourse? (Both have a place in life, and there are situations even when a mixture of the two are appropriate; nevertheless, it is often important to interpose a process of making this distinction explicit. Certain criteria for action, public versus private policy, what is to be “taught” and what simply “witnessed to,” and so forth, all depend on this distinction being made.

12. There has emerged a new trend towards the blurring of the political and the religious, with the rise to power of a political party that panders to those who feel entitled to impose their religious beliefs on the general public. These fear-based religious groups have created an atmosphere in which “faith-based” is uncritically accepted, and those who question the rational foundations of revealed religion are viewed as being incapable of moral judgment. This refers mainly to Christianity in the United States, but similar tensions exist in other religions and internationally.

There is also another trend towards the liberalization of religion, allowing for its mythic and subjective nature, its psychological validity, and promoting an inclination to seek the spirit of the message rather than value mindless loyalty to traditional interpretations. It may well be that the liberal thinkers in the various religions have more in common with each other than with those who are more literal, fundamentalist, or evangelical in their own traditions. The liberal thinkers feel okay about allowing others to practice their own different paths, without needing to coerce or subtly impose their own ideals and values on others.

Should there be any moral obligation of those who are more liberal and ecumenical to take a stand against their own more reactionary co-religionists? For example, is there any moral obligation for clergy who don’t believe in Hell to speak to the toxic mental health impact of this doctrine?

Furthermore, can interfaith dialogue include as faiths those who are deists, agnostics, and atheists?

Does faith require a belief in a supernatural “being”?  Can faith not equally involve a positive attitude towards the world and its own innate energies, including the most noble aspirations of humanity?  I’ve known many secular freethinkers whose sense of morality is sharper and more closely reasoned than many who presume their own righteousness based not on their deeds but on their capacity to believe in doctrine.

Can morality derive from a sense of responsibility for making this world a better place, without recourse to the finely micro-managed instructions given to a small tribe in the Middle East over three thousand years ago?  

13. What are the most controversial and disturbing books, websites, articles, that you’ve encountered–disturbing in the sense that they make you think, are not easily dismissed, and may offer some uncomfortable ideas that stretch your system?

Well, that’s what’s on my mind this month. I’m open for discussion.