Practicing the Presence of God in a Religiously Diverse World
Inspired by the Interfaith Youth Core and its Better Together Campaign
To love someone is to be affected by them. The more deeply we love someone the more we are affected. Their joys and sorrows become our joys and sorrows. To have a child...is to have your heart walking around outside your body.
-- Bob Mesle, Relational Power
We compete all the time in games, grades, jobs, romance, and more...Even when we do not want to control and win, we do want to feel safe and secure....We want to be “unaffected” by all the threats of the world.
-- Bob Mesle, Relational Power
Process philosophers such as Bob Mesle believe that relational power is the most powerful kind of power in the world: more powerful even than Molotov cocktails. Many, many others agree. Truth be told, there are countless people in the world, some of them religious and some of them "spiritual but not religious," who believe that compassion, not violence, is the fundamental power in the universe.
Some of these advocates in compassion are theistic, some naturalistic; some traditional, and some non-traditional. All have important place at the table of friendship. But process theologians are theistic and thus add that the Life in whose heart all lives unfold is about relational power, too. Their point is not simply that the Soul of the universe wants humans to act relationally; it is that this Soul acts relationally as well. God acts through compassion, not violence; persuasion, not coercion; dialogue, not monologue; inspiration, not control; cooperation, not competition. There's a softness in God that can never be understood through the power of a gun. Moreover, so they add, God needs the world to complete God's aims; our hands are God's hands. Process theologians speak of it as co-creativity. This means that when we ourselves act compassionately, God is acting compassionately.
How to imagine this? Perhaps one analogy -- and by no means the only one -- is to work with the analogy of parent and child. Bob Mesle says that, if we have children, those children are own hearts walking around outside our bodies. If we think of all the people in the world as God's children, then they are God's heart, too. God loves them and is affected by them, all the time. The same goes for other animals and for plants and the earth itself. And the same goes for all the other planets in our universe and all the stars, too. God loves it all and is affected by it all, all the time. Always God's love has a receptive side. A Buddhist will call it the Great Compassion.
A great obstacle to compassion is the world's preoccupation with unilateral power as expressed in competition and violence. Unilateral power is the power of affecting something without being affected by it. By contrast, relational power is the power of being affected by what you affect. There's a wideness in relationality that cannot be usurped by violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. puts it this way: We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.
The Pluralism Project at Harvard tells us that there are seventeen religions in the United States today: Afro-Caribbean religions, Bahai, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native traditions, Paganism, Shinto, Sikhism, Unitarian-Universalism, and Zoroastrianism. To these seventeen traditions let us add an eighteenth: communities of people who understand themselves as "spiritually interested but not religiously affiliated."
Imagine a local community -- a neighborhood, a village, a city, a nation -- in which these living traditions are represented. What would it look like if these people took relational power as their guiding ideal? Imagine further that we live in an age of global climate change, and that the need throughout the world is to develop resilient communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. Somehow the people from the different traditions have to learn to live compassionately with one another and with the earth. What would this look like?
We don't just accept the differences; we celebrate them.
Interfaith service projects are part of what brings us together.
The Practice of Relational Power: Interfaith Cooperation
as Spiritual Practice and Community Development
I'm pretty sure I know. It would look like the work of the Interfaith Youth Core. Their work entails "creating positive, meaningful relationships across differences" and "fostering appreciative knowledge of other traditions." They are building a movement of people from all faiths who are working together to change the world. They are relational power in action.
Making friends with people of other faith traditions and developing an appreciative knowledge of other traditions can rightly be understood as (1) spiritual practices in their own right and (2) as activities which can help bring about humane, sustainable communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. They are spiritual practices because they are ways that individuals can walk with God or, to say the same thing, walk in the light of the Great Compassion. As this happens a person's heart is widened and she becomes a more whole human being. And this is what spirituality is all about; it is about becoming more whole, more complete. Some process philosophers call it becoming a fat soul. But this kind of spirituality is inseparable from helping make the world a better place, from what Jews call Tikkun Olam (healing the world). Spirituality and community building come together in two practices -- developing an appreciative knowledge of other traditions and interfaith cooperation -- that are good for the soul, good for the world, and, so process philosophers propose, good for the very Soul of the universe. God, too, is enriched by interfaith cooperation.
But interfaith cooperation is not quite enough. In our time such practices are rightly joined with another kind of dialogue: respect for all life and the environment. Interfaith dialogue rightly includes dialogue with the earth and local bioregions: learning about them, learning from them, and living with them. Our more than human neighbors -- the hills and rivers, the plants and animals -- have their wisdom traditions, too. Interfaith cooperation can include inter-ecological cooperation, respectful of the spiritualities of the earth. We might call it the greening of interfaith dialogue.
The need is to marshal the power of interfaith cooperation in order to create multi-faith communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. This cannot happen without the active participation and guidance of people in multiple faith traditions. Let the Interfaith Youth Core be our guide. According to their mission statement, their aim is promote interfaith cooperation for the common good of the world. Let "the common good of the world" be the development of these kinds of communities. There is something delightfully youthful about the Interfaith Youth Core. It's a youthfulness available to all ages.
-- Jay McDaniel
From the Interfaith Youth Core website:
"We define religious pluralism as a world characterized by:
We think pluralism is achieved by two things:
We believe that American college students, supported by their campuses, can be the interfaith leaders needed to make religion a bridge and not a barrier."
Sample syllabus for College Course in Interfaith Literacy and Cooperation, click here.
Excerpts from the syllabus:
Through this course, we will:
1. Explore the importance of interfaith literacy and interfaith cooperation in a religiously diverse world.
2. Increase our own interfaith literacy by exploring theologies of interfaith cooperation in various traditions, shared values across different traditions, and historical examples of interfaith cooperation.
3. Explore the practical application of this knowledge through skills-based trainings on interfaith cooperation and by planning and leading interfaith cooperation projects on campus.
"According to Harvard Professor Diana Eck, America is the most religiously diverse country in the world and the most religiously devout country in the West. As national and global religious strife and conflict continue to make the front page news, how can college students step up as interfaith leaders committed to shifting the discourse from conflict to cooperation? What skills and knowledge do these leaders need to make interfaith cooperation a reality on campus and beyond? Recent data suggest that one of the most important factors in increasing social cohesion between people of diverse religious and non-religious perspectives is an appreciative knowledge of different religious traditions, what might be called “interfaith literacy.”1 Through this course, we will explore the concept of interfaith literacy as an essential characteristic of leadership in a religiously diverse world. We will take a service-learning approach and as such will require academic coursework and co-curricular engagement beyond the classroom. In addition to weekly class meetings, we will have two skills-based training sessions focused on planning an interfaith cooperation event for the rest of the Dominican community."
Topics for Research Papers include:
1. Theologies of interfaith cooperation, by considering how two thinkers within one tradition articulate the need to work with those of different traditions;
2. Shared values across traditions, exploring a value like mercy, compassion, justice, etc. and how two or more religious perspectives
speak to that tradition;
3. Appreciative knowledge of diverse traditions, analyzing the contributions of a given tradition to recent literature or art;
4. The history of interfaith cooperation, researching the role of collaboration between different traditions in various historical
moments like Cordoba, Spain, or the American Civil Rights Movement.
Interfaith Cooperation in an Ecological Age