Friday, August 7, 2015

Interfaith is a Verb

Stop #3 on the Religious Unity Tour!

There is something that does not seem to belong in the middle of my "Religious Unity Tour" this spring.  In fact, I even had to change the name of the tour just to accommodate it.  Without this stop, the tour could have easily been called the "Christian Unity Tour."  After all, my days are spent working to build relationships between Christians, and even more specifically between Catholic and evangelical Christians.  Most of the stops on the tour are places where Christians are finding ways to be in dialogue with each other and work across denominational lines.  They are finding points of connection and collaboration in their common identity as Christians.  My goal is be a part of that and support it. 

Yet, smack dab in the middle of this tour in the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, KY.  It is an interfaith gathering.  This means it focuses on the relationship between ALL religions, not just the ecumenical relationships between different groups of Christians.  This may not seem like a big distinction.  In fact, some people use the words "ecumenical" and "interfaith" interchangeably.  For them, the lines are blurred as they see the issues and challenges between Christians as roughly the same as between different faiths.  However, it is for others a whole different game in a whole different ball field. 

I set out to discover what light interfaith dialogue can shed in the quest for Christian unity.

As we shall see below, interfaith exploration dredges some of the deepest questions of faith, and I believe it can bear much fruit on how Christians understand themselves and transcend their own differences.  Read on!

"Thomas Merton:  Our North Star"

On a very unassuming street corner in Louisville, KY, just cattycorner-and-a-step behind the Catholic cathedral, Trappist monk Thomas Merton had a life changing revelation.  He suddenly saw the interconnectedness of all people, clearly, as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes.  The echoes and implications of that revelation continued to reverberate through the remainder of his life and continue to echo today through his writings.  It makes sense that the Center for Interfaith Relations (which sponsors the Festival) would set up shop within a stone's throw of this location, and that the Cathedral of the Assumption would be the launching pad for the Festival of Faiths. 

Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr once referred to the Festival of Faiths as the "sundance of the sacred."  I wonder if he had Merton's quote in the picture above in mind when he said that, because Merton did indeed see people "walking around shining like the sun."  Coincidence or not, The Festival of Faiths does a fantastic job recreating this vision.  It brings to light the connections between people that Merton saw in that vision 58 years ago.

With this year marking what would have been Merton's 100th birthday, the presence of Merton was strong and true as a guiding light.  Merton was an ecumenical and interfaith pioneer whose writings and life example continue to draw people to build relationships between faith traditions, even 47 years after his untimely death.  In this way, Thomas Merton has become the "North Star" of the Festival of Faiths, in the words of the 2015 Chair, Owsley Brown, III.



Conferences come and go.  Most are teeming with educational and networking possibilities.  The Festival of Faiths is all that, too, but to stop there with the definition would be a great injustice.  It is set up as an encounter:  People of faith meet each other as people of faith in intentional ways.  It is a parade of faiths, in a sense.  It is interactive.  Sessions begin and end with some minutes of silence.  The structure makes it unlikely for a talk to degenerate into a dry, detached lecture.  Rather, sessions are intimate encounters as speakers invite the audience to take a peak into that special place of faith within themselves, and even to share the journey, for at least a few steps, with the speakers. 

The Festival was divided into five different segments which provide a model of how people from different cultures, groups or faith traditions can encounter each other in the hope of positive mutual understanding and growth:

Br. Paul Quenon demonstrating Lectio Divina.
Photo by Festival of Faiths.
Each day began with an opportunity to experience a Sacred Practice of another faith.  People demonstrated--and the audience was invited (but never pressured)--to participate.  Trappist monk (and former student of Merton) Br. Paul Quenon started off by doing Lectio Divina--a prayerful way of reading Scripture--for the audience to watch and participate.   Hindu and Buddhist meditation and the Jesus prayer were also featured.  Speakers offered a peek into what is normally their private prayer time.

In the segment entitled Sacred Journeys, renowned clergy, nonprofit leaders and spiritual teachers shared something they rarely talk about in their profession--their own private, spiritual journey.  They share the struggles and stories of how they came to believe what they believe and practice what they practice.

Afternoon sessions were entitled, Sacred World.  These sessions offered insight into how people of faith feel called to respond to the world around them.  What role does faith have in public life?  Better than most anyone else, Thomas Merton described the interplay between a prayerful life of interior contemplation with the necessary, outward actions for social change which emanate from that.

Musician and Merton scholar Dr Christopher Pramuk.
Photo by Festival of Faiths.
Evening sessions were called Art and the Sacred, and explored ways that music, poetry and other forms of art draw us into the spiritual life and help us to understand each other' journeys.  Dr. Christopher Pramuk from Xavier University shared:  "Music was a first doorway into prayer; the piano my first teacher."

Also on the schedule were the segments called Meditation & Motion. These explored the kinesthetic dimension of spirituality more fully through yoga, tai chi and other forms of body movement.

The interfaith journey, like anything in the spiritual world, is best understood as a verb.  It is not something to observe as much as it is something to do.  There would be something perennially missing if it were only talked about in a detached way.  It cannot be fully known until it is experienced.  This will forever frustrate those who want proof before believing and evidence before acting.  It may always seem lightweight to those convinced the scientific method is the only path to truth. This is not to downplay the important role of detached observation in academia, only to say that by itself, it is not enough. 

By the very structure of its programming, the Festival of Faiths shows how people from different traditions can encounter each other in a holistic way:  Sharing in spiritual practices like prayer and meditative movement, hearing each other's spiritual story, working together for social change and enjoying each other's art & music are touch points for encounter and are a wonderful model for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. 

In the Christian world, these touch points resemble very strongly something called spiritual ecumenism.  This is a recognition that the path to unity involves not just the scholarship of academic theologians--who work painstakingly to settle the finer points of disagreement--but also the doors that open when people of faith share their gifts in prayer, charity and holiness. 


The Festival of Faiths offers many lessons for seekers on the path to unity and wholeness, and I will explore insights from other speakers in the following posts:
Part 2:  The Journey Out is a Journey In
Part 3:  All Others
Part 4:  Merton's Vision: Transfiguration, Transformation and Transcendence

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