Teaching a world religions class to seventh graders in the middle of the Protestant-dominated Bible Belt of Appalachia has been a challenge. The geographical isolation of our area has led to our students and community not getting enough exposure to other religions of the world, and the only education they are currently receiving is superficial with little to no real experiences of other ways of life.
I believe the only way we can create a peaceful and productive society is through an empathic education of true experience that fosters an understanding of religious diversity. This is the very reason I applied to attend The Interfaith Center of New York’s NEH-sponsored Religious Worlds of New York summer institute. And after attending the three-week program, I am now equipped with an abundance of resources and knowledge that will help me and my students become better citizens of the world.
Dr. Henry Goldschmidt, ICNY’s Director of Programs, led the institute with a passion for all the educators in attendance, but equally for the students that we would eventually be teaching back in our own classrooms. The first real revelation that Dr. Goldschmidt made to us was the idea of teaching “lived” religion as opposed to merely “charting” religion. He explained that putting a set list of major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.) into a grid of superficially shared features (founder, scripture, doctrine, etc.) does not lead to a true understanding of any religion, or the lives of its practitioners. For example:
People often become demoralized when they are faced with enormous problems. In their eyes, the obstacles may seem so overwhelming that they give up and do nothing.
This can true about all types of issues, including global warming (“it won’t matter what I do so I won’t do anything”), politics (“these people are going to keep fighting no matter what I do and my vote doesn’t matter”), and interfaith relations (“the religions of the world have been at odds for millennia… how can I do anything to change that?”).
Whether the internal arguments against doing something are identical to the ones described above or are entirely different the outcome is the same. No action is taken.
And yet, doing nothing is also doing something.
Good people who sit on the sidelines are also contributing to the problems we face. Who knows what the outcome would be if they did what they could with what they have where they are? In the same way that compound interest generates exponential growth if money is invested for long enough, compound actions make a difference.
An Achievable Vision
We have found that when people feel overwhelmed, they need an achievable vision—a feeling that what they are doing means something and contributes to the overall solution in some small way.
In my new book, Co-Human Harmony, I offer such a vision:
In the modern world, there is a tremendous need for interfaith dialogue. When done right, dialogue can ease tensions, reduce anxiety, build trust, increase empathy, and change perceptions.
But, when done wrong, it can cement distrust, fortify stereotypes, and deepen divides. The wrong way, in this context, is to bring total strangers together and lead with the most contentious topic that you can find. It doesn’t take an active imagination to see where that will end.
If you are interested in improving relations, both between people of different faiths and between people of no faith and the faithful, allow me to offer a step-by-step approach that has served the interfaith community well.
Interfaith Explainer: The Difference Between Intrafaith, Interfaith, Multifaith and Interspirituality
These four words, intrafaith, interfaith, multifaith and interspirituality, mean very different things. Yet, they are sometimes used interchangeably and without distinction. The following definitions should help people discern and understand the differences.
Intrafaith = Within
When someone proposes an intrafaith conversation that means a conversation within said faith or religion. Our January guest blogger, Rev. Susan M. Strouse, wrote eloquently about the importance of having discussions within faith traditions, especially as they relate to the implications of interfaith dialogue.
On October 20, 2010, the UN declared the first week of February to be observed as World Interfaith Harmony Week. This project, first proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, has grown year by year and now has more official participants than ever before.
The initiative is decentralized by design, but those who are participating can register their events on the World Harmony Interfaith Week website or with affiliates such as URI and The Parliament of the World’s Religions.
The official goal is to improve relations between people of different faiths or belief systems (which, as always, includes those who are not affiliated with any faith).
Martin Luther King Jr. said that men often fear each other because they are separated and can’t communicate with one another. This weeklong celebration, from February 1-7, is meant to alter that dynamic and improve relations.
“We don’t know how to talk to one another any more!” It’s a common lament these days, especially those with whom we disagree. We tend to stay within our own bubbles, safe in our comfort zones with those who are of like-mind. Despite (or perhaps because of) the growing diversity of our world, we seem to be more divided than ever.
One area where the opposite has been true is the interfaith movement, in the desire to cross boundaries, learn from other traditions, and work collaboratively for the good of our communities and world. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which I recently attended in Toronto, Canada. Being among over 8,000 people from all over the world, representing a stunning array of nearly 200 religious, spiritual, and Indigenous traditions is my idea of heaven on earth!
But some years ago, I became aware of a concern within our interfaith ranks. At just about every interfaith gathering I attend, someone will pipe up and say, “Interfaith is great, but what we really need is an intrafaith dialogue.” And I agree. For I had discovered this for myself in one of the congregation I previously served as pastor.
What will a book about social harmony and bridge-building need to include to be considered a worthy contribution in challenging and divisive times? How will it supplement the efforts of interfaith and interideological initiatives across the country? How can I make sure I am not wasting people’s time?
Those were some of the questions I returned to again and again as I wrote Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, which was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, 2019, and here are some of the answers I came up with.
I was listening to a Dr. King tribute show on NPR last Thursday on my way back from a planning committee meeting for the Annual Friendship and Dialogue Dinner that will be hosted by Dialogue Institute Austin. Funnily enough, one of my Muslim friends there had told me a story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how he’d told people, who’d to travel for hours to Mecca to pray with him, that the traveling time could be used for contemplation and prayer and was really a blessing in disguise. That turned out to be true for me on my hour-long drive back home. Listening to stories of Dr. King was both uplifting and inspiring.
The interviewees on the radio program had all known Dr. King personally. Of the things they said and stories they recounted, one struck me as particularly relevant to our times.
A Spiritual Malady That Must Be Avoided
It was Dr. King’s refusal to harbor feelings of anger and hatred, even when justified, which got my attention. According to a close friend, who had also read through most of Dr. King’s unpublished sermons, this was a reoccurring theme in the reverend’s life. He believed that destructive emotions, however deserving, were a spiritual malady that did more harm to the one harboring them than to those who the emotions were directed at.
When I tell people what we are working on at Harmony Interfaith Initiative—how we aim to support and supplement social harmony and bridge-building efforts in every way we can—they respond in one of two ways, either by saying, “that’s wonderful,” (more common) or by saying, “do you think that’s even possible?” (a sentiment that is sometimes delivered in a more direct and less supportive way).
To be fair, asking if social harmony is even possible is a rational question. One look at the news or someone’s social media feed can convince just about anyone that society is strapped in a jet-engine-car speeding down the highway to hell. Wondering whether social harmony is achievable or whether there is any precedent for it in history is entirely reasonable.
Gandhi's Response to Critiques of Nonviolence
To answer that question, allow me to defer to Mohandas K. Gandhi. The following quote appears in my new book, Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, and shows how he responded when asked about the feasibility of nonviolence:
Is there more divisiveness in the world now than at any other time in history? That’s a question that is nearly impossible to answer. That said, most people we talk to feel that divisiveness of all sorts—be it political, theological, racial, or personal—has become a sustained part of their everyday life, even if they don’t want to participate in it. The question then becomes: How do people respond to such sustained divisiveness?
An Array of Responses to Acrimony
The following is a sample of common responses:
Often times we become entrenched in our own distinct, doctrinal philosophies that we end up becoming fixated on how that is translated into a dialogue, peripherally fomenting an ecumenical understanding of specific convictions and how it relates to our neighboring communities. For monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are three particular doctrines of “work” which enables its adherents to not only grow in their spirituality, but likewise, those very tenets will unequivocally benefit the community around them. When we strive to become better people, the results are clear, we change, and our relationships do as well. Friendships strengthen and our community’s needs are met with tangible solutions that develop into deeper relationships, encouraging others to do the same.
Anger is an interesting emotion. It can move a person to action or, if it becomes a sustained feeling, be a force of destruction from the inside out. In truth, anger can’t be suppressed completely. Even the most advanced spiritual masters admit to succumbing to the emotion from time to time. Therefore, anger is best utilized in a sprinting fashion, by allowing short bursts to move one to action, followed by a period of recovery.
But what are we to do if the outside world seems continually angry? How are we to respond to sustained emotional attacks that would under normal circumstances be rare and evoke an appropriate amount of anger?
Under those conditions, most people don’t fare very well. They either try to match the intensity of the anger they perceive as being pointed at them or try to numb themselves to the emotion with food, alcohol or drugs.
Outrage is Not Sustainable
If you mix anger, fear, and discontent with a dash of other emotions, you get outrage. In recent years, we, as a society, have experienced one wave of outrage after another. Even when justified, outrage is not a sustainable emotion. The reason is simple. Outrage is so enervating that it is bound to evaporate. It cannot be sustained for any length of time. Even when a person has every reason to be outraged, the feeling will dissipate because it will, eventually, cause exhaustion. I know that many people are greeting the New Year with less energy than they are used to for exactly that reason.
Love equals relationships. To experience love you must be in a relationship, either with yourself, your lover, your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, nature, the universe or your creator, to name a few of the most common love relationships.
The Glue That Holds Us Together
Love has been named the glue that holds people together. Some even say that it holds the universe together. A child that receives no touch and no love when newly born can actually wither away and die. Love is the most spoken about, written about, sung about and in other ways expressed feeling in the world.
Many Types of Love
Anyone speaking of love must realize that there are many types of love. There is the excitement at the beginning of a relationship (closely related to the second human need for excitement and sex), a mothers love for her child, the love of a married couple, the love for a friend, the masters love for his student, Gods love for his children and so on.
Here are three distinct types of love:
Religion has a spotty track record. I’ll be the first to admit that. It has been, and in many cases still is, used as an excuse to brainwash, exclude, shame or condemn people—sometimes all at once—and there is no denying that atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.
But… religion has also shown itself to be exceptionally valuable, both personally and culturally. It has produced a number of outstanding people, been a guiding light for peace and unity, created beautiful communities all around the globe, given purpose and meaning to millions, and encouraged people to tend to their spiritual side, to name a few.
Music Appreciation and Religion
Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, once said that religion was like music. He said that despite the fact that the world had, on average, produced more bad music than good music, music appreciation classes spent very little time on listening to bad music, that most music appreciation was about listening to, or, in some cases, learning to appreciate, good music.
There is a significant difference between interfaith and interspirituality. Interfaith is about working towards harmony and finding ways to co-exist despite ideological differences. Interspirituality is an exploration that can unveil the few strands of experience that the religions of the world share.
Keep these differences in mind and try to spot which is which while you read the following quotes. They appear in chronological order, based on the birth years of their authors.
In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote: “We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. In fact, I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I created.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
Ergo: Experience is the starting point, theology is the outcome.
Why is that important? Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
Hunger for Direct Experiences
Today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more. With this in mind, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer. According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Forgiveness is an internal process of letting go. The one who forgives refuses to allow destructive emotions to live rent-free in his or her head and stops wishing for a better past. True forgiveness is about reclaiming control of one’s own emotions.
When someone forgives, he or she is neither condoning behavior nor reconnecting automatically with the perpetrator. I emphasize this, because many people erroneously think that when they forgive they are saying that what happened was okay and now they have to be best friends with the person and/or organization that they are forgiving.
People can internally forgive by letting go of destructive emotions that are eating them up from the inside, they can free themselves from the hate and anger that are consuming them, but, at the same time, they can be strongly opposed to the behavior that hurt them, seek justice or reparations, and refuse to reconnect with the persons or organizations at fault, all while being emotionally free and tempered.
When I was in my early twenties I quit smoking. It was a filthy habit that I’d picked up when I was twelve years old and in my teens I had been responsible for introducing cigarettes to a number of people.
After I quit, I felt badly about that. I knew that I couldn’t go back in time and fix what I had done, so I decided to do something for the future.
My approach to quitting had been successful, so I started sharing the technique with others. That led to ten years of smoking cessation seminars and books in both Icelandic and English. I also teamed up with a public health organization and started giving smoking prevention lectures in schools.
That Feeling When You Are Not Welcome
Have you ever walked into a room and felt that you were not welcome? That’s how I felt just about every time I walked into a room full of students and was introduced as the smoking prevention guy.
Instead of being discouraged, I took it as a challenge and spiced up my approach.
I got better and better at captivating attention and engaging young adults in dialogue about the importance of living life fully (one of the things I emphasized). I swung between being adversarial (“I don’t care if you die because we’ll all die”) and inspirational (“you only get one life and it’s the quality that counts.”).
I gained attention and got along well with the adults who liked my approach, which meant that I got booked in dozens of schools every year. However, even as I got better at presenting the material, I never captured everyone’s attention.
In pagan times, people gave thanks to different gods for varying aspects of their lives, for example by giving thanks to the sun god for sustaining life and the rain god for watering their crops. Being at the mercy of natural forces, people saw gods at play in every aspect of their lives.
All that changed with the advent of the one God of Judaism. One formidable God replaced an assembly of characters, making it so that all thanks and petitions were aimed in one direction.
In modern times, can we do both and be grateful to the web of life while also thanking the creator and sustainer of life?
Here is a little thought experiment to test that theory. I am sitting at my desk and noticing the things around me. I wonder, should I go straight to the source in gratitude for my chair, my computer, my table, my pens, my whiteboard, and so on? Wouldn’t I be cutting out individual parts of creation, the people who made all these things I am enjoying and the elements from which they are made? If I truly appreciate creation, shouldn’t I be thankful for all of it?
Shouldn’t I be thankful for the natural elements from which these things on my desk were made, most of which I cannot name?
Shouldn’t I be thankful to the miners who dug up these materials, the people who transported and processed them, the designers and engineers who created my computer, and the software programmers who wrote the code that allows me to type at lightning speed while listening to my favorite classical music at the same time?
How far back should I go? The creation of the Earth? The Big Bang? Further?
When I take time to appreciate the role that all of creation plays in this moment—from the origins of the universe to the creation of the elements to all the people who have done mental and physical work to create my surroundings—it becomes crystal clear to me that everything is connected to everything else. It is impossible to ever be alone in this world.
Based on my little thought experiment, it’s clear to me that it’s both possible and feasible to combine methods of gratitude. I can be thankful for individual parts of creation while also appreciating the creative and sustaining force behind all of it.
I am a big proponent of the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a sentiment that is found in some form in all religions. Jesus went further that most when he usurped all other commandments and told his followers to love God and love their neighbors as they would themselves—a tall order indeed.
The difficulty becomes apparent when we take a step back and ask what needs to happen before we can follow the Golden Rule. The dilemma can be boiled down to a single question: Do we love ourselves enough to want to be treated well and are we willing to extend that care to others?
Not Always Loving
I have not always been a model citizen. In all honesty, I have gone through periods in my life where I earned the pun on my name (Hi, I’m Gudjon, used to be Bad-John). But in hindsight, I can safely say that when I hurt other people, it usually went hand in hand with low self-esteem.
For example, I went through several years as a young adult when I was being bullied. During that time, I went out of my way to make sure others felt as miserable as I did. Later in life, I was in a relationship where I was loved but felt that I wasn’t worthy of love and sabotaged the relationship. And currently, even on my best days, I have moments where I look in the mirror and feel ‘less than’ and that affects my interactions with others.
From what I have seen and heard during my years on this Earth, I am not alone. It seems that most (if not all) of us go through periods where we do not love ourselves and feel that we should not be treated well. That gives some of us (not all) internal permission to treat others badly. When my daughter was nine, she wisely said that she tries to keep it to herself when she is feeling bad and not lash out at others to make them feel bad.
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In the wake of the midterm elections in the USA, we asked Dr. Willerton, who was a participant in one of our courses last summer, to send us an outline for his course called The Politics of Happiness. From what we gather, this is the only political science course in the USA that focuses intently on the relationship between politics and happiness. It is offered through the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Here is what he sent us:
The Pursuit of Happiness
Our one-semester course focuses on human well-being through an inter-disciplinary, comparative cross-national examination of more than nine countries. Beginning with the United States, the first country to set as a goal the pursuit of happiness, and continuing to Sweden, with its emphasis on community and social justice, we consider numerous political, social, economic, and cultural factors that affect human happiness and well-being.
During our fifteen weeks together, among other topics, we examine gender issues in France, issues of tolerance and the rights of sexual orientation minorities in the Netherlands, and the dilemmas of nationalism in the historically complex relations between the German-speaking and Central-East European Jewish civilizations. After considering the politics of sectarianism in religiously diverse Lebanon, we analyze the “Russian soul” and an evolving post-Soviet Russia, and we evaluate the challenges of modernization in fast-changing China. Our course ends in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan which, since 1972, has promoted Gross National Happiness, an initiative grounded in good governance, economic development, preservation of the environment, and the safeguarding of the family and the country’s unique culture.
Democracy presents an interesting dilemma. There needs to be a degree of social harmony to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other after elections. Simultaneously, we need to have vigorous ideological debates about how to achieve the common good, which is what a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ should ultimately work towards
The question of how to balance these two competing interests is the critical issue of our times and it depends on several elements.
The greatest tonic for an ailing democracy seems to be increased participation. If people are averse to the political process and complain that “it’s too divisive,” then they leave it to those who are more fervent (extreme) to decide the outcome for everyone. If only a few percent choose the candidates on the ballots through primaries and fewer than half of voting-age adults participate then that does not present a dissection of the nation. Study after study has shown that increased participation leads to more compromise and working across the aisle… and that turns out to be good for everyone, not just the select few.
In a survey published this fall, More in Common found that two-thirds of the electorate is ‘exhausted’ by the current political atmosphere and wants elected officials to find more ways to work together. That is understandable. A normal society thrives on compromise. Look at families, schools, workplaces, and public spaces. Without cooperation, none of those societal elements would work. Compromise is such a fundamental principle in human interactions that people are generally good at making concessions in their daily lives. The sentiment should seep into public policy and yet it only happens when more people participate in the political process.
I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
We pray in the name of all traditions.
May we practice our faith with sincerity,
increase our capacity for love,
and unveil the peaceful essence we seek.
May our faith transmute anger into action,
melt away hatred with love,
and spur us to serve the poor, sick, and old.
May our strong attraction to one path,
not create repulsion for other paths.
May we allow other people to foster their beliefs,
even when we think they are wrong.
May we remember that we all belong to one human race,
that ideologies and theologies are only a part of who we are,
and that we all share traits that make us human.
May we honor diversity when appropriate,
celebrate unity when we see it,
and find ways to work together.
May we learn to disagree without being disagreeable,
sow the seeds of peace when we encounter hostility,
and rejoice in friendliness wherever we find it.
We ask for strength to overcome prejudices,
clarity to see our biases,
and courage to act justly in the face of injustice.
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Our Vision and Primary Goal
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, the term 'interfaith' means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews. Our primary goal is to support and supplement new and ongoing efforts.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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