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:
“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.
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.
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.
When I went to the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan this summer, I was treated to a charming and random act of kindness. As soon as I purchased museum admission, my friend and I were presented with mysterious folded and sealed letters. I opened my letter and was delighted to find a unique and thoughtful note: “Please enjoy the entire museum. Start from the top and work your way down. Smile today. Be the reason someone else smiles today. Enjoy!”
I was intrigued as to what prompted my new friend Gia to spend time on this gesture of kindness for a person she didn’t know, and whose reaction she wouldn’t see. I soon found out. Rounding the corner, I came across an invitation to write a letter of my own.
This invitation spoke of the “karmic ripples” one can create by participating in this delightful act of kindness. Having been touched by Gia, I paid it forward, and felt like an integral link in a chain of visitors, connected across time and experience.
It was a small but uplifting moment. It can be hard to feel positive these days, which often feel divisive, even dehumanizing.
It seems like we’re stuck in an unending chain of negativity. We’re more polarized than ever and a splintered news media entrenches us further. Social media algorithms ensure our existing views are reinforced. When we venture out of our social media bunkers we can find ourselves in conversation threads that bring out the worst in us, sending us back to our tribe and perpetuating our distrust of others.
That unexpected pay-it-forward experience at the Rubin Museum reestablished my feeling of interconnectedness. I knew that this experience made me feel good, and I wondered, can random acts of kindness jolt us out of an us-vs-them mentality and restore our faith in humanity?
The Psychological Benefits that Come with Random Acts of Kindness
Science supports that these little acts of kindness can have a big emotional impact. The ripples are real. Whether a giver, a receiver, or even simply an observer of a kindness, we are positively impacted both individually and collectively.
Harmony. Dignity. Compassion. Civility. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Words to live by. Words to heal by. How good it is to hear voices near and far proclaim such words in a world in which they seem so under siege and out of style.
I have long been a person who reacts, as many do, with a sense of moral outrage to divisiveness, prejudice, selfishness, and extremism. Nevertheless, I have mostly sat by passively, hoping for better things to come. But in recent times "better things" seem to be growing more and more scarce. The tides of change seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction.
Polarized When Anonymous
Some time ago I reached a point where a voice within my heart could no longer be silenced. If I was not in some way part of a solution, I was part of the problem. I began reading. I started with Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. That led me to Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. I continued reading similar works and discovering web sites like this one that offered solutions and told stories of changed lives.
Early in my research I settled on a model that made sense to me and that seemed within my reach to implement. It assumes that dissimilar or opposing groups are most likely to become polarized when they are most anonymous to each other. I can only violate someone’s dignity if I first make him less than human in my mind. The seeds of acrimony grow where people are lumped into stereotypes, where they are misunderstood, where they are demonized.
To the extent this is true, an effective antidote may be found in breaking through the anonymity. I began to make plans to bring people from opposite sides of divides together in face-to-face, small group meetings where each person has a name and a face and a story about how they came to be the way they are. In an effort to brand the concept, I began to call it Dignity Dialogues. Mind you, I branded it only as a way to refer to the model, not with any thought of making it a business.
When religion is based on fear, not Love,
You cannot feel that God's within,
You're stuck with the fear of "that God above,"
And spend your days in dreading "sin,"
You feel threatened that folks outside
Will obscure the "divine truth" from others,
And cannot see it's not they who hide,
The Oneness you share with all sisters and brothers,
You cling to verses in a book,
And dare not go within yourself,
You cannot take that deeper look,
When you put the book up on the shelf,
The darkest fears then make you tell,
All sorts of lies you think are real,
You'd rather say, "Kill the infidel!"
Than see inside behind your zeal,
Plowing Heaven under, creating "hell,"
You run from what you cannot feel,
And while obsessed with hatred and killing,
Far from the Truth behind your chapter and verse,
Seeing only difference in those unwilling
To follow your way, you make things worse.
A wild campion flower that bloomed in an arctic meadow when mammoths and woolly rhinoceros walked the Earth offered me hope in a difficult time, and I believe she offers hope and guidance for our struggling world today.
Within her delicate white petals and slender dark green leaves is a dramatic tale. She died in the late Pleistocene age 32,000 years ago, stored in an arctic squirrel’s burrow on the banks of the Kolyma River in far eastern Siberia, buried by windblown silt of the ice age, captured in frozen ground 125 feet below the surface of the Earth. Now, she is reborn, having been resurrected by Russian scientists.
When I laid eyes on the little arctic flower in The New York Times, 2.20.2012, I felt ancient memories stir. She entered my consciousness as I stood on the doorway of my sixties weary from months of chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer, thankful for life. Her translucent white petals reminded me of long forgotten dreams. As she was recovered from the frozen dark depths, I would begin to delve into my inner world, my frozen dark depths, and rise naked to buried grief, which helped me to let go of my past and be more alive to the present.
I imagine the ancient flower’s mythical story. Dying in a long-ago cycle of life on Earth, she has returned from the underworld to show her beauty and strength to our world in 2012, the year the Mayan’s predicted the end of a great cycle and the beginning of a new cycle of Life on Earth. She embodies yin and yang, male and female; and she is here to guide us as we learn to not fear the mammoths of our time but to join together in a river of compassion and bear witness to the many stories of pain and suffering.
Students are always astounded when I tell them about the role that poetry has always played in cultures throughout history. “Come on,” they laugh almost in unison. “Poetry?” But the truth is poetry has always been with us, most probably since the beginning of language.
Its origin is most likely rooted in the sacred, what was the beginning of ritual and religion. Members of the community who acted as interpreters between humanity and the abundant natural gods that were believed to exist in hunter-gatherer clans and tribes, what we anthropologists call animism, couldn’t just speak in everyday language when communicating with the gods or spirits; anyone could do that. Instead, these shamans employed their own language, their own elevated or exalted speech patterns that sounded like they must indeed be speaking to the “other world.” Shamans passed on their secret knowledge to apprentices. Over time, these special speech language patterns may have become what we presently call poetry.
I am by no means the first to make such a claim. My friend Gary Snyder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poetry, drew similar connections decades ago, when I was a boy.
Ritual and Religion
Poetry’s connection to ritual and religion is still with us today. Consider the Psalms in The Old Testament. The Qur’an is said to be poetic, if not poetry altogether. Many other seminal texts of world religions contain poetry. I recently finished reading a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a major poetic text in Daoism (also spelled Taoism). Even Confucius wrote poetry. In Hinduism, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. The oldest existing literature, the epic of The Gilgamesh, written in Mesopotamia around 2100 B.C.E., is a poem. Not only is it a poem, but it centers on two main characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who was created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh. In fact, the whole story involves the frequent intervention of gods. Within the epic are also the stories of The Garden of Eden and The Flood (see The Flood tablet at left), both of which eventually made their way into the Old Testament. Even our childhood bedtime prayers are poetry:
One of the biggest surprises and joys in my sixties is that I decided to volunteer as an education advisor for the Charter For Compassion. I had signed the Charter for Compassion declaration several years ago confirming my support for all that the charter stands for and does. It was wonderful to affirm a document that expressed so deeply all that I am about at my core. For a long time thereafter I would receive their emails in my inbox. I remember always saying to myself, “Someday I will get involved in the great things the Charter does.”
What is in a man’s heart? Men are likely the only ones who truly know. Normally, they protect what’s at their very core from other men and perhaps the women and partners in life. Fear of being vulnerable and shame keep them from connecting with other men, yet it is only when we men open our hearts that these questions get answered.
When Can Men Put Down Their Swords and Shields?
The emphasis over the past fifty years in the U.S. and a few other countries has been on raising the consciousness around women, addressing women’s issues, validating their rightful place in the world and the sacredness of the divine feminine. To say this work is long overdue and that we have a long way to go would certainly be an understatement.
But what about men? When and how do men get the opportunity to put down their swords and shields to go inward to heal themselves? What about the divine masculine and what about male spirituality?
Are all faith practices alike? The answer to that question is Yes…and No. Dodging the question, you ask… not really. I have spent the better part of my life questioning and searching, and the last ten years in intense research to discover that answer.
Didn't Know How Much I Didn't Know
In the process of my research for my books, I learned a very valuable thing: I did not know how much I did not know! We’ve all been taught things by family, friends, spiritual leaders…and many times, because we respect that person, we accept those statements as Truth without question.
But what we don’t realize is that sometimes those people have been unknowingly mislead themselves. Not in a purposeful or vindictive way...it just happens. We live, interact, hear and discuss things casually and pass on our views that have been formed over time by our associations and life experiences. Unfortunately, misinformation can inadvertently be spread and multiplied by this totally innocent approach to “truth.”
As I was researching, I realized in a very profound way that many things I had heard or been taught were NOT true. I also learned through many long hours of follow-through, that many things written on the “all knowing” Internet were NOT true.
Watch the Life They Lead
If you really want to know what others believe, go to their main website, talk to real people who live that faith practice, and most importantly, watch what kind of example they lead with.
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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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