Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2013) and Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2010).
The full text of Patel’s article “New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement” appears in the current issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2015, VOL. 43, NOS. 1 & 2).
As we move into our conversation about Quakerism and Christian Universalism, Patel’s observations about the inclusiveness/exclusiveness dilemma within the contemporary interfaith movement are remarkably timely.
Patel begins by describing a Chicago pastor who spoke to an interfaith youth core conference a few years ago.
He spoke about how much he had gained from his Buddhist meditation practice, expressed disdain for Republicans in power, and proclaimed how excited he was to be in a friendly space with people of other faiths. Finally, he noted his frustration that a particular type of Christian was always absent from such gatherings, saying:
“There are too many conservative evangelicals who claim the mantle of my faith, who believe that Jesus is the only way, that Christians have the exclusive truth, and who focus their energy on trying to bring others to their view rather than expanding their own spiritual horizons. I find that I have more in common with people like you than with people like them.”
With almost divine irony, the microphone was passed next to
a young man who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois…, and who looked calmly at the pastor and said, “My name is Nicholas Price,1 and I think you are talking about me.” It could have been an ugly moment, except for how Nick handled it.
He simply said that he was an evangelical Christian…, [that he had] majored in religious studies with a concentration in Islam, and he believed his faith called upon him to seek to convert Muslims and also to cooperate with them. While he was deeply committed to the former, he understood that this space was dedicated to the latter.
Patel writes that this exchange challenged his assumptions about interfaith work profoundly. He writes,
In his self-introduction, the pastor had succinctly articulated what I’ve come to call the three main rooms in the house of interfaith cooperation: liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment. Moreover, he proclaimed that those views weren’t just rooms in the house, but the front porch and the foundation as well.
For the pastor, interfaith cooperation was a logical extension of his theological liberalism, political progressivism, and spiritual sensibilities. More to the point, not only was his engagement in interfaith cooperation predicated on those perspectives, but he believed that they were prerequisites for any engagement with interfaith cooperation.
Patel says that the
moment raised a set of fundamental questions for me about interfaith work, the most obvious being: Who is excluded in a movement that trumpets inclusivity, diversity, and relationship-building?…
Nick had taken a different route to the house of interfaith cooperation and, when he arrived, was greeted by a guard on the front porch and told in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t a place for him.
My experience during fifteen years in interfaith work is that this is pretty common. Evangelicals are on the outside and are frequently invoked as somewhere between the foil and the enemy.
The second issue it raised for me was more fundamental—namely, what is the purpose of interfaith work? Is it to bring together theological liberals and political progressives of various religions to share how their different faiths brought them to similar worldviews?
That’s what the pastor wanted, and what he was accustomed to in such settings. He had come to the event hoping to commune with his friends from a range of faiths who felt comfortable in those three rooms, and perhaps to invite a few more folks in.
But if this approach excludes, and potentially raises hostility toward, faith groups, then it ought to raise the question of just what it is we think we are doing in a movement called “interfaith.”
In the remainder of his article, Patel proposes that the “primary purpose of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual views.”
It is essential that we examine our assumptions about how we actually do interfaith work, how we actually define universalism.
What if we discover that our actual practice is to exclude or to shy away from or at least to feel uncomfortable interacting with those spiritual neighbors with whom we disagree religiously or politically or behaviorally?
How do we allow ourselves to be “made tender” by this discovery, so that the boundaries of our interfaith work, our universalism, open even wider?
I encourage Friends to read the whole of Patel’s “New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement.”
There is always more room in our hearts.
And so it is.
1 Nick Price, the evangelical Christian mentioned by Eboo Patel, has a series of articles at RELEVANT Magazine. He also writes regularly on his own blog, Prodigal Preacher.
“Christians are calling for prayers, and for peace and reconciliation, in the wake of recent violence in Tanzania (Danish Bible Society / Creative Commons),” from “After Beheadings, Can Love for Persecutors Spark Revival?,” on Charisma News (3/27/2013).