Going to the park, to work, to the grocery store or pretty much anywhere today is venturing out into a religiously pluralistic setting. In all of those places, there are bound to be people who profess different religious beliefs than you do, or who profess no beliefs at all. In many of these settings, we keep quiet about our religious views so as not to offend or distance ourselves from others. I wonder, though, if this leaves us saying nothing real at all, and sometimes increases the distance between us rather than bringing us together in actual relationship.
Engaging in interfaith work takes this everyday religious pluralism to a whole new level. For this work, there are no roadmaps, no graduate certification programs, no experts; there are just individual people trying the best they can to forge new paths of partnership and mutual understanding. Because of the interfaith environmental justice work in which I’ve participated for the last three years, I’ve thought a lot about how to be an individual person of particular faith in an intensely and intentionally religiously pluralistic setting. Below are some things I’ve learned; perhaps they are also applicable for your local park or workplace, or for late-night interfaith conversations with your neighborhood grocery clerk (and if you try that, I’d love to hear how the conversation goes).
1. Share your religious story (in a respectful, non-proselytizing kind of way). When you share your story with others, it helps them feel comfortable sharing their stories with you.
2. Know your religious story. In order to share your religious story, you first have to have one. Whatever your religious (or non-religious) tradition is, know it and live it. For me, this means being an active member of my synagogue and engaging in regular study, practice and prayer.
3. Teach, but don’t preach another tradition’s wisdom. Okay, so this one might not apply in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. If you find yourself teaching in an interfaith context, though, this is a good policy. Here’s how this works for me: when speaking with religious groups about caring for the environment, I will quote religious figures or teachers from outside my tradition and offer teachings or stories from other religious traditions as examples, but I will not preach from a text or story that is not my own. Preaching is proclaiming—a heart and soul enterprise—and the only stories I am comfortable proclaiming from my heart and soul are Jewish ones.
4. Acknowledge your limits. Each of the religious traditions of the world is rich enough that we could spend lifetimes studying it and not exhaust its wisdom, so I am the first to admit that while I might know some things about sometraditions, I am by no means an expert in any of them.
5. Share your enthusiasm. You’re talking with people who believe, worship and practice differently than you do—and you want to be mindful of that, and open and respectful. That doesn’t mean you should hide your enthusiasm for your tradition and the teachings that move you the most, though. Sharing your enthusiasm (in a respectful, non-proselytizing kind of way) can open the door for others to share their enthusiasm with you. For example, I can get pretty excited talking about the Jewish practice of saying blessings throughout the day, a practice that cultivates a sense of appreciation for life and creation. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath, “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.” Oh look, here I go getting enthusiastic about a teaching from the Jewish tradition… you get the idea.
I have a good Muslim friend who once told me that in all the conversations she has with people asking her questions about Islam, questions about everything from basic belief and practice to the role of jihad and Sharia law, no one has anyone ever asked her the question she’d most like to answer: “What do you love about Islam?” And wow, isn’t that a great question that we’d all like to answer about our own religion, what you love about it? And wouldn’t it be fun to hear how your religiously diverse friends, neighbors and co-workers answer that question, too?