Monday, July 25, 2011

Inter-Faith versus Multi-Faith

I've had the incredible bounty of working with a number of interfaith groups over the years, and it is because of this that I have also had the opportunity to learn a bit about the perspective of a lot of my co-workers in those groups. This has been a source of great joy to me, and I am very grateful for all those who have helped educate me. (Oh, I also need to really extend my love, thanks and gratitude to the Universal House of Justice for their letter to the religious leaders back in April of 2002, as well as One Common Faith, both of which really helped clarify what I think is the Baha'i perspective of the interfaith work.)

Recently, though, I have noticed what I would call a disturbing trend. It seems that a number of these interfaith groups are now changing their names from "interfaith" to "multifaith".

"What's in a name", you ask? Sometimes not much, but I think this is significant. After all, inter- and multi- have two very different connotations, and the fact that people are actively going out of their way to change it means that they are consciously feeling that one is more appropriate than the other. If this were not the case, it would be a lot easier to just leave the names as "inter-".

As I said, though, the connotations are quite different, and I find it sad that these groups are going from the one to the other.
When you interlock your fingers, you are taking your two hands and mingling the fingers together. The implication is that there are two separate things that are working very closely together, and in unison. When I think of the ideal behind this movement, the interfaith movement, this is what I envision.

Multi-tasking, on the other hand (no pun intended) (and if you believe that one...) , is when you use two separate hands to do two different tasks. They are not working together, nor are they necessarily united. They are working separately from each other.

Over the past few years, I have noticed another disturbing trend in the interfaith work in which more and more individuals are getting hung up on terms, refusing to translate the words that others use into their own terminology, and therefore becoming more reluctant to work together. Now this is, of course, only individuals of whom I speak. This is not indicative of the groups they represent. In fact, the rhetoric from the groups seems to be more inclusive. But, still, their actions appear to be more fractured.

When people argue within these groups, for example, that they don't do "religious" work, they only do "spiritual" work, and fail to see the overlap, there seems to be an issue of unity. Of course, in those groups where they are still using the phrase "interfaith", issues like this tend to be negligible. In the other groups where people tend to get hung up on semantics, the issue appears to be getting worse and worse.

I realize that Baha'u'llah said that "No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united", but I don't think that means we should give up on seeing unity in the world. And so, dear Reader, I am left asking myself what I can do about it.

I think I can look to no better example than Baha'u'llah, Himself. In the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Book of Certitude, He gives us a very profound example when He describes some of the Messengers of God in the first dozen paragraphs. He is very careful not to describe what makes each of Them unique, but rather devotes the time to describing what They have in common. When speaking about Noah, for example, He does not refer to the Flood or the Ark. Instead He talks about the tests and trials that Noah faced as a divine Messenger.

Similarly, when I am engaged in interfaith dialogue, I try to help show what we all have in common, as opposed to what we each bring that is unique. If one person has problems with the word "prayer", then I think we need to see what is meant by the term, and how we can look to the concept rather than the word. If they happen to use the word "contemplation", fine. Perhaps we can use both terms, or switch back and forth. Or maybe we can agree to just translate for ourselves. Otherwise we run into the problem of one person wanting uzum, another anab, a third stafi'li, and someone else wanting grapes, without realizing that they're all the same thing.

When working in the interfaith (or multifaith) arena, there is the presumption that we are all trying to help make the world a better place, and that we are all trying to get along. If we aren't, then what are we doing there?

And if we let a simple thing like a the difference between "spiritual" and "religious" get in the way, then perhaps we should re-examine our motives.

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