Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: the Eye-opening, Hope-filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and a Sheikh
by Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman. SkyLight Paths, Woodstock, Vermont, 2009. 183pp. www.skylightpaths.com
Reviewed by Thomas Ryan, CSP
Three “interfaith amigos” in Seattle, Washington, celebrate the shared healing wisdom, compassion, and vitality at the heart of the three Abrahamic faiths. A recurring theme: This is not about conversion. “In fact,” they write, “our experience has been just the opposite. Each of the three of us continues to experience a deepening of our roots in our own faith tradition as these roots are nurtured by wisdom teachings of other traditions. We feel more complete in our spiritual identities because of our sharing (3).”
Most of us would say that we respect each other’s religions, but the reality is that we probably don’t know very much about each other or each other’s faith. This presents us with an opportunity and a challenge. How can we get to know each other? The authors highlight five stages of the interfaith journey, devoting a chapter to each:
- Stage 1: Moving beyond separation and suspicions
- Stage 2: Inquiring more deeply
- Stage 3: Sharing both the easy and the difficult parts
- Stage 4: Moving beyond safe territory
- Stage 5: Exploring spiritual practices from other traditions
In the Stage 1 chapter, each tells the story of his own journey to interfaith encounter. “Each authentic spiritual tradition has special gifts to bring, gifts that can help us all in our journey,” shares Reform Rabbi Ted. “Although deeply in my own Jewish identity and tradition, I continually seek to celebrate the treasures in all faith paths. And when any faith, by announcing itself to be the ‘only way’ to God, inhibits this celebration, I understand that faith to be essentially diminishing the very God to whom its adherents pray. We are in this life together, and our greater happiness comes when we are able to support each other in meaningful ways” (38).
Moving into the deeper inquiry of stage 2, each of the three share what they consider to be the core belief and timeless teaching of their own tradition, and reflect upon it. Pastor Don chooses Love, embodied in Jesus words, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). Rabbi Ted selects the Sh’ma Yisrael: “Listen, Israel, Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One,” referred to as the “watchword of our faith” from Deuteronomy 6:4. Sheikh Jamal, raised in the Sufi tradition, works with what is said to be the heart of the Qur’an, encoded in the formula called Basmala which opens all but one of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an: “In the name of God, boundlessly Compassionate and Merciful.” The reflection of each is rich and edifying.
But there is always more to the story than the gold at the core of our tradition. There are things that we might rather not share with one another, either because we are uncomfortable with them ourselves or because we imagine that others will be uncomfortable with them. In stage 3, the Pastor, Rabbi, and Sheikh get into the “difficult stuff” that requires a relationship of trust, balancing it with some “good stuff.” Each shares on three levels: What I am uncomfortable with in my tradition, what I am grateful for, and what I want others to know about my religion. At the end of each chapter, there are some questions for the reader, and here the authors ask whether in our relationships with those of other faiths we are ready for this stage. They propose a point of entry: Sharing some of the ways in which you think your own faith is misunderstood, and then moving into the questions above, around which they have structured their own sharing.
In stage 4, Moving Beyond Safe Territory, they take on “the elephant in the room”: Perspectives on Israel and Palestine. Each of them share their experience of both sadness and gratitude in co-leading a trip to Israel-Palestine. For Pastor Don, “There is a sense of imprisonment that keeps each side from hearing the other. For Palestinians, it is the reality of displacement. For Israel it is the deep need for safety and security.” On a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, jealously divided into spaces by the different Christian traditions, but aware of how this is but a microcosm of the larger picture in Israel and Palestine, Rabbi Ted asks: “What if, instead of hiding from each other, we could remember our connection to each other? What if we could awaken to the true teachings of our faiths behind the establishment of our religious institutions?” For Sheikh Jamal, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and suppression of the Palestinians’ rights is a symbol and stark reminder of Islamic hopelessness and helplessness in the modern world. The way forward, they write, is in each side naming and sharing its truths, both negative and positive, for when our truths are no longer hidden, there is the greatest opportunity for growth. We are ready then for the second step towards healing: Both sides must offer and seek forgiveness. Real problems have never been solved through violence, suspicion, and hate. Reconciliation is the only path to real peace.
In the fifth and last stage of interfaith dialogue, they propose stepping into the other’s shoes by exploring spiritual practices from other traditions. Each of the three, from their own subjective experience, lift up some the practices that feed them personally within their own tradition. Then, in the final chapter “There Is Always More,” they take it a step further in relating an experience that will be controversial (they acknowledge as much themselves in their end-of-chapter questions) for some in all their faith communities.
In the context of a reflection on inclusive spirituality, they share how they always look for the universal that brings them together, how “for us, inclusive spirituality relates to the realization of Oneness . . . the One we seek, is a shared One—there is only One.” Don, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, then relates an occasion when the three of them were going to preach together on the golden rule at his church on, as it turns out, communion Sunday. Don, with a reference to how the Jews had recently shared bread and wine with him in welcoming the Shabbat, decides to invite them to share in communion and to serve the bread at the communion service under the auspices of his church’s Open Table policy, asking his people “to reflect on how the presence of a rabbi and a sheikh could remind them of the greater embrace of a loving and a welcoming community (166).”
While they clearly state that “we are not recommending that interfaith participation in communion be standard practice,” one is left wondering whether the “otherness” of the “other” is nonetheless obfuscated in such “crossing of boundaries,” whether this kind of action exemplifies the slide toward syncretism. There continue to be different world religions because there continue to be some significant differences between them. Each one has its own inner, sacred story, and ritual that grants access to that story for its followers. The example in this case is further complicated by the lack of unanimity among Christians as to the significance of sharing in communion at the Lord’s table.
Further, and more to the point in the framework of their book, the situation Pastor Don describes exemplifies how stage 5 in the interfaith journey is itself fraught with a certain tension and controversy inasmuch as it is proposing not multi-religious prayer—wherein prayers of different faith communities are juxtaposed or presented in serial fashion—but integrative religious prayer wherein adherents of different faiths actually pray together.
There is a limited range of possibilities here, some of them being more accessible than others. For example, a Jew, Christian and Muslim might pray some selected psalms together. But a rabbi is not likely to ask a Christian or a Muslim to read from the Torah in a synagogue service, or a Muslim to ask a Jew or Christian to get in the prayer line at the mosque as the profession of faith involved in the prayers is essentially all that is required to make one a Muslim. Similarly, I think many if not most Christians would see participation at the Lord’s table as appropriate for those who have professed faith in Christ as savior.
The book thus ends on a somewhat uncharacteristic note, as a recurring theme throughout has been that the authors do not seek to minimize their differences but to learn from them. And along the way they discover that the encounter has the surprising effect of deepening their roots in their own tradition—perhaps because they have been able, through the lens of another’s tradition, to appreciate hidden depths within their own.
Getting to the Heart of Interfaith is a worthwhile read, and offers a valuable window into the new frontier of interreligious relations through the lenses of three who have been consciously exploring it during the past decade. They render an appreciated service by “laying down their lives” in these pages for the benefit of the increasing number of people who are, with map in hand, seeking compass bearings on a journey of their own.
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC