Transfaith and Interfaith

Note-This Service had three parts that tied together.  A children’s part (Story for all ages), a description of the Transfaith movement, and the sermon titled Transfaith and Interfaith.

Story for all ages:

Welcome.  There is a Jewish tradition called Midrash where you tell the same story but with a little twist.  Telling the same story but changing it a bit here and there can help you explore ideas and learn. Perhaps some of you recognize the mysterious box and remember the basics of a Magic Box story we did a while back.   Imagine if you will, we live in an island kingdom of that’s kind of like where we live now, but kind of not.  Anyway one day the spectacular looking box shows up with stone engraving that says, “Open this in 1 year  and something wonderful will happen”.  Well this gets everyone very excited.   How would you feel if something like this happened?

(Draw out that some are happy and excited.  Raise questions of whether it’s bad or good. “Pandora’s box”.  Try to get a diversity of thought)

Some people in this story think about it and conclude “we must open that box” (The Openers) and others conclude “we must push that box in the sea”  (The Dumpers)  Well the people in the kingdom all turn to the King to see what he says. Now what makes me think he is smartest guy in our Kingdom is that he says “I don’t know”.  He decides that we should discuss it for the next year and then vote and let the majority decide.  Well most have very strong opinions and talking where we disagree is not something that everyone does well. Well the two groups (Openers and Dumpers) start to get very angry with each other.  I’m sorry to tell you if you don’t know this, sometimes grownups can be rude and call people they disagree with stupid, mean or maybe even evil. Sometimes children seem to be better at getting along when they disagree.   Hang on to that as long as you can.   I hope one day you’ll be part of making the world better for open and honest disagreements.

<Now the question for you today is how might this affect your friendships.  What if your good friend there and her family were dumpers and you and your family were openers?  Could you still be friends?  What if you had 4 good friends and 3 felt the same but one didn’t, would you not invite that one disagreeing friend to your birthday party?  Some churches likely would insist that all their members must feel the same way on this important issue.  Maybe they’d read a holy book to find the answer or a leader would figure it out through prayer and their members would be told the “right” answer.  We’re a little freer to have diverging opinions here.  But what about us at here could we still meet together when some of us disagreed on such an important issues?  Could we put our differences aside in the mean time for example to work together to collect cans for a food bank.  It could be hard.  Could we celebrate our differences on such an important topic? (Before going on let’s poll for group and see openers or dumpers).  We kind of have a majority here. Do you think it’s likely that our minority would continue to feel welcome as this issue gets more heated?

Imagine this situation most of us want to get rid of the box.  But we live in neighborhoods where almost everyone want’s to open it and also we work and go to school with people who are “openers” too.  Well, we come here to this congregation and we are happy to find many others who share our feelings. Although our principles and sources don’t really give us an answer it’s so good to be with others who agree and we start to think it’s part of this special place and we start celebrating it here and many act like it’s assumed UUs all feel that way.  The “openers” start to feel like outsiders and some stay home more.  Over time they really are a minority and this place is all about dumpers.    How do you keep something like that from happening?  I wish I knew the answer to that. That’s a good thing to talk with your parents about later, how do you treat others who disagree with you?> 

There’s a lot to think about.  But let’s pretend that time has passed and the community decided to open the box.  What do we find?

There’s a plaque carved in the finest stone and inlaid with rubies and diamonds and it says “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.     Hey, that’s what we tried to do here about the box.  Be friends and work together even though we disagreed.  Is that a good idea or a dangerous idea? Opinions may vary.  Some would be scared by this and others might think it’s a great idea.   I’d suggest everyone talk about this with your family and share what this means to you.

This saying that “we don’t have to think alike” to love alike is actually a part of our Unitarian heritage. The saying is credited to one of the founders of Unitarianism called Francis David. <pronounce Da Veed> He must have had the magnetism of a rock star.  He converted most all of Transylvania to Unitarianism largely through a debate with a leading Calvinist minister.  Then when the King, Sigismund of Transylvania decided to choose the one religion to be allowed in all of Transylvania, Francis David showed he was a real hero.  The different religions at the time were all saying “choose me, choose me”.  Well King Sigismund liked Francis David the best and was going to choose him.  But our hero Francis David said, why don’t you allow all the religions to have churches here in Transylvania and let each person pick what they think is best. Wow! That’s exactly what the King did.  He issued the edict of Torda in 1568, which was the first major step for both interfaith unity and religious freedom.  It is said to have been a major influence on Thomas Jefferson.  Can we have different opinions and beliefs on important stuff and still get along? Francis David a Unitarian hero thought so.  I think that’s why he’s credited with saying “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.  We might not always be able to remember and live that but it’s worth trying.


The Transfaith movement

Transfaith is a new idea that puts a twist on the traditional interfaith perspective.  Some call it the new interfaith.  I don’t know if it will go anywhere, but it’s worth considering.  Transfaith is to interfaith as Google plus is to Facebook. In Facebook you tend to have a single wall with everyone out there.  Grandparents, college friends, coworkers, schoolmates, tennis partners, crazy Uncles….   A post can produce a flurry of conflicts that may eventually lead to hurt feelings all around. As a result, some of us clam up on Facebook and don’t talk about anything of significance.  Others of us stick with our principles and find our friendship base narrowing as our cousins, high school friends and others desert us.  Something’s gained and something’s lost with either approach.  Now Google plus is designed to have independent and overlapping circles of different sizes encompassing all kinds of groups.  The design is to allow spaces with differing behavioral expectations for sharing, debate, like mindedness, learning, and action. This interlocking circle approach can help to both to unify and broaden connections among people. Transfaith is hoping to do work the same way.

Most of the work in the Transfaith movement is happening on college campuses where younger people are challenging conventional thinking.  As is often the case with youth, they may have a mix of good and bad ideas.  I am not advocating or criticizing any of their particular issues today. I’m asking you to put such considerations aside and focus on their overall approach.  I’ve been keeping my eye on The Illinois Secular Student association (or ISSA) for a couple of years as an experiment as to how well their approach works and where it leads them.

They agree with core ideas of the interfaith movement. They want to build bridges and reduce the walls between people.  They advocate that people of differing world views come together for service projects and to learn about each other.

They diverge from the traditional interfaith perspective on some important issues.  One is they would like the tent to be more inclusive and welcoming to all people.  Interfaith implies it is just for people of faith.  Interfaith literally means between people of faith perspectives but  Transfaith is inclusive of  people from non-faith perspectives. Whatever your name or orientation, you can sponsor events identified as welcoming to Transfaith perspectives.  But the traditional campus interfaith groups have generally not been receptive to that type of outreach.

The most serious problem the secular groups have with traditional interfaith groups is that these groups have harsh views on atheist activism.  Members of the ISSA tried to participate in the youth interfaith movements.  They saw that interfaith activities served to unify, support, and protect religious groups that actively opposed equal rights and other pluralistic initiatives.  When atheists on their own time spoke out on issues of importance to them, they were called divisive.  They were lectured that Interfaith was about building bridges and that they should show respect towards ideas grounded in faith.   What they heard from interfaith leaders was that Interfaith was all about tolerance, acceptance and respect so you guys need to shut up and quit being stupid.

It seemed to many that if they wanted to work with people of faith they would have to abandon activism to work solely on outreach.  The ISSA however, wanted to express their concerns and values by speaking out and also work with others on service projects.  They believed they could criticize religious ideas and still work with religious people.     Their understanding was   that  genuine respect for people can not include respect for all their ideas.

So, how did that go? It is one thing to talk about how we might think the world works or wish it would work, but here we have a real experiment we can observe.

Activism was easy for the group and it got most of the attention in 2010.  They debated the Catholics and had a mass condom give away along with information challenging the Pope’s position that condoms help spread HIV.  This was done on Good Friday and called a REALLY Good Friday.  They debated and engaged with an evangelical student group called the Navigators, angering more than a few of their members in the process. But they really earned the ire of campus interfaith communities when they disagreed with the Muslim Student Association.  Protesting calls for censorship punctuated by death threats to Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Southpark fame, they planned to draw stick figures on campus sidewalks and label them Mohamed.  The Muslim Student Association wrote a very nice letter asking them not to.  They wrote back a nice letter insisting they meant no disrespect to the local community, but that they would take a stand on free speech.

National and local leaders of the youth interfaith movements pounced on the ISSA.  Newspaper articles and blogs castigated them. Their critics offered the observation that they could have made friends, but instead they only made a stupid meaningless political point.  They could have built bridges but instead they put up a wall.  Conventional wisdom was pretty down on the ISSA at the end of 2010, but what happened in a year?  Something wonderful or something horrible?  Did they throw away their chances to build bridges?  Had they demonstrated that since they didn’t think alike that loving alike was impossible?

A lot happened the next year and we’ll focus on their outreach. A Catholic college professor at Illinois University was fired for teaching traditional Catholic doctrine in a University course on Catholicism.  The ISSA and one of their leaders, Ed Clint, spoke up for the professor’s free speech rights. Noting that they personally strongly disagreed with Catholic teachings, they were equally adamant that the University was treating Dr. Ken Howell unfairly. Dr. Ken Howell was incredibly impressed by the magnanimity of Ed Clint.  I wish I had time to read you the sermon Dr. Howell delivered titled “The atheist as a good Samaritan” or share some of the words of praise and love the local Catholic community heaped upon Ed Clint for his principled support.

In 2011, the evangelical Navigators and the ISSA become major friendship groups as did the Muslim Student Association and the ISSA.  As a matter of fact, the ISSA became a bridge between the evangelical and the Muslim groups, fostering their friendship.  They also held service activities with the Campus Jain association, the Newman Catholic center and other religious and civic groups. The activities included board game nights, charity bake sales, Q&A sessions, debates, disaster relief and humanitarian outreach efforts.  They had a lot of fun and accomplished a lot of good. The ISSA won awards as an active student group.

Why was this group so successful? Why did they have a wonderful year? Maybe it was just a fortuitous group of people in a fortuitous time. But perhaps it’s because honest relationships are more real, more valued and more interesting.  Feigned respect and excessive carefulness may be stifling. Maybe celebrating diversity is better when we’re more honest about our diversity.

While they have flaws as every group and person does, I credit the secular student groups for their efforts to seek a balance between unity with all people whether of faith or not and their own freedom of expression. I’ll close with some quotes from Ed Clint from the Transfaith movement.

Respect is not a prescription to never argue, it is the guarantee a chair exists for my rival at the debate table, equal to my own.

The Transfaith philosophy is not about saying that Interfaith, its proponents or critical message is bad or wrong. It’s that the discussion about who is right or wrong about activism is irrelevant to the work.

<Separating> activism from cooperative efforts means chucking the Interfaith-y notion that theists are so feeble and immature that honest criticism will drive them away. To us, such a view is not respectful. It is an insult to religious people, which we should not abide. Some theists (and atheists) really are immature or insecure such that they can bear no criticism- but this cannot be presumed as some sort of rule of thumb. By default, the Transfaith view is that theists and atheists can bicker and argue, debate and protest… and when we’re done disagreeing, roll up our sleeves and work together on common projects. We know that honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.

Hmm… Honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.  That sounds a lot like what was inside the magic box.


Transfaith and Interfaith

The good thing about today’s service is that you can disagree with everything I’ve said and its ok with me.  I don’t believe we have to think alike to love alike. Nor do I think that disagreeing with any of a person’s ideas is a denial of their inherent dignity and self-worth.  I may sound crazy to you, as I’m sure many don’t see criticism and challenge as part of a path to better relations. I don’t know if I’ll change any one’s mind about anything, but I’d like to hope I can plant a seed. I will raise questions from one background perspective, but more information from other perspectives will be needed for the best answers.

I like the idea that you don’t have to fit into a mold to be here.  I love the start of the service when we say whoever you are you are welcome.  But those feelings disappear whenever someone say’s something like, I’m so grateful to be here where everyone feels the same as me. When I hear that I think, Uh oh, if I don’t feel the same am I really welcome here?  What if I change my mind later?  Am I an intruder? Continuing the internet example, am I a troll?

Francis David’s words run through this service, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike”.  Loving alike suggests unity.  Not thinking alike suggests freedom and diversity. We value both unity and freedom but must recognize that there is a strong tension between the two.  Each needs the other but each can also crush the other.  Francis David may have said we don’t have to think alike to love alike, but I’m almost sure he never said it would be easy or that it would come to us naturally.  It doesn’t JUST happen.

An appreciation for loving alike may come to us more naturally than an appreciation for diversity of thought. We have so many inner drivers that make us want to be accepted and liked by others.  There are not, however, as many drivers that push us to appreciate the value of getting along with those who have uncomfortable differences.  Especially today, since our culture, media and technology allow us extensive opportunities to isolate ourselves from those who think differently and seek reinforcement from those who think alike. Positive models of disagreement seem to be increasingly rare.  From experience many of us may mostly know the dark ugly side of disagreements and seek to avoid or minimize any important perceived differences.  It’s a huge problem when the feeling that we must think alike becomes embedded in the core of our communities.

Celebrating diversity and encouraging freedom are often imagined as having positive attributes only.  Rose colored glasses provide the assumption that differences are only superficial and that we all agree at the core.  It’s hoped that diversity will bring only joy as in the sharing of foods, stories or other cultural treasures.  The truth is, it can be very hard to accept those who have ideas you disagree with.  But accepting hard differences is part of belonging to a truly diverse community.  With true diversity others’ opinions will challenge and frustrate you at times.   If there are no hard differences, you probably don’t have a diversity of any depth. When people insist we’re exactly the same underneath or that our words are different but we mean the same thing that may be the hollow ring of a shallow approach to diversity.  Thinking that different religious world views underneath are all the same except that they use different words and stories is fine as a belief system if that works for you. But if you insist others share your view, you may be a friend to unity but you are not a friend to freedom or diversity. 

Honest disagreement with respect can be somewhat like fire.  If controlled and careful it can provide a warm and comfortable hearth.  But let disagreement get out of control and it can become a destructive force.  Surely some of us are too reckless in our willingness to disagree and we need to learn caution, but on the other side some are too cautious and fearful of disagreements.

UUs face the same frictions that drove the launching of the Transfaith movement.  What tradeoffs will we accept between unity and individual freedoms?  Should we be like Facebook with only a shared wall where we are very careful with what we say? Or should we try to be more like Google plus and Transfaith where we have a big circle and smaller circles with differing relationships and rules?  Can we learn about each other as we find different forums to speak our individual and collective truths?

How free is everyone to be themselves? How careful do we have to be about others?   We want a safe space where the sharp edges of some of us don’t cause great harm as they bump into the soft parts of others.  But if everything is soft and fuzzy we lose something as well.

We are trying to build a home here where we can all come together as gentle, passionate, likeminded, fiercely independent individuals seeking rest, respite and the challenge of growth.  You have to admit, that doesn’t sound easy.  Surely that is a challenge for even a curious, courageous and compassionate people.

Frequently UU congregations lean toward a particular flavor.  One approach or mode of belief or style often becomes more central in the congregation and then the majority becomes less welcoming to those who differ.   I’ve heard there are congregations where there is little tolerance for spiritual language ever or even the consideration of anything beyond the natural world. Other congregations skew heavily the opposite way. Comfort in unity can cause congregations to drift away from freedom and diversity.

Let’s imagine this congregation going in two very different directions.

We could have a congregation of a couple hundred people that really did pretty much always think alike on most important topics.   This could be highly successful and it might be just what most people want in a congregation.   The narrow model certainly works for other churches and it might be the model providing the biggest happiest possible congregation we could have.  It would be a great home for some of us, but not so welcoming to others. The overall thoughts and beliefs shared through a narrow interpretation of our principles could be consistent with mainstream of UUism, but would a narrowly welcoming place really be Unitarian Universalist?

On the other hand this congregation could become big tent where any ideas are welcomed and we forget unity such that we grow to be a place of argument and division where we can no longer speak truth with compassion and love.  I doubt that such a place could survive, but in any case it would not be UU.

It’s a challenging road between the ditches of excessive unity on one side and excessive freedom on the other.      It raises the question of how big a tent we should have and who and what ideas are welcome in it?

I believe the UU tent, our congregation tent, interfaith/Transfaith tents, and our own personal tents must allow for unity and freedom and we should be willing to put up with some discomfort for that.  For the sake of freedom and diversity we need to learn to be comfortable with disagreement.  Maybe our golden moments are not just when every head in the room is nodding and people are smiling but also include times when we find ourselves shaken and contemplatively considering each other’s challenging truths.

As this service wraps up, I’d like us all to consider how we feel about the interfaith/Transfaith differences.  How narrow or how wide do we make our core of who we might meet in fellowship, work and love?  Certainly Unitarian Universalism is supportive of interfaith outreach.  I don’t know how open we might be to the new Transfaith type efforts. Do we, or should we, give people operating outside the faith perspective an equal chair?  It’s not only people in secular communities who might criticize faith perspectives.  For example, some in the Pan African movement see the Monotheistic religions as obstacles impeding African political unification.  They call for a relearning process (which is inherently critical) of some faith positions.  Are they outside our tent?   Or can we allow arguments both for and against faith perspectives? Can we treat people with differing perspectives on the faith divide as equals?   I‘m not sure how we’d collectively respond to that.

Should we encourage traditional interfaith to become more like the Transfaith umbrella?    What is your perspective on interfaith versus Transfaith efforts within the greater society?  What seems more valuable to you, advancing faith, advancing non-faith or bridging the two?  If you have  loved one’s on  the other side of the faith divide that might be easy to answer.  What gives us a better chance of making a more peaceful world:  Convincing everyone that deep down we are the same with only trivial differences, or learning how to better get along despite known deep visible disagreements?

Ed Clint of the Illinois Student Association (ISSA) seemed to echo Francis David’s words when he said honorable women and men can disagree and remain friends.  Should he and the ISSA be the model for the big tent with his noble thoughts and goals in that direction, or do the divisive activities that disturb the interfaith unity disqualify them?

Early Unitarians had a problem with a leader who like Ed Clint was endangering the interfaith consensus.  David Ferenc held positions that were highly offensive to others in the interfaith movement of his time.   He spoke against their language of reverence. Many saw that language as a critical part of inter-faith commonality.  He respected Jesus, but based on his Unitarian perspective he did not think Jesus should be worshipped, adored, prayed to, or referred to as a deity.   His group was variously known as the old Unitarians or anti-adorationists.  His former mentor Georg Blandarata led an opposing new Unitarian faction which pushed for unity above individual freedom.   Despite cautions from his mentor and others, Ferenc continued to speak out and write papers challenging the inter-faith orthodoxy. Should David Ferenc have softened and played semantic games?  When they said knock it off David, he kept writing papers on the subject and preaching his vision.  I can imagine others telling him it’s ok to feel that way, but don’t go after others’ beliefs. Build bridges, show respect.   Why couldn’t he quiet down and gloss over his differences to please others?    He was an activist much like the ISSA students in Illinois.   David threatened the interfaith alliance by his actions.  What should have been viewed as more important, David’s freedom or the support of the greater inter-faith community?

The conclusion at the time was to side with unity.  The early Unitarians pushed Ferenc outside the tent.

Did the Unitarians of that time stand on the side of love by standing with unity or would the side of love have supported freedom?   I’m sure that was a very hard call to make at the time.  Do we stand on the side of love by supporting the unity of current interfaith perspectives or is the side of love with those who would include activists?  I don’t think that one is easy for us today.

Let’s find out a little more about David Ferenc.  You might accuse David Ferenc of being strong willed and stubborn, but you can’t accuse him of being an enemy of the interfaith movement.  David Ferenc is just an alternative translation of the name Francis David.  He was our Unitarian hero who magnanimously started the interfaith movement.  The movement he had so generously given birth to, had in its push for unity mowed down its major benefactor.  King Sigismund was dead and David’s Unitarian friends turned on him.    Principled but not political Francis David was judged to be a blasphemous innovator and died shortly after being incarcerated in Banda prison.  This hero was buried in an unmarked grave.

A poem was reportedly scrawled on the wall of his cell which included these words:

No power whatever can stay the progress of Truth. What I have felt I have written, with faithful heart I have spoken.

The balance between unity and freedom is critical.  Too great a focus on unity poisoned the early interfaith movement.

People and institutions all lose focus, make mistakes and get off track at one time or another.  One of the great things about UUism is that it is a religion that intends to learn, grow and change.  More remarkable than that, it allows and encourages individuals to learn, grow and change.  The challenge for all of us is: what do we learn, in what direction do we grow, and how do we change?  How do we balance unity and freedom? How do we balance diversity and common purpose?  How do we as individuals, as families, as a congregation, and as part of greater movements work to create spaces where people can come together in the understanding that we don’t always have to think alike to love alike?

There’s no Magic box, but maybe working on a Transfaith perspective can lead to something wonderful.

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