Interfaith Doesn't Mean Interchangeable
Our task is not to exclude others nor to deny our differences, but to find the core teachings that unite us.
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.
When I meet with couples prior to marriage, I often ask, “Should your relationship not endure, what would be the cause? What do you know about yourself and your partner that might become a difficulty in the future?”
Most couples are taken aback by the question. Some insist that there is absolutely nothing that could tear them apart. But my experience has taught me that there is a shadow side to all our dealings in life, and that shadow side can cause us great distress. When people are unaware of their shadow, or the shadow of the other, I wonder if they know each other well enough to enter into the commitment of marriage.
Awareness of our own shadow, the disowned parts of ourselves we wish to deny and hide from others, allows us to know more quickly when that part of ourselves manifests. Awareness of the shadow side of a relationship can help us notice when we are going down roads that will only lead to pain.
If each of us carries a shadow side—the disowned self that contains qualities we do not wish to have—then it is likely that the institutions we create will also have their shadow sides.
Like any institution, our religious institutions possess aspects they want to publicize as well as parts they do not: a shadow side that holds their disowned aspects. Although, for example, a religious institution may have emerged to support a spiritual Teaching, its primary concern can turn from supporting the spiritual journey of its members to strengthening its own position and power.
I don’t know of any religion that openly claims strengthening itself as an institution as one of its primary objectives, yet it is pretty clear, through the activities of most institutions, that such an objective is frequently present. This is part of the shadow side, the disowned self that often causes turmoil and confusion. I am convinced that this is the side of religious institutions that supports exclusivity and superiority. The institutional ego often functions just like the protective personal ego, seeking to prove itself better than others.
Sheikh Jamal, Pastor Don, and I continue to explore the shadow side of our own religious institutions and texts. This is a part of the focus of our work. We strive to take responsibility for probing the exclusivities and the prejudices of our own traditions.
We believe that the urge toward exclusivity is actually not part of the essential core teaching of any of our religious faiths. My colleague, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, reacting to a radio interview we gave, has accused us of neglecting the differences among our faiths:
In other words, the Three Interfaith Amigos are amigos not because they have learned to transcend their differences, but because they have no differences. The religions these three clergymen represent are so liberal as to be almost interchangeable.
Once you abandon the exclusivist claims of each of the Abrahamic religions, you have to ask yourself why you would choose to maintain loyalty to one or another among them?
Over the eight years that we have worked together, Jamal, Don, and I continue to explore the very precious differences among us. Judaism is not Christianity is not Islam. My Jewish prayer is different from either Jamal’s Muslim prayer or Don’s Christian prayer. Our holidays and observances, and even our languages are distinct. Our histories are different, and our position in the world is different.
Here is the essence of what we have discovered. Each of our traditions has a central core teaching that transcends the particularity of each tradition. Thus, the Oneness awakening within Judaism, while evolving within a Jewish context, is an offering to the world. The Unconditional Love that is such a clear focus within Christianity is bigger than Christianity, and the Compassionate Surrender to God that imbues every sura of the Qur’an expands far beyond the Muslim community. The core teachings are meant for the world.
We are convinced that religious institutions have tended to confuse the teachers with the Teaching, and part of our work is to identify and to celebrate the Teachings that help us reach beyond ourselves. We can then utilize those Teachings to discover the particulars within our faiths that help us actualize those Teachings. We can also delve more deeply into those that require more commentary and interpretation in order to have them do so.
This is very different from ignoring our differences, even though we might not have been as clear as we wished in the interview that Rabbi Rami heard. We are grateful for comments like his that allow us to amplify and to clarify our work.
Samuel Harris, in his condemnation of the Abrahamic religions, writes that he began The End of Faith the day after 9/11. Interestingly enough, we also began our work immediately following that tragic attack on our people and on our innocence. Our task, however, is not to condemn our religions, but to reclaim their essential teachings, which can help us heal our planet and ourselves.
In this work of reclamation, we realize that we need to confront the aspects of our faiths which have been used to support hatred and violence in the world. In so doing, we seek to celebrate, to renew, and to share. We seek to deepen a spiritual dialogue in order to collaborate more effectively and more lovingly in the work that is before us.
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rabbi Falcon has taught Jewish traditions of Kabbalah, meditation, and spirituality for over thirty-five years. He is the author of A Journey of Awakening: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Tree of Life and co-author, with David Blatner, of Judaism For Dummies.
Abraham to Descendants: Knock It Off! Sarah van Gelder interviews the Interfaith Amigos.