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On the Meaning of Interfaith

“These Bible study groups for married couples are getting bigger and bigger,” the man across the table from me said to the guy sitting next to him.  “There’s a waiting list; we really need some more people to volunteer to host them.”

“I know,” the other man sighed, shaking his head.  “People just don’t seem to get that they need to volunteer for things when they want them to happen.”  

I was annoyed.  I have outgrown a lot of my childhood social awkwardness, but I still generally avoid mixing with people outside of events in the Earth Spirituality community; yet here I was at a Sons of the American Revolution quarterly dinner and members’ meeting. Because it would have been selfish to sit in miserable silence especially after my husband David had waited so long for me to actually be home for one of these events, I had spent the day ramping myself up to be charming and sociable. I had already tried to engage the man next to me in conversation, only to discover that he was probably at about the same phase of Alzheimer’s as my mother-in-law, reducing our conversation to a one-sided and circular diatribe about how his attorney had stolen from him, sold his family home for next to nothing and destroyed his grandmother’s documentation of the family heirlooms.  The other two people at our table were so ancient that they appeared detached from the here and now, perhaps contentedly dreaming of their younger days. And here were these two men, who clearly worked closely together on a regular basis, talking shop at the dinner table while David and I sat in uncomfortable silence.

I found myself thinking that we might just as well have spent the money and gone on an actual date.  

“At my church,” I finally interjected, “we are very good at getting people to walk the walk.”

Both men seemed startled, and possibly a little irritated.  How dare I eavesdrop--let alone comment upon--their private conversation!  “And how do you accomplish this?” the one on the left inquired skeptically.

“Like this.”  I put my hand on David’s shoulder and smiled.  “David, you’ve done such a great job today, we’d like you to take over this project.”

Both of them looked utterly flummoxed.  Apparently although this sort of interaction might be perfectly normal to a Four Quarters regular, to them it was a novel idea.  “Where do you go to church?” the other one asked, his polite tone only barely concealing a challenge.

“Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary,” I replied matter-of-factly.  “It’s about three hours southwest of here:  I go out once a month.”

Another pause.  “So,” the left-hand man ventured, “it’s non-denominational?”

“I prefer the term interfaith,” I replied.  “It implies that we have faith.”    

Back in 2006, when I first became a Four Quarters Member and had not yet been touched by the Four Quarters Gentle Art of Persuasion, the Farm’s association with the word church made me supremely uncomfortable.  It brought to mind memories of my childhood in Catholic school; Jehovah's Witnesses at my door at 8:30 on a Saturday morning; and the perennial busloads of Baptists picketing Pagan Pride Day in Dover.  

Now, after seven years as a Member, and having been on the receiving end of the aforementioned gentle persuasion so many times that I now serve as a Members’ Advocate, I’m grateful that Four Quarters can call itself a church.  It is this designation that allows me to backdoor myself into ecclesiastical conversations like the one related above because I can say things like, “I’m a church leader and I can participate in your Obviously Important Church Leader conversation.”  

Besides qualifying as a conversational “win” for me, this transaction also brought to the forefront a question that had niggled at the back of my mind for a long time:  what is the general definition of interfaith and how does it apply to practices here at Four Quarters?  

 Before addressing that question, I would like to share the diverse definitions gleaned from my exploration of several online sources: 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines interfaith as “involving persons of different faiths.” defines the term thus:  “...regardless of one’s spiritual belief (or no spiritual belief) we can all get along...Interfaith establishes a moral common ground by focusing on the similarities between faiths, understanding of values, and commitment to humanity.” calls it “Satan’s Trap--A Six-Lane Highway to Hell”.  

By contrast, nondenominational can be used either to describe something similar to Four Quarters or a Christian church which entertains all Christian groups.  I dislike this term, not because it can be associated with Christians, but because of that “non”--a negative prefix.  Instead of “interfaith”, which immediately tells you what Four Quarters is, “nondenominational” (which is also cumbersome enough to require its own line on the stationary) tells you what we are not.

I don’t know about you, but I would prefer that people know what we are.

As an Interfaith Sanctuary, Four Quarters welcomes people from all religious backgrounds, from those who like to attend formal rituals to those who are on solitary spiritual paths.  In our interfaith setting, no one’s religion is “right” or “the only way”.  We feel free to express our beliefs in the open, either in discussions or as the many altars scattered across woodland and meadow alike.  We hold ritual in the Stone Circle--clearly a northern European influence--but no one complains when it is used for ceremonies involving Santeria or ancient Egyptian religion.  The Circle is for everyone.  This concept is best expressed in our twice-monthly Church Services, each of which is conducted by a different person or persons and attended not just by people of the same spiritual leanings but by a broad cross section of our Membership.  

With the possible exception of the Unitarian Universalists, most mainstream congregations have memberships comprised of individuals who, even if they do not share exactly the same spiritual views, are like-minded enough to be considered homogenous, rendering the idea of radically diverse services improbable.  By contrast, the Church at Four Quarters is exactly the opposite:  our Members’ different opinions, varied practices, and open mindedness create a rich spiritual tapestry characterized by an eagerness to learn about each other’s beliefs--and an appreciation for their diversity. 

Unfortunately, although they are included by interfaith’s  very definition--that no one’s spirituality is wrong--both of the world-dominating religions:  Christianity and Islam, stand in direct opposition to the doctrines of this philosophy.  Claims by practitioners that theirs is “the only way” makes it difficult indeed to visualize how they would fit into a setting such as Four Quarters.

Many come to the Earth Spirituality community with a first-class aversion to Organized Religion:  it is the common thread--the common villain--in their stories.  Like myself, they arrive at Four Quarters gun shy of the word “church”, recalling the heavy obligations associated with membership and the overwhelming feeling that their churches “owned” them.  If they were Catholic, they remember holy days of obligation, confession, and people having to practically sign their children away if they wanted to be married in their own church.

So should people of these faiths--with these beliefs, and possibly armed with a boatload of prejudices--be welcome at Four Quarters?  Should they be permitted to hold services at Four Quarters, in our Stone Circle?

I imagine that some of you are asking yourselves how I could possibly even entertain such a question about the very same people who declared that interfaith was a six-lane highway to Hell. 

Even for me, this is a thorny issue.  My husband is Presbyterian, but is a patient and ethical man, who has on more than one occasion had to withstand the intolerance some Four Quarters Members have--and think everyone at Four Quarters shares--for Christians.   (Yes, this has happened, and yes it has happened more than once.)  He loves me and tries to remain calm when people say offensive things about Christians, and he appreciates when I step into the conversation with statements like , “Hello, INTERFAITH!”  I disagree with the thinking that most Christians hate us and want to kill us (the “us” being “anyone non-Christian”).  Yet while doing some research for Body Tribal 2013, I ran across an article about how Christians had “outed” some of the secrets of a secret society in New Guinea to get people to stop going to rituals and go to church instead, I felt the cold twinge of real disgust.  

Difficult as it may be, especially when I can stumble upon anecdotes like the one above without even looking for it, we must try to remember that the “six-lane highway to hell” or “let’s mess with your cultural heritage” people are not really true Christians.  By all accounts, Jesus Christ was a good man (my opinion of whether or not he was the son of God is immaterial).  Jesus “walked the walk”:  he healed the sick and fed the hungry.  He hated injustice and usury, but he forgave those who truly repented their transgressions.  He did not convert people by subverting their culture (though the Romans and Jews thought he did) but with an approach that has never yet been duplicated by anyone after his lifetime.  If we examine Christ’s life exclusive of everything else, I think you will agree that we cannot transpose the extreme opinions or actions of hateful and misguided sects onto everyday folks who happen to be Christian anymore that we can transpose the opinions of hateful and misguided non-Christians onto everyday folks who happen to be non-Christian.  To put it in secular terms, if you are driving on I-81 and get tailgated, passed on the right, and cut off by a person driving a Ford Focus--who then, of course, slows down the moment he gets in front of you--do you automatically conclude that everyone driving a Focus is a monstrously bad driver?

I didn’t think so.

In a true interfaith setting, personal ethics are far more important than any belief system.  I use the word ethics with great caution, because I don’t want you to confuse ethics with the oft-twisted and maligned concept of morality.  Ethics, and, more importantly, personal ethics, supersede moral codes imposed by society and religion:  the ethical person wants to be good, wants to be someone who can be trusted, and wouldn’t even entertain the idea of breaking basic laws forbidding stealing or murder.  Morality implies that a person is answerable to society’s definition of right and wrong; ethics implies that although still subject to society’s laws, a person is answerable first and foremost to themselves

Four Quarters Members express their personal ethics in many ways:  in picking up trash on the Land; in keeping altar areas clean; in looking after the children playing on the Green.  Personal ethics is what drives them to “walk the walk”--to lead Church Services, to staff events, to serve on the Board of Directors.   Because our Membership displays such behavior, every year sees the arrival of new like-minded people--and the addition of their knowledge and experience, their skills, talents and resources to our already brilliant diversity.

Members of any religion can contribute to our collective wisdom.  Because ours is a community of free will, we don’t have to pretend that we subscribe to everyone’s viewpoint, and we don’t have to attend every single ritual or service held on the Land.  If we feel uncomfortable with someone’s idea of spirituality, we can choose to stay away without fear of being judged.  We might also choose to go to the ritual in order to learn more and perhaps shed some of our preconceived notions--and be met with joy by those we are trying to understand.  

Our shared ethic renders whatever each individual calls him or herself  immaterial:  “walking the walk”--doing the right thing; helping where help is needed; understanding and being understood--that matters.  It is our shared ethic that unifies us and instills in us the conviction to pulling and raise Stones, and it is this ethic that we will pass along to our children and children’s children so that they can continue our work when we have moved on to join the Ancestors.

The universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice.

The language is not Christian, or Wiccan, or Buddhist, or Islam

It speaks in the language of hope, It speaks in the language of trust

It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion

It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul.

But always it is the same voice

It is the voice of our ancestors, speaking through us,

And the voice of our inheritors, waiting to be born

It is the small, still voice that says

We are one

No matter the blood, No matter the skin, No matter the world, No matter the star:

We are One.

No matter the pain, No matter the darkness, No matter the loss, No matter the fear

We are one

Here, gathered together in common cause, we agree to recognize the singular truth and this singular rule:

That we must be kind to one another

Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us.

We are the voice of the Universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light the way to a better future.

We are One.

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