Saturday, December 23, 2006

Learning from Interfaith Awareness - Closing remarks for IAW9

IAW9 – Closing Celebration – Monona, Wisconsin


For theme: Tolerance and Understanding

Closing of 9th Annual Interfaith Awareness Week in Wisconsin


Learning from Interfaith Awareness

By Rev Fr John-Brian Paprock


Delivered December 16, 2006 at Monona Public Library



If there is an inherent balance and harmony in the natural world, regardless of how it came to be, and I am only a small part of the natural world, then why do I keep bumping into others?    I don’t mean in the synchronistic “hello” at the supermarket or post office.  Whose fault is that?  I mean a metaphoric push and shove, tug and shake, that seems to be going on constantly - offending, defending, assuming, prejudging and sometimes outright hating.  I assume this can be done in ignorance as accidental stumbles do happen, but we all recognize the greater harm that is done by those that know better; those that act with understanding and purpose.


The difficulty is maybe I’m “not the one out of synch” – at least not always. If I am, then my personal faith practice of the tradition of my spiritual ancestors can give me guidance and correction.  If I am not, then what?


I can act with love and compassion when I am “bumped into” whether that is physically, emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually – whether it is intended or not.


In Orthodoxy, we go to God for our personal propensity to knock into others and remain out-of-balance.  But it seems that the whole of this world is out of balance, and it is easy for others to bump me out from the good that I might do.  Sometimes fear drives me toward the less compassionate response, the self-indulgent sort.  It seems most of the people prefer to hunker down and isolate. It easier to be alone or isolated than to be bruised and bloodied in the spiritual anarchy that seems to dominate.


What is true for an individual can also be said for groups of people, even nations, most especially, and perhaps most problematic, is that the troubles of society can happen in small groups, churches, religious and spiritual communities – but are wrapped in the guise of high spoken morality with words like, love, truth, unity, harmony, peace, etc.


Perhaps in a signal of our puny efforts and mistaken focus, throughout Holy Orthodoxy, there are chanted prayers for peace – we pray for everyone, everywhere.  One of the great Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov, said that “when we find inner peace, thousands around us will be saved.”  An elder once told me that the experience of peace and love are never personal.  He also told me that it is also a sin to cause another to sin.  My spiritual elders and ancestors seemed to understand that we are in this all together.


Nevertheless, it seems that matters of spirituality and religious practice have been relegated to personal activities. Freedom of belief sometimes breaks down to “leave me alone” and everyone in families with members of diverse faiths, which is a growing population in America, has had to do battle on the frontiers of  family interfaith events, whether they were intended to be frontiers or not.  In this era, this is a wondrous development. Not the family fights, but rather the objective allowance for each to come to the knowledge of the truth in their own way and in their own time.


This means, over the course of recent decades (perhaps a few centuries) that a marketplace of religious and spiritual groups has been developed.  In this marketplace, there is often great competition for numbers.  That is, there is a pervading cultural belief that the more people in a group, the more desirable (and therefore closer to God) they must be.  Cynically, it could be said that it is more materialistic than that – numbers translate to dollars in the basket…


Often the decisions to adhere to one particular faith tradition or another have little to do with fundamental teachings anymore.  In a recent study, the number one reason for people to leave their faith community was that they didn’t like another family.  The next was that the programming didn’t fit their schedules or inclinations. Much further down the list was any creed or doctrine. It seems to have become a small factor for attending anywhere.  Yet, it is a common desire for a spiritual home in this world that causes people to go anywhere, even when superficiality has become a dominant decision-making force.


With all the individuality of modern culture, the pervading desire is to “fit in;” to belong somewhere, anywhere.  With the marketplace that has been created, religion and spirituality become as commodities to be bought and sold, traded in lots or individually packaged. It IS easier for us to pick and choose, discarding the “stuff” we don’t like. The rewards of a deeper spiritual commitment seem to pale in comparison to the apparent richness of choice.


Like a so many markets (clothing, grocery, electronics, etc), how many regular customers, especially exclusive consumers, become the sign of success. All of the sudden, numbers become the way to keep score in religious and spiritual matters. This has bred a sinister exclusivism that works at the superficial aspects of faith and spirituality – where packaging and promotion dominate the agenda; where the ends justify the means; where identifying your competition is done to exploit their weaknesses (and if they have none, then it is where “stuff” is made up to keep the numbers loyal, fearful of the competition).


This has always been a strange obsession of humanity – “us” verses “them.” 


May we never be so obsessed with another’s faith tradition or practice (or lack of any) that we forget the fundamental benevolent teachings of our own.  It seems silly perhaps to think that any adherent to any of the great religions and spiritual practices of the world could spend so much time practicing the antithesis of their own fundamental teachings.  One teaching that is shared is the golden rule that sparkles in its universality and shines in its practicality.  I am often reminded of what a kind old Russian Orthodox monk, with his long white beard, once told me: “It is more important to be Christian than to make sure everyone else is Christian – that is more than enough to keep one occupied in this life.” 


If I believe in the sincerity and integrity of Holy Orthodoxy, the Christian tradition I practice, why should I be fearful of dialogue and discussion with others who believe differently.  If I take the teaching of Holy Orthodoxy seriously, there is more scriptural and religious teaching about love, hope, and peace than I can ever realize in my feeble work toward those ideals. 


It could be a lack of personal faith that keeps people from such events.  It could be a lack of conviction in the church or religious tradition they self identify.  It could be that they are busy with the secular tasks of business and leisure and have placed all this “spiritual” talk at a low priority.  I hope it is obvious that I believe in the sincerity and integrity of Holy Orthodoxy and that I take its teachings seriously.  If it is not obvious, then pray for me, as it is too easy to diminish the very light within me.


I have to acknowledge that Jesus does say there is no way to the Father except through Him. However, Jesus also said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34).


Love is to act for the good and welfare of our neighbor. God forbid any of us be a cause of stress to our neighbor. Stress is problematic to our physical, psychological, and most important, spiritual welfare. We need to reflect on the words of St. Paul: "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right" (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). First as a Christian and second as a professional, I must apply this admonition to all dealings with my neighbors. Then, with all unworthiness, I suggest that all Christians do the same to lessen the distress among people. (Note: This idea is taken from an essay by Fr. George Morelli on stress.)

It becomes imperative, then, that I learn to dwell more with my neighbors and less with the competitive marketplace of the American secularization of faith, spirituality and religion.  When I bump into someone, regardless of fault, I have learned to act and speak in politeness and courtesy.

(structured pause here)

There remain real places of disagreement and misunderstanding among spiritualities and religions.  Sometimes, it is very difficult to sit in a room where everyone has already consigned my soul to heaven or hell – often by simply reading my name and religious affiliation or looking at my outward appearance.  It is also difficult to disregard years of serious study and discerning practice. Maybe because of this, it remains difficult for me to reject TRUTH and beauty regardless of its earthly source and I have found it helpful to listen to others.

In this 9th Annual Interfaith Awareness week, I listened to the speakers and to those that did not speak – to what they said openly and privately.  I have five areas of consideration for the future of interfaith awareness activity:

1. Awareness can dispel ignorance, but is not a cure.  We still need to define “interfaith.” It is not a new religion. Although there may be those involved that believe that there will be one true religion, or that there already is one (and the rest of us just don’t realize it is theirs yet), Interfaith Awareness Week is only acknowledging the reality of our current existence; one where diverse faith traditions and communities already coexist in our society, sharing the same roads and neighborhoods in a free republic.

2. Diversity is about differences.  Interfaith activity is primarily a place to acknowledge those differences.  Confronted with that, we still managed to have a week of peaceful interfaith events.  The choice to be involved or not is entirely up to individuals and groups as they see fit.  […Even though I have been known to ask with great enthusiasm.]

3. Fear of conversion, and/or the “pushiness” of those of convicted belief, still keep some people from attending, speaking and sharing.  We acknowledge everyone speaks from their own training and experience; that authority and agreement are not required for interfaith dialogue. If we accept any, then we must accept all. So if “pushiness” is part of their faith, then that too needs to be acceptable in the fullness of what Interfaith Awareness Week was intended.  I have found interfaith dialogues are poor places for conversion of others.  On the other hand, interfaith activities are safe places and times for seekers to come and hear about different faiths and beliefs, to find, perhaps, direction toward what they seek.

4. The “marketplace” that I spoke of has so increased in its influence that many are not comfortable utilizing the public square where interfaith activity in general, and Interfaith Awareness Week in particular, happens. There are some that see an implied endorsement of competitive “products” by attending. 

5. Demonstrations of cooperative activities among faith groups and diverse individuals, such as planning and participating in the events this week, are important as a secular world would have all issues of faith marginalized.  There are those that benefit from a competitive spiritual “marketplace.”

(structured pause here)

I am grateful for this year’s events and the truly interfaith effort of a multifaith committee with coordinators of different faith traditions. 


(Give an extemporaneous review of activities - the meetings at Perkins, the logo design, the library displays, capitol displays, the activities, pod-casting, blog, etc. here)

As a conclusion, let me tell you more of what I am. I am an Orthodox priest. The root of the word for priest means “bridge.”   I hope that I am a good bridge today.  A good bridge is grounded and secure on both sides.  It is built to be a safe way to get across, from one side to the other. It is utilized for traveling, but is not the ultimate destination. A good bridge is a landmark, a signpost, a point to gain perspective, a place to mark distance. Whether over a small stream or a great chasm, a good bridge should also be a place where the view can be taken in, the soul refreshed and the journey nurtured. [If it is used frequently, it is built up a bit. If it is not used it will disappear.] The numbers of those crossing will determine a bridge’s structure as well as its need.

If I have been anything of a good bridge, then that is a success.  However, if only one person crosses to the other side safely, then the bridge has succeeded marvelously. Hasn’t it?


I am honored and privileged to be here in Monona and to be part of the closing event of the 9th Annual Interfaith Awareness Week. 


I want to thank everyone for their participation whether in little or in much and wish to express my sincere hope that peace will prevail, if we let it.




1 comment:

susan said...

I read your post with great interest. We have more in common with other religions than we realize. I was told once by a Jesuit Priest that all ways ultimately lead to God. We believe that this is the shortest and right way.
One thing about the Kingdom of God is that there is no personal victory. No one wins, until everybody wins.
Thank you. Merry Christmas.
Susan Eapen