Saturday, October 5, 2013

Interfaith Outreach: a cup half empty, or half full?

Tonight I accepted the invitation of Michael Trice and the School of Theology and Ministry of Seattle University to attend a dinner and talk by Father Francis X. Clooney (Jesuit priest). Father Clooney's credentials are quite impressive, not least of which is living in Nepal and India and learning Sanskrit and Tamil! He's written fifteen books on the subject of Hinduism and Christianity (Catholicism, esp.) and had much to share with the group about the points of intersection between them.

The group was more or less representative of the Seattle metropolitan area "Hindu" community. I didn't get a full range of names or temples represented but the Vedanta Society was certainly there and many others as well. The intention behind the evening was to initiate dialog between our local groups with Seattle University and its forward thinking interfaith activities and curriculum, with Fr. Clooney as the magnet and spokesperson.

Fr. Clooney's story is compelling. You can "google" him and find a great deal of information. Here's just one link to Harvard Divinity School where he is a faculty member:

Interfaith efforts are a mixed bag, however. In part because only the faithful come. The ignorant or bigoted simply do not. Nonetheless, even at such gathering, there are those who want to pound their chests in saying "My way is the best way (because the most universal!)" and others, who, though likely possibly much to contribute, do not do so because respectfulness is the essence of interfaith! Then there are those who secretly hope to promote their own cause in case there are newbies present who are searching. Sigh!

Ananda Sangha in the greater Seattle area promotes interfaith through two doorways: for adults, we operate the East West Bookshop (; for children, the Living Wisdom School (  In both places, Ananda members share the traditions of spirituality of east and west which honor one another with a broader view.

Interfaith education is useful whether for children or interested adults. Only by understanding the faith traditions of others can we find bridges and links to our own and thereby wipe away ignorance and sow seeds of mutual respect.

Most orthodox believers however have no interest in learning about other faiths: afterall, even if a few were to imagine other faiths at least equally efficacious, they themselves aren't interested. But most don't think that, I suspect and therefore not only lack an interest but harbor, perhaps, a suspicion that to expose themselves would be to risk catching a disease.

In this they are, perhaps, correct, oddly enough. In listening to Fr. Clooney's remarkable story it was obvious he is not the usual Catholic Jesuit priest. His life was most certainly influenced, indeed transformed, by his exposure to Indian traditions and scriptures. One of the participants asked him if he'd encountered any push back from higher ups or the Vatican but he said he hadn't. Nonetheless, he is not typical: whether of priests or laity. Those dogmas of his church which would tend to hold Hinduism at bay were clearly sublimated by those aspects of each faith which were shared in common: and they are many.

Thus at the heart of interfaith dialog is the very "clear and present danger" of influence and transformation. In Fr. Clooney's case he would probably say that the experience deepened his own faith. Interestingly enough, however, he didn't say that. But, for his sake, I would assume it to be true. But he would be the exception, because both intelligent and spiritually mature.

Fr. Clooney was clearly suspicious of the typical response to interfaith education which says, "Well, all faiths are the same, then!" This dilutes all faiths at the risk of not deepening one's own. He obviously has this issue "down!"

Thus there exists a resistance based on fear by religionists in exposing themselves to interfaith. To make it worse, there's nothing more cheesy (in my opinion) then participating in the rituals and prayers of another faith for the sake of doing so for its own sake. There sometimes exists in the goodwill and good faith of interfaith proponents an inclination toward syncretism: concatenating dissimilar rituals and beliefs in the hopes of honoring each of them! To me that lacks vibration and sanctity. Well, admittedly this is a personal opinion. I don't mind someone demonstrating their ritual or telling their stories provided they can universalize their meaning so I can understand and appreciate it.

My point here is that interfaith efforts, though needed and high minded, are somewhat artificial and very much like "preaching to the choir." If individual faith traditions themselves introduced an unbiased survey of other faiths in order to help their adherents place their own faith in the broader context of humanity and culture, then that makes sense to me. Or, if individuals seek out interfaith activities for the same purpose or during their personal search, that makes perfect sense.

The gatherings I've gone to, however, are typically of those of various traditions coming together, all too often with mixed motives, objectives, and their own prejudices, owing in part to the fact that each one is a representative of his or her tradition and thus feels a certain need to uphold, defend, or promote it.

On the other hand, so-called scholars who attempt to objectively represent such traditions do so poorly, because lacking in the heart quality of intuition that understands not only the form but the spirit behind the form.

Interfaith is like a teenager: all arms and legs, awkward, and unsure of itself. It must needs be done and I will support it when I can. I applaud those dedicated to its mission of education and mutual respect. I am grateful that the Sanaatan Dharma tradition brought to the West in the form of Kriya Yoga by Paramhansa Yogananda is innately universalist and respectful. I don't personally have a pressing need to delve into the details of other faith traditions for I respect them all and recognize, when exposed to them, the core precepts which true spirituality necessarily affirms.

I believe that the best form of interfaith lies within each faith to find at its own core the same truth precepts that have inspired other traditions. Honoring its own tradition and expression of faith, let each reach out in gratitude, recognition and respect while yet diving deep for the pearls of wisdom and love within itself. Teach one another these core precepts and to recognize them in all, and little more will be needed.

Joy to you!

Swami Hrimananda aka Hriman