Monday, September 5, 2016

A Redefining of Interfaith

A Redefining of Interfaith

By: Rev. Jay Speights, D.Min.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center Survey, the number of Americans not identifying with any organized religion increased from 35,000, 000 to 56,000,000 or 22.8% of the U.S. population since its 2007 study, putting this group ahead of Catholics and just a few percentage points behind Evangelicals. It is important for us to understand where our burgeoning Interfaith Movement fits among these 56,000,000 Americans not identifying with any organized religion. This group has many labels, the unchurched, nones or unaffiliated.

The overwhelming majority of the nones might just be like-minded people, who do or could, fit comfortably under contemporary interfaith umbrella. If this were true, this would place us at the nucleus of the 56,000, 000 nones. By attaching ourselves to this larger demographic and being more expansive about our own identity, our Interfaith Approach takes on new meaning. We are larger than we think and perhaps we are entering a new age of enlightenment.

You could argue the labels like none or unchurched do not capture the essence of who belongs to this group of 56,000,000. Proper labeling for groups and individuals is important and can be diminishing. We see the effects of this everyday. If there is negative intent behind the label or if it does not quite capture the essence what is being labeled, prejudicial filters come into play. By referring to 56,000,00 people as unchurched, nones or unaffiliated is negative labeling and implies that there is something wrong with not identifying with an organized religion. There is an implication that conformity is valued as well as prescriptive living.

Many of my friends, my interfaith community and this author are part of this 56,000,00. According to the Pew Survey, these 56,000,000 people span all age groups and racial and financial demographics. Surely many of us have received far more than enough admonishments and challenges about our spiritual choice and some have most likely experienced shifts in relationships as well. Religious affiliation is a major part of self identification and community acceptance. It is still broadly assumed by many Americans that everyone should belong to an organized religion and that preferred religion is Christianity.

Another way to define this group of 56,000,000 is The "Spiritually Liberated". Who are they? The spiritually liberated could be those who have deeply pondered the mystery of creation, the theology of their particular faith tradition, relationship with God and decided that they no longer need to stretch to conform to the demands of a particular religion. They could also include those who have yet to experience God firsthand, and do not find the sacred text of mainstream religions or their theologies either compelling or relevant to their condition and life path. This is probably what comprises the overwhelming majority of this book.

Let's not forget that globalization has caused cultures and faith traditions to interact more frequently and on a deeper level. Through these encounters, many find reason to question and challenge their religious beliefs and tenets and decide on a new path. The mobility of our globalized society has also resulted in mixed marriages and extended families where a child or children may identify with a religion other than the ones of either parent. Thus creating a household of multiple belongers, where all traditions under the roof are honored and maybe practiced. It is far easier for members of these households to identify as none as far as religious affiliation is concerned.

There are other important factors to consider. First, some in this group could have found organized religion too confining, not expansive enough and are more purely ecumenical in their beliefs and find truth and wisdom in many religions. There are also the "true seekers" who are on an earnest journey to find a path. Of course there are also those with who  are now more than ever, more comfortable with no longer identifying with a faith tradition for the sake of identifying and conforming to fit in with a community and are stepping into their authenticity.

All of these people are moving towards a form of "Liberating Spirituality”, where there are no interposing middleman such as a the institutional trappings associated with organized religion stretching them with burdensome demands, which creates such an overwhelming inner tension that compels them to separate or risk the total subjugation and diminishment of their Divine Unique Inner Light. In moving into this Liberating Spirituality, they are no longer constrained by the guilt of considering other truths as it relates to God and existence. This Liberating Spirituality is based on a Divine experience calling them to be wholly vested in their uniqueness and a new understanding of creation where many become aware of the unity of all things.

This Liberating Spirituality is usually based on a Divine experience resulting in a deepening where you become wholly vested in your uniqueness with a new understanding of creation and an awareness of the unity of all things. The spiritually liberated find comfort, guidance, healing, solace and wisdom in the tenets, rituals, sacred texts and practices from many faith traditions, that can be applied in life, spiritual practices and ministry. It is a complete redefinition of Interfaith because it is a departure from a compartmentalized based approach where faith traditions are honored but seen as largely different with some common truths. Liberating spirituality approaches the various faith traditions as uniquely revealed Divine Expressions of universal truths. It is a true celebration of the gifts of diversity.

The search for sameness is a search for conformity. It implies a need to affirm your truth and that, that truth is the standard for judging all others. This is the basis for most of the global inter-religious tension and conflict.  There is no room for diversity in this worldview. It's us against them or Christian against Muslim, Muslim against Jew, etc. Differences become the basis for dialogue and the filter for determining the value of other beliefs. This need to be absolutely right in your truth makes that of any other group wrong and therefore your enemy.

A search for a different truth, one that may challenge your core beliefs, and to embrace it, is a movement towards what Howard Thurman referred to as "restoring the memory of a lost harmony". This lost harmony is a reference to the Garden of Eden where all things were equal, different and a glorious manifestation of The Grand  Divine Design. Eden represents an inner awareness of the unity of all things.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Indiana Religious Freedom Bill and LGBTQ discrimination

 The Indiana Religious Freedom Bill and LGBTQ discrimination

By: Edwin Greenlee

When the Indiana State legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in late March of 2015, and Governor Pence signed it, they had no idea the political firestorm that their actions would cause.  Social justice groups throughout the country saw this legislation as a way to use religious belief, ambiguously defined, as an excuse by some businesses to refuse to serve someone if doing so would “substantially burden” their deeply held religious beliefs.

In the context of the legal struggle around marriage equality, it has been federal courts, including the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals which is responsible for Indiana, striking down as unconstitutional state ‘defense of marriage’ laws which prohibited same sex couples from marrying.  As a nation we await arguments before the US Supreme Court this month and the Court’s decision that will most likely be issued in late June. The question that the Court has charged the attorneys with arguing is whether there is a constitutional right to same sex marriage under the 14th amendment.

In the midst of court action striking down the “Defense of Marriage Acts” (or DOMAs) throughout the nation, a number of states, beginning with Indiana, has responded by passing “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” which purportedly enhance freedom. But in any state that does not explicitly protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, this new law would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate and those individuals and businesses that discriminate would be protected by the law. 

Such laws are full of ambiguities and difficulties. Different actors and actions would burden a person’s “religious beliefs” if they were a Unitarian Universalist, a progressive Reform Jew, a member of the United Church of Christ or the Society of Friends (Quaker) than if they were a member of fundamentalist nondenominational Christian Church.  Often laws like this assume that religious individuals are conservative, Christian, biblical literalists who oppose same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose.

And what about individuals who profess a progressive religious faith that is burdened daily by racial and gender discrimination, governmental cuts in our social safety net programs, and by an economic system that is dramatically unequal?  Religious individuals and the values they hold encompass a wide range.  In the sphere of religion, government has no business in choosing those whose values will be supported and those whose values will be ignored or suppressed.

America has a long history of the separation of church / religion and the state.  Both church and state suffer from entanglement. While freedom of religion allows you and me to affirm particular religious values, it does not allow either of us to enshrine our beliefs into law.  Particularly if doing so would discriminate against other individuals.    Many political pundits see the Indiana law, and similar bills in Arkansas, Georgia, and a number of other states, as concessions to the political far right.
As we have seen since Governor Pence signed SB-568 into law, no one is happy with these laws. Most prominently, not only are LBGBTQ advovacy groups showing their displeasure but so are large businesses like Apple, sporting groups like NASCAR, church groups like the Disciples of Christ, and even Angie’s List.  Discrimination of any sort is bad for business. It is bad for communities and states and nations. It is bad for America.  And discrimination is particularly bad for churches and other religious organizations.

As some commentators point out, discrimination of all sorts have employed the rhetoric of religious freedom.  Wake Forest Law Professor Michael Kent Curtis found that “many segregationists justified racial bigotry on the very same grounds that religious conservatives now hope to justify anti-gay animus. In the words of one professor at a prominent Mississippi Baptist institution, “our Southern segregation way is the Christian way . . . . [God] was the original segregationist.” [1] When twenty-first century religion builds on a history of discrimination in America and allies itself with politicians from the right, more and more Americans will come to the conclusion that organized religion is more about discrimination and hate than love and justice. That is NOT a comfortable place for Americans in 2015. Religious leaders and individuals of all faith traditions need to offer dignity to everyone; to embrace those who society casts to its margins; and to strive for a world of equality where the ugliness of discrimination is something to read about in a history book, not to create in our communities and our nation today.

[1] Michael Kent Curtis, A Unique Religious Exemption From Antidiscrimination Laws in the Case of Gays? Putting the Call for Exemptions for Those Who Discriminate Against Married or Marrying Gays in Context, Wake Forest Law Review, 2012,

Edwin J. Greenlee is a student in the D.Min. program at The New Seminary and co-editor with Rev. Nathan C. Walker of Whose God Rules?  Is the United States a Secular Nation or a Theolegal Democracy published by Plagrave/McMillan. He is a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. With a law degree, and an academic background in social science, Ed is particularly interested in questions of religion and the state in the contemporary US.