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What Keeps Us From Truly Effective Interfaith Dialogue?

Posted: 12/06/11 01:28 PM ET

By Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman aka the Interfaith Amigos

We began to explore deeper aspects of interfaith dialogue when the events of 9/11 found us surprisingly uneducated and unequipped to meet the negative image of Islam dramatically portrayed by our media. Many years of interfaith programming had not prepared us adequately, so following the shock and the pain, anger from too many people turned religion against religion.

The three of us personally have come a far way over the past 10 years we have worked together. We have become a team with an interfaith message of hope and possibility. We have shared many issues in our work together, and perhaps the most basic is simply: What keeps us from an authentic interfaith dialogue that can help us meet our shared economic, social, and environmental issues together? Why is it so hard to work together?

Our second book, "Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith," published in October 2011 by Skylight Paths Press, focuses on this question. It is clear to us that each of our religious institutions has strayed from their own core teachings of oneness, love and compassion. Straying from purpose seems to be part of being human. We believe it can be a way we grow.

Rabbi Ted Falcon

We go astray personally and religiously when we go unconscious to what really matters in our lives. When we slip into the separate and compelling demands of the ego, we lose sight of our interconnectedness with others. Our ego is the institution of our individuality, much as religion is the institution of spirituality.

Ego, as our personal separate identity, was constructed to support our survival as we grow. But this separate identity tends to experience itself always in competition with other separate selves. Our personal judgments and self-righteousness can become sacred to our separate identity, and we tend to stick to them even when they cause pain to us and to others. Religious institutions operate the same way, helping us identify ourselves, but too often pitting ourselves against others.

Each moment of true spiritual awakening rouses us from the relative unconsciousness of the separate ego of personal and institutional identity. It's not that the separate self is bad, but that it's not the whole of our identity. The separate identity does best when working in the service of a more inclusive awareness.

We believe that the core teachings of our traditions can call us back to the essential spiritual values too often eclipsed by the institutions of ego and religion. We know that the essential work is an inner work, discovering and honoring the deeper aspects of our being. We have ego and we have the institutions of religion, and they are useful and essential to our growing. But they also limit us, and keep us from rejoicing in the more profound spiritual realizations of our absolute interconnectedness with all beings.

In the 8th century BCE, the prophet Amos proclaimed the larger purpose we all need to remember: "So let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Pastor Don Mackenzie

I believe that the claim that Christianity is the only way to healing, to salvation, is not only incorrect, it is the cause of much of the suffering in the world and certainly lies behind the problems with violence, the inequality of men and women and the fear of homosexuality -- homophobia.

The verse most often cited to support the exclusive claims of Christianity is John 14:6: "Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God except by me." Since "I AM" is the name of God announced to Moses at the Burning Bush, it makes sense to me that what Jesus might have said was, "I am is the way the truth and the life." In Hebrew and Aramaic, the present tense of the verb "to be" is frequently understood but not spoken or written. No spiritual teacher would be likely to speak from that narrow place of ego. I think Jesus was talking about God and not about himself. It seems likely to me that the second sentence in that verse would have been added by the writer of the Gospel of John who may not have understood this grammatical construction common to Hebrew and Aramaic, and supported the exclusive sensibility he heard in the first sentence.

Christianity is my way but not the only way.

Imam Jamal Rahman

Perhaps the greatest wound in Islam is the unequal status of women. Islamic traditions have been mired in deep patriarchal bias, causing women to be treated as second-class citizens in many Muslim societies. The result has been a kind of psychic paralysis for both women and men in Islam. The tragic irony is that the Qur'an actually revolutionized the rights of women by granting them property, inheritance and divorce rights. The Prophet invited women to pray alongside men in the mosque and women sometimes sang the call to prayer and even led the prayers. Today, women are not allowed to pray in the main sanctuary of most mosques and their Qur'anic rights are obstructed by male-dominated rulings and customs.

How did this happen? Simply, the radical Qur'anic privileges granted to women were unacceptable to 7th century tribal men who were used to treating women as chattel. Once the Prophet died and Islam spread to feudal societies, male jurists reclaimed their dominance over women.

But now there is good news of exciting ferment and changes. Unprecedented numbers of Muslim women are obtaining higher education and entering professional fields. Female scholars are challenging the stranglehold of male interpretations of the Qur'an. They are debunking fabricated misogynistic sayings of the Prophet that have given birth to harmful traditions. At the same time, Muslim men are awakening to their conditioning and learning to appreciate the truth of a bumper sticker I saw recently: "Feminism is the radical idea that women are people."