Speaking with others

This seems to be my month for it – last Wednesday, I was at a wonderful lecture by Dr. Eboo Patel, one of the founders of the Interfaith Youth Core, a group that seeks to “1) build widespread public support for interfaith youth work; 2) equip youth-focused institutions to positively engage their religious diversity; and 3) cultivate long-term impact by emerging leaders in this movement.” He’s an extremely engaging speaker, and if you’re at all interested in interfaith community building or youth leadership in any area of your life, and get a chance to hear him, take it.

What he said definitely made me think. Not only about how this plays into general life – but where and how the Pagan communities fit into it. (Note the plural, there.)

My background:
I have, in many senses, always been a religious pluralist, because to be anything else ends up denying some part of my background. My mother is the child of a highly assimilated Ashkenazi Jew (Hungary and Vienna, in specific) who married a Catholic woman in 1935. My mother was born in 1936, became a refugee in 1938, just after the Anschluss, when the family ended up in Northern Ireland – a place of tremendous religious conflict.

My father grew up Church of England, became Catholic to marry my mother, they became Episcopalian a few years later (this was pre-Vatican II – if it hadn’t been, they probably would have stayed.) They returned to the Catholic church when I was 11 (some 20+ years later), and I went through the formal conversion process then too.

I was an active and devout Catholic until sometime late in college, when I began closely evaluating my own religious life, and ended up in the tradition I now practice (a Wiccan-based, initiatory, mystery, and priesthood focused practice.) My siblings have had similar changes in their lives, though none quite as varied as mine (theirs have been between different varieties of Christianity).

Point remains: pluralism is an obvious choice here. Given that life history, how can I think that any single faith tradition holds the only truth. I do believe that different traditions call to different people for different reasons – and that that’s a good thing. But back to Dr. Patel.

Diversity, pluralism, and three things an interfaith leader can do:
He talked about diversity and pluralism. He considers diversity a fact – something obvious when you look at the world around you. (And especially obvious last night: we had every range of skin color, a variety of religious dress choices, and a vast range of ages.) Pluralism, on the other hand, is an action and an achievment.

He also laid out three things that an interfaith leader can do.

1) Leaders define reality.

Leaders take a major role in defining a paradigm – something that Obama did powerfully in his campaign, to pick an obvious example. We’re all responsible for how we define, view, interact with the world around us.

Patel suggests there are two major paradigms when it comes to pluralism. The vast majority of people are religious pluralists at some level – they believe in treating others with equal dignity, mutual loyalty, cooperation for shared interest as a recognition of our shared connections. This is a shared ethic, no matter what their specific teaching or practices might be.

On the other side are religious totalitarians – those who believe that only their group should dominate, that others should be subject to their decisions. Patel argues that ‘totalitarian’ is the overall group – within this, there are Christian totalitarians, Muslim totalitarians, Jewish totalitarians, and yes, Pagan totalitarians. (Ok, he didn’t say that last one – but most of us have come across at least one or two.)

To define reality, we have to know who we are, he says. And boy, does that ring true with a lot of my magical and religious training. Know thyself, says the carving at Delphi, and many philosophers.

2) Leaders expand their own knowledge base:

Here, Patel asked two questions. First, how does my own faith tradition speak to pluralism. And second, how does our nation, our community, speak to pluralism?

I don’t know about you, but my own training, my own tradition spoke very little about pluralism outside the Pagan communities (in other words, we talked a lot more about interacting within the broad Pagan community rather than outside it.) This is understandable in a lot of ways – we had a lot of other things that were also important to discuss, and interfaith work beyond the Pagan community was not a major focus of my teachers.

But I’m a high priestess now. How do I move this forward into those conversations I’ll have with my own group members? My covenmate and I have already been talking about some of this – how do we start having those conversations, in coven, about the parts of our lives that many shy away from.

I want to have conversations – regular, deep, meaningful conversations – about the kinds of diversity presentations I did last week. About going to church with my brother and his family last Christmas. About how I can respect my mother’s deep faith (and support it) even though it’s not my own. (I also want space in which we can talk about relationships, and family, and how we make financial decisions, and all sorts of other issues, and how our faith and practice informs all of these choices.)

This doesn’t mean I want to dictate choices to anyone else – all of us come from different places, with different current needs, concerns, obligations, and everything else. The right choice for me might not be the right choice for someone else. But I want to have the conversations, and to hear other opinions, and to explore more deeply the basis for my own choices.

Patel also talks about shared values. By this, he doesn’t mean the things like what we think a family is, or where life begins, or any number of other issues. But he does mean things like hospitality, mercy, integrity, sacrifice. Different people, different communities, different religions make varied choices about how we do these things. But we do share a lot of them.

I don’t know about you, but I can see resonance in that list. While many Pagan paths – mine included – do not focus on mercy – we do talk a lot about sacrifice. About sharing food and drink with one another. About how we create loving, caring, healthy communities. We talk about the power of words, and about acting in accordance with our magical workings. I might disagree with someone on what those values lead me to choose – but we can still talk about the core ideas together, and gather new ideas and experiences.

3) Leaders have the skill set to make it real

Patel suggests that America’s great philosophical invention might be pragmatism. We are a country that needs to see it to make it real. Thoughts and ideas are nice – but it’s not until we see them in action that we begin to truly believe and act accordingly.

Leaders need to, then, have the skills to make things real. The Interfaith Youth Core is based around shared service projects that bring together people of different faiths, while working on something of service to the community. Sometimes that’s providing food. Sometimes it’s building houses. Sometimes it’s some other kind of service – but they all have a physical result you can see, touch, take pictures of.

Leaders also need to have the skills to evoke discussions – about what we share, what we differ on, on how individuals are inspired by pluralism.

Where does this leave me?

I was left thinking about a number of things.

Within the Pagan community, we see certain ongoing tensions – between people who practice initiatory, mystery, priesthood traditions, and those who use the term Wicca far more broadly. Nearly every conversation about this raises hackles somewhere. I find myself thinking about better, clearer, ways to have that conversation.

One way is for specific communities to clearly define their terms (“On this list, we define Wicca as…” is clear. People may not agree, but you can’t say they weren’t told.) I’ve had good luck with the argument that using clearer terms makes it *easier* for people to find the path that they’re really looking for, and to focus on the resources and communities that do that. (Where if we use Wiccan or Pagan for everything, it’s much harder to sort out.)

More than that, how can I make that conversation go even better? And, in thinking it over, I came up with several ideas. I welcome yours – and I think it’d be lovely if people out there picked one or two of these or similar ideas to spread in your own personal network of people and groups.

1) To directly acknowledge someone’s sincere desire for community.

Sometimes, it seems like we can jump a little too quickly to the definitional arguments. I’m not saying we shouldn’t go there -but I want to take a step back, say “You’re looking for community, here’s some different terms/names you might want to learn more about” rather than leaping directly into the argument about terms. The “Maybe what you’re looking for is better labelled as X, and here’s why.” conversation.

Not only is it a little kinder, but it’s probably more practical – people are less likely to be defensive when it’s put that way.

And I want to do more to encourage finding community – when that’s possible – that’s open to different perspectives. And to say “Even if you aren’t X, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t post to this list/have this conversation/hang out in these spaces/whatever – it just means you might want to be clear about where you’re coming from somewhere. Sometimes, these things get tangled.

2) To talk more about what things we do share

Realistically – I’m not talking the fluffy amorphous “we are all children of the goddess, the universe is a kindly place, and we dance with the unicorns and rainbows” thing. But we can talk about things like different approaches to hospitality, to interconnection, to building community, to how we live our daily lives and what we value.

I can – and do – do this with my friends and with my covenmate, and in some other settings. But I want to start doing it a little more often at work, and in other places where the conversation might come up. I want to start occasional threads on the Pagan forums I’m on talking about basic values like this.

Starting conversations and keeping them going about topics like this is not something I’m hugely good at. (I’m not horrible, mind you, but I’m not great.) One of the things that obviously needs to be on my list is learning more skills to do that better. (I have some ideas, mind you.)

3) To help create spaces where deeper conversations about differences and similarities can happen.

Pagan Pride is one of those for me. So are the conversations I’ve been having this year at my workplace. Pagan Pride’s a big event – but there are lots of ways to contribute that don’t take as much time. There are things like our local Coffee Cauldron, and other events and forums in the community.

My behavior is also a part of it – how can I help support spaces that encourage deeper conversation? How do my own actions come across? What happens if I change my phrasing, or post a few more shorter comments than I would by natural tendency. None of this means giving up reasonable boundaries or things I care about – it just means it’s worth looking at which ones are doing what I want and seeing if there are alternatives. Sometimes there might not be – but sometimes there will.

I’ll try these out and see where they take me. I plan to come back to this and talk about this in a few months, with things I’ve done and how they’ve gone. Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments!

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