One of the great challenges for anyone active in the interfaith movement is how to articulate exactly what something so inherently diverse is all about. Generally speaking, interfaith groups fall into one of two categories—both of which, we shall see, are somewhat dissatisfying to the spiritual seeker, philosopher, or mystic.
When the interfaith movement began, it was a wonderful, beautiful, radical idea. It still is. But we are in need of going deeper. There is a risk that in claiming to be all things interfaith ends up mired in superficiality. In this essay, I will make an argument for what I see as the crucial role of the interfaith movement at this moment in history, a moment which I describe as “apocalyptic”.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “INTERFAITH”?
Part of the beauty of a movement like interfaith is its diversity. I’ve noticed that the term means something slightly different to everyone. As a way of talking about the subject, I have created some general categories. These are not meant to be definitive, but to provide a means of having a discussion about how one might speak about interfaith meaningfully. We could look at the categories as the two poles of the movement, the extremes toward which most interfaith institutions gravitate.
The first category I would describe as secular. Groups in this category are interested in dialogue across faiths, but not in the depth of these faiths. Common ground is found, but only in secular areas. Interfaith seminaries have frequently fallen into this category with their emphasis on ministering uncritically to those from various faith traditions. The interfaith minister will often—quite rightly, in many cases—employ this approach in offering a service or compassion to someone whose beliefs they cannot abide—the fundamentalist, for example. Generally, this group is wary of interfaith groups or philosophies that claim to find any spiritual unity or ultimate truth across faiths. Most frequently this category can be associated with various interfaith organizations that attempt to foster religious “tolerance”.
The second category holds that there is indeed a spiritual connection between the faith traditions. But whereas the first group is often far too intellectual, the second tends to be anti-intellectual. I call them New Age Fundamentalists, because, like fundamentalists of the great faiths, they reduce the answer to every question to a simple phrase, rejecting the beautiful, chaotic diversity of our religious world. Moreover, the soul—i.e., the isolated, Cartesian soul—not the world, is the focus. There is a certain self-indulgence in this approach, a fixation on healing the soul, a soul that is entirely apart from what is happening in the world. While the New Age Fundamentalist, like any fundamentalist, claims to draw from an ancient wisdom, only in the hyper-individualized Modern world could such an approach even exist.
The most of obvious critique of the secular interfaith movement ironically comes from the very group that birthed it: academia. Most academics rightly criticize the anti-intellectualism and cultural appropriation of the New Age Fundamentalist. In doing so, they ignore what their own scholarship tells us about the nature of religion: that our religions have never been static and isolated. There has always been an effort to integrate the philosophies of various traditions. One needs only to look at the syncretism of African religions and Christianity in the New World; or the blending of Greek and Jewish traditions at the birth of Christianity; or the integration of northern European traditions and Christianity as it spread across Europe; or the Taoist and Confucian influence on Zen; or the Hindu influence on Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Indian Islam. I could go on.
At the same time, reducing the world’s religions to oversimplified platitudes often reflects a poor understanding. To be an adherent of a faith means more than liking a couple of ideas, more than changing one’s clothes. It means inhabiting a new world. To have any clear understanding of how the world’s religions truly do reflect a shared, integral wisdom—not to mention avoiding a shallow and offensive appropriation—we must understand the underlying cosmology, the essential context in which they arise.
THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT AND THE APOCALYPTIC MOMENT
Each group, while seemingly quite different, actually reflects the same worldview—that is, the fragmentation, literalism, and individualism of the Modernity. The first group is fragmented and literal in keeping with the Western intellectual tradition. Each religion is distinct and separate and we should keep it that way, the logic goes. The second, while appearing to reject Modernity—again, this is just like the fundamentalist—actually retains the core values of the Modern industrial world: the distinct, separate, isolated individual. The soul, in this approach, is entirely separate from the world. In each case, the Modern industrial world’s core assumptions are retained: that each religion, each individual, is separate and isolated from one another.
Why does it matter? While admitting that there are benefits to the Modern worldview as in every cultural paradigm, this one is coming to an end. The apocalyptic tradition—a vast collection of texts of which the canonical Book of Revelation is only one—is remarkable not because of its tendency to be incorrect in its predictions of the “end times”, but because it reveals something about the nature of the human soul. Our world is put together through our cosmology, and a cosmology is as much about the cosmos within the soul as it is about the cosmos in outer space. The great insight of the apocalyptic tradition is that it unconsciously reveals to us that when a worldview comes apart, it is as if the world comes apart; when a cosmology unravels, the psyche experiences this as the shattering of the cosmos. Indeed, this was the profound insight of Chinua Achebe when he entitled his book about the unraveling of a traditional African society Things Fall Apart, drawing from the line in W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”. This is not unlike the way things were “falling apart” during the original apocalyptic period, when Greek culture and Roman power threatened the world of the Israelites; and it is not unlike this moment.
Literally, apocalypse means “revelation.” It refers to that which is revealed when we reach the edge. Often, when this mythic edge is reached, the old ways of doing things, the old consciousness, was overturned. Indeed, we have reached the edge of the Modern world. This apocalypse, like others before it, must involve a reimagining of the relationship between the human and the world that is our home. The question for humanity at this moment is how this end is going to come about. Globalization and industrial capitalism have brought us wealth and inequality, unprecedented individual rights and unprecedented destruction of the natural world. Will the end come with horrific death and destruction that seems imminent with global warming? Perhaps this is unavoidable. Certainly history has taught us that loss and despair will change one’s way of relating to the world. But perhaps we can, in the midst of the despair that is surely a part of life, come to a richer, more enchanted, more meaningful worldview, one that allows us to participate in the rich tapestry of nature and humanity’s diversity.
The interfaith movement can participate in this paradigm shift in several ways.
First, we can reject the fragmentation of modernity in embracing the paradoxical nature of existence. To do this we must connect to the mystical elements of religion and to the nature-based traditions. The answer to the question of “what is interfaith?” cannot be found in avoiding the difficult questions. Our religious traditions are at once deeply interconnected and wildly diverse.
Second, we must understand the cosmologies and worldviews—that is, how a culture sees the relationship between the individual and the whole or the divine—of the spiritual traditions in order to find a deeper, more authentic connection among them. While I do advocate an integral spirituality that sees where the religions interconnect, we must be careful to take a rigorous approach that acknowledges their genuine differences.
Third, we must embrace the insights of science, especially those that call into question the assumptions made in the Modern world.
Fourth, we must express the new insights we have through creativity and imagination. For it is the mythic, not the logical—the Greeks would have called this mythos as opposed to logos—that expresses the core values of a culture.
THE NEW MYTH
When we study the world’s religions, we often spend a great deal of time on the various doctrines of the faiths. These are, of course, important. But we perhaps give them an undue amount of our focus. Modernity has taught us that facts are the most important thing. In fact, when it comes to religion, it is the story that is most important. Indeed, no religious tradition is without a myth. And it is the myth that invites us to participate in that reality, connecting our individual story to the greater one. The mythic is what brings the doctrine alive.
The myth is how the values of a tradition or culture are conveyed. I would argue that interfaith as a way of seeing the world can be a part of the basis for a new myth. That is, the values of the interfaith movement speak to a world that is not fragmented, a world in which we can hold the paradox of two seemingly contradictory facts. If Modernity is marked by fragmentation and either-or logic, the interfaith movement is marked by integration and both-and, paradoxical thinking.
Additionally, interfaith movements can and must uphold certain values that speak to the specific struggles of this moment. I would describe these values as “cosmo-centric”, that is, values that connect us more deeply to the rhythms of the earth, to the story of the universe, to our selves as expressions of the cosmos. For the apocalypse of this moment is the result of isolation from the community of life.
Moreover, we are each participating in the telling of this new myth as we tell our own stories. No individual can create the new myth. It comes together as a tapestry, a story made up of stories woven together. It is unlikely that a new myth will come from the elites alone. The wisdom of the margins is required.
This integration of a new story is how a new cosmology comes forth. In today’s world, I believe that this new cosmology must integrate the insights of modern science the wisdom of our mystical and philosophical traditions. Whereas the myth of Modernity was based on the notion of the universe as a machine, the new myth must be of a sacred, organic universe. Whereas the myth of Modernity was based on a fragmented world in which each of us is independent, the new myth must teach us that we are interdependent and interconnected. In Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, I describe the fundamental metaphor to build from is that of the universe as our womb, and its unfolding a process of continual birthing. This is the work of the mythmaker, the poet, the artist.
Thomas Berry calls the telling of this new story our “Great Work”. It is the task of myth-making, of worldmaking, the most fundamental act of our humanity. The most ancient artwork, the cave paintings, reflected this: our ancestors, when they painted handprints on the walls of the cave, understood that we are always at the edge of our world, our womb, creating meaning.
These ancient paintings also commonly depict the relationship of predator and prey, the ecological reality that our ancestors deeply felt, that we have largely forgotten. Far from the rugged individualists that Modernity would have us to be, we are ecological beings, deeply interconnected to a community of living beings. The great predators from which we fled and the prey we chased on the African plain shaped our minds and our bodies, our communities and our stories.
The interfaith movement has always appreciated the desire for cultural diversity. But often it has lacked a real articulation of why diversity is so important. The importance of diversity—and of difference—is a lesson that ecology teaches us well. Whereas a loss of genetic diversity leaves gaps in the ecosystem that may not be filled, the loss of cultural diversity—for example, the loss of a spiritual tradition, a language, a culture—leaves us with a gap in the cultural ecosystem. Just as the loss of the wolf leaves the ecosystem imbalanced, so to does the loss of, say, Feminist theology to provide a balance to patriarchy. This is only one example. We simply cannot say what kinds of worldviews might provide us with potential answers to the challenges our species faces. Just as a loss of genetic diversity leaves a species subject to disease, without a diversity of perspectives humanity might not survive.
Introduced at the right moment, a mere idea can become a movement. I believe that this is just such a time for interfaith. This moment—Modernity—is marked by many things that are coming to an end: fossil-fuel-based industry, individualism, capitalism, imperialism. But above all else, this moment is about a loss of meaning, emptiness. But this void is pregnant. Apocalypse, after all, means “unveiling.” We have the opportunity to make new worlds of meaning, and I believe that the Interfaith Movement is well placed to influence this process. Of the four suggestions above, it is the creative and imaginal which are most important. We must give birth, through our imaginative capacities, to a world in which spirituality, paradoxically, can represent the beautiful, chaotic diversity of human and be a source of our ultimate unity.
– Theodore Richards,”The Big I Interfaith Conference”, Nashville, Tennessee in February, 2012.
Theodore Richards, PhD, is a poet, writer, and religious philosopher. He is a long time student of the Taoist martial art of Bagua and hatha yoga and has traveled, worked or studied in 25 different countries, including the South Pacific, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Theodore has received degrees from the University of Chicago, The California Institute of Integral Studies, Wisdom University, and the New Seminary where he was ordained. He has worked with inner city youth on the South Side of Chicago, Harlem, the South Bronx, and Oakland, where he was the director of YELLAWE, an innovative program for teens in Oakland created by Matthew Fox. He is the author of Handprints on the Womb, a collection of poetry; Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, recipient of the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal in religion; the novel The Crucifixion; and the forthcoming Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto, which radically re-imagines education. Theodore Richards is the founder and executive director of The Chicago Wisdom Project and a dean and lecturer on world religions atThe New Seminary. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.
 For more on the mythos/logos dichotomy in the history of theological thought, see Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Anchor, 2010)
 Theodore Richards, Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth (Danvers, MA: Hiraeth Press, 2011)
 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the future (Broadway, 2000)
 More on this topic can be found in my article “An Ecology of Interfaith: A Biological Argument for the Necessity of Diversity” (http://theodorecosmosophia.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/an-ecology-of-interfaith-a-biological-argument-for-the-necessity-of-diversity/)