As shamans and spiritworkers we very often have to interact, in differing ways, with people from a variety of faiths and traditions. They may be colleagues, clients, the average joe on the street, or our counter-parts at various religious or networking functions. Either way, it can be fertile ground for misunderstandings to occur. Being a godslave it's often difficult to see past the end of the metaphorical stick the Gods often smack us with, but when it comes to making nice and getting our points across in a way that does our Owners proud AND gets the job done, understanding how to approach interfaith work can be, if you'll pardon the pun, a godsend.
While I've been a Heathen priest for close to two decades, I am also an interfaith minister. I attended an interfaith seminary in NYC, graduating in 2000. This has given me an interesting perspective on the concept of interfaith. When I was in seminary, and would speak with members of my own very orthodox religion (Heathenry), I was often asked if my choosing to study interfaith ministry was indicative of a spiritual crisis on my part. I always found this assumption puzzling for in truth, my studies caused me to look deeper into my own spirituality and brought me closer to the Gods that I love and worship. I chose to study to make myself a better priest and servant. I never understood why anyone would assume otherwise. Sadly, over the past few years, speaking with other clergy, shamans, interfaith ministers, participating in the seminary alumni list, participating in various interfaith functions as the Heathen clergy-person in residence, and doing my own work between religions, I have come to understand the reasons underlying those assumptions; and this understanding has led me to question the true meaning of 'interfaith.'
As god-servants, we are often charged to deal with clients from a variety of different traditions. Certainly I've worked with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Heathens, and the occasional Buddhist, even an atheist here and there --to name but a few. In navigating the waters our Gods have placed us in, we're also charged with the delicate task of exploring and honoring the spirit of numerous religious traditions, many of them often diametrically opposed to each other in major points of theology. The same, of course, is true of interfaith ministers.
In our work, we have the opportunity to create bridges of understanding and tolerance between faiths. Building those bridges starts with us. It starts specifically with the attitude with which we choose to approach not only other faiths, but our own spirituality as well. I have heard many interfaith ministers and ministers-in-training as well as "shamanic practitioners" (note, I do not call them shamans) fervently defending their right to add or 'borrow' rituals and practices from numerous faiths, meshing these into their own spiritual practice. I have heard avid assertions that "I have the right to add anything I want to my spirituality." Maybe, but I say this is a slippery road to walk. It is a road lined all too often with a disproportionate sense of entitlement twinned with lack of awareness and sensitivity to what might be seen by many religions as cultural misappropriation and strip-mining. Given that a large proportion of spiritworkers come from Pagan religions influenced heavily by New Age ideas, I think this is something we all need to be on our guards against.
This is a subject very close to my heart. My religion is one of those that takes great offense to its practices in any way being co-opted by outsiders, no matter how well meaning those outsiders may be. Why this insular clannishness you might ask? The reasons are, for my religion anyway, two fold: firstly, we believe that the Gods are meant to be approached and treated with respect and that They Themselves have shown humanity how They want this done through sacred stories and rituals unique to each culture. Secondly, some religions view themselves not only as spiritual traditions, but as folkways: cultural, linguistic, and ethical paradigms without which the spirituality itself is rootless. Someone unwilling to immerse him or herself in that culture, or at least to see through the eyes of a devotee cannot possibly comprehend the religion in question.
When I was at the seminary, students learned the motto of "always in addition to, never instead of." This was quoted regularly throughout the two year program. No where in this motto, however, is the dictum that all Gods are interchangeable or that interfaith tolerance should be grounded in a foundation of disrespect for other peoples' religions. It's one thing when we are owned by Gods who order us to incorporate a particular practice and quite another when willy nilly we choose to do so because that practice is 'neat' or 'useful.' It's the attitude that we can take whatever we want and change and adapt it without regard to the spiritual and cultural history behind the practice or belief that has folks from Native Americans to modern Reconstructionist Heathens to various Christian groups up in arms. And they have every right to be. They are confronting spiritual and cultural misappropriation at its most arrogant. I have even heard one well meaning interfaith minister refuse to call members of my religion "Heathen", preferring instead to call us "Pagans," because she felt it was more appropriate and she herself preferred that term. This represents an arrogance diametrically opposed to the true spirit of interfaith.
Whenever we approach another religion with a sense of entitlement, with a refusal to open our minds to how the practitioners of that religion approach their spiritual world, with a refusal to set aside our preconceptions and personal preferences we perpetrate a grave disservice to ourselves and to those we wish to touch. We violate the spirit of interfaith work. It makes no difference to say that we are following our own truth and harming no one else. By stealing the sacred traditions of another, by showing disrespect in this way to their Gods, we are perpetrating spiritual harm. We are walking in the footsteps of self-absorbed imperialists the world over. Hyperbole? Not to those traditions being strip-mined. No matter how well meaning our intention, if it causes offense to those religions we are exploring then we need to seriously rethink our position and most of all, our actions. We are not entitled to twist another's spiritual practices to our own needs. Period.
So, what is it that defines the spirit of interfaith? It's about respect. It's about respecting and honoring differences while celebrating those rare moments of synchronicity, celebrating the commonalities shared by the various faiths. Religions aren't resources to be plundered and despite the best of intentions, it is impossible to truly respect a religious tradition while showing no respect for those that follow it. So tread lightly. We are charged with meeting each spiritual tradition on its own ground. To do otherwise, is an act of hubris. And hubris, as so many sacred stories show, is not a thing looked fondly upon by the heavens.