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Archive for September, 2009

imagesOn September 13, the Sunday of opening weekend, I had the privilege of seeing “The Domestic Crusaders,”  a play by a 28 year old Muslim playwright, Wajahat Ali, at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe in Manhattan. Newsweek just published a wonderful review of the play. If you cannot get to New York to see the play live, it is worth reading the review to learn the story of how this play came to be. There is, to be sure, a multifaith dimension to the whole endeavor. Wajahat Ali, a young American Muslim of Pakistani descent, was a student at University of California at Berkeley in 2001  when his creative writing teacher, Ishmael Reed, a prolific poet and novelist, encouraged him to write a play about a Muslim American family. The producer and director of the play,  Carla Blank, is a Jew who is also Reed’s wife. When I saw the play, Ali, Reed and Blank were all present to answer questions after the performance. A great multifaith afternoon of learning and inspiration.

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Three new books recently crossed my desk that cover much the same topic,  the emerging interfaith reality in America in our century. All three of the authors take a fundamentally positive view of the developments they are exploring, although important questions need to be asked. All three books are helpful, but  the best, in my view,  was Interfaith Encounters in America by Kate McCarthy.(Rutgers, 2007)

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The author takes us on a tour of a variety of sites where Americans are encountering the religious other. All are places in which  I have spent significant time,  yet I found new insights in each chapter. The sites are 1)the academy where scholars discuss the theology and ideology of dialogue; 2)national multifaith organizations working on public policy; 3)the 500 plus community based groups across the country dedicated to interfaith 4)interfaith families and 5)cyberspace. The very idea of including all of these in one book revealed fresh understandings.

I have logged the most time in sites number  one and three. Yet, until reading this book, I had not refleted explicitly on how the two connect.  I have been on the board of the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia since its founding five years ago. Reading about it in the context of Chapter 3 of McCarthy’s book, I began to ask questions that had not occurred to me before. What is the relationship between the work we do in that group and the theology discussed by our respective elites or, for that matter, the beliefs about the religious “other” held by those who participate?

McCarthy makes the point that “on the ground” these local groups flourish precisely because the goals are relationship building and common concern for the community in which they operate. The participants are usually well grounded in their respective traditions; the work they do together most often strengthens their sense of identity at the same time as it allows them to collaborate to promote shared values. Yet, when the Philadelphia Interfaith Center board thinks about the future, particularly in relationship to programming for youth, we might want to explore more deeply the issues raised in the other chapters in this book, in particular the question of the more fluid religious identity of the next generation and its implications for religious life in America.

McCarthy understands the importance of the internet and devotes a chapter to the interfaith spiritual life that takes place there in cyberspace. “The absence of filters, the “shedding of bodies,”  and much more, with implications for what happens in the more traditional venues. After reading this chapter, I began to notice how often this phenomenon is passed over in surveys of the field.

McCarthy also includes the emergence of interfaith families, a topic that is also absent from other books  on interfaith dialogue. At first, I was surprised by this inclusion since it seemed like a different topic altogether. But I now see that it is not. Our understanding of what goes on in, for example, the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia’s high school service learning program, must take into consideration the emerging reality of a generation that includes people of dual identities.

In  future posts, I will review other books on this topic.

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