A Redefining of Interfaith
By: Rev. Dr. Jay Speights
According to a recent Pew Research Center Survey, the number of Americans not identifying with any organized religion increased from 35,000, 000 to 56,000,000 or 22.8% of the U.S. population since its 2007 study, putting this group ahead of Catholics and just a few percentage points behind Evangelicals. It is important for us to understand where our burgeoning Interfaith Movement fits among these 56,000,000 Americans not identifying with any organized religion. This group has many labels, the unchurched, nones or unaffiliated.
The overwhelming majority of the nones might just be like-minded people, who do or could, fit comfortably under the interfaith umbrella. If this were true, this would place us at the nucleus of the 56,000, 000 nones. By attaching ourselves to this larger demographic and being more expansive about our own identity, our Interfaith Approach takes on new meaning. We are larger than we think and perhaps we are entering a new age of enlightenment.
You could argue the labels like “none” or “unchurched” do not capture the essence of who belongs to this group of 56,000,000. Proper labeling for groups and individuals is important and can be diminishing. We see the effects of this every day. If there is negative intent behind the label or if it does not quite capture the essence what is being labeled, prejudicial filters come into play. By referring to 56,000,000 people as unchurched, nones or unaffiliated is negative labeling and implies that there is something wrong with not identifying with an organized religion. There is an implication that conforming to a more institutionalize faith tradition is highly valued as well as prescriptive living. It is still broadly assumed by many Americans that everyone should belong to an organized religion and that preferred religion is, Christianity.
Many in our interfaith movement have received far more than enough admonishments and challenges about our spiritual choice and some have most likely experienced shifts in relationships as well. Religious affiliation is a major part of self identification and community acceptance. So we need to get the labels right!
Many of my friends, the members of my interfaith community and this author are part of this 56,000,000 that is called “nones” or “unchurched”. According to the Pew Survey, these 56,000,000 people span all age groups and racial and financial demographics. So “Nones” and “Unchurched” does not quite work as a label or name for us.
Another way to define this group of 56,000,000 is The “Spiritually Liberated”.
Who are they? The spiritually liberated could be those who have deeply pondered the mystery of creation, the theology of their particular faith tradition, relationship with God and decided that they no longer need to stretch to conform to the demands of a particular religion. They could also include those who have yet to experience God firsthand, and do not find the sacred text of mainstream religions or their theologies either compelling or relevant to their condition and life path. This is probably what comprises the overwhelming majority of this group.
Let’s not forget that globalization has caused cultures and faith traditions to interact more frequently and on a deeper level. Through these encounters, many find reason to question and challenge their religious beliefs and tenets and decide on a new path. The mobility of our globalized society has also resulted in mixed marriages and extended families where a child or children may identify with a religion other than the ones of either parent. Thus creating a household of multiple belongers, where all traditions under the roof are honored and maybe practiced to some extent. It is far easier for members of these households to identify as none as far as religious affiliation is concerned.
There are other important factors to consider. First, some in this group could have found organized religion too confining, not expansive enough and are more purely ecumenical in their beliefs and find truth and wisdom in many religions. There are also the “true seekers” who are on an earnest journey to find a path. Of course, there are also those with who are now more than ever, more comfortable with no longer identifying with a faith tradition for the sake of identifying and conforming to fit in with a traditional community and are stepping into their authenticity.
All of these people are moving towards a form of “Liberating Spirituality”, where there are no interposing middleman such as a the institutional mandates associated with traditional religions stretching them with burdensome demands. This stretching creates such an overwhelming inner tension that eventually they are compelled to separate or risk the total subjugation and diminishment of their Divine Unique Inner Light. In moving into this Liberating Spirituality, they are no longer constrained by the guilt of considering other truths as it relates to God and existence. This Liberating Spirituality is based on a Divine experience calling them to be wholly vested in their uniqueness and a new understanding of creation, the creator and their path.
The spiritually liberated find comfort, guidance, healing, solace and wisdom in the tenets, rituals, sacred texts and practices from many faith traditions, that can be applied in life, spiritual practices and ministry. It is a complete redefinition of Interfaith because it is a departure from a compartmentalized based approach where faith traditions are honored, but seen as largely different with some common truths. Liberating spirituality approaches the various faith traditions as uniquely revealed Divine Expressions of universal truths. It is a true celebration of the gifts of diversity.
The search for sameness is a search for conformity. It implies a need to affirm your truth and that, that truth is the standard for judging all others. This is the basis for most of the global inter-religious tension and conflict. There is no room for diversity in this worldview. It’s us against them or Christian against Muslim, Muslim against Jew, etc. Differences become the basis for dialogue and the filter for determining the value of other beliefs. This need to be absolutely right makes that of any other group wrong and therefore your enemy.
A search for a different truth, one that may challenge your core beliefs, and to embrace it, is a movement towards what Howard Thurman referred to as “restoring the memory of a lost harmony”. This lost harmony is a reference to The Beloved Community, where all things were equal, different and a glorious manifestation of The Grand Divine Design.