Tag Archives: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Bill Lesher’s INTRAfaith Journey

blesherThere’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitled A Tribute to Bill Lesher.

William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.

I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:

“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.”  (bold emphasis mine) 

In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”

Dunne wrote:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. 

“Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with  new insights and understandings.  

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New Voices in the Conversation Part 1: Spiritual Independents                                                                                         

51UJ1PNsX6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Those of us who are still in the church must accept the fact that for many people the old categories of Catholic/ Protestant, Episcopal/ Methodist, high church/ low church, contemporary/ traditional, etc. just do not matter. There are new voices contributing to the religious scene, although most of them would not like to be referred to as religious. These voices deserve to be heard. They may have left or never been part of the church, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot to say about spirituality, the meaning of life and how to make a difference in the world.

Spiritual Independents
A piece of accepted wisdom among many involved in interfaith dialogue is that one must first be grounded in one particular tradition. This is reflected in the quote by Mahatma Gandhi that . . . our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” However, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under thirty – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

We often refer to these folks as the “spiritual but not religious” or “Nones.” But I agree with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who has declared that these designations are too negative and has coined the more positive “spiritually independent.”  In Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent he says:

“Most of these so-called Nones are not dismissive of God or spirituality but simply find religious labels and affiliation too narrow and constraining. This is why I choose to call this segment of the population by the far more positive and accurate term spiritually independent.”

In another positive take on it, the Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, a Board Trustee for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, writes in “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”: “I know a lot of Nones and many of them are Alls. They celebrate the Winter Solstice, and Easter sunrise, they may do yoga or meditate, and they give thoughtfully to charities, all in no particular order, but depending on where they are, how they feel, what seems to be called for. They resist labels produced by media-saturated culture to represent certain predetermined sets of characteristics. They distrust such prepackaged beliefs, and also distrust religious institutions that are so often corrupt and hypocritical. Yet they value human spiritual heritage, often in great variety, and many of these people are more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one.”
“The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”

In the new emerging community being formed by Mission Developer, Pastor Anders Peterson under the sponsorship of my congregation, First United Lutheran Church, we are finding the truth of these perspectives. Mission, defined as converting people to Christianity, does not work with this group. Openness to other religious traditions is essential. This is not to say that we deny or water down who we are; we do our work in the world as Christians. But we do it as Christians who have worked through the intrafaith questions that are raised by many as they are confronted with this population. According to the Rev. Bud Heckman, senior advisor to Religions for Peace USA in New York City:

“A couple of decades ago this category accounted for no more than a single-digit percentage of the population. Today it accounts for one of every five people in the States, and one in every three amongst those under 30 years of age. The numbers are even higher in Europe and China. This means there is a great deal of fluidity in identity that is socially permissible in ways that simply were not true before.”
“Five Things Changing the Way Religions Interact

We do not know what Mahatma Gandhi would make of our world today. However it is clear that, both within Christianity and on the interfaith scene, the spiritual independents must be part of the interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

  • Do you know someone who would be considered spiritually independent? If so, have you had or could you have a conversation with that person about what they believe?
  • Are you a spiritual independent? How would you describe your spirituality?