On Dialog, Interfaith and Otherwise

DialogThe online Pagan and Polytheist blogs have been discussing interfaith involvement and how and if we should speak for and about our various communities.  Amid the outcries of privilege, denials of the same, and various stories from Pagan and Polytheist alike of good and bad experiences while engaging in interfaith efforts, I think something was lost:

A way forward.

Ruadhán J. McElroy presented four standards for relations between Pagan and Polytheist communities.  These four standards are presented about two-thirds of the way down the post.  While I may not agree with everything therein–for example, I find the standards as written to be too demanding of one party without recognizing that sometimes concessions must be made by both–I do think that these standards can be made valuable for us in situations outside the wider Pagan community.  They’re especially so when we are called upon to represent the views of another.

In order to make these standards more generalizable, though, I think we need to consider how they could be reconsidered to include those outside our communities.

1. Extend Hospitality

I’ve heard it said that hospitality is perhaps the closest thing to a universal ideal that our various interrelated communities may share.  Hospitality isn’t simply being polite to others, though that’s certainly a good start, it also means that we provide them with what they need in that moment whether it be a willing ear, a strong-arm, or a loud voice.  Hospitality is the action of treating others as they wish to be treated.  This is greater than the Golden Rule; treating others as you wish to be treated.  The latter makes assumptions; the former requires that we engage with the other in order to provide for them.

McElroy’s first rule focused specifically on the actions that a Pagan should take when inviting a Polytheist to present a ritual or ceremony at a pan-Pagan event.  The crux of the standard, however, was a request that Pagans offer hospitality to Polytheists in their midst.  For my tastes, that’s too one-sided.  Hospitality, like friendship, is a two-way street.  One should both extend hospitality to the other, but also act in with the expectation that this hospitality will be extended to you in return.  In this way, the relationship becomes reciprocal; we learn about and from the other as they learn about and from us.

2. Treasure Difference

Things are not always what you expect.  Or, perhaps more importantly, the labels we use to describe each other and define our world are imperfect and far less generalizable that we think.  Underneath those labels lie a treasure trove of diversity and difference, quite often to a surprising degree.

My partner and her family are Catholic.  In America, at least, Catholics are largely considered to be fairly conservative, politically and socially speaking, and many of the Catholics operating on the national stage (e.g. the Conference of Catholic Bishops) fight the advancement of LGBTQ rights, access to contraceptives, and the availability of abortion services all in the name of traditional families and the specifics of church doctrine.  But, my partner is married to a solitary eclectic Polytheist and Witch and her family knows it.  My sister-in-law is married to another woman, and they’ve adopted a mixed racial young daughter.  I’ve sat in Mass with them and they all attended and supported my wedding outside the walls of the Church.

The point of view described by the Catholic political leadership in America does not, obviously, define the only way to be Catholic just as I don’t define the only way to be a polytheist.  Rather than expect others to conform to our expectations, we should, instead, seek to alter those expectations or–even better–work to avoid them entirely.

3. Avoid Assumptions

McElroy’s third standard was written as an absolute; that one party “shall make no attempt” to speak for another.  On the one hand, I agree.  We should avoid the assumption that we can adequately explain the point of view of another.  We cannot.  I can no more correctly describe the fulfillment that my partner finds in Mass than she can probably explain to others why I devote myself to my gods.

But, on the other hand, I also think that operating from a standard of absolutes leaves us unprepared for the inevitability that we’ll find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t quite line up with that expectation.  For example, I find myself being asked to compare and contrast my own point of view with that of another.  Especially in interfaith settings, when I’m asked to try to share with another the nuance within the Pagan community, to simply refrain from even attempting to do so would likely shut down the dialog.

Instead, when we are called upon to speak for another, we must not allow others to assume that we speak with authority.  In other words, it must be made crystal clear to others when you’re not speaking from your own experience.  Even better, we should do our best to connect those we’re working with to those who can best answer their questions in the moment, but if that’s not possible, be sure that you offer the opportunity to do so at a later date.

4. Trust Others

One of the things most appalling to me during the online conversations around Pagan interfaith involvement has been the situations in which one person denies the experience of the other.  Even if all parties were present at the same event, it’s naïve to expect that everyone experiences that event in the same way.  In reality, every experience is a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation; everyone takes away something different.

It is, therefore, imperative that we trust others or, at least, offer them the benefit of the doubt.  If the situation calls for it, trust and subsequently verify, but trust is key.  Even if someone’s experience contradicts our own or, maybe, especially so.  It’s probably nothing more than ego and arrogance to assume that our own perspective is correct while all others are flawed.

Trust is especially necessary in situations of harm.  It is all to easy to minimize or dismiss the harm dealt to another.  Worse is the tendency to blame the victim, claiming that no harm was intended, that the victim is overly sensitive, or that he or she was otherwise “asking for it.”  All of these responses represent a lack of trust for the other.

That said, trust can be misplaced and abused.  There’s no reason to let someone use our trust against us or to continue to extend that trust if the other has been proven a liar.  But, until such a time, we can very like avoid additional harm by offering to stand in solidarity with someone who has been harmed rather than dismissing that harm and, in so doing, dismissing them.

In the end, these are solid guidelines for more interactions than simple those involving different religious (or non-religious) points of view.  I’m going to have the opportunity to engage in an interfaith conversation with a Mormon on Tuesday when I join him on his podcast.  Considering that it’s likely that I may be asked about experiences and points of view of others within the community, I’ll be keeping these guidelines in mind.

I hope that they’re useful to you as well.

About David Dashifen Kees

David is a professional web application developer working for a major US University and freelancing as time permits.
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5 Responses to On Dialog, Interfaith and Otherwise

  1. I do not feel empowered to conduct an “interfaith dialogue” in the name of Paganism. I have no idea who could be a representative. I just try to keep the culture of conversation, including respect for discrepancies between me and an interlocutor. I guess it’s sufficient.
    Why some Pagans are so heavily focused on interfaith issues? I guess it’s other people who should rethink some things as their Holy Books contain a lot of so called hate speech…
    “But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.” Deuteronomy 7:5
    “And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.” Deuteronomy 12:3

    “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” Surah 8:12
    “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter… and fight them until fitnah is no more, and religion is for Allah.” Surah 2:191

  2. dashifen says:

    It’s not really a matter of representing the whole community as a single person; as you said, that would be impossible. Instead, I like to think of it simply as a way to try and try to avoid the whole casting of terror and overthrowing of altars. It’s much harder to hate that which you know — or at least that which you have some experience with.

  3. Wow, big on soundbite and catchphrase potential, low on any real activism.

    You cannot properly correct a problem by trying to fix the parts that aren’t broken.

  4. dashifen says:

    I don’t follow … what do you think we should be focused on? What parts aren’t broken that we’re spending too much time on?

  5. Swift Rabbit says:

    Pagans are interested in interfaith work because working within our own community as it is currently outlined, is interfaith work.

    At dashifen: Part of the reason Ruahan suggested etiquette rules is because polytheistic members of the pagan community are not having their traditions and voices respected. People ask them to water down their rituals or alter them to make “generic pagans” and the “public” comfortable. Beyond that, there are a lot of false accusations that are flung about polytheist practice, belief and actions. When a polytheist points these things out they are often told they are uppity or to be more sympathetic (As you have told them) or that this is not the right place.

    I don’t hear the same concerns that polytheists are not allowing others to practice how their divinity speaks to them. I hear a lot of anger and sometimes hostility but I think a call to be civil at this point is dismissive and silencing.

    To me this is another writing that shows how polytheistic ritual, practice, and faith is being erased. We are not all one big happy community that respects everyone’s differences or where separate groups have equal abilities to affect change. In this case there is a majority that holds sway and needs to be more contentious of how they choose to use that sway. Ruahan simply suggested somethings the more powerful party should consider. I’m really not sure what the point of your post was.

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