Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dignity of Difference: Interfaith Learning in Rochester

For those interested in interfaith dialogue and learning, June is a banner month here in Rochester, New York.  On Sunday, June 2 at the RIT Inn and Conference Center, a community sponsored interfaith conference entitled “Dignity of Difference: A Day of Interfaith Learning” will take place from 1:00-5:15.  The conference is free and open to the public, although advance registration is encouraged.  The conference registration can be completed online at This conference will feature a keynote address by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of newspaper and online journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and author of the book Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America. There will be two one hour class sessions following the keynote address during which time participants may choose from a broad array of topics ranging from basic introductions to the major world religions to more advanced seminars in particular religions or experiential sessions such as Zen Buddhist Meditation and Sufi Chanting.  Prof. Niebuhr will facilitate the closing session at the end of the afternoon of learning. 

This conference seeks to offer participants the opportunity to learn about religions other than their own and to meet and talk with people who practice those religions.  The conference focuses on how and where the different religious traditions are alike and where they are different, with the intent that participants will come to value the differences between religious traditions rather than fear them.  Often people think that interfaith dialogue is all about finding the least common denominator, or somehow, watering down the rich religious traditions of the world so that they are acceptable to all.  At this conference, students will learn how to recognize, respect and celebrate the differences that exist between the world’s religions and to see those differences as sources of wisdom.  They will also have the opportunity to meet people from other religious traditions with whom they might then make connections beyond this conference.  Many faith communities in Rochester are sponsoring this conference including the Jewish Federation, with a grant from the Farash Foundation, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, the Faith in Action Network, the Sikh Gurdwara of Rochester, the Islamic Center of Rochester, and the Latter Day Saints Community, Rochester and Palmyra Stakes.  If you are in the Rochester area come join us this Sunday afternoon for an exciting interfaith encounter!

Then, from June 23-25, 2013 at the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, an academic interfaith conference “Sacred Texts in Human Contexts: A Symposium on the Role of Sacred Texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Uniting and Dividing Humanity” will take place at Nazareth College.  Scholars from all over the country and internationally will present papers on a broad variety of subjects with the focus on how the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic traditions have served to unite and to divide humankind throughout history and in the contemporary context.   Prof. Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at this conference.    Many local colleges and universities are co-sponsoring this conference, including the Department of Religion and Classics here at the University of Rochester.   Registration for this conference can be done online at

Rochester has long been a center for interfaith encounter and dialogue, with a rich and vibrant interfaith community that is constantly engaged in dialogue and community action together on a variety of issues and topics. These two conferences are examples of the energy and the commitment to interfaith dialogue of the many faith communities that make up this city.  As a community we know that we are stronger and better able to work together for the common good when we forge and maintain interfaith relationships.  People in all of our diverse faith communities are privileged to be able to practice their particular religious tradition in the pluralistic context of this city where they can grow and deepen their own faith as they learn about the faiths of others.  Interfaith dialogue is absolutely essential in the global community in which we all now live.  The great religions of the world can be sources of wisdom and agents of peacemaking when their adherents take the time to learn about their own religious tradition and the other traditions that make up their community and neighborhood.   I invite all of you in the Rochester area to take advantage of these unique opportunities for religious and spiritual growth.  Come make some new friends and join a worldwide movement for interfaith understanding and cooperation!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Praying in the Midst of Rubble

Yesterday we Rochesterians were enjoying our first warm spring day after a long and brutally cold winter season.  Here at the University of Rochester campus, the students were out all over the quad, sporting tank tops, shorts and sandals and reveling in the warm air and the sunshine.  Then, shortly after 3:00 we began to hear reports about the Boston bombing. Students from the Boston area were checking cell phones and texting friends and relatives back home to make sure they were all right.  Everyone was riveted to Facebook and Twitter feeds and news outlets as the reports of yet another act of senseless violence shattered our sense of normalcy and calm on a balmy April afternoon.  I found myself wondering where is it safe to go in this country anymore?  School?  Movie theaters?  Places of worship?  Political rallies or events?  A marathon?? A mall? In the past year all of those places have been scenes of violence and destruction as deranged shooters, and now a yet-unknown bomber, slay countless innocent people for no apparent reason.  I watched with a weary heart as the scenes of the explosions were shown over and over again on television news coverage, scenes of smoke and debris and blood and human beings crying out in pain and anguish, as their world is literally shattered.  One image particularly caught me up short.  It was a photograph of a woman, on her knees, hands clasped together, face turned upwards, praying, right there in the midst of the crowds and debris, as first responders and medics helped victims and people in the crowd searched frantically for loved ones and runners finished the race and looked for their families.  Quietly, tearfully and faithfully she offered prayers, lips moving as she poured out her anguish and grief, her pleas for help and solace to God as destruction reigned around her. 

Prayer is something people of faith do.   For many of us, it is as natural as breathing.  For those of us who engage in interfaith dialogue, prayer is something we know all our friends of whatever faith tradition share, even though we use different postures and different words.  In moments of crisis the human impulse to cry out to the divine simply erupts in all languages, as we seek to find the strength to carry on in the midst of suffering and to offer solace to those who are in pain and those who grieve.  At our interfaith chapel staff meeting today, the rabbi whose turn it was to open the meeting with prayer, led us in praying a psalm of lament and Psalm 23, the famous psalm of comfort for those who grieve.  I was aware of prayers being offered at places of worship in all traditions all over the city and the country as everyone took in the horror and the grief of this tragedy and came together in solidarity with those who were injured and killed through the universal language of prayer.  In mosques, gurdwaras, temples, synagogues, churches and homes people of all different faith traditions are offering prayers. 

Some would ask, so what?  Do the prayers bring back the dead?  Do they heal the suffering?  Those of us who are religious and/or spiritual believe that prayer does make a difference.  While it may or may not change the outcome of a human tragedy, it changes the heart of the pray-er.  And in the midst of the violence that afflicts our culture today, changing hearts is one of the most important things we can do to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation and away from vengeance and a thirst for revenge.  Prayer makes space in the human heart for compassion.  As all spiritual and religious traditions have known through the ages, it takes peace deep within the human heart to make peace possible in the world.

So as we go through yet another week of waiting and speculating and wondering about who did this violent act and why, I join with my brothers and sisters of all the world’s faith traditions in a commitment to sustained and sincere prayer.  Prayer for those who died, for those who are fighting for their lives, for those whose lives are forever changed due to injury and loss, for those who are conducting the investigation and those who are emotionally wounded from the pain and horror they witnessed at the scene of the carnage.  Prayers for all of us that we might rise above anger and vengeance, blame and shame, and remember our common humanity. When the “perpetrator” is finally found, may we seek justice with mercy so that slowly but surely we can build a world founded on the kind of inner peace that may help to reduce the violence that so mars our world.  I take comfort in knowing that all across this land prayers are being offered in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, French, Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and myriad other languages to the divine whom we all address by different names lifting up before the Holy One those who have been affected by this most recent tragedy while simultaneously working on the hearts of all of us pray-ers as we open ourselves to the compassion of the divine heart.  Amen. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From Survivor to Thriver - Combatting Sexual Assault on Campuses

The Spirituality of Recovery – From Survivor to Thriver
University of Rochester
 April 3, 2013

At a conference held on April 3 at the University of Rochester, I was asked to speak about the Spirituality of Recovery. I offer here a condensed version of my presentation at that conference. Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious issue confronting all of us who work in higher education today.  I offer here some reflections on the spiritual consequences of sexual assault and the spiritual issues that need to be addressed within college communities as they deal with incidents of sexual assault.   This is a hard topic for all religious traditions to confront, and yet there is much spiritual and religious wisdom that can be brought to the issues arising out of sexual assault that can promote healing and renewal both for victims and for their assailants.

Fundamentally I believe that there is a deep connection between spirituality and sexuality, which means that sexual assault is more than an assault on the body and emotions, it is also an assault on the soul.  Spiritual practices and spiritual and religious mentors and counselors can offer much wisdom to students who have been victims of sexual assault and can also offer much needed spiritual care to those who have perpetrated the assaults.

Sexual Assault is not About Sex

First let me make it clear that sexual assault is not about sex.  When someone is the victim of a sexual assault, the act that takes place between the people involved is not about sex, it is not about intimacy and connection and love and trust, it is about violence and power and intimidation.   The sex organs of the human body are merely the tools used to inflict violence and pain and suffering on the victim.  The assault is not about sex, but in order for the victim to heal, spiritual and/or religious rituals or practices may be needed to bring the victim back to wholeness because healthy sexuality is intertwined with spirituality.  And for complete healing to happen in the community, to the extent possible the perpetrator needs to be held accountable and to have spiritual resources available to him to bring him to a place where he can reclaim his dignity and his wholeness and make restitution for the harm he has caused to the community. 

Sexuality and Spirituality

I approach this topic with a strong conviction that human sexuality and spirituality are intricately connected components of human experience.  In the best of circumstances, sexuality and spirituality work together in the life of a human being and offer windows onto the transcendent divine in ways that bring joy and fulfillment to human life.

George Feuerstein, in his book Sacred Sexuality traces the connection between human sexual expression and spirituality from ancient indigenous religions of the Goddess through the major world religions that we know today From our earliest records of human religious experiences, it is clear that sexual energy and spiritual experience have been long intertwined.  Feuerstein writes:

Sex- or to be more precise, sexual love- can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality.  That window or opening can manifest all of a sudden in the solid walls of our conventional existence.  At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all our sensations, experiences and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-one-ness. (39) …..

This truth has been obscured by our inherited dualistic philosophies, but it is a truth that is fundamental to the sacred traditions inspired by mystics and sages before they were reworked by theologians and intellectuals.   Prior to the rise of dualism, the sacred and profane were not experienced as radical opposites, nor was sexuality excluded from spiritual life.   On the contrary, the further back we go in human history the more we encounter a life philosophy that was distinctly affirmative of both sex and God or Goddess. (41)

 It is no accident that through the ages, people who have spent long hours in prayer and meditation and who have nurtured a lively and dynamic relationship with the divine have experienced that relationship in ways they can only describe as erotic. The good news in this literature is that the experience of transcendence, boundarylessness, ecstasy and joy that the mystics describe is also available to us ordinary people in the context of our healthy, loving sexual relationships.

If one understands the deep connection between human sexuality and spirituality, it becomes clearer how and why a sexual assault is also a spiritual assault.  Sex is sacred and when the parts of our bodies that engage in sex are violated, spiritual damage is done to the soul.  A sexual assault is the equivalent of the desecration of a holy site, and just as churches, mosques and temples that have been desecrated often require special rituals and prayers to re-consecrate the space for its holy purpose, people who have been so violated by a sexual assault need spiritual rituals and support to “reconsecrate” their sexual lives in a healthy and positive way.

Spiritual Consequences of Sexual Assault

The primary spiritual consequences of sexual assault are feelings of guilt, shame, anger or rage, depression, and a struggle to deal with the religious imperative to forgive when forgiveness seems elusive or downright impossible. 

Much has been written in the past several decades about the phenomenon of guilt among survivors of rape.  In part these guilty feelings arise from our culture’s propensity to “blame the victim” by asserting that she somehow “asked for it” either by the way she was dressed, or the way she behaved towards the perpetrator, or by getting drunk or high on drugs so that she was incapable of resisting the attack and also incapable of consenting to the sexual activity. 

Shame is another common feeling among those who have been victims of sexual assault.  Shame can be even more debilitating than guilt since shame tends to be rooted in feelings about the person’s very selfhood and is not usually specifically related to just one act of omission or commission.  Thus, a person who feels shame as a result of a sexual assault feels worthless as a person, or somehow sullied or dirtied or inadequate.  These feelings can obviously have far reaching consequences for the person’s continued growth and development both psychologically and spiritually.  Appropriate spiritual care is imperative to help victims transform their feelings of shame into feelings of self worth and empowerment.

A very important part of healing from a trauma such as sexual assault is forgiveness.  The victim at some point must be able to forgive the perpetrator in order to move on with his or her own life.  There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes forgiveness and how and when someone should engage in it.  Well-trained religious leaders can help victims to work through their feelings and work towards genuine forgiveness in ways that can empower the victim to move on in a healthy way but without rushing the forgiveness process.

Spiritual Care of Perpetrators

The perpetrators of sexual assault also need spiritual care, in addition to  psychological and psychiatric care.   The act of sexual assault can create feelings of guilt and shame in the perpetrator.  In our desire to see justice done, we must also remember that the perpetrator needs spiritual counsel and help to deal with his guilt and shame and to help him to do whatever acts of repentance, restitution and making amends might be appropriate under the circumstances.  The spiritual task is to walk with the perpetrator as he experiences the suffering that inevitably comes from having caused the kind of harm he has caused and from the natural consequences, legal and otherwise, of that harm.

In some cases, restorative justice practices might be appropriate and helpful.  However, not all offenders will be suitable candidates for such practices.  In cases where a perpetrator is repentant and remorseful, is capable of empathy and willing to subject himself to the restorative justice process, a restorative approach can heal both the victim and the perpetrator and strengthen the community at the same time.  A restorative approach focuses on healing broken relationships and restoring a sense of community, something very important in a university setting. We are fortunate to have resources at the University of Rochester through our Gandhi Institute that can offer a restorative justice approach when circumstances suggest it is appropriate to do so.

So, for this campus community I would urge that spiritual and religious interventions be considered when dealing with students who have suffered from sexual assault.  The Interfaith Chapel is available to work with such students and to refer them to appropriate religious mentors as needed.  As numerous studies have shown, religious and/or spiritual intervention can have remarkably positive effects on a victim’s recovery, but equally, the wrong kind of spiritual counsel can simply compound the problems and increase the suffering so care must be taken to be sure the person is referred to a religious counselor who is trained to deal with victims of sexual assault and abuse. 

The Interfaith Chapel is similarly ready to be a spiritual and religious resource for those working with perpetrators of sexual assault, to help them to accept responsibility for what they have done and to transform their lives in positive ways, restoring them to community and helping them to find ways of healing from the harm they have caused to others and to themselves.

Healthy university communities must take sexual assault seriously and ensure that all resources are brought to bear when a sexual assault takes place.  The community’s health is at stake, not just the health and well being of the assailant and the victim.  We are all in this together and together we must work to make our campus safe for all of our students all of the time.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Pi – Contemporary Scripture in 3D

This coming Sunday evening is the annual Academy Awards extravaganza and the film, Life of Pi is up for 11 of them.  I read the book Life of Pi when it first came out ten years ago and loved it, especially the narrative of the protagonist’s journey through Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  I was somewhat reluctant to see the film because films almost always disappoint when the book was really good, but to my delight, this film is very nearly as good as the book.  The Hindu Christian dialogue group here in Rochester decided to see the film and to use it as the basis for our February discussion.  I wondered as I watched the film how we Christians and Hindus might react differently to it, and whether our different religious perspectives, formed by different narratives and sustained by different practices and rituals, would impact how we interpreted the film. 

We had a meandering discussion of the film, surprisingly not focusing much on which of the two endings was “right” or which version of the survival tale we thought was the “real” one.  Having read a number of reviews of this film and accompanying comments, I notice that agnostic/atheist/humanist folks tend to prefer the “humanist” story, the second version that Pi tells to the Japanese insurance agents at the end, while religious people are much more comfortable with either story and with the ability to choose which story they want to “believe.”  For religious people, the “truth” is not based on empirical facts – was Pi in the boat with the Bengal tiger or was he actually alone and the Bengal tiger then represents aspects of his own inner self?  In our dialogue group, most of us are “religious” - Christians and practicing Hindus- so the idea that a story might be metaphorical while conveying “truth” is not difficult for any of us to swallow. 

We all could agree that the second story, the one where Pi is alone in the boat, is not really different from the first story, where Pi is surviving the 227 days at sea alongside a predatory Bengal tiger because we can accept the idea that the Bengal tiger, “Richard Parker” is symbolic of Pi’s inner “demons” or inner impulses towards aggression, domination, power and ruthlessness.  All religious traditions provide ways for human beings to conquer their own ego, to learn to tame the ego’s insatiable need for gratification and tendency towards aggression, so as to survive in society.  Either “ending” of the Pi story resonates for religious people, one providing a well crafted myth that explains the human condition in metaphorical terms, the other offering a more stripped down, factual account of the basic human existential crisis of survival.   Oddly enough, for religious people, both versions of the story are true and equally believable. 

For the Christians in our group, the story of Pi was reminiscent of the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Pi, like Job, lost everything that mattered in the world to him.  Home, family, personal safety and well being – all gone in an instant and the survivor left to manage on the basis of his own wits and reason.  Like Job, Pi remained faithful to God throughout the ordeal, even when he was most emaciated and distressed, hungry, weak and near death.  And, like the story of Job, in the end, Pi, who lost everything in the shipwreck that took his family, is restored with a wife and family of his own, in the “new world” of Canada where he finally arrived after his rescue off of the Mexican beach.  

The protagonist in the film, the adult Pi who recounts the amazing story of his experience at sea with the Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, tells the Canadian author to whom he offers the story that his tale would make him believe in God.  Pi, a Hindu Christian Muslim, is devout and faithful to God in many of God’s manifestations and is very much aware of the presence of God with him throughout the ordeal.  Both the Christians and the Hindus in our dialogue group could resonate with Pi’s faith in God and his resilience in the face of fearful challenges because of that faith.  Pi’s approach to the world is one of wonder and awe, even at those aspects of creation and the created order that are most brutal and threatening.  Pi is always sure of the existence of God so even when his world disintegrates he has the inner ability to survive against all odds.

Where the Christians and Hindus in our group did see things differently was the portrayal of Pi as a Hindu Christian Muslim.  For Hindus, the idea that the protagonist could simultaneously be a practioner/believer of three major faith traditions was not at all surprising.  Hindus are the original “pluralists.”  They have no trouble accepting the idea that one person could identify himself in all three traditions, since Hinduism recognizes millions of manifestations of God and contains within it such enormous diversity of belief and practice that for a person to take on Christianity and Islam on top of Hindu beliefs and practices does not pose any theological, philosophical or practical problems. The Christians in the group made note that our tradition does not allow for quite such multiple belonging, because the theological claims of Christianity are sufficiently exclusive that it is difficult to claim to be both Christian and something else.    Our Hindu members say “We’re all going to the same place, we are all worshipping the same God, we just use different methods to do so.”  Christians who consider themselves theological pluralists can agree with that Hindu perspective, but also recognize that much of the Christian world is less able to take such an expansive, pluralistic stance. Indeed, Christians are more likely to point out real differences of belief that make it difficult for most Christians to straddle more than one religious tradition at the same time.  Hinduism, a religion marked by diverse and varying practices supported by a sophisticated philosophical world view is more able to manage both/and thinking and “double belonging” while Christianity, with its tendency to emphasize right belief – orthodoxy- is less tolerant of multiple belonging.  

That Life of Pi has been so popular is testament to the global interfaith awakening that is happening in our modern world.  As Diana Butler Bass has written (Christianity After Religion) we are in a period of a Fourth Great Awakening and this one is global and interfaith.  Life of Pi exemplifies this new interfaith consciousness as it features a hero who straddles three major faith traditions, finding wisdom and strength and value in all three.  The fact that he intentionally identifies himself with all three also suggests that he understands the differences between them and finds richness in those differences.  He doesn't homogenize the traditions - he partakes of the nuances of each one.  

The Life of Pi is a compelling and haunting film.  There are multiple layers of meaning in every scene.  For people who consider themselves religious in whatever tradition, it is particularly powerful as it captures the raw brutality of the worst of human nature while simultaneously celebrating the salvific power of religious faith to triumph over the death fearing norm of biological existence.   Whatever the Academy decides on Sunday night, Life of Pi is an important and powerful film, a latter day piece of “scripture” conveying time honored truths about human beings and their “God.”