Interspirituality: What is it, relationship to interfaith, and upcoming events

Many people have heard of various interfaith movements, groups, service projects, and so on.  A lesser-known related, but somewhat different, movement is interspirituality.  What is it, and how is it different than interfaith?  I’ll answer in part by sharing some of my experiences in both types of groups and also point out some upcoming conferences I’m excited about!    

Interfaith and Religions for Peace
A couple of years back I was invited to a conference for young adult leaders hosted by the world’s largest interfaith nonprofit, Religions for Peace (RfP).  RfP was revamping its young adult network in North America, and those of us invited to the conference became the new leadership group.  We were from the US and Canada, and represented Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Hinduism, the Shinto religion (or indigenous spirituality), and the Sikh religion.  A few Jewish and Muslim young adults were invited, but weren’t able to make the event.  They and others have since joined the leadership group.   

RfP_March2011Participants in the 2011 RfP Young Adult Network event!

Major commonalities were openness to new perspectives, the positive aspects of religion, honesty about the damage done by and in the name of religion, youthful vigor and idealism, and a commitment to nonviolence (which is usually a minority position in the largest religions).  We had a lot of fun spending time with each other, asking questions and learning about each other’s traditions, discussing actions we could pursue in North America, how to grow the young adult movement, and learning about the larger RfP organization’s work in decreasing governmental militarism.  (I don’t think it’s been successful!)  

RfP was going through a lot of staff and other changes so it was hard to keep the momentum of the group up after our gathering.  It was a bit of a confusing process and some of us didn’t know what we were doing next.  But now – a couple of years later – we’re having a meeting of the North American interfaith youth leaders in preparation for the world conference in Vienna, Austria in November.  The subject of the world conference is “Welcoming the Other: Action for Human Dignity, Citizenship and Shared Well-being.”  The idea is to be working toward these all across the globe, but ways most suited to where we live (North America, Asia, etc.).  I plan to post on these themes next.

Members of the RfP young adult network don’t have to formally represent their faith tradition.  They aren’t nominated or elected by a body within their tradition or denomination.  The “normal” RfP memberhip (not the specific young adult group) is mostly made up of clergy who formally represent their tradition.  The young adult group and the Global Network of Women are relatively new RfP groups, are more informal, and are made up of non-clergy members.  I’m glad we don’t have to get official approval – I’m kind of a heretic in disguise!  

I’m often skeptical of world leaders getting together to talk about problems.  Such meetings can be marked by politically correct speeches, fancy words, and a lot of important things that go unsaid.  I’m hoping this group is different!  If I’m able to go to the world conference (which is mostly run by the formal clergy group), I’ll be extremely curious if there will be a profound “vibe” of humility , simplicity of speech, and serious comittment or if fluff, pomp, or political style speech dominates.  I’m glad that RfP has created the young adult and women groups, extending participation to more “everyday” people.  

In college I stumbled upon the idea of contemplative prayer, and the book below by Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk.  The Trappists are a Catholic contemplative Order involved in monastic interreligious dialog and home of the best-known Catholic monk of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.    

Centering Prayer is a practice that’s essentially meditation, and it developed independently of Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  I was drawn to it because back in college I had a sense that prayer was supposed to be deeper than “talking to God” and asking a deity for all of the things I wanted or needed.  I decided that after college I’d take a year off and live at a couple of these monasteries.  I was lucky to meet Basil and really enjoyed his presence.  He was in his late 70s and vigorous, but passed a way a few years later (2007-ish).

Some of the monks were especially devoted to spreading awareness of the Christian contemplative tradition as a way to deepen peoples’ experience of Christianity and promote personal transformation. They saw felt this work would directly and indirectly deal with most of the negative problems of Christianity.  

These monks laid the foundation for interspirituality in the West.  Interspirituality is the recognition of the core contemplative and ethical similarities of the (deepest parts of the) world’s religions.  It unites them and helps overcome dogmatic differences, as the contemplatives in all world religions tend to distance themselves from doctrine.

The “founder” of Interspirituality
The term interspirituality was coined by Wayne Teasdale in the early 2000s.  Earlier in his life he wanted to become a Trappist monk, but he wasn’t accepted by the Order.  (I didn’t have to go through this process because I was just visiting and not trying to become a monk!  A small community of, say, 13 monks really needs to feel a newbie is good fit because he’d be a housemate for life!)

Teasdale instead decided to be a “monk in the world”, living at a Christian-Hindu ashram in India called Shantivanam established by some members of the Jesuit Order, and he eventually became a professor of comparative religion.  He wrote a book of this title, A Monk in the World.  (I actually liked it better than his previous book on the shared contemplative dimensions of the world religions).  

Teasdale dreamed of an interspiritual movement that would transform religion and humanity.  He passed away in 2004, but friends pushed his dream forward and created the Interspiritual Multiplex (I think it’s a weird name!) and Community of the Mystic Heart (CMH).  I’m a member of CMH (named for Teasdale’s book on the common contemplative core of world religions) and enjoyed meditation sessions and conversation/sharing.

There’s a conference near Seattle at the end of September on “The Dawn of Interspirituality”.  I’m really excited to see what’s going on there and to be part of the growing interspiritual movement.  The website of the conference has a good video of conference leaders talking about religion and interspirituality.  Many of the speakers are involved in interfaith work so there’s certainly a growing overlap and recognition of the movement.  

One short comparison of interfaith and interspirituality
Interfaith work seems to be very well-known among young adults.  Interfaith groups are all over college campuses and there are many interfaith service groups apart from universities.  In my experience, interfaith work doesn’t focus as much on differences between religions, how to wade through doctrine and dogma, or on contemplative practices.  This is of course an over-generalization as there’s bound to be huge variation between different interfaith groups.  

Younger people may intuitively sense that differences between religions aren’t so great, but they may not have explored many religions or the contemplative aspects of their own.  In my experience, most people involved in interspirituality are over 30 years old, more into meditation and more knowledgeable and experienced in practices from several different religions.  These are perhaps some differences between interspirituality and interfaith movements.  

In the end, words are words: interfaith vs. interspirituality may be potato vs. potahto but I do appreciate interspirituality’s focus on contemplation and a way to overcome religious differences through greater depth within religion.  On the other hand, there’s a lot more New Age and pseudo-scientific belief in interspirituality than interfaith groups in my experience!  (I could blab on about that stuff forever!)  

I’ll be sure to post on my experiences at the RfP event next week and hope to sneak in another post before then!