Why Interfaith (and Interspiritual) Studies and Awareness are Epically Important in Today’s World

When we ponder religion and faith, we often think of their more modern day manifestations and how much devastation and destruction has been done in the name of religion. It is hard to remember that most major religions were born out of a profound mystical experience, flowing from an inner realization, which was then attempted to be shared via language and action. My own feelings toward religion have been complicated, confusing and challenging. Growing up in a very liberal, progressive Christian church, I had a meaningful and positive experience of the community that gathers around an organized religion and yet it was impossible for me to forget the vast atrocities which have been done in the name of Christianity over the last 2000 years. I also felt tired of the same mistranslated, seemingly irrelevant book used week after week, the same teacher held up on the pedestal week after week, a man who had died fighting for his cause over 2000 years before, who while an amazing human, was no different than you or I, just a man. I looked around and saw many incredible human beings doing phenomenal work in the world, affecting positive change and expanding upon some of the great mystic teachers, and yet no one was singing about them each week.

I never called myself a Christian because I simply felt that box not only didn’t fit me but had just too much “crap” in it to be worth climbing into. Crap that was very real even in my own modern day privileged life. Death threats from other Christians came in regularly to our church, because we were radically inclusive and we invited all people to join us (as Jesus taught, by the way), fundie friends tried to save my soul by singing to me about how Jesus loves me and is my lord and savior, all the while they were full of hatred for their fellow brothers and sisters… Not to mention the 2000 years of oppression by entirely too many ill intentioned people who have used Christianity as a tool to gain power and wealth. Sure, Jesus was a brave and deeply connected to Source human being, but his message has been shrouded under innumerable layers of fear, ignorance, and greed. So why bother with Christianity or religion at all, I often thought. Maybe humanity would be better off without it.

And yet…it called to me for seemingly unclear reasons. I was fascinated with religion still. How can something born out of a desire to heal and unite, to guide and to comfort, be used so often in the name of “evil”? Evil here being the absence of love, replaced by hatred and violence. I was fascinated with the way religion is entangled with every level of humanity: language, arts, music, politics, beliefs, science, society, culture. But why did religion interest me way more than, say, history or math? The same could be said of both those subjects – they are integrated into each level of our experience, whether we are aware or not. I ended up studying Religious Studies in college, because I thought that surely in its purest form, religion could be used to do the healing work it was envisioned to do – to release humans from their suffering and their ignorance of their interconnectedness. Clearly, religion is so powerful that it has stayed a prominent part of our human experience for thousands of years; couldn’t it potentially hold the key to peace and justice?

As a student of religious studies, I yearned to find the key pieces to the puzzle that would ultimately prove that at their core, all religions are basically saying the same profound and freeing things. And I believed in my most optimistic of hearts that the more people who saw that, who realized that their god, was also my god, was also no god, was also within all, that humans could potentially be united under this universal mystical teaching and religions could no longer be used in war, hate, violence, oppression, or exclusion. After all, if we can honor and respect other traditions, seeing them as equally valid, we may be able to release our fear of the Other. Fear fuels our worst human potentials.

After four years of studies and work in the Global Peace field, I was faced with the immense weight of feeling tiny underneath an unsurmountable problem. Humans would always hate, fear, and do horrible things. I found myself in a space in which many reside, the feeling that no religion could ever come close to solving the suffering of humanity. The ego is just too powerful. It felt hopeless…

Still, my yearning for something deeper felt tied to religion. It kept showing up in inexplicable ways, clues pointing me in the direction of further study. Looking back, I think there was deeper work at play. My search, which I thought was for the ways in which religion could be used for good, was actually about my own inner seeking. Though I knew that there are many flawed ways in which humans try to discover and share the “Truth,” and that one religion could never be fully true, I couldn’t help but seek something more within me. And now I see it isn’t the “Truth” I am seeking but rather a connection to something “True” that exists within me and in everything around me. I was and am seeking the mystical experience that these religions were all born out of. As Wayne Teasdale writes in The Mystic Heart, “mystical experience is always there, inviting us on a journey of ultimate discovery. We have been given the gift of life in this perplexing world to become who we ultimately are: creatures of boundless love, caring, compassion, and wisdom. Existence is a summons to the eternal journey of the sage – the sage we all are, if only we could see.”(1)

Like many before me and many to come, I have been beckoned within to the heart of eternal universal awareness. Why? For the same reason Siddharta Gautama, living in 5th century BCE in Nepal, renounced his princely life, took on several different teachers only to be mostly disappointed, and finally sat beneath a tree, fasting and meditating for days, or maybe months, to go deeply within, having not found the answers without. It’s the same reason Jesus, living in 1st century CE Galilee, went into the desert, fasted, meditated, and prayed for 40 days, wrestling with his demons- the same demons each of us contain. For the same reason Muhammad, living in 6th century Arabia, escaped to the mountains to meditate on the social injustice and inequities that had always concerned him and heard a voice calling him toward deeper learning.

These were ordinary men, like other men and women, who at some point in their lives looked around and saw the suffering inherent in the human existence. Each was looking for not just an explanation of why there was such suffering, but also the ways in which to be released from this suffering. Thousands of years of religious story telling in Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and other ancient cultures pointed the ways toward how to live a meaningful and organized life that would please the gods, but they didn’t necessarily offer many insights on how to be released from the cycle of human tragedy and ego.

What was awakened in each of these people was so powerful, life shattering, and moving that they felt compelled to share it with others. What followed was an “absolutely unequivocal, deliberate departure from all the old views.”(2) What they experienced would be described as enlightenment, waking up, being saved, entering the kingdom of heaven, God, the interconnectedness of all beings. And that is what pulls at each of us, that often soft inner voice that calls us to look within, to see deeper than the human egoic experience to who we truly are.

There is much more to this story, of course, and my own (which isn’t the point anyway). I could share how through my work over the last 11 years, I gained a deeper respect for Christianity and the Bible, as well as the teacher Jesus and was able to heal some of my own trauma caused by misguided and brainwashed Christians. Or that when I started my studies at The Chaplaincy Institute, I was shocked to realize my ignorance and lack of knowledge around Islam which had led to assumptions and discriminations in my own mind that were unjustified but which provided insight into how so many people are misled by the media and war hungry politicians to have biases and fears of Muslims. I could share how I just got back from my first Burning Man, a temporary city of 70,000 plus people, set up in the middle of the Black Rock City Desert, a fascinating playground of interfaith and interspiritual community and how that experience further demonstrated to me the Ground of Being(3) out of which all belief grows and the awesome potential for radical inclusion of all beings and their religious manifestations. (more on that later)

However, what I really wanted to share at this time is how I came to realize that while religion may not be the answer to solve our world problems, it can be a door toward that which unites us all, it can point the direction toward who we are at our deepest levels. Religion is just the manifestation of mystical prophets sharing their inward journey, where they discovered Sacred Oneness. As Peter Occhiogrosso, eloquently writes, “as we have seen, under and through each of the great traditions runs a stream – vastly deeper than the surface waters but somehow also inseparable from them – a single stream that feeds each of those traditions from a single source. This stream of mystical belief and practice, which we are calling the Perennial Philosophy, not only sustains each of the world’s religions but also unites them in a subtle way of which those sailing on the surface may not be aware.” Imagine if we had more teachers and guides that were well equipped to share this universal philosophy, who had a profound respect for and a solid knowledge of different religions and faiths, while at the same time had done the vital work of searching within their own being, so that they could gradually help more and more people become aware of the hidden springs of faith? While the world spends so much time being tossed on the waves of the religious stormy waters, little do they know, they simply need to dive deep below the wild into the pure and calm depths and then the storm can’t touch them.

During a time when divisions seem to be heightened and fear is tangible, is it possible that my early adult dreams of discovering the treasure within the muck of religion could potentially hold the key to a new dawning of an Interspiritual and Interfaith Age? Well, for “Heaven’s” sake, isn’t it worth exploring? And in order to explore the mysterious, treacherous waters, we need informed guides. Not just historians, but those who have gone into the depths of their own inner world, who, like sages and prophets before them have wrestled with their demons, have sat in the discomfort of unknowing, who have held firm past the ego’s strong signals of doubt and fear, which pressure us to identify as separate from all others, the root of fear and hate.

Is some spiritual evolution in progress? As more and more people let go of their tight grasp on the complex surface of religion to focus on their inner practice and the sacred stream that runs below all faiths, could there be a critical mass of global enlightenment? What once felt like a dream, now I see is a necessity. The only peaceful future world is an interfaith and interspiritual one.

About the Author

Deshna is the Director of Progressing Spirit and ProgressiveChristianity.org, the Producer of Embrace Festival, and a student in the Interfaith Chaplaincy program at CHI.

(1) Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, page 3-4
(2) Sumbul Ali-Karamali, The Muslim Next Door, page 42
(3) Paul Tillich termed the phrase, Ground of Being. For Tillich, God is being-itself, not a being among other beings. To describe the relationship between being-itself and finite beings, Tillich takes the word, “ground.” For Tillich, God is the ground of being, the ground of the structure of being. God as being itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being. In other words, every ontological being has its power to be in being itself, participate in the ground of being. http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/tillich.htm

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