Interfaith Teaching

This is a column I wrote for Siddha-Songs: a webite of a good friend and spiritual teacher, Cindy Lee. I don’t know how to embed the Siddha Songs link in this text, or I would.
But here’s the column, in case you are interested.

Interfaith Teaching Tips

Increasingly, I find myself invited to teach in interfaith settings or groups. This has required a new level of preparation, and awareness of inclusive language, being aware of what I’m saying when I use Christian theological language in a mixed group, and unpacking it, in the interests of finding a shared language. Teaching in interfaith contexts also requires a greater commitment on my part to deeper understanding of the religious faiths in groups that I’m teaching. One of the best ways to do this has been through word study, going deep with etymologies and exegesis of the texts in my own tradition.

Recently, for example, I co-taught a class with a Buddhist teacher. Our topic was one of the six perfections: patience, a virtue which ranks highly in Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, and of course, others. For this workshop, I mined the term “patience” in Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and reviewed the presentation of it in The Way of the Bodhisattva. What we discovered in the etymological research was the profound connection of breath to patience. Patience, in the Hebrew scriptures is translated sometimes as “slow to anger,” which is based on a Hebrew term referring to God’s face, and God’s breath. To be “slow to anger” is to be long-breathed, long-spirited: as in “one takes in a long breath.” The term “slow to anger” has its roots in words that imply God has a long nose, long nostrils to take in a long breath. In this way, by mining the the roots of terms, my Buddhist co-teacher and I quickly found common ground in the “breath,” how breathing works in meditation, how breathing and “bearing with”, and forgiveness or release, work together, and how patience, the long breath of the spirit, is rooted in the body. It also gave me a new way of thinking about God’s face, as God’s nostrils take in a long-breathed slow to anger, forbearing breath.

This kind of work is easier if you know the languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Sanskrit. Thankfully, when you don’t know the original languages the internet is an invaluable tool for research. However, I always check my exegesis against authoritative commentaries, and if there are scholars around, I check with them, even when I’m taking creative liberties. And if I am taking a creative liberty, I have something to offer to counter it, from the research. If you aren’t an academic, which I’m not, the most useful and nearly immediate conversation partners are local religious teachers, as well, because they are steeped in their traditions. For example, before actually teaching the interpretation of “patience,” I double-checked my Hebrew translation, and the meanings of the roots with a local rabbi. What happens, then, is everyone gets excited about your interest in their tradition. You’ve built a bridge, as well as learning whether you’re on the right track.

More and more the religious context in the US is multi-faithed, and interfaith. I’m excited about it, but it means a willingness on my part to leave the comfort zone of what I know, and trust the new learnings are paths to the holy. More and more, as religious teachers, we are inhabiting interfaith spaces, and it’s an adventure to get to know them, and to help create and shape them.

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