What does “interfaith” mean? That’s what the leaders of a new career counseling not-for-profit asked me to research, because they want to address the needs of youth in a community that is growing more and more diverse, and they believe that spiritual concerns are essential in exploring vocation.
A dictionary definition states that interfaith means “of, operating, or occurring between persons or groups belonging to different religions.” So, “interfaith” is a synonym, then, for “interreligious.” I have come to recognize, however, that some faithful people are not religious, but nevertheless are enthusiastically involved in interfaith activities.
I first noticed this at at the website of the Interfaith Youth Core, where several IFYC leaders identify as atheists or agnostics. If one supposes that faith is something possessed or demonstrated solely by religious people, then the exuberant participation of atheists and agnostics in the Interfaith Youth Core takes one aback and calls for a reconsideration of the premise. So, I began to wonder whether there might be a broader definition of faith which would explain what I was observing.
One evening a few weeks ago I was dispatched by a local philanthropic foundation to meet with the leaders of an organization that helps boys at risk in the city do better at school, through basketball training, intensive tutoring, and mentoring. A standard question for such site visits is, “What would your organization do if it didn’t get the grant it has requested?” (We ask this to determine the grit and the adaptability of the program leaders.) So, my co-interviewer popped this question. The director of the program leaned forward and his eyes narrowed as if he were staring right through us, to the very horizon of the known, and a smile came to his lips and he said, “Somehow we’ll get through. We’ll find a way to do what must be done. It’s just too important to quit.” I was moved by his determination, by his faith. Yes, I think that’s what people would say of such a person: “He has faith that somehow everything will turn out. And he’s determined to work to make it so.” I mulled over what I had observed. Here’s a person who has abundant faith, but I know nothing of his personal life. He may not be religious, but he sure is faithful! Two weeks later I met with him for coffee, and I recalled for him that moment when he told us that he was confident things would somehow come out right. I said to him, “I think most people would say of you that you have faith that you’ll make it through. Is that a fair thing to say? Does the word, faith, ring true?” He showed some embarrassment, then replied, “Well, yes, I do have faith, but I’m not very religious. I’m confident because I know how important those boys are to me. I know, so long as it depends upon me, they’ll get what they need.” My hunch was right. Faith is about more than religion. Maybe faith runs deeper than faiths?
One morning at 2:30 a.m. I awoke and couldn’t fall back asleep. What is this thing called faith, I wondered, which enlivens people from many religious traditions, but also, some people who are not religious? Here’s what came to me:
Faith is an optimistic energy that impels one to make the world a better place. This optimistic energy is not based upon a careful calculation of favorable outcomes, but rather, upon the unshakable conviction that love is stronger than hate, and that one can accomplish much, indeed much more than one can foresee, provided one spends one’s life loving.
Here is a definition of faith, I think, that will bear all freight, and will serve better to understand what “interfaith” means, rather than seeing it as a synonym for “interreligious.” Traditionally interfaith activities have involved worship services that incorporate scriptures from several religious traditions, or study sessions that compare and contrast the teachings of different religions about a certain subject. Thus, comparative religion has been a fundamental tool for designing and conducting interfaith activities. Interfaith activists have occupied themselves almost solely with examining the similarities and differences of rituals and doctrines of various religions. Few have stopped to question whether faith is solely a religious phenomenon, and whether “interfaith” may pertain not just to the level of doctrine and ritual, but more fundamentally, to the level of spiritual experience.
Unfortunately, people who think of themselves as “people of faith,” usually meaning people who believe in God and affiliate with a religious community, discourse seldom with people who are not religious, especially atheists and agnostics. Encountering non-believers who exhibit a faith which is not religious can, as I discovered, take one aback. The experience may force one to reexamine some long-held assumptions about how the metaphysical furniture is arranged.
I am an avid interfaith activist, who is very grateful for all the interreligious activities that are conducted under an interfaith banner. Interreligious study and worship do help to promote peace through better understanding and mutual respect. However, if interfaith activists are to interact authentically with the secular portion of the populace, a portion that is growing fastest in many societies, then we must acknowledge that religious people do not have a monopoly on faith, and we must take that fact into account in future interfaith endeavors.