The old rules of polite society that dictated that we refrain from discussing other people's religion have broken down of late, perhaps for the better. Due to interfaith marriage (he's Catholic, she's Jewish), fluid borders, and faith-based politics, our divergent religious and spiritual perspectives have begun to collide, no matter what Miss Manners might think.
Beliefnet's brilliant response to this shrinking world was to sponsor a group tour of Ireland, one unlike any other holiday in the Emerald Isle: this excursion featured both Christian and Pagan guides (I was one of the latter) and the itinerary included a careful selection of destinations sacred to both faith traditions: Christian centers like Glendalough and Clonmacnoise, Pagan sites like Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, and perhaps most important of all, Kildare, which plays an equally important role in both Christian and Earth-based spirituality.
The reality of our interfaith society was nicely represented by the members of the group: they self-identified as Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Quaker, Congregationalist, Buddhist, Pagan, and agnostic. None of them, as far as I could tell, were full-time religious professionals, but all of them seemed serious about their faith (or about questioning it).
I'll admit I was nervous my first day as guide. A last minute emergency had prevented the popular writer Mother Tessa Bielecki from acting as the Celtic Christian guide. Though Beliefnet had lined up several more than suitable Christian guides to meet us along the tour, I wondered whether the Christians would accept me, a Pagan leader. Would they be willing to learn more about Earth-based spirituality as part of their Ireland experience? Perhaps more to the point, would I (and the other Pagans and non-Christians on the tour) be willing to accept the powerful spirituality of the Christians who walked with us? After all, I (like most Neopagans in America today) consciously chose to disaffiliate with the Christian religion of my upbringing in order to embrace Earth-based spirituality. Could I live up to my own ideals, and enjoy the truly multi-religious character of this trip?
My worries were laid to rest on the first day of the trip, when we gathered in our hotel in Dublin to introduce ourselves to one another. Each of us spoke briefly about our religious or spiritual perspectives. It soon became clear that our group was not a collection of different religious labels, but rather a community of individuals, each with her or his unique story and unique ways of looking at the world. In fact, those who wore the same religious "label" sometimes expressed their faith in surprisingly different ways. Two sisters were on the tour together, both speaking candidly about their entirely different experiences as Catholics, while a Quaker aunt and her Catholic niece seemed to embody the best interfaith spirit: each was committed to her faith, and completely accepting of the other's.Each person also expressed his or her faith in unique and sometimes innovative ways. One of the most devout Catholics on the trip proved to be a dedicated yoga instructor. The tour's travel liaison spoke eloquently of how she integrated Buddhism, Christianity, and Falun Gong into her spirituality, and one of the most enthusiastic Christians in the tour saw no conflict between her deep faith and her life experience as a lesbian mom.
Not everyone was a spiritual hybrid. Two of the men on the tour embodied a deep commitment to mystical and contemplative prayer; an Episcopal woman spoke in unadorned language about how Jesus is her Lord. In another setting, these orthodox positions might seem commonplace, of course, but watching people espouse their different perspectives, and thereby foster an environment where all could speak openly about who we were and why our paths had brought us there--that, truly, was a miracle.
Another miracle emerged as the week progressed. More than one of the Christians on the tour thanked me for helping them see Earth-based spirituality in a new light; and one agnostic spoke about a newfound willingness she was feeling to give her husband's church a try. Even as the tour's "official Pagan," I discovered new possibilities: two of the high points of the trip for me included attending an Anglican service at the church where William Butler Yeats' mother is buried, and spending a lovely afternoon at a Carmelite hermitage where the monks and nuns offered me hospitality that transcended the distinctions between our faiths.
No community is without friction. Just as each person had their unique perspective on faith, so too did each one have his or her unique attitude toward the interfaith dimension of the trip. For some, indeed, that was an essential part of the experience, while others said it frequently got in the way of their wish to experience Ireland exclusively through the lens of their own tradition. The only thing we could do was accept these complaints. On a trip dedicated to spiritual tolerance, we couldn't very well say we wouldn't tolerate intolerance!
Certainly, Ireland's majestic scenery, splendid hospitality, and rich heritage provided a gloriously abundant backdrop that made it easy for us to maintain our best behavior for seven short days. The question is, could this be sustained for a longer period of time?
The answer, I believe, is yes. Each one of us, wherever we live or however we function in society, can practice tolerance and goodwill toward those whose beliefs are different from our own. If I took anything away from this Beliefnet experience in Ireland, it was a deep, unshakable conviction that interfaith community is both necessary and possible. More than ever today, we have the opportunity to find out.