Thursday, June 21, 2012
Interview by Alternative Religions Educational Network
Alternative Religions Educational Network in their newsletter ACTION. It appears in the Litha 2012 edition which can be read in our online browser at this link on pages 17-23. The interview is reproduced below:
The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.
Interview with researcher, writer, and speaker on intercultural studies, John W. Morehead
By Christopher Blackwell
It started with a sloppily written editorial by Rob Kerby, Senior Editor of Beliefnet, “What can the Third World teach the “civilized” world about witchcraft?”
That was followed up by an detailed review of it by Jason Pitzl-Waters “Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings”
But what perhaps surprised me most was a guest editorial on the Wild Hunt on May 3, 2012, entitled Guest Post: “Hunt for Charity and Sound Arguments, Not Witches” by Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead that defended the right of the Pagans and Wiccans to be upset about the beliefnet article.
Why was I surprised? Only because it came from a most unlikely sources, from two Evangelical Christians who also suggested the value of serious dialogue between Pagans and Evangelical Christians, among others, though the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.
Now normally you could not find two separate groups more at loggerheads then Evangelical Christians, and Pagans, so I was curious to learn more about this and contacted John Morehead who agreed to give this interview.
As he stated in response to my inquiry, “I doubt many Pagans would be interested in a discussion of Christianity per se, but my work in dialogue with Pagans, and my call for Pagans to consider putting together a chapter in our Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, might be of interest to a larger segment of your readers.” Here’s the interview:
Christopher: I would imagine in some ways both of us may have a bit of a feeling of being Daniel in the lion’s den, to use the Christian metaphor, in dealing with the other side. So how did you become interested in contact with other religions, while being within the Evangelical side of Christianity?
John: Thanks for the interest in discussing this with me in your publication, Christopher. I’m glad we were able to find a facet of this issue that might be of interest to some of your readers.
I have always been interested in the diversity of practices and beliefs in the world’s religions and spiritualities. I think in part it’s a personality thing. But in my academic studies as well as my personal life, I have been interested in diversity of perspectives, various angles of understanding in my work, like religious studies, sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, and other perspectives, all with an eye toward developing a better understanding of religion past and present. But I think part of understanding involves moving beyond reading about the religion of another, and actually engaging those in other religious traditions. If at all possible this is best done through ongoing relationships, and over the years I have been able to spend time talking with people about their religious commitments, and developing relationships with such people too. My areas of dialogue focus have been in the areas of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism.
As to Daniel in the lion’s den, there is certainly a level of distrust and anxiety about me in Pagan circles, and some of this comes through in the comments section of The Wild Hunt essay you introduced this interview with. But by and large, once we are able to talk, and initial fears are addressed, and people hear my views on topics, then there is greater openness to continued conversation. Some Pagans even express appreciation for my work from time to time, believe it or not.
Christopher: Could you tell us something of your areas of study and training that lead to this?
John: I received an MA in intercultural studies from Salt Lake Theological Seminary, where I wrote my thesis on Burning Man Festival and approached that subject matter from sociological and theological perspectives. For many years now I have been involved in the academic study of new religious movements, including Paganism, and have written on these topics in journals and books, including those wherein my work has been critiqued not only by other scholars, but also by those in the religious traditions I’ve written about. So for example, I was asked to write an essay summarizing Paganism for a forthcoming book by an Evangelical publisher. After drafting my piece I ran it by two Pagans, Gus diZerega and Jason Pitzl-Waters, asking for their feedback and critique. This self-critical and dialogical approach helps me do a better job at understanding, representing, and relating to others.
Beyond my academic training and ongoing research and writing, I have also been involved for many years in inter-religious dialogue. It began in northern California where I’m originally from, and has continued with my move to Utah for graduate studies. In California I was involved in Muslim-Christian studies, whereas in Utah I have been involved in dialogue with Mormons and Pagans. As a result of the latter work I was able to serve as editor of a book by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008). This brought together a Christian in Australia, and a Pagan in the United States, who talk about various issues related to our respective religious traditions and the public square.
Christopher: What is in it for Christians to have this dialogue?
John: I think there’s something of benefit in dialogue for everyone, regardless of one’s religious or irreligious convictions. We all benefit from understanding, accurate representation of the views of another, civility, relationships, tension-reduction, and peacemaking.
But beyond this for the Christian community dialogue gives us an opportunity to follow the practice of Jesus. In the Evangelical subculture we have long talked about “What Would Jesus Do?”, and yet this question has largely not been asked in relation to Jesus and other religions. But if Evangelicals revisit the Gospels and look at Jesus and his interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans, we can see what kind of approach he used which can then be applied to our own engagement with those in other religions today.
Some Christians do this, of course, but many times they come away with a negative approach. They look at passages in the Bible where Jesus denounces the religious leaders of his day, and they assume this is how we should engage other religions. Renounce in the name of truth! However, the Gospels reveal something very different. Jesus does use harsh language at times, but its against the religious leaders of Judaism who abused their power and privilege. He does not do this among rank and file Jews. Perhaps even more surprising for some, if we look at how Jesus engaged Gentiles and Samaritans we see that he often engages in ways which seek understanding, operates on an informed basis of their culture and religion, and involves two-way communication - a dialogue. Interested readers can pursue this in depth in Bob Robinson’s new book Jesus and the Religions. But the point is, that one of the benefits for Christians is that they can be involved in dialogue as a way of following the teachings and example of Jesus. Of course, there are many other reasons as well, but desiring to emulate Christ surely must top the list for Christians.
Christopher: What is in it for the Pagans to have this dialogue?
John: Well, I’d point to the same general benefits as I mentioned for everyone else, regardless of religion, for starters. Beyond this, there still remains a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Paganism in popular culture. One way Pagans can address this is to have a place at the table of religions in dialogue. This allows Pagans to describe their own religion, and to put personal faces on an otherwise abstract array of practices and beliefs. It is far easier to misunderstand and demonize an abstract system of thought than it is a person or group of people. Pagans can help prevent much of the misrepresentation if they describe themselves in relationships and conversations with others. This in turn will hopefully lead to less persecution and civil rights abuses so that future Pagans don’t have to go through litigation so that deceased service members can have Pagan symbols used as grave markers, and so that those falsely labeled as Pagans or “devil worshipers” won’t become the victims of false imprisonment for alleged satanic crime.
I know that the preference for many Pagans is simply to be left alone to practice their pathway in peace. I appreciate this, but for those willing to take the risks involved in inter-religious dialogue there are many practical benefits for everyone.
Christopher: Pagans might wonder how does this become something more than just another attempt to be evangelized?
John: Hopefully my thoughts a moment ago painted a broader picture for dialogue than merely as another form of evangelism. Beyond this, dialogue can include evangelism, but must not be reduced to only this or any other single element, in my view. But the question of the relation between dialogue and evangelism is an important one that must be discussed. In recent years the Christian community has been more aware of problems in this area where concerns of colonialism, identity theft, and coercion have been leveled against Christian missionaries. Some organizations, such as the World Council of Churches, have set forth statements which warn against these unethical forms of proselytism, yet also leave the door open for ethical forms of sharing of faith concerns.
This is one of the major concerns expressed by Pagans, and it needs to be on our agenda as Christians and Pagans move forward in dialogue. It is a sticking point for Pagans and Christians, arising for both groups out of the values of religious identity and freedom, but very different conclusions are reached. For Pagans, they don’t want to be evangelized, as previously mentioned, they just want to be left along to practice their Pagan pathway. For Christians, they feel an obligation to share the story of Jesus as persuasively as possible. How do our religious communities move beyond this impasse? It is true, that dialogue can include evangelism, however, Christians must recognize that evangelism can only proceed as part of dialogue if the dialogue partner expresses an interest in such matters. If not, then evangelism should not be practiced. Christians must be sensitive to the concerns of some, including Pagans, that evangelism is seen as a form of coercion and identity theft by those in other religious traditions. I believe it is possible to be fair to everyone’s convictions and religious traditions so that Christians and Pagans can come to the dialogue table together, allowing Christians to retain evangelism as an essential part of their religion, and yet for the Christian to concede that this is largely unwelcomed by Pagans, and therefore it should not be part of the dialogue agenda.
Christopher: So how does this lead to Foundation for Religious Diplomacy? Who all is involved?
John: Thankfully, my work in inter-religious dialogue led me to the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. This organization is the brainchild of Charles Randall Paul, FRD’s founder and president. Randall recognized years ago that dialogue needs to take place, and he has created a non-profit organization with chapters based in differing religious traditions. So there is not only an Evangelical Chapter, but also a Mormon one, as well as a Mahayana Buddhist Chapter, two chapters in Islam, and a Jewish chapter. These chapters are facilitated by people who are respected in their religious traditions who work within their religious community’s to train them for dialogue. There is a Board of Directors and Senior Advisory Fellows. I sit on the former, and also serve as the Director of the Evangelical chapter. Those interested can learn more about FRD by visiting the website at http://www.fidweb.org
Christopher: What other chapters are forming and what chapters are there that might yet form?
John: You can see from the list of existing chapters that more need to be formed. In fact, depending upon the diversity of a given tradition, several chapters may need to be formed within an overall tradition. So for example, there are both Shia and Sunni Islam chapters, and the Jewish and Buddhist traditions may need to expand in their areas. I head up the Evangelical chapter, and my hope is that this can also serve Mainline Protestants, but certainly a separate chapter for the Roman Catholic tradition would need to be explored. Also, I have had some conversations with Pagans in the U.S. and U.K. about the possibility of creating a Pagan chapter of FRD. There seems to be some interest, and I hope this possibility is seriously explored so that a more formalized and centralized dialogue venue can be created for the Pagan community.
Christopher: What does dialogue do and how does one go about it without it falling into the name calling and shouting that talking about religion often ends up in?
John: That kind of question would take a book to adequately address it. There are a lot of concerns about “dialogue” with all of its historic baggage. It’s suspect even in Evangelicalism. I prefer to talk about inter-religious relationships and conversations. Dialogue is just the practice of getting to know people and how to talk to them about some of their deepest convictions, doing so without compromise, and sharing in civility. What we can do is learn and teach various habits and skills about listening, two-way conversation, fairness in representation of the other, trying to understand another as they understand themselves (or as closely as we can get as outsiders), civility in our conversations, and the ability to agree to disagree agreeably. We tend to demonize the opposition and do little other than reinforce our boundaries and trounce the opposition. We do this in politics as well as religion. There is a different and better way forward which can be learned and then taught to others in order to make our post-9/11 world a better place to live in.
Christopher: Are there any examples of this kind of religious dialogue people can see for themselves?
John: I’d recommend the book I mentioned earlier, Beyond the Burning Times, for an example of a Pagan and Christian doing this. Beyond that, at FRD we are finalizing a website platform titled the World Table of Religions. It is a forum where people will sign up, create a profile, watch people engage in peer-reviewed and rated dialogue, and then get involved in the process themselves if they want. These dialogues are then archived so people can learn about good dialogue processes. The website is a prototype now so I can’t give out the website address yet, but will go live this summer. It’s going to be a big deal, and a great forum so people can see this and learn to do it themselves.
Christopher: If any Pagans should prove interested in setting up some form of chapter themselves, how do they go about it? Are there any costs involved? Are there any ground rules they might need to know about?
John: I’ve touched on some of this above, but those Pagans interested in being part of a potential chapter would need to be in agreement with the principles of the FRD as discussed on the website. They would also need to determine whether one or several chapters would need to be created to serve the needs of the Pagan community. What would those look like and who would head these up? Once these foundational questions are answered then I can work with Randy Paul and any interested Pagans in exploring how the chapter would be formed and launched.
Christopher: Where can people learn more about the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy?
John: They can visit the website at http://www.fidweb.org and learn much more. Our contact information is there. There is also an article from The Deseret News in Utah. Take a look and get in touch with us with further questions. Hopefully some of your readers will want to get involved.
Christopher: Do you find yourself in any controversy within the Evangelical movement for your wiliness to be in dialog with non-Christian religions.
John: At times, yes. For some Evangelicals the assumption is that to become involved in dialogue involves compromise. Or that I will inappropriately combine Christianity with aspects of the religions of my dialogue partners (syncretism). I think there are many fears underlying some of this, and I recognize these fears, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable or push dialogue beyond the boundaries of being an acceptable Christian practice. Indeed, I would argue that it needs to be not just a practice, but also an emotion or attitude toward others that is part of a lifestyle that one lives in relation to those in other religions. So while I do receive a lot of controversy from Evangelicals, dialogue is too important to let such critique stand in the way.
Christopher: Don’t you also have some other intercultural interests?
John: Yes, I am fascinated by religion in popular culture. In particular, I am interested in hype-real religions, those spiritualities and social identities that come as a result of the intersection of the fantastic and religion. This includes religions like Jediism (based upon the Star Wars mythology), Matrixism (based upon the Matrix films), the Otherkin, and vampires as a few examples. This phenomenon fascinates me, and a new book came out, Handbook of Hyper-real Religions (Brill, 2012) with my essay on Matrixism. I also research and write on the religious and cultural aspects of horror, science fiction, and fantasy in pop culture, and the paranormal is an area of great research interest as well. I’ve written for various websites and my own blog on these topics, and I’m co-editing a few books on it, including (with Kim Paffenroth) The Undead and Theology (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming), and (with Tony Mills and James Ryan Parker) Joss Whedon and Religion (McFarland, forthcoming).
Christopher: Haven’t you had some books published?
John: I’m the co-editor of Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic, 2004), the editor of the previously mentioned Beyond the Burning Times, and the author of Burning Man Festival: A Life Enhancing, Post-Christendom, "Middle Way".
Christopher: Where can people learn a bit more about you?
John: They can read my bio at at the Evangelical Chapter FRD website, and get to know me through dialogue!