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Bay Area Interfaith Connect

Additional News Stories from 2016



In a wide-ranging conversation, several Bay Area interreligious leaders addressed the manifestations of extremism in the religious world today at a gathering in the Presidio Chapel on April 10th. Rod Cardoza of Abrahamic Alliance International led off with a clear and thoughtful presentation on the roots of violence. The perpetrators of violence have some admirable qualities– a passion for change and an unwillingness to accept the status quo– but sadly, these are joined with a spiritual immaturity that seeks to impose a simplistic dogmatism on the world around them. Cardoza described the work of the Abrahamic Alliance, which brings together Jewish, Christian, and Muslim congregations to join in service projects, often feeding the needy. The encounters include opportunities to learn about each other's traditions and to develop relationships in the context of the shared values of the three communities.

Fatih Ates of the Pacifica Institute agreed that extremism often arises among the uneducated. Many do not understand the tradition of interpretation and commentary that has accompanied religious texts, and so they reach conclusions about the meaning of the Quran or the Hadith, the traditions about the prophet Muhammad, that are at odds with what Islam itself teaches.

Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael reminded listeners of the story in which Rabbi Hillel is challenged to teach the entire Torah (Jewish scriptures) while standing on one foot. Hillel said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary." The Reform Jewish tradition, Rabbi Rosen-Brown said, is focused on that reciprocal love. If your interpretation of scripture does not lead to treating your neighbor justly, you need to return to the text and read it again. In the Rabbinic tradition, texts that once related to war become tranformed into instructions on how to love. Sadly, the kind of interpretation that is common in violent religious movements is an approach that believes it can understand a text without interpretation. This is a betrayal of living religion, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

Ravit Baer, the Israeli Deputy Consul General based in San Francisco, raised a somewhat different dimension of the issue. While most of the panelists addressed the religious components of extremism, Baer talked about the threat that extremism presents to governmental agencies. Israel, she declared, has no tolerance for extremism from any quarter. She described an attack by Israeli citizens on a Palestinian home in 2015 that resulted in the death of an 18-month-old child and his parents. Those responsible, she said, were prosecuted and were disowned by their own families.

The panel ended on a more hopeful note as Elizabeth Padilla, Program Director at the Brahma Kumaris Anubhuti retreat center, shared music from the heart. Acknowledging that events in the world today could well lead to a sense of despair, she affirmed the power of music and the heart to counter extremism, hatred, and prejudice. Her magnificent rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" brought tears to many eyes, and her chant for peace, "Om, Shanti," opened the way for finding ways that make for peace in our world.

The program was a joint presentation of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, the Bay Area branch of the Pacifica Institute, a world-wide Turkish-American Muslim group devoted to dialogue and understanding, and Ahimsa Berkeley, an organization centered on dialogue between religion, science, and social action and how they shape our lives. The moderators for the day were Rev. Gerry Caprio and Dr. Henry Baer, both members of the ICP Board and of Ahimsa.

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"I'm worried that I'm betraying Jesus." Elsie L.The INTRAfaith Conversation

Many who have been involved in cooperative engagements with people of other faith traditions discover that it is often easier to talk with people of a different religion than it is with the person sitting next to you in your own congregation. In her new book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters?, the Rev. Dr. Susan Strouse addresses the challenges that the increasingly interfaith realities of our day present for Christians, and invites reflection on how Christian theology and identity might be shaped by the interfaith encounter. Susan is a long-time associate of ICP, served as the Interim Director in 2011 and is currently Pastor of the First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco.

Blending personal stories, thoughtful reflection on the changing face of America and pastoral concern, The INTRAfaith Conversation invites readers to understand and appreciate just what doing Christian theology means in today's multi-religious world. The book's sections reflect the breadth of Strouse's focus: dealing with the new religious context; what it means to think theologically as a comunity; tolerance, exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism; personal experience; and pastoral and leadership issues for congregations entering the interfaith world.

The book is designed to be used with a discussion group; each section is followed by a series of questions for reflection and discussion along with suggestions for further reading.

BAIC: What in your experience of the interfaith encounter led you to write this book?

Rev. Dr. Susan StrouseIt all started with Elsie Leary. When I began my doctoral work, I called it “The Elsie Project” (several years later, when Paul Chaffee from the Interfaith Center at the Presidio read my thesis, he was surprised because he’d always thought I was saying “LC,” meaning Lutheran Church). Elsie was a member of my former congregation back in Buffalo, NY. After Sept. 11, 2001, our adult forum decided to study the world’s religions. They chose to study Hinduism first. I asked them if they’d like me to invite a Hindu guest to come for one of the sessions and share her story. They said yes, so I invited Pat, who was part of an interfaith women’s group I belonged to.

After the session, Elsie, asked if she could stay and talk about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

That got me thinking . . .  and thinking. . .  and thinking. Later, I read a book by Professor Judith Berling of the Graduate Theological Union in which she talked about the two poles of the interreligious learning process: 1) understanding another religion faithfully, and 2) reappropriating Christian tradition in light of new understandings and relationships.

And I realized that, while there was a lot happening on the interfaith scene (the first pole), not much was being done on the intrafaith (the second pole) side of things. So I decided to go to The GTU and get my doctorate in interfaith education. I finished that in 2005, with the intention of turning my thesis into a book. As you can see, it’s taken a while to reach that goal.

BAIC: Why do you think this is an important topic for today?

In the first chapter of the book, I talk about the interfaith landscape. As Diana Eck of Harvard’s Pluralism Project describes: “All of us live in the new world in which the proximity and intermingling of people of many faiths is a fact of our global life and increasingly our local lives as well.” That’s just a given.

The second chapter is entitled “The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation” and it gets more complex. For one thing, Christianity is undergoing a major shift in the Western world, and most churches don’t know what to do about it. Membership is in free fall. And it’s not only about “spiritual but not religious” millennials declining to join the church in the first place; there’s also the “church alumni society” (described by John Shelby Spong), who have left. There are many things contributing to this phenomenon and gallons of ink (or bytes) being used to explain what’s going on and what to do about it. But I don’t see much about how the church should be responding to the interfaith landscape: what to do with some of the inherent exclusivist claims of Christianity that creep into even the most progressive churches among us. There are many “Elsies” out there and church leaders should be helping them to wrestle with the intrafaith questions with creativity, courage, and pastoral sensitivity.

BAIC: What do you hope people will take away from reading the book?

I hope people will form discussion groups where they will:

  • learn new information and resources;
  • feel a sense of hope that they’re not alone in their questioning;
  • engage in challenging conversation, respectful of differences of opinion or beliefs;
  • be open to new ways of thinking about their faith and expressing it both in a personal and congregational context

BAIC: What was the most challenging part of the writing for you?

Finding the time to write in the midst of full-time parish m ministry
Finding a balance between the academic and the practical. My intended audience is intentionally somewhat broad: from lay members of congregations with little or no theological training to clergy with extensive theological backgrounds, albeit not necessarily in this area.

BAIC: What are three things you want people to know about you?

  • I’m a Lutheran pastor with over 17 years of parish experience.
  • I’m still on my own evolving spiritual journey.
  • Some of my favorite spiritual practices are dancing, coloring, and walking a labyrinth.


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