Living into Our Stories: The Makings of an Interfaith Leader
Written By David P. King, PhD
Just over a week ago, Dr. Eboo Patel delivered our 14th Annual Thomas H. Lake Lecture. With a full house, it was the largest crowed we had ever hosted. Part of the draw was Eboo Patel as a renowned speaker himself, and he did not disappoint. But I also left believing the crowd was also due to a hunger around the timeliness of his topic: “Building a Diverse Democracy: Exploring the Theologies and Practice of Interfaith Cooperation.”
For those unable to attend, you can watch the lecture here. In his lecture, Patel made the case that America is a robust and religiously diverse democracy. For that reason, interfaith cooperation is an important tool in promoting civic goods within society. Interfaith cooperation, as Patel defines it, goes far beyond panels of religious leaders dialoguing on the fine points of theology. Instead, the theology and practice assumes deep exploration of one’s own tradition as well as a deep engagement with others as well.
Patel describes this concept as both art and science. Interfaith cooperation must be intentional. While not relegated to technique, Patel does not dismiss the need for proper facilitation – creating space for meaningful exchange and relationships across difference and fostering the practice of appreciative knowledge of another tradition. Through this intentional work, Patel points to the possibility of what he calls the “interfaith triangle”: attitudes improve, knowledge increases, and more relationships occur.
But Patel notes that to be an interfaith leader, it is much more art than science. In some ways, Patel has coined a new phrase. Few of us would name ourselves as “interfaith leaders.” That’s not anyone’s job title. But Patel persuasively makes the case that no one thought of themselves as an environmentalist or social entrepreneur just a decade or two ago either, and now many wear those labels proudly. Yet, interfaith leadership is an art – the art (or practice) of hospitality, discernment, and perhaps most importantly, storytelling.
I would not be surprised if Patel took the art of storytelling for granted because of his own gift as a storyteller. In an hour-long lecture, Patel did not look down at notes once, and weaved stories effortlessly into a comprehensive narrative. But the opposite proved to be the case. In conversations, it was clear that it was precisely his awareness of the power of story that led him to perfect the art.
Pulling from Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, Patel articulated three essential types of public storytelling – stories of self, us, and now. Stories of self are vocational in nature – why you are led to follow a certain path. When considering interfaith cooperation, this structure often leads us to look back, and name our positive and negative experiences, our preconceptions and prejudices, our laments and joys. Stories of us are communal – digging into our past and present to discern the power of our family, culture, and tradition in shaping who we are, and discerning what community of purpose we freely choose. Finally, Patel argues that stories of now “begin with the recognition that there is a gap between the values the community cherishes and the values by which the world operates,” but they turn not on despair, but around hope.1
Philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has written, “I can only tell you what I am going to do when I know the story or stories of which I am a part,” and this thought is absolutely Patel’s point, too.
Attending to our stories helps remind us what is most important to us, what we are called to do, and inspires us to work to make that dream a reality. It also reminds us to be aware of competing narratives. For those focused on interfaith cooperation, it might be increasingly divisive rhetoric and polarization. For those focused on generosity, perhaps it is a competing narrative of consumerism and debt. If we are not attentive to our own stories, then we are easily swayed by competing narratives championed by storytellers with highly persuasive bully pulpits.
Finally, knowing our own stories not only inspires us to action, and allows us to withstand the avalanche of competing narratives, but it also equips us with the ability to listen attentively to others. To be an interfaith leader, perhaps like all leaders, we should listen more than we speak. But beyond simply remaining silent, interfaith leadership requires intentionally listening with empathy. Putting oneself in the position of the other, and patiently attending to their perspective. Good storytellers are often great listeners. I imagine that description is even more often the case for an interfaith leader.
As I listened to Patel, I recalled the types of interfaith leaders that I respected. Some had contagious charisma, while others were more soft-spoken. Some had Ph.D.s in religious studies and a wide ranging knowledge of world religions; others were much more comfortable without a textbook in their hands. But across the board, these leaders knew the power of story: their own story, the stories of their tradition and community, the power of competing narratives, the value of listening to the stories of others, and the ability of stories to cast hope for the future.
It turns out that, perhaps, Patel’s notion of interfaith leadership is similar to the art of cultivating generosity that we have often discussed in this column before – discerning how our stories have affected our relationship with money, how we hold tightly or loosely to possessions, and what we value. Of course, interfaith leadership – like generosity – is more art than science. But, in the end, they have a lot in common, and I would argue that both are vital for people of faith working for change in the world in which we live.
1 Patel, Eboo. Interfaith Leadership. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. 140-141. Print.
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