At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
Defining interfaith, interspiritual, and interspecies.
(And why these words matter.)
By Rev. Sarah Bowen, cofounder of the Compassion Consortium
At the beginning of many Sunday Services, during my sermon-ish, I exclaim, “At Compassion Consortium, we’re interfaith, interspiritual, and interspecies!” In this month’s essay, I’d like to unpack the meanings of these words a bit further than I usually have time for and explain how they relate to our commitments to inclusivity. Plus, I’d like to help solve the mystery of why three of our co-founders have a “Rev” in front of their name. (No, it’s not because they are Christian pastors!)
When people say interfaith, they generally mean a community or event welcoming people of any religious or spiritual tradition, as well as those who practice independent spirituality. Diversity is recognized and honored, and all religions are celebrated as valid, with awareness of both their checkered pasts and their potential for beauty and inspiration. In interfaith dialogues, we seek to resolve any differences in values, beliefs, and opinions through compassion and understanding rather than blame and shame. One of the challenges in interfaith events or communities tends to be representation. It is an essential topic in relation to commitments to religious diversity, equity, and inclusion―and rightly so.
With over 4,000 recognized religions/spiritual traditions globally, how can it ever be possible to have every possibility represented? (Let’s see, some quick math suggests it may take us 333 years to do so around here at one religion per month, without repeating!) Some communities focus on representing “the big five.” (No, not Lion, Leopard, Black Rhinoceros, African bush elephant, and African Buffalo you might hear about on photo safari. In religion, it’s usually Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.) Some communities expand to include local indigenous voices or cultural viewpoints. And yet, that only resolves part of the issue. So many people still feel left out. (Can I hear a “Hell, Yeah” from the pagans? Or perhaps a “Yes, us too,” from the Zoroastrians and Jains? And on and on….)
This is one reason that interspirituality developed, drawing from a wide range of teachings, including those by Baha’u’llah (founder of the Bahá’í faith), Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Father Bede Griffiths, and Wayne Teasdale, among others. As codified in The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (New World Library by Wayne Teasdale, with forward by the Dalai Lama), interspirituality is a perspective that recognizes that beneath the diversity of theological beliefs, sacred texts, and practices of each of the world’s religions and philosophies, there lies a deeper unity of shared experience. When looking at different belief systems, one can notice that most include commitments to shared values of peace, compassionate service, and love for all Creation. While each spiritual path may use different methods, rituals, and words for these values, if we look at their mystical core, we find these common attributes over and over again. At the Compassion Consortium, in our second and third Tenets of Agreement, we recognize peace as nonviolence to all beings and stress the reverence for life we have found in the world’s religions.
It’s important to note that interspirituality does not seek to erase the differences between religions or create a new religion by that name. Instead, it is a perspective that can be layered on top of interfaith gatherings so that we can focus on what binds us together. It doesn’t necessarily solve issues of representation, but it does give us a framework that might be useful. A core tool is interspiritual meditation, developed by Thomas Keating and “deep practitioners” from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, and Islamic traditions who began gathering in 1984 and met for twenty years annually in Snowmass. (You can learn more about this in The Common Heart, An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue, published by Lantern Publishing & Media, which includes thoughts from Fr. Thomas Keating, Roshi Bernie Glassman, Swami Atmarupananda, Dr. Ibrahim Gamard, Imam Bilal Hyde, Pema Chödrön, Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman, and Grandfather Gerald Red Elk.)
Beyond merely gathering for their own spiritual expansion or to try and create a diverse community that represented shared values, these thinkers suggested that we need to be involved together in “socially engaged spirituality.” In his book, Teasdale defined this as spirituality that “expressed itself in endless acts of compassion that seek to heal others, contributing to the transformation of the world and the building of a nonviolent, peace-loving culture that includes everyone.”
Rev. William, Rev. Erika, and I all trained at an interfaith/interspiritual seminary, where we steeped in the concepts I explain above, and studied the world’s diverse traditions. We observed the Sabbath and chanted kirtan. We learned Vipassanā meditation and studied the revelations of Orisha. In many ways, we became “religious mutts” of a hard-to-explain pedigree, each of us a unique combination of myriad traditions that call to us individually.
Upon our graduation, the honorific “The Reverend” was bestowed upon us and our seminary colleagues of all religions, as well, to signify that we are people who live with reverence. As interfaith/interspiritual clergy members, we were taught that “minister” is a verb, an act that can be done with anyone, regardless of their chosen brand of belief system, and not limited to a specific religion or denomination. We were taught we didn’t necessarily need to choose a single religion to identify with. Yet, admittedly, because the word reverend is associated with Protestant pastors in the U.S., we often get mistaken for being one.
When we formed Compassion Consortium with Victoria (who had also studied the world’s religions and brought deep Ayurvedic and yogic perspectives to our group), we all sought to extend Teasdale’s “everyone” beyond humans to include all species.
We grounded our organization in Tenets of Agreement based on our shared heritage of interfaith and interspiritual thinking. In addition, we sought out people deeply rooted in different faiths to share their unique perspectives in our Sunday services and other events, which is why one month we may hear about Judaism, another Buddhism, and the next Wicca. We also selected people of different traditions for our Advisory Board, to help guide programming here.
All of that said, what drives us most is a desire to stretch far beyond interfaith and interspiritual thinking—which tends to be anthropocentric. We want to be known most for adopting a new shared value we can find in religions if we dig deeply enough… interspecies compassion. Tenets four and five speak to our desire to uphold multispecies inclusivity, and tenets six and seven lay out the actions we believe are foundational to interspecies living.
From an interspecies perspective, we are concerned and curious about the interactions between and among living beings, from the canines and felines we share our homes with to the beings some humans “use” and the ones who are often ignored. And so, our “everyone” includes talking about the black panther, leafcutter ant, barred owl, elephant shrew, anchovy, and golden-crowned flying fox. We extend our compassion beyond those who don’t move around traditionally, too, because the term species also includes the leafy ones and the branched ones, like the red maple, ebony spleenwort, dandelion, and Ginkgo.
We aspire to incorporate their voices and imagery in our liturgy and sometimes include them in our services, like when Bree to rooster joined us for an interview or Erika brings other-than-humans into our spiritual practices through video. We talk about ways to increase our awareness of the needs of other beings so that we can make choices that create the least amount of suffering for those we share the planet with.
As people who practice interspecies spirituality, we look for opportunities to be in the presence of the Divine, along with other beings outside of our Sunday services as well. We may meditate with eastern chipmunks, pray amidst the sound of frogs, or mindfully walk alongside Canada Geese.
While in traditional (secular) animal advocacy, people may be concerned that beings get air, food, water, a safe place to live, and the right to be free from pain; interspecies spirituality adds the notion that all species should rightfully have access to have experiences of awe, wonder, peace, and divine connection. We are at the forefront of advocating for all beings to have these connections, too. Tenets eight, nine, and ten speak to the importance of a supportive community in that journey.
To wrap it up, we realize that by being innovators, we use concepts that are new to some people. We know that stretching beyond traditional terminology can be confusing, too. I hope that this essay has helped explain some of the Tenets we hold dear, and we hope you see yourself as an essential part of this community. Whether you personally identify as interfaith or interspecies, or you find yourself solidly connected to one religion alone, or you have eschewed religions all together, we hope you come together with us for ideals much grander than each of our religions can hold individually.
And even in that vision, I must concede that the problem of representation raises its head again! How can we ever possibly include the estimated 8.7 million species of plants and animals, let alone the 20 quintillion individuals within those species that we share Earth with?
I suppose, one (or a few!) at a time.
If you would like us to lift up a specific being (other-than-human or human) in our programming, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us via our website at www.compassionconsortium.org.
All Means All by Rev. Erika Allison
Vegan Yoga, Ahimsa Bliss by Victoria Moran
Was Jesus Vegetarian? by William Melton