visionary leadership

With Or Without God

November 23, 2009 //

A couple of experiences of late call my attention to a rather large question.

First, I sang with my choir at the How Sweet The Sound gospel choir competition to 13,000 people who congregated to hear gospel music… which is, well, about God, or Spirit, or the Universe, or the Divine Essence, or the vast Unknown, or the power of Song ~ however it strikes you.  It struck me with the roar of thousands that this crowd, which easily filled Oakland’s Oracle arena, was by far the largest gathering of people I’d seen in months and months.  Larger than any protests or rallies I’ve attended or driven past on any number of issues at the city, state, and national levels.

Second, I attended TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s 6th Conference on Interfaith Youth Work called “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World,” along with about 600 others: student leaders, faith leaders, educators, civic leaders, funders, innovators, community activists and policy influencers. [Here are the Opening Remarks] And this was, by far, one of the most interesting gatherings I’ve attended in months and months.

These two experiences renewed a question I’ve held for a long time: where, in secular arenas, are we missing the boat with an unspoken aversion to … well, God?   

Saleemah Abdul-Ghafer, of Malaria No More (an organization formed to advance the United Nations Millennium Development Goals) commented during a plenary that the only way to reach the multitudes unnecessarily dying from a preventable disease (1 million a year, no less) is through partnerships with their faith communities. It is the imams and faith leaders who know the communities intricately and can provide safe avenues of access for resources that are culturally appropriate. She chided that if secular groups did have any aversion to these collaborations, they are now vested in them out of an “enlightened self-interest” towards actually being effective in their goals. Hmph.

The truth is faith communities are the largest, most widespread, and most organic “social networks” on the planet, and evangelicals of every kind already tap into them. What I believe Eboo Patel, IFYC Executive Director, and many others of the interfaith movement, might say is – let us be and inspire multi-faith cooperation and religious pluralism evangelicals! Evangelicals whose message is about building relationship and trust through conversation, collaboration and community service. 

This was the deep inspiration of the IFYC conference – a vision of a world that structures and scaffolds connections across vastly different world-views (from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the indigenous Maori in New Zealand to agnostic Humanists worldwide), instead of passively accepting divisiveness and war as an inevitable outcome of difference. Let me take a moment to express how important it is to make space at the Interfaith table for the many without religious affiliation who deeply believe in “good works” (as Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and author of Good Without God might say). I notice that often those who believe in humanity’s responsibility to itself (whether or not they claim “humanist” as moniker) turn away from anything labeled “Interfaith,” imagining that they are not included. As was evidenced at the conference, a movement of inclusivity would clearly be false without them.

This is not a “kumbaya” vision of handshakes for the camera, but one that takes into account the many layers of economic power differential and political influence, regional and cultural nuance, and an over-arching understanding that because religious divides haves spawned generations of violence across the globe that there is some wisdom in our seeing interfaith cooperation as an essential nutrient to this world’s survival.

And by what mechanisms would such an Interfaith Youth Movement be rolled out? Dialogue.  Partnership.  Serving Communities Together.

Given TWI’s mission, I was particularly attentive to the role that dialogue could play in creating a context for a consciousness shift that Eboo is aiming his life towards – in 30 years “interfaith community service” could be just another Americorps program, an opportunity for development and learning for this country’s next generation of servant leaders. Embedded in that would be an embrace of each person’s unique take on the Universe, from “non-believer” to devout, as well as a built-in requirement that we learn to talk with and work alongside with people who are different from us.

Simple.  But not easy. 

·       What does it take to be able to spend time with, work with, and learn from folks who are unfamiliar to us?  Do you do this? How do you do it?

·        How would/does this capacity enhance your work, your leadership, your life, and social movements? 

·       How could/does interfaith collaboration strengthen your secular efforts? 

There are many who tirelessly effort in the direction of these questions and I invite your wisdom. In my next post, I will share some particularly inspiring work from the likes of Charles Randall, Najeebah Sayeed-Miller and others.  In the meantime, I look forward to hearing from you, with or without God … 


  1. John Esterle on November 25, 2009 at 10:43 am


    Thanks for a wonderful, rich post. Lots of good stuff here: your reminder to view faith-based communities as organic social networks that secular folks working for social change need to engage with; your framing of the need for a new kind of "evangelical;" and the way you lay out the message and mission of IFYC. As someone rooted in a more agnostic, secular humanist perspective I also like how you talk about how IFYC creates a space for everyone at the interfaith table. I think it's a really important point.

    As is all too apparent in the news, one of the overarching struggles of our time is that between fundamentalist mindsets of various stripes that breed intolerance and suspicion of "the other" and perspectives that embrace pluralism and tolerance and value our common humanity regardless of one's identity or identities. That's why IFYC vision of creating a global movement for pluralism is so important and why a secular organization like TWI — which promote dialogue and critical thinking — supports them.

    Again, thanks again for such a thoughtful reflection about the conference. I look forward to your next post about the work of Charles Randall and Najeebah Syeed-Miller!

  2. The Whitman Institute on November 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm


    Pia: "With or Without God" is a fine contribution to TWI's dialogic process. I also appreciate John's comments very much. My perspective is this: The great human qualities — self-awareness, a commitment to love, a capacity for wisdom, and a dedication to service — come to different people and different cultures in different ways. But the qualities themselves are universally admired. Some find these qualities through God, some find them through humanistic secular traditions. We can find them "With or Without God."

    History shows Nietzsche was wrong when he said God was dead. God, and God talk, have survived longer than any other human institution — longer even than philosophy as we know it. The impulse to find the numinous is hard-wired into some, but not all, people. God is a solace for some, a revelation for others, a Source for the highest human values for well over half of humanity. Yet God is changing, growing up as the human species grows up, remade in our image as some traditions say we were made in his image. The Old Testament God gave birth to a New Testament God who was kinder and accessible to all who sought Him. The Hindu Gods gave birth to a Buddhist revelation that did away with "God" entirely but relocated the numinous transcendental experience through the Four Basic Truths of Buddhism.

    (to be continued)

  3. The Whitman Institute on November 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    MICHAEL LERNER (continued):

    God and Science do the most interesting dance. Sometimes opposed to each other, at other times reconciled, their long-term trajectory, I venture, is toward reconciliation and harmonization. The Dalai Lama has this right when he says religion cannot rightly assert anything that is not consistent with science. He has rightly located one of the most important science-spirit interfaces in the neurosciences. He rightly embraces interfaith, ecumenical, and indeed secular-spiritual dialogue as essential to the future. And he rightly embraces the preservation of nature as a fundamental spiritual value.

    Polls show God is changing in America and around the world. The trend is toward more ecumenical, interfaith conceptions of the sacred. But the power of the sacred remains stunningly potent even in this secular, media-saturated and materialistic world. For many — not for all — some sense of the sacred, whether conceived of as God or not, is fundamental to a full and coherent path in the world.

    John properly contrasts the fundamentalisms with more nuanced paths. He is right that what the fundamentalisms share in common is a fear or denial of the Other. The problem we face is that fundamentalism may be a developmental stage — one that many people cannot transcend. Fundamentalism may be a psychological shortcut for people who have not the time, energy or inclination to discern more nuanced worldviews. It may for others represent a psychological incapacity for more complex formulations. But the key point is this: dialogue among those with profoundly different complex world views can be fruitful. Dialogue among fundamentalists of different kinds is opften impossible. And dialogue between fundamentalisms and those with complex worldviews is rarely productive.

    Fundamentalism comes in religious, spiritual, and secular flavors. There are fundamentalisms of the Left and the Right. The fundamentalisms of the Right are well known. One of the fundamentalisms of the Left is a particularly rigid version of Political Correctness. Fundamentalisms may also conceal themselves in personalities given to complexity in other areas. Irving Kristol once said that neo-conservatives were liberals who had been "mugged by reality." When we have been mugged by some aspect of reality, no matter how complex our worldview, it may be difficult to remain nuanced and complex in the places where our wound is deepest.

    In our world today, everything is in flux. Eric Beinhocker in "The Origin of Wealth" proposes that the Left-Right political continuum, which dates from the French Revolution, may give way to new socioeconomic undersandings based on Complexity Economics. Neuropsychological research at the microlevel and astrophysics at the cosmic level are reshaping our concepts of the inner triggers of the numinous experience and the outer creation myth that is true to the astonishing science of the Creation. God is not going away, but is continuously reconceived. My own guess, and hope, is that the Dalai Lama is essentially right — that we are headed toward a reconciliation of science and spirit that will acknowledge and honor the infinitely diverse ways we experience the world. That reconciliation may also give us the tools to work together for a just and sustainable world — secular humanists hand in hand with those who breathe best in the high mountains of mystery. As Emily Dickinson said:

    To live is so startling,
    It leaves little time for
    Anything else.

    Michael Lerner

  4. Pia on November 30, 2009 at 10:01 pm


    I so appreciate your thoughts here ~ particularly your characterization of fundamentalistic and pluralistic paradigms and perspectives. What I appreciate about TWI is the invitation to hold multiple realities at once, with mutuality and curiosity.

    Ellen Schneider of Active Voice (TWI grantee) often talks about reaching "beyond the choir" ~ and this conversation calls to mind that energetic. How do we connect beyond the choir, and reach toward the values that connect and inspire?

    Thanks, John, for your constant leadership in this direction!

  5. Pia on November 30, 2009 at 11:07 pm


    I so appreciate the cadence and the complexity of your prosaic contribution.

    The only addition I’d make here is to make a distinction between God and organized religion. The difference between a personal understanding and relationship with the Divine, the numinous, or the great mysteries and organized religion is crucial, especially in this conversation.

    Organized religious institutions are some of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential political, social and economic forces of this century. Though there may be deep inquiries into the Divine, humanitarianism and good works, and incredible support for the community present within these institutions, many associate narrow-mindedness, corruption, greed, and quests for power with organized religion as well. As you noted, fundamentalism comes in many forms, and I see that it is harmful in any form. I just didn’t want to overlook the notion that separating God and church may still yet have some wisdom.
    In any case, I agree with you that the energetic of public consciousness about God itself seems to be moving towards ecumenical, multiple, and global with many voices echoing each other in this: With so many shared core values (love, compassion, service) shared across communities, yet so many political, economic, social differentials, how can we act together in the most urgent of times when the earth and humanity require more from us individually and collectively than any other time in human history?