Interfaith or Bust: What I Learned on my Religion Journey — by Deborah Levine

Religion today provides more sensational headlines and political debate topics; more inspiration to make a difference and more despair about the future than it has in decades.  Few issues are more emotional than religion and few issues are more relevant today to peace and prosperity.  Are faithful followers ready to confront the challenge of religious pluralism?  Can we find ways to come together for the sake of our communities?  Yes, I’ve learned that it’s possible, but only if we “Harmonize NOT Homogenize.” Here’s how I discovered that truism, and why I’m choosing to share my story now.

I did not aspire to be an interfaith professional in my youth, but you can’t tell that from my resume.  My education includes coursework at Harvard Divinity School, a masters degree from Spertus college of Jewish Studies, and research fellowships from the American Jewish Archives.  I coordinated the 1990 National Workshop on Christian Jewish Relations in Chicago, founded the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network, and worked in Jewish advocacy organizations for decades.

Acquired Credentials

Articles about me and my interfaith projects have appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers including The Chicago Tribune, Hadassah Magazine and The Royal Bermuda Gazette. 

My own interfaith writing has been published in The Christian Century, The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, and The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.  In 1997, I received the the National Catholic Press Association Award for a book which has recently been re-issued as, Teaching Curious Christians about Judaism.

The most unusual aspect of my resume is none of the above, at least not by itself. The truly unique element is that I am neither ordained nor a university professor, the usual roles for interfaith experts.  Yet, my interfaith career mirrors much of the development of the field.    When I got my first job in interreligious affairs, I thought it was a mistake.  I had applied for an entirely different job at the American Jewish Committee’s Midwest office. I was puzzled when I ended up with the interfaith portfolio.  What were they thinking?  I couldn’t resist asking them that and here are their reasons for giving me the job.

The Interfaith Upbringing

My background screams “Interfaith Advocate” – Identity:  I had learned how to represent the Jewish people as a child. I grew up as the only Jewish little girl in Bermuda which was a British colony and aligned with the Church of England. Global mindset:  I had an bi-cultural personality whether I knew it or not.  While I was born in Brooklyn, my family moved back to Bermuda when I was an infant.  I was virtually an immigrant to America, with a built-in Big Picture perspective and cross-cultural communication skills.

The Interfaith Awareness

I was exposed in my undergraduate years to formal religion studies at Harvard Divinity School. While I was skeptical at first about the first two reasons, I agreed that AJC had a legitimate point here.  It was during my intense years in classes at the Divinity School that I first experienced the boundaries between faiths that would shape me more than I dreamed, and more than I recognized at the time.  From the first day in Old Testament, awareness began of how theology created boundaries and borders between faiths. The Professor, Dr. Frank Cross, was the gate keeper for the Dead Sea Scrolls; he was very busy deciding what scholar would have access to them and under what terms.

Dr. Cross was also my designated ‘tutor’, an old term given to academic mentors for honors students. They are often august figures whom we should hold in awe and affection for the rest of our lives. However, I was the first undergraduate that Dr. Cross had ever tutored.  We both knew that the experiment might not be smooth sailing.  Yet, neither of us anticipated that our journey together would resemble a ship wreck.

The Interfaith Culture Clash

Keep in mind that there was no comparative religion major in existence at Harvard at this time.  The closest I could come to that was the newly-created Folklore and Mythology major in which I had promptly enrolled.  When I had breakfast with the then Dean of the Divinity School some 25 years later, I asked Bishop Krister Stendahl about the vacuum.  He explained that the Folklore major was as close to comparative religion that the Harvard-powers-that-be would allow at the time.  We commiserated together over a pot of tea as I shared my perspective of the consequences of that decision.

Given the lack of interfaith, world religions, or comparative religion studies meant that I wandered alone in the jungle of religious pluralism.  I had to travel between the Jewish and Christian worlds with little academic preparation or support.  Yet, I had no choice but to wrap my mind around differences in Scripture interpretation and the ramifications of those divergent theological perspectives.

Theological Quick Sand

Scriptural analysis has very culture-specific methodology.  For example: Christian scholars look at evidence of different strands of writers in the Old Testament. Ultimately, that information is used to help interpret the New Testament. Jews look at the rabbinic literature, the Mishnah and Gemara for understanding of Jewish history & relationship with the divine.  There is no ‘New Testament’ in Judaism, for that matter, there is no ‘Old Testament’.  There is just scripture, Torah.

At first, I thought a few changes in vocabulary wouldn’t matter to me, but there are no small details in working with different religions.  Later in my work,  I experienced how the addition of a book to one’s holy scripture, regardless of the faith, can be one of the most emotional, divisive and potentially violent sticking points in interreligious affairs.

At age 18, I just knew that I was miserable, lost and wanted to go home. Yes, Dr. Cross and I had quite a scene.  He did not understand that my entering into a Christian world of biblical analysis was akin to entering a foreign country speaking a foreign language.  He wondered if I was just not too bright.  I marched out of his office, yelling something about kissing inappropriate places, slammed the door behind me and kept on going.

The Cultural Anthropologist

I left the Divinity School and chose to focus on the anthropology side of the Folklore major.  My exit would not have been accepted if our brawl hadn’t shocked the powers-that-be into breaking their own rules.  At the time, I received the permission to switch specialties as a polite form of, Good Riddance!  I didn’t see the larger questions, the interreligious issues involved.  My meltdown embarrassed my intense, deeply British reserve. I shut Harvard Divinity School out of my mind and moved into the science of anthropology.

The Theoretician

The cultural anthropology side of the Folklore & Mythology Department was heavily weighted towards the theories of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.  The cultural analysis of Levi-Strauss was  complex, elegant, abstract and occasionally, impenetrable.  In theory, his approach could track changes in a particular culture, assessing the pushes and pulls within it and using cultural artifacts, such as folklore, to interpret and predict social trends. Levi-Strauss was the gold standard of anthropology.  He was the stuff of genius and he made my brain hurt. After class,  I would secrete myself in the small, quiet dorm room and pull out my deck of tarot cards.  I unwound the intellect with the archetype images of the cards that resonated with my folklore, intuitive self.

The Archetype Fan

I didn’t realize at the time, that the images folded into another iconic figure, Joseph Campbell and his Mask of the Gods books that had been recently published. The Folklore & Mythology Department considered Campbell a light weight, or worse, just wrong, for his theory of archetypes cutting across cultural boundaries.  Yet, in an odd personality split, the department was a precarious balance of universal story archetypes and culture-specific anthropology.

The Arts & Culture Planner

After receiving my bachelors degree, I put aside both Levi-Strauss and my tarot cards and returned to my love of the dance, alternating between performing, teaching, organizing a dance troupe, arts administration and ultimately getting a masters degree in urban planning that I designed to focus on arts & culture.  I worked for the Chicago City Ballet and published my first academic paper on a 17th century French dance master.

The Newly-Minted Interfaith Professional

While I had my new masters degree, I also had a mother dying of cancer.  She was a Hebrew school principal and to keep her company, I decided to return to my Jewish roots to keep her company.  Could I get a job at American Jewish Committee in Chicago?  Fortunately, AJC understood, among other things about me, that religion and the arts are both intuitive doorways into culture, located virtually side by side. And so I went to work coordinating interfaith dialogues in partnership with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

My circuitous career path began to come together.  It turned out that my love for the Arts meant I had contacts in multiple ethnic/religious communities in the Chicago area.  My experience in project management was complemented by my theological understanding of religious diversity.  That youthful kerfuffle at Harvard Divinity School now became an asset.   I was used to the diverse personalities and tough bureaucratic issues in what I called the God Game.   Unintimidated, I had a can-do excitement about my new role which was about to grow a great deal bigger.  I was designated as a chief coordinator of the 1990 National Workshop on Jewish Christian Relations.

The Mentors

I will always be indebted to bigger-than-life interfaith figures such as The Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski and Rabbi Herman Schaalman for mentoring me along the way.   It was a crash course in the anthropology of religious communities.  I absorbed and digested their goals: continuity, community, education, charity, rituals, calendars, laws and a group a sense of identity with divine purpose.  I came to understand the internal politics ranging to personalities to local nuances to serious schism and sects.

My mentors helped me apply my Levi-Strauss training to understanding each local denomination and its international presence. The model that I eventually created resembled a multi-faith United Nations where religious leaders were heads of state and ambassadors. Nothing schooled me in the use of that model like the three years coordinating the National Workshop.  I was immediately tossed into the deep end of the interfaith pool.  A mad scramble followed to acquire the cultural competence, cross-cultural expertise, conflict management skills, international diplomacy and decision making wisdom that the role required.

The Writer & Teacher

No formal training as a National Workshop Coordinatorwas available.  My first self-imposed writing assignments was to create a manual for the poor innocents running subsequent workshop in the franchise.  That manual, along with the numerous articles and books written since the Workshop, is as much a guide today as it was then.  In an effort to grow more religion ambassadors, I’ll share some of those lessons, combined with what I learned about religious pluralism in subsequent projects.

Here are seven key guidelines to consider:

Guideline #1 — Interfaith Dialogue Strategies

On my first day of developing dialogue groups I was handed a set of rules that had been worked out at the national level.  Dialogue is a time-honored approach to diplomacy in the religious pluralism arena.  And one of the key rules is that the members do not enter into the process with the intent to proselytize.  Now right away, we run into some theological issues concerning the universalism vs. particularism. For many particular religions, their faith doesn’t have a built-in mission of inclusiveness.  But for those who see their faith as an archetype applying to all, it is difficult to put aside this dictate of their faith.  If this is you, I urge you to consider that for dialogue to succeed in forming a cadre of diplomats, replacing religious pluralism with We-Are-All-One is usually counterproductive.

Complaints about proselityzing were so numerous and vehement that the National Workshop asked that not even brochures advocating this be placed on booths in the display area.  The goal is not to establish which faith is supreme but to explore how we can exist on this planet with shrinking its resources, growing national conflicts and increasing population growth while still maintaining our identity.  No interfaith dialogue will achieve its goals if members feel pressured to reject the distinctive faith that inspires, supports and encourages the faithful to think in these altruistic terms.

Guideline #2 – Liturgy Pitfalls

Internal liturgy debates should not be carried out in the interfaith arena.  When I was consultant to reform rabbinate (CCAR) concerning a re-write for the prayer book, I interviewed many denominations in the midst of liturgical updating.  Their goal was to frame prayer less in an earlier agricultural frame of reference to a more modern context that is more appealing to youth, women and newcomers to the faith.  The process is inspirational internally but does not necessarily automatically translate to better interreligious relations. externally.  In other words, superficial changes in wording, do not necessarily assist interfaith work.

Prayers are identified with a religion, and regardless of wording, are culture-specific rather than universally applicable.  The bottom line:  choosing prayers, songs or Scripture passages in an interfaith setting should be chosen on basis of “I’ll Show You Mind – You Show Me Yours” rather than ‘Let’s all Pray Together My Way.”

Guideline # 3 – Inclusion Choices

Some of our relatively minor decisions have tremendous potential for explosive conflict.  Choosing who and what to include in a program or a coalition is high on that list.  Even before the session topics and speakers were published for the National Workshop, religious leaders called me to lobby and agency heads called me to their headquarters to complain. Editorials in newspapers from countries half a world away criticized the process.  Having policies in place before making decisions is an absolute must.

Some considerations for designing an inclusion policies include: What credentials are required for a religion to be included in a pluralism discussion:   Nonprofit status?  Historical precedent?  Local influence? Further, what will exclude a religion:  Terrorist ties?  Cult -like appearance?  Spiritual society rather than a religious institution?  Note: The cult designation is an explosive issue, prompting the convention center to demand the National Workshop provide extra security.

What inclusion goals do you have for minorities and women and how can that be reached in a religious setting?  For example: Is ordination be required?   Will ethnic-based churches be contacted separately within a denomination?    The list may seem endless, but this is a conversation that should be happening often, and in considerable detail.

Guideline #4 – Local vs. Global vs. The Media

Do local efforts impact the Big Picture of religious pluralism?  If you want a local project to have a broad impact, media must be part of your thinking for the Big Picture.  Local networks and coalitions provide a variety of value-adding services including community-building events, homeless shelters and food kitchens.  If we are to maximize the model created locally, there needs to be a determination to engage on a larger scale which means media attention. Several pages in my National Workshop manual were devoted to crafting the message, coordinating its dissemination, dealing with media interviews and requests, having back-up plans for emergencies and training a cadre of spokespersons who could comfortable and expertly handle this vital element of our work.

Guideline #5 — Church-State Conflicts

Nowhere is the clash of faiths more predictable in America than the arena of church-state separation.  Ironically, even while all parties in a conflict work forcefully to win, both sides suffer in the process.  There’s usually enough bad will to go around for years regardless of the outcome.  A major element in the conflict comes from different interpretations of the separation of church and state by region and by religion.  For those who see America as a Christian nation, as is frequently the case here in the South, separation of church and state is a matter of official endorsement only.

For those who see the separation as covering a wide variety of religious expressions, there are an almost infinite number of conflicts to address:  public prayer, religious displays on government land, religious music in public schools and religion-based lobbying to name a few.  

A general rule of thumb for church-state issues is to have a policy governing both the definitions parameters of religious expression along with the tools for equitable enforcement.  Without policies, a case-by-case approach will lead to highly emotional and personalized situations.

Even with policies in place there is likely to be confusion and disagreement, the hodgepodge of rulings coming out of the Supreme Court is a case in point. The high risk factor in these cases often arises from what may seem like insignificant details and a sense of tradition:  ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ 

However, there are no minor issues.  Each detail is a cultural artifact with beliefs, values and emotion attached.

Activists on each side of the issues tend to be vocal, demonstrative and intense.  Interfaith workers must choose their battles carefully in this maelstrom of culture clash.  If you engage, think diplomacy -not advocacy. Aim for peacemaking not punishing, for community building not winning.  Do not be discouraged by failure to bring parties to a reasonable compromise.  Measure you success by increased awareness and small bridges built for the next time.

Guideline #6 — Workplace Policies

Few people understand that one of the fastest growing area of litigation in the workplace involves religious expression.  Who can wear what?  Eat what? Say what?  Display what?  Claim exemptions to policies on religious grounds?  Be excused for holy day observance?  And yet, when I lecture at business schools, most of the students will be hearing these issues for the first time.  Some head for the door because they think the issues don’t pertain to them.   Many of us, particularly the upcoming generation, need to explore how issues of Religious Pluralism are not just half way around the world.  They are in our back yard and right next to the office water cooler.  At the very least, a multicultural calendar should be part of every diverse workplace so that required meetings don’t take place at holy times.

Guideline # 7– Engaging & Developing Leaders

Where is the engagement on issues of Religious Pluralism today?  Some engagement comes from the academic world.   Course work in world religions is now a common part of religion and ministerial degrees.  The few non-denominational divinity schools in the country offer centers and a variety of study opportunities in area of World Religion.

Religion and public policy expertise is still in its infancy. The same is true for religious diversity leadership in healthcare, where it is so sorely needed.  Few US corporations offer employees diversity training  that includes religion,  event though America is one of the most religious countries in our hemisphere.  Where are we in developing the cultural competence to meet these challenges?

Where are the interfaith centers outside of a few large Metropolitan areas?  Where are the ongoing interfaith dialogues?  Where are the regional interfaith conferences that attract experts and beginners alike?  Where is religion in global leadership training?  Bluntly put, there is no global leadership without literacy in religious diversity.  We need to reconsider how we engage and activate around the issues of religious diversity.


We need to seriously consider the cost of failure to confront the challenge of religious pluralism.  One price of failure is increased lack of religious affiliation.  Recent polls show an amazing increase in the unaffiliated in this country and in many Western countries.  Perhaps it’s a function of our increased mobility where the individual in motion may often choose to be spiritual without being a member of an organized religious community. Further, some lose interest in affiliation when they pick up a newspaper or turn on TV only to see religion-related violence, conflict over religious expression and political ads playing on our fears of religious differences.

Affiliation is one consequence of these conflicts; the rise of a vocal atheism is another.  In social media sites, some of the most toxic and vitriolic comments are those concerning the destructive role of religion.  I find myself looking at them closely not only as an anthropological phenomenon reflecting the pushes & pulls of change in our society.  I look at this growing atheism from a very personal perspective.  My brother insisted that atheism was the only solution to all the major world conflict which he maintained were religious in origin.  The only way to confront the challenge of religious pluralism in his mind was to eliminate religion entirely.  He expressed his views with increasingly militancy to the day he died; a death bed conversion was anathema to him.

Yes, the challenge is great.  We live in a contentious and often violent world – a world with increasingly limited resources and growing populations.  There is no doubt that religion plays a major part in the problem.  There is no longer a cushion for religious boundaries; we are shoved up against each other, competing for resources, hearts and minds.  Yet, I have not lost the optimism that has carried me through decades of interfaith work.  Do we need new strategies for existing on this planet and maintaining our religious boundaries without killing ‘The Other’ off either with kindness of in a fit of theological rage?  Yes, we do and I have faith that we can.  And that’s half the battle.


Deborah Levine is an award-winning, best-selling author. As Editor of the American Diversity Report, received the 2013 Champion of Diversity Award from and the Excellence Award from the Tennessee Economic Council on Women. Her writing about cultural diversity spans decades with articles published in The American Journal of Community Psychology, Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, The Bermudian Magazine, and The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. She earned a National Press Association Award, is a Blogger with The Huffington Post, and is featured on C-Span/ BookTV.