“It’s commonplace that the more fervently institutions proclaim their commitment to diversity the more likely they are to be filled with people who have exactly the same political, social, and moral views.” – R.R. Reno
You cannot take notes during a lecture by Eboo Patel. The irony is that you really should. Back in 2011, Patel came to Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota, where I live. His public lecture was in promotion of his new book “Sacred Ground”, about the history of religious pluralism in America. His lecturing style combines the enthusiasm of a revival preacher, the popcorn organization of a stand-up comedian and a sort of pseudo-sophistication that is intended to remind the audience that Patel graduated from Oxford. Patel identifies himself as an interfaith leader. So far, a lot of people seem to agree. Numerous honorary degrees have been awarded to him since 2008, when his Interfaith Youth Core started to pick up steam. He has two books in print. He frequently writes articles on religion for the Huffington Post, and in 2011 on a warm fall night, he filled the on-campus chapel of an ELCA college for the first time since the 1940’s.
This essay is not for the people who sat with me that night. You see, I asked a question about being a Catholic in a time when certain teachings of the Church are coming under intense fire in the public square. Nobody applauded my question or came up to me afterwards to say that I had done a good job. That praise was reserved for the student who asked, “I’m just curious to know about your stance on the discrimination against homosexuals that is going in this country and in other parts of the world.” Patel’s response: “I think it’s terrible. I think it’s un-American. I think it’s un-Islamic and I think it needs to stop. Period.”
This essay is for anyone who wants to know what was meant by the word ‘discrimination’. This essay is for anyone who would point out that opposing homosexual marriage is true justice and not false justice. This essay is for those of us who are orthodox. I myself am Catholic. As I sat in the crowd, I asked myself if Catholics should get involved with Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). But there are others for whom the question might give pause. My cousin is a Missouri Synod Lutheran, who thinks that Jesus really is God and that an unborn baby shouldn’t be killed. His questions about the IFYC will be almost identical to mine. I recently met two girls who identify as non-denominational but who are comfortable at a Latin Mass and who are very candid about the dangers secular liberalism. Should they join an inter-faith group started by the IFYC? This is the question I aim to answer and these are the people who I write for. This essay is for those of us who are orthodox in the Chestertonian sense. If you need clarification as to all that is meant by that word, Ignatius Press has published a 168 page answer by Chesterton himself.
Patel wrote a book called ‘Acts of Faith’ in 2007. In that work he lays out exactly what he thinks is being accomplished by his work and the IFYC. The subtitle gives some of it away: ‘The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation”. It’s a story of salvation. Primarily it is a story of salvation from religious totalitarianism. To illustrate the idea, Patel begins the introduction with the story of Eric Rudolph, the man who committed a string of bombings in the American South between 1996 and 1998. Patel draws attention to something Rudolph said after his capture. “He (Rudolph) unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of ‘global socialism’ still need to be ruthlessly opposed” That view is drawn in opposition to a group of students at a school called Whitwell who made a Holocaust Memorial out of a train car. Writes Patel: “Rudolph is a religious totalitarian. The students of Whitwell are religious pluralists. They are on different sides of the faith line.”
Patel’s mission then is to keep people on the right side of the faith line. The idea is actually simple enough. If you have kids in college sit down and talk about faith and service and justice, you might prevent them from setting off bombs. Patel says as much in his account of the London bombings. “How did awkward, shy Hasib Hussain become a suicide bomber? Sheikh Omar’s people got to him before we did.” Putting it bluntly: the IFYC sees itself as being in the business of preventing suicide bombings.
That is a worthy enough goal, and indeed people with an orthodox worldview tend to dislike bombings as a means of social activism. Chesterton makes the point well in ‘The Man Who was Thursday’. But I digress. The real question is whether or not Patel’s ideas and his organization are up to the task they have claimed as their own. This is where the picture begins to get fuzzy.
To understand the view from the inside of the IFYC, I called their offices and spoke to a woman named Alana. She had been at the IFYC for three years and was absolutely loving it. Through our talk she would add at the end of a sentence, “that’s why I work here.” The methodology of the IFYC takes it’s cues from Eboo Patel’s days as a sociology student at Oxford. He writes, “In all the sociology courses on identity I had taken, in all the late-night conversations we had at Allen Hall on the subject, the issue of religion rarely came up…Identity was always defined as race, class, gender, or, occasionally, sexual orientation.”
Alana explained that starting conversations about religion among students was the central goal of the IFYC. They train student leaders at conferences around the country and then send them back to their respective campuses to start inter-faith groups. Through these groups, the hope is that students will better live out the demands of their own religious tradition. Patel came up with the model while reading about the inspiration Martin Luther King received from Ghandi, and the inspiration Ghandi received from the Sermon on the Mount. As Alana elaborated on the benefits of students talking about their religious traditions, the image of a stone tumbler came into my mind. Rough rocks spun and tumbled together until they are polished and smooth. That really was what the IFYC was trying to do with their campus groups, polish people by tumbling them together.
But Alana wouldn’t let me see the whole process through rose colored glasses. At each training session, “We want to equip student leaders to navigate problems.” At that last word, both my views about homosexuality and abortion sprang to the forefront. Not only that, but also how those views had gotten me in trouble academically and professionally. “How then,” I inquired, “do you ensure that these students can handle the heavy topics that religion touches on?” She replied, “We at the IFYC don’t have guidelines for every single situation that might come up, but through role playing we can create bold students who can handle themselves.”
I pressed on for an example of a scenario that the students might be asked to act out. “Well,” said Alana, “We have one where the campus interfaith group invites at Catholic theologian to campus who is in favor of LGBTQ rights. Actually we use that one a lot. We ask the students how they would deal with the conservative Catholic student who objects.” The sinking feeling I had during the question of “discrimination against homosexuals” returned sharply. I recalled an incident in one of Eboo Patel’s books where he encouraged a student who was concerned about her Christian religion’s view of homosexuality to seek out “theologies of welcome” rather than accept her pastor’s teaching. “So, how important are LGBTQ issues to the IFYC?” I asked, my head spinning with all the acronyms I was using. “It’s not in the mission,” said Alana, “Because by making that the issue you run the risk of alienating people.” Looking back I dearly wish I had pointed out the obvious to her. The combination of Patel’s firm rejection of whatever was meant by “discrimination against homosexuals”, his reflections on talking with students about the issue and the frequently used LGBTQ theologian scenario were already alienating me and people who think like me. “Not putting it in the mission,” was too little, too late.
But it is a heresy to reduce a religion (or an inter-faith group) to merely its view of human sexuality. One can only do that with a certain political party. The real meat of the organization comes from founding principles. In the case of Eboo Patel, those founding principles were supplied in no small part, by Dorothy Day.
As a Catholic, the credit Patel gives to Day in this first book was surprising. The case for her canonization is open and she was featured in Fr. Robert Barron’s television catechism ‘Catholicism’. What about Day was the source for Patel’s passion?
“In her thirties,” Patel writes, “during the Great Depression, Day had started something called the Catholic worker movement, which combined radical politics, direct service, and community living.” That last part is how Eboo came to be involved with the Catholic Workers. He lived on the couch in a Catholic Worker house for a time. His description of the house: “Part shelter for poor folks, part anarchist movement for Catholic radicals, part community for anyone who enters.”
I kept waiting for Patel to refer to Day’s conversion and the massive changes it brought in her life. Where was the account of her picking up a rosary in New Orleans? What about the string of lovers that never satisfied her? My mother spoke of Dorothy Day as proof that God’s grace could reach anyone, and as a high school teacher who saw more than a few girls making very bad decisions, the knowledge of Dorothy Day was a supreme comfort. But to read Patel’s account of the matter, Day was just a particularly successful social activist. Sure there were other people who combined anarchy and community living, but Day was successful and they weren’t.
Patel notes that during his time in the Catholic Worker House, no one asked him to convert to Catholicism. Many of them were practicing Catholics, but no offer was made. Never the less, I wonder if Patel wasn’t at least a little tempted. After all, his fellow workers, “were more radical than the Marxist intellectuals I knew, more gentle than the social service types I volunteered with, more intelligent than the professors who taught my classes and more effective than the activists I protested with. And yet I felt so at ease with them.” Many others have had experiences similar to this. The presence of the saints in both the Acts of the Apostles and historical accounts leading up to Padre Pio in our own day have all been marked by this magnanimity of spirit. That is the reason so many saints had to tell the people around them, “Do not worship me.”
That advice would have been fitting for Patel in his time at the house. Because while he notes the radicalism, gentleness, intelligence and effectiveness of the Catholic Workers, he admits to standing at a slight angle to their source, that is, to “the Cross, the blood and the Resurrection.” In other words, Patel greatly enjoys the fruit, but doesn’t see that fruit only comes from the wood of the tree, and the tree is what demands our attention.
Sadly, in the courses on the sociology of religion and his time as a youth, the tree was never discussed. In ‘Acts of Faith’, Patel shares numerous stories about the girls he dated in high school. More importantly, he highlights how their faiths shaped his views on religion. His account of dating a Christian and a Hindu aren’t really important here. What is important is a lesson Patel took away from a fight he had with a girl named Lisa. “That moment with Lisa taught me a lasting lesson about the sociology of religion: the heart of even the most ardent religious believer will provide more accurate clues to his or her behavior than the theology of his or her faith.” Or consider a retrospective that comes three pages later: “Whereas Lisa’s religiosity was based on notions of truth, Sarah’s was based commitment to peoplehood and social justice.”
At its core then, the principles of the IFYC rest not on metaphysics but on “the heart” of a particular person, or on the basis of their religiosity. This focus has huge implications for how a student trained by the IFYC will interact with an orthodox believer like myself or my friends. You see when I asked Eboo Patel after his lecture about the rising tides of hostility towards Catholics and certain Christian denominations, he did not respond with a Quranic teaching about defending your neighbor’s freedom of religion. He didn’t even mention freedom of religion. Instead, in a veiled allusion to the HHS mandate, he remarked that without Catholic Institutions, American society is “unimaginable”. Why? Because there are 230 Catholic colleges in the United States, and 600 Catholic Hospitals serving 85 million people a year. “The Catholic story in America, the Lutheran story in America and the emerging Muslim story in America are stories of contribution,” he said. Once again, he notices the fruit, but not the tree.
But if he as a leader is going to bring about real inter-faith dialogue, then attention must be paid to those faiths from which spring the social action Patel so glowingly speaks about. The problem of his philosophy and by extension the problem of the philosophy of the IFYC can be identified as the problem of the giants.
Let me explain. If one pays any attention at all to the great figures of history, you will notice that what they did always falls behind who they were. Winston Churchill lead England through World War II, wrote several books and delivered hilarious one-liners at parties. But the man was bigger than all that. Augustine is a saint, Doctor of the Church and hero of every boy who has difficultly using his sexuality in a holy way. But St. Augustine himself is bigger than that. The same goes for Therese of Lisieux. The same goes for John Paul II. The cause is always greater than the effect. The person is always bigger than the things they do. The tree always comes before the fruit.
Reducing any religion down to a “story of contribution” fails to pass muster because it flips the relationship on its head. The Catholic Church can no sooner stand on its institutions than could a banana tree be balanced on top of a single banana.
But I can understand in part why Patel misses this fact of the matter. It is easy for a Christian to see the relationship between who a person is and what they do because the Supreme Head of the Universe is a triune person. And it is only in the Life of Jesus of Nazareth that the person and the actions match up perfectly. God is pure act. Jesus is all God. The Cross, the blood and the Resurrection all match who Jesus is. But the rest of us act only partially. All human works can be improved, even the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as Pope Benedict remarked. Patel may not be a Christian, but he’ll have to learn quickly about the proper relationship of persons and actions if he wants then to join the IFYC.
Now what are we orthodox to do? Should we join the IFYC if the opportunity presents itself? I don’t think so. An acquaintance tells me I should every time I see her, but the problems with the Core are too numerous. An organization that ignores the real meat of religion while also acting as a Petri dish for homosexual activism is somewhat beyond our ability to redeem. Nor would I recommend that everyone who reads this go out and try to find even more problems with Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core. Pointing out illness only goes so far. As Chesterton notes in ‘Heretics’, a picture of health inspires more than a picture of disease. Luckily we orthodox have many pictures of health to look to.
The life of Blessed John Paul the Great reveals both a massive dedication to Our Lord and a massive love for all peoples, what ever religion that happen to be following. A simple glance at what he did and how he lived will do more for true inter-faith dialogue than reading everything Eboo Patel wrote ever could. But if all you have is an hour to dedicate to learning about how we ought to relate to other religions, there is one video that you must watch. The Berkley Center recorded a conversation between Robert George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on the topic of Religious Freedom. Unlike the conversations started by the IFYC, the conversation here is brimming with metaphysics, because both parties understand that the religion of the other begins with those basic principles. Watch it and learn, because it embodies the health needed to inspire true friendship with people of other faiths.
This is a moment of opportunity for orthodox believers. As usual we have the better arguments and the better conclusions, but we also have better examples and frameworks than Eboo Patel ever conjured up. The IFYC doesn’t hold a monopoly on interfaith work in the United States. Nor will they, if orthodox believers seize the moment. Currently, the IFYC has an annual operating budget of 4 million dollars. That is not exactly indicative of a cultural force, but on the other hand you can’t track ideas with a spreadsheet. More people may share Patel’s upside-down view of religion than even he is aware of.
But even if that is the case, orthodoxy will need to salvage it. Why? Because interfaith according to Patel constantly churns the rocks in the tumbler. Those rocks are not hardened by principle, but rather are softened by a bad view of religion. Tumbling soft rocks does not create polish. It creates fractures that eventually lead to sand. Sand, as any religious tradition will tell you, is a lousy foundation for a cathedral.