Exploring a New Means of Interfaith Connection
The increase in Internet use brings with it increased representation of American religious diversity. Most centers listed in the Pluralism Project directory, for example, have a website with contact information, and many groups use email newsletters to communicate. In July 2006, a group of online writers met to discuss a particular aspect of religion on the internet: the rise of weblogs, which speak about faith from an individual, rather than an institutional, perspective.
This group of bloggers was united by two themes: the use of blogs to write about their own faiths, and sympathy or affiliation with a progressive political stance. For some, this translated into opposition to conservative religious attitudes, for others, it meant a pluralistic approach to questions of religion, and for still others, it implied discerning and announcing in their own traditions a call to progressive political causes.** But for all involved, the convention signaled a potential for new collaboration using this new means of communication.
What is Blogging?
The purpose of weblogs varies widely from user to user. Individual blogs are the writings of one person, choosing to post online whatever they feel is relevant. Collaborative blogs have several authors, all writing about a particular topic. In both cases, the blog does not represent the position of an institution, but rather the thoughts of individuals. Comments allow readers to respond to the author and to each other on each post.
At its most basic, a blog is a means of disseminating information: sometimes a personal account of the user’s thoughts, sometimes news unavailable to or ignored by mainstream media, sometimes commentary. In many cases, blogs have served as amateur journalism or regular opinion columns. Highly political blogs can act as public discussion forums. Writers of faith blogs use their posts to discuss matters of theology, political action, meditation, and scripture, as well as ways to relate to members of other faiths and to members of their own who hold different views.
Meeting, Talking, Learning
The First Progressive Faith Blog Convention was held in July of 2006, as “a chance for progressive bloggers of faith to meet one another, talk with one another, and learn from one another.” Based on the concept that “our progressive politics are rooted in our theologies, and our theological stances inform our politics,” the convention offered an opportunity for these writers to meet face-to-face, celebrate together, think about activism, justice, and pluralism, and discuss the possibilities and challenges of this new medium.
The conference began with the first of several worship services, as three Jewish attendees led an Erev Shabbat service, inviting everyone to join in singing, prayer, and reflection. Throughout the conference, these worship services were led by attendees and were designed to be accessible to believers of other faiths, without sacrificing specificity and authenticity. The liturgy for this service, "Ending the Week with Joy," was created by Rachel Barenblat of the blog Velveteen Rabbi. A dinner and social gathering followed, as attendees finished checking in and began to meet each other.
Morning: Writing About Faith
Saturday morning began with a Zen Buddhist meditation and chanting of the Heart Sutra and the Great Dharani, led by Lorianne DiSabato of Hoarded Ordinaries. The day’s discussions began with a panel on “Roots and Branches: The Nature of Our Community.” Pluralism Project Research Associate Emily Ronald began by citing two quotes on pluralism by Dr. Diana Eck. Rachel Barenblat and Islamoyankee of Islamicate led the discussion on matters of the nature of ecumenical, interfaith, and progressive blogging engagement, setting the tone for much of the day. Some talked about the potential of communication between these blogs as “something we can do that no one else is doing.” Others remarked on the obstacles in interacting on more than a superficial level with people who hold very different views. Several people commented on the importance of meeting in person and “extending connections.”
Two morning breakout sessions divided the group to discuss particular subjects for their blog writing. First, participants split according to faith affiliation, allowing them to discuss what the blogosphere and Internet presence was for each tradition. Next, groups gathered to discuss writing about scripture, ritual, and meditation. The Scripture breakout group talked about exchanging interpretations of Biblical verses or suras from the Qur’an between Abrahamic faiths, sharing thoughts on the weekly Torah reading or Gospel lection, or beginning with a particular text and expounding on its relation to the current political and social situation. Blogging, remarked Reverend Timothy Simpson of the blog Public Theologian, allows for fairly deep written explication of a theological concept, and Barenblat added that the author-and-comment form of a blog holds less of the top-down authority of a sermon.
Meanwhile, the Meditation group tackled the question of writing about a practice that sometimes rejects the planning and editing of writing itself. Sites such as 100 days address it through ‘empty’ posts, to which participants can comment about their daily meditation—but the content of the blog itself is absent. Others take on the act of writing as a form of meditation in itself, similar to walking meditation.
Afternoon: Engaging with Politics
Lunch was followed by a Talking Tech panel, where bloggers shared their favorite online tools for increasing and monitoring site traffic, blogging tools, design, and aggregating other blogs and news services.
The panel on Faith and Politics sparked a lively debate over the relation of faith and political action. Thurman Hart of Xpatriated Texan (no longer live) talked both about Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” and the importance of bringing “your views of power and social justice and ethics and morality” to interactions with power, in the political realm. To leave these views “at the door” is “an invitation to tyranny.” Mik Moore of JSpot (no longer operational) pointed out that all three groups, religious right, secular left, and religious left, perceive themselves as the minority. Using Barack Obama’s speech at Call To Renewal as a starting point, he asked “As progressive religious voices - like ours - assert themselves in the public sphere, what impact will this have on our more secular allies?” and “How do we inject our personal morality in the public debate AND translate our concerns into universal values?” Bruce Wilson of Talk To Action suggested the power of faith blogs to make a collective statement of condemnation or approval on particular issues or events, while Chris Walton of Philocrites (no longer live) said that his hope for blogs like his own is to revitalize religious communities, rather than to engage in an argument between political positions.
Afternoon breakout sessions dealt with topics in politics. The International Relations session discussed the war on terror and the conflict in Israel, especially as viewed through the eyes of Jewish and Muslim bloggers. The Poverty session dealt with ways to use blogging to demonstrate a wide consensus on matters of social justice such as poverty, hunger, and health care, a consensus shared between progressives and conservatives and between different faiths. The Religious Right session brought up multiple communication strategies, given the different voices and opinions of bloggers and their readers, from a respectful tone to passionate anger.
In all three breakouts, the question came up: how can blogging create change? As a journalistic form, how can it affect the mainstream media; as a mode of connection between individuals, how can it support new dialogues; and as a method of grassroots mobilization, how can it move a large and diverse group to political action.
Evening: What is Progressive Faith?
After a dinner break, participants reconvened and were welcomed to a Muslim zikr service led by Islamoyankee of Islamicate. He first explained the meaning of zikr as awareness of the closeness of God through repetition of devotional phrases, such as shukran lillah wa al-hamdulillah “all thanks and praise are due to God.” After saying the Fatihah (the first sura of the Qur’an), he led many participants in zikr chanting, then demonstrated a cycle of prayer with English translations of the Arabic.
The final event on Saturday was a roundtable discussion on “What Does Progressive Faith Mean?” Pastor Dan Schultz of Street Prophets (no longer operational) chose to avoid a definition that would be primarily oppositional (through comparison with the Religious Right) or political (placing affiliation and platform above belief). Instead, he suggested one of “a shared experience,” rejecting exclusivism and maintaining identity as a “small-o orthodox Christian.” Reverend Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptist offered ten qualities of progressive faith, which could apply as easily to Baptists as to Pagans, such as “chastened... when persons of faith look at themselves and their faith through the eyes of people of different faiths” and “strong... to demand both equal rights in civil life and genuine respect in social life for those who have other convictions and different worldviews — while remaining firmly committed to its own convictions and worldview.” His full speech is available here. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, preferring the term “prophetic” to “progressive,” compared the present situation to struggles in Jewish history between isolation and assimilation. The mission of the prophetic faith, he says, is to determine “what in modernity is God’s work,” such as the equality of men and women, stewardship of the environment, and acceptance of different sexualities, while still confronting the elements of tyranny and chaos that modernity can bring. The discussion continued until the conference center closed, talking of the discernment, care, and dedication required in this faith.
Sunday morning, Christian attendees Mata H. of Time's Fool, Michelle Murrain of Metacentricities, and Reverend Prescott led an ecumenical worship service, offering communion to those who wished to partake respectfully. Rabbi Arthur Waskow gave an impromptu drash on the words lechem (bread) and milchamah (war) and blessed the bread of the Eucharist.
The conference finished with the question: where do we go from here? The group planned to meet again next year in a different region of the country, in order to make travel easier for bloggers in the western states. Increasing the online presence of the progressive faith community, through blog aggregators, increased action on certain sites, and possibly creating a semiannual magazine collecting the best of blog writing were all discussed.
When writing about the convention in their blogs, many participants mentioned the joint worship services as particularly moving and hopeful—often to their surprise and delight. The act of experiencing or observing another faith’s practices both emphasized the diversity within the group and reminded them of shared common ground.
The Progressive Faith Blog Convention, in taking online interaction into a face-to-face encounter, echoed its theme of the importance of putting belief into action. The importance of physical presence, “putting faces to the blogroll,” was a counterpart to the importance of long-distance internet capability that allowed this kind of interaction. The acts that come out of blogging may be building relationships between believers of different faiths, constructing a public civic space for discussion of religion and politics, joining or starting political campaigns, or simply increasing people's awareness about different ways to be Jewish, or Christian, or Buddhist. The convention provided a way to “meet one another, talk with one another, and learn from one another,” and offered hope for the future; in the closing words of Rachel Barenblat, “This is only a beginning; may we be blessed by our encounters, and go on from here to further beautiful things.”
**It is important to note that the term “progressive” means many things to different people, and that not all attendees used this label; likewise, not all attendees identified themselves as religious.↩︎
 Summaries of the morning panels from Velveteen Rabbi and Metacentricities. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_roots_and_.html and http://metacentricities.com/2006/07/progressive-faith-blog-con-saturday-....↩︎
 Summaries of the Blogging Scripture breakout session from Velveteen Rabbi and Islamicate. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_blogging_s.html and http://www.islamicate.com/islamicate/2006/07/pfbc_breakout_b.html. Simpson's blog Public Theologian is no longer operational.↩︎
 Summary of the Talking Tech panel on the Progressive Faith Blog Con blog page. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://progfaithblogcon.blogsome.com/2006/07/15/tools-from-talking-tech-.... (Resource no longer available.)↩︎
 Summaries of the Faith and Politics panel from Velveteen Rabbi, Mik Moore of Jspot, and Metacentricities. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_faith_and_.html and http://metacentricities.com/2006/07/faith-in-politics-panel/.↩︎
 Summary of International Relations panel from Velveteen Rabbi. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_internatio.html.↩︎
 Summary of Poverty panel from Velveteen Rabbi. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_internatio.html.↩︎
 "What is Progressive Faith?" Remarks by Bruce Prescott. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://mainstreambaptist.blogspot.com/2006/07/what-is-progressive-faith.html.↩︎
 Summaries of the "What is Progressive Faith?" panel from Velveteen Rabbi. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_roundtable.html.↩︎
 Summary of Christian Worship and Closing Remarks from Velveteen Rabbi. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_christian_.html.↩︎
Summary of Christian Worship and Closing Remarks from Velveteen Rabbi. Retrieved August 3, 2006 from http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/07/pfbc_christian_.html.↩︎