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Areas of confluence
Dr. Michael Spath and the Indiana Center for Middle East Peace work to foster inter-faith dialogue
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
As a lecturer in religious studies at IPFW, Dr. Michael Spath often tells his students that he does not know any non-religious person.
“I know many atheists,” he tells them. “I know many non-theists, I know many agnostics, I know many secularists… But I do not know any non-religious people.”
A bold claim, maybe, but the majority of Spath’s professional life has been spent studying the world’s different religions and faiths — their scriptures, their traditions, their founding tenets, where they diverge and where they might connect.
In the classroom, he looks at religion from a social science perspective, as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Spath describes himself as a “Jesus person” — a spiritual humanist — by choice, and also because it’s the tradition he grew up in. “But I’m very comfortable within the world of Islam, within the world of Zen — I studied under a Zen teacher in St Louis, I studied with a Hindu Swami in St Louis — so I find parallel threads in the various traditions, places where we connect, not so much on a doctrinal level, but on an experiential level.”
And finding these experiential connections informs his work outside the classroom, where he’s founded the non-profit organization Indiana Center for Middle East Peace, and was part of Mayor Richard’s Commission on Interfaith Understanding with Imam Tamir Rasheed and Reverend Terry Anderson, which eventually became CONFLUENCE Northeast Indiana Inter-Faith Alliance.
But putting aside Spath’s considerable resume for a moment, his claim not to have met a “non-religious person” comes from a broad view of what might constitute a religion. “I define religion as that which creates meaning, identity, value, and community,” he says. “Now there are problems with that definition, just like there are problems with every definition of religion, but if you pressed me on it, that’s how I’d define it. Whatever it is that you are willing to live for or die for is your religion.”
Spath references philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, who defined faith as “one’s ultimate concern.” Spath continues: “I know many ‘anti-religious’ people who I would still characterize as religious, because they’re passionate about their work, they fall in love, they’re passionate about their families, they’re upright and moral people… What is it that moves them, that inspires them, that challenges them, that comforts them? That’s religion, in the Spath world-view.”
On Wednesday, May 9, the Indiana Center for Middle East Peace is bringing the Bethlehem Diyar Dance Troupe to Fort Wayne for a free performance at the Plymouth Congregational Church.
It’s the latest in a series of lectures, presentations, and performances that the organization has sponsored as a part of its mission to, in the words of the organization’s mission statement, promote critical awareness of issues that impact a just peace in the Middle East and to facilitate intercultural and inter-religious encounters locally and globally. “It highlights a side of the Palestinians that is not known, understood, or seen by most Americans,” Spath says of the dance troupe. “Really, it’s a group of Christians and Muslims working together, and highlights the art and culture that goes back centuries.”
Spath, who lived in Jordan for a year as a Fulbright scholar and estimates he’s visited the Holy Land about 30 times, says he initially founded the Indiana Center for Middle Eastern Peace in order to, as he puts it, introduce friends of his there (the Holy Land) to friends of his here in the US. But the organization’s mission and philosophy goes much deeper.
“I know there are deeply committed Jews, Christians, Muslims and secular folks in Israel and Palestine who are working diligently in the cause of ‘just peace’,” Spath says. “And, as a Jesus person, I am concerned about the Christian community in the land where Jesus walked. The indigenous Christian population in Israel and Palestine is less than 1.2% of the population, and they’re emigrating, oftentimes because they have more contacts in the West, often times because they’re more well-educated than the rest of the population, oftentimes because they have the economic means to do so.”
Of course, the Israel/Palestine conflict is the focus of much of the work of Indiana Center for Middle Eastern Peace, and Spath is sometimes criticized as being “one-sided” and labeled pro-Palestinian. But Spath emphasizes that what he wants is a “just peace” — a peace that honors human rights and civil rights for all sides.
“Where they engage in violence, I am outspoken in condemning it,” Spath says. “But there’s a systematic set of policies — re-enforced by the political far right in this country — that is oppressive to Palestinians, that is engaged in the confiscation of land.”
“Look at the civil rights struggle in this country, and the reaction of those forces in the world of religion and politics who opposed it,” he continues. “They wanted peace, but to them, peace meant a ‘calming of the waters,’ the status quo. When the abused in a relationship speaks out against the abuser, or acts out, often the victim gets castigated and condemned by the larger public. Well, that’s the danger we run, and that’s been part of the critiscm aimed at me, because we’ve spoken out on behalf of the oppressed. But frankly, we speak out against violence in all its forms, from whatever corner it comes. We must condemn the violence, but it’s not happening in a vacuum.”
He points out that the ICMEP brought Rabbi Eric Ashermann to Fort Wayne last year. Asherman is a committed Zionist who immigrated to Israel and quotes from the Israeli Declaration of Independence, says Spath “…yet he stands in front of bulldozers that threaten Palestinian olive groves and Palestinian homes.”
“I think there are a lot of problems with Zionism, but it shows the peace movement is a large tent within Israel.”
In 1999, Spath earned a PhD in Historical Theology, specializing in medieval Islam and Christian relations. Two years later, Spath found himself invited to explain Islam in front of countless organizations, classrooms, and lectures. He eventually developed a course at IPFW on religion and violence. “If you talk to most religious people, they’ll say an Osama bin Laden, or a Timothy McVeigh, people who do acts of violence in the name of religion, somehow aren’t really Christian or Muslim or Jew or Hindu or whatever, but that they are operating from a bastardized or corrupt form of the religion, not really the true religion,” he says. “I call that the essentialist view of religion. What we have to come to grips with is that within every religious tradition itself, in their scriptures, there are the very seeds that foster the kind of violence we see. Why? Because religion is a human-made phenomenon, it is a human response to some sort of transcendent experience, and that means it’s going to be tinged with all kinds of ambiguities.”
While the message of the founders might have been enabling or enobling, Spath explains, the traditions that grew up around those messages will have what he calls dark forces as well as the forces of light. “People of faith find ways of interpreting those seeds in such a way that minimizes the violence and maximizes the spiritual,” he continues. “But as I look at the Koran, as I look at the Bible — the Old Testament, and the New Testament — as I look at Hindu scriptures, etc. If you look at them, not with the hat of a believer on, but that hat of a scholar studying these traditions as socio-cultural phenomena, you can’t help but see that the seeds of potential violence are there.”
But it’s how people find ways of nurturing the more enabling and ennobling aspects of the message that seems to directly inform Spath’s interfaith work and the mission of the Indiana Center for Middle Eastern Peace. Spath believes that for many religious people there is a similarity on an experiential level that can help foster some kind of understanding.
“For example, you talk to a Sufi Muslim, and ask them ‘how do you, on a spiritual level, experience fana?’ which is the annihilation of the ego. And then you talk to a Zen Buddhist and ask them to explain the experience of Mu, or Nirvana, which is the emptiness of the ego, non-attachment to the self. Or if you asked a Christian, how do you experience what it means to become less and less you and more and more Christ, or what does it mean to die in baptism, so that you can rise again as a new creation in Christ — a death of the self so that you can rise again as a new creation… On an experiential level it might not be exactly the same, and of course the content is different, but I’ll bet you it’s pretty close to the same experience. At least it’s a place where we can have a conversation. Experientially, we can walk many steps together and find areas of confluence.”
And the work that Spath and the Indiana Center For Middle Eastern Peace do is trying to find one of those areas of confluence. “The motto of the United States is E Plurbis Unum: out of the many, one,” he says. “That’s one of the geniuses of this country. I grew up in a world where the image was the melting pot, kind of an assimilationist model. The one that’s used now is the symphony But the question for us is, how do you build an unum now when all the plurbis are so diverse? How do we build one community in America, but also a human family? But let’s start here first, a civil society in this community, in our country. Let’s see it close to home. How can we build that? That’s why I’ve been committed, along with a couple of my friends, towards fostering that kind of unity and diversity here in Fort Wayne.”
The Bethlehem Diyar Dance Troupe
Wednesday, May 9
7:00 to 8:30pm
Plymouth Congregational Church
501 West Berry Street
The performance is free.
For more on the Indiana Center for Middle Eastern Peace, including upcoming events, visit Indianacmep.org