Friday, March 2, 2012

KEEPING AN EYE ON THE “BIG I CONFERENCE”

By
Rev. Tim Miner OUnI and Rabbi Dr. Rami Shapiro (OUnI)

During the first weekend of February, as part of World Interfaith Harmony Week 2012, speakers from four countries gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, to share their ideas, practices, and visions for the future of human spirituality at the first annual “Big I Conference.” Named for the spiritual movements of Interfaith, Interspirituality and Integral spirituality—all the Inclusive theologies and spirituality, the conference’s speakers shared their work and ideas with an audience of clergy, spiritual leaders and curious laity.  The event was hosted and sponsored by the Order of Universal Interfaith (OUnI) and Wisdom House at the Scarritt Bennett Center of Nashville.

The hosts created the Big I Conference to meet an unfulfilled need for all interfaith ministers.  As interfaith spirituality seeks its place at the table and works to evolve human consciousness, it needs to gather together its visions, best practices and scholarly studies so that they are presented to the world for discussion, publication and peer review.  Organized like a mini-TED conference, each speaker had eighteen minutes to share their work.  Three presentations came per session followed by a long period for individual questions and dialogue with the audience.   Each presentation was videotaped for sharing on YouTube and through DVD, and each speaker will author a paper for publication in a new journal of the conference’s proceedings.

The conference began with sharing a practice.  Ed Bastian Ph.D., president of the Spiritual Paths Institute of California, led the audience in a session of “interspiritual meditation.”  Dr. Bastian authored the book “InterSpiritual Meditation: A Seven Step Process from the World’s Spiritual Traditions.”  By focusing on the written words from different spiritual traditions, Dr. Bastian brought the audience together in the head and heart.

Camille Adams Helminsky, co-director and founder of the Threshold Society, the teaching organization of the Mevlevi order of Sufism then spoke on “Witnessing the Unity: Rumi’s Recognition of a Universal Spirituality”  If hearts were opened by the meditation that came first, they were filled by Camille’s eloquent readings of Rumi’s call to love.

Brother Dyron Holmes O.P.M., founder of The Peoples Monastery in Brooklyn, New York City, shared a vision for the future.  He spoke about his creation for a live-in monastery in New York City to teach interfaith values to artists through classes and an annual stage production.  He also challenged the audience to reflect on how it could create a meaningful and deep “American Enlightenment Experience” for those who couldn’t travel overseas to places like India or Jerusalem.

The second session opened with a paper on the evolution of Interspirituality from Dr. Kurt Johnson CMH.  Because of an illness, Dr. Johnson’s paper was presented by colleague, Rev. Thomas Pennington OUnI.  Based on the work in his upcoming book from Namaste publishing, Dr. Johnson tied the evolution of interspirituality to globalization and the need for economic reforms called by the Occupy movements around the United States.

Rev. Dr. Dan Rosemergy, an Interfaith Alliance Board Member and pastor of Greater UU Nashville, then spoke on “Building Interfaith Communities: The Challenge and the Vision.”  This presentation was followed by Rev. Lynne Feldman, founding director of the “integral Spirituality Nexus” and an integral educator, who shared how integral spirituality could be a framework for future evolution of human consciousness.  She also shared how integral spirituality was a source of comfort during recent treatments for two kinds of cancer.

The third session of the day began with Steve Frazee, founder of SBNR.org.  He spoke on the topic of “The Emerging World of SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and its Impact on Religion and Spirituality.”  He was followed by Rev. Dr. Gordon Peerman, a therapist, lecturer, and author of “Blessed Relief, What Christians Can Learn from Buddhists About Suffering;” who spoke on “My Life as Paradigm: Living and Learning from Christianity and Buddhism.”  The session concluded with a best-practice presentation on the Doctorate of Ministry in Multi-faith Context at New York Theological Seminary by a recent graduate, Dr. Nurah-Rosalie Amat’ullah, Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development.  She added her call to the entire conference to make sure it does work for social justice as part of its mission. 

The fourth session began with a vision by recent Vanderbilt graduate, Chance Dillion M.Div. who is the director of the Scriptural Reasoning Project.  Chance spoke on “A New Paradigm for Interfaith Dialogue” which suggested a path for dialogue between interfaith and Christianity.  From Christianity the conference turned to Hinduism with a presentation by Rev. Philip Goldberg who is the author of 19 books, most recently “American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation.” Rev. Goldberg spoke about “The Once and Future Religion: Hinduism and the Religious Future.”  The session then returned to a discussion of Christianity with a paper by Rev. Dr. Joyce Liechenstein OUnI, Secretary General of the Order of Universal Interfaith, which showed why the Christian Bible called her to do interfaith work.

The fifth session of the day began with a talk by Professor M. Darrol Bryant Ph.D., professor emeritus of world religions at Rennison University College and the first recipient of the Huston Smith Award for Interfaith Education presented by the Council of Interfaith Communities of the United States.  Dr. Bryant shared his forty years of interfaith work and education and his current project of escorting students from Canada on an extensive tour of the sacred sites of India.  Huston Smith named Dr. Bryant his own heir-apparent for Dr. Bryant’s work.

Carol Mansour from Baha’i of Greater Nashville followed with an overview of the Baha’i religion and its importance to interfaith dialogue in the world.  The final presentation of the afternoon was Michael Stillwater, film-maker and musical intuitive, who travelled from Switzerland to show a seventeen minute version of his movie, “The Great Song.”   His topic was “Metaphorical theology: In Search of the Great Song, the common thread running through all humanity and transcending culture and religion.”  He led the conference in chant as the movie soundtrack ended.

After dinner in a dining-hall that reminded everyone of Hogwart’s Great Hall—all that was missing was the floating candles—there was one more session to go.  That final session of the day began with Rev. Dr. Theodore Richards; author, poet, philosopher, and interfaith educator; who spoke from his recent book about “Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth.”  Rev. Dr. Thomas Lynch, OUnI, Executive Director of the International Academy of Interfaith Studies in Mexico, gave a scholarly presentation on “Spiritual Wisdom” and process theology.  The final paper of the day was from Rev. Tim Miner OUnI, Executive Director of the Council of Interfaith Communities of the United States, who spoke about in importance of language in the interfaith message, the need to be clear on terminology, and how to add the word “interfaith” to other cultures of the world to produce global change.

The final event of the very long first day was the Nashville premiere of “Globalized Soul,” a documentary filmed in Australia, India, Israel, Morocco, Mexico, Turkey and the United States, exploring the oneness at the center of the colorful diversity of the world's religions. Made by Kell Kearns and Cynthia Lukas, the cornerstone of the film was its coverage of one of the largest interfaith gatherings in history: "The Parliament of the World's Religions" held in Melbourne, Australia in December, 2009.

Sunday morning brought the conference together again for one more session and a discussion about the future of spirituality.  The session began with Rabbi Steve Booth-Nadav, director of Wisdom House Denver, who spoke about “Educating a Multifaith Community.”  Rabbi Steve described his spiritual journey to an interfaith path thanks to an enlightened encounter with Native American spirituality.  The conference then learned about another best practice with the work of Linda Ragsdale, author, illustrator, and the director of the Peace Dragon Project who spoke on “Beyond Dialogue: Building Interfaith Community Through Art.”  She described surviving a terrorist attack in India and how it led to using the imagery of a dragon to promote peace to children of the world.  Throughout the conference all the participants and audience walked around with a stained finger as everyone contributed to creating a peace dragon art piece together.  The final presentation of the session came from William Keepin, Ph.D. who is the director of the Satyana Institute and an interspiritual retreat leader and author.  His talk, “Toward an Interspiritual Theology of Divine Love,” showed the common elements of Hinduism and Christianity.

The final paper of the entire conference came from co-host Rabbi Rami Shapiro.  In his “holy irreverent” style that kept everyone laughing, Rabbi Rami talked about his personal project to tell the stories of the “Holy Rascals” of the world’s religions—those who pushed buttons to evolve spirituality and get the world to think. 

With presentations and dialogue done, the audience and presenters gave their feedback and ultimately called for the conference to continue annually to continue the work of sharing the best practices and newest ideas in interfaith, interspirituality and integral spirituality.  The proceedings of the conference and the DVD of presentations will be released in the autumn of 2012.   The Second Annual Big I Conference is already scheduled for Nashville on the first weekend of February 2013.  Everyone is invited to attend and nominate speakers for presentations.   Information will come through the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BigIConference and a new website is still under construction.



Rev. Tim Miner M.Div. OUnI and Rabbi Dr. Rami Shapiro are board members of OUnI, the umbrella organization that co-ordains and hosts member of 8 communities. Rev. Miner is a chaplain and Executive Director for the Council of Interfaith Communities of the United States.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro is a popular author, professor of World Religions at Middle Tennessee State University, and the Director of Wisdom House in Nashville.




1 comment:

  1. That sounded like an absolutely marvelous week. I am very active in PeaceNext, which is the social network of the Parliament of the World Religions (mentioned in your post), an interfaith movement dedicated to social activism. My personal interest, however, is mysticism as a bridge between religions.

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