When one religion doesn't fit, some choose interfaith spirituality

She's been Christian, Hindu, Unitarian and more. Now, instead of following a single religion, Rene Shepley-Ragan embraces them all.

She calls her path "interfaith spirituality," an identification she shares with a small but emerging group of Americans. They customize their spirituality by picking and choosing practices from the world's religions - often without any particular attachment to doctrine.

Some pray to Allah and to Jesus, chant like Sufis and meditate like Buddhists. Others light Jewish menorahs and perform Native American sage rituals. Shepley-Ragan celebrates the major holidays of most religions, from Passover to Christmas.

At least three interfaith seminaries now operate in the New York City area alone. They teach the tenets of the world's religions and how to perform spiritual rituals, from Christian baptisms to Jewish weddings to New Age energy healings.

"A lot of people are finding that one religion doesn't have all the answers for them," said Shepley-Ragan, who leads an interfaith congregation in Moorestown, N.J. "We help people discover their spirituality, but we don't tell them what that should look like."

Followers call it "an integrative approach." They downplay the differences among religions to focus on common threads such as love and mercy. It's inconsequential to them, for example, that Christians teach that Jesus was the Messiah, Muslims say he was a prophet and Jews say he was neither.

"In effect, it's a new religion," said John Lamoreaux, who teaches religion at Southern Methodist University. "There's Buddhism, and there's also Barnes & Noble Buddhism. A person can pick and choose from the world's tradition and create a spirituality that has little connection with historical reality."

Rabbi Roger Ross, who heads New Seminary in New York, said disciples of an interfaith approach aren't creating another religion. True, some people's path is a spiritual stew, he said. But others embrace a primary religion and supplement it with practices from other faiths. His interfaith school's guiding principle: "Never instead of, always in addition to."

"People come to the interfaith path thinking they're the only ones who find one particular faith path isn't enough," said the rabbi, who attended a nondenominational Jewish seminary. "Then they discover 100 classmates who show up for the same reason."

New Seminary says it has graduated more than 2,000 interfaith ministers since its founding by a priest, a rabbi, a minister and a swami in 1981. Some are hospital chaplains - people who deal with patients of all faith backgrounds. Others lead the estimated 100 new interfaith congregations that have sprung up nationally.

"People accuse us of practicing smorgasbord spirituality," said the Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb, an interfaith minister in New York, who has embraced the contemplative, mystical practices of Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism at different points.

"They mean it to be derogatory, but there is truth to that. We're seeking the essence of religion, which is spirituality - not dogmas. That is where you feel God."

Interfaith spirituality is different from the interfaith work done by the dominant faiths. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have long met to discuss their beliefs to better understand their differences - but not to become one spiritual soup.

Pope John Paul II, for example, has repeatedly gathered representatives from world religions to pray for peace. In Dallas, Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders lead occasional interfaith prayer services. But at the end of the prayers, the participants are still distinctly Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The quest for religious identity is often at the heart of interfaith spirituality. Many practitioners say they became disillusioned with their childhood faith and spent years bouncing from religion to religion searching for a better fit.

"Then it's like a light bulb goes on and you realize you don't need to choose," Shepley-Ragan said. "There's no contradiction because the goal of all religions is basically the same" - only the paths to getting there are different.

That thinking is common among interfaith ministers. Scholars say it's partially an outgrowth of the growing religious pluralism. Three times as many Hindus live in the United States today as did a decade ago. American Muslims now outnumber Episcopalians, Jews or Presbyterians.

The diversity has led to a panoply of interfaith activities - and not everyone thinks that's a good thing.

"We living in an age where tolerance is the supreme virtue," said J. Randall O'Brien, head of Baylor University's religion department. He added, "There are real differences in religions. While it's virtuous to have a big heart toward others, we don't want to be of little mind."

Interfaith ministers say one need they're addressing is the market for couples from different religions seeking a spiritual wedding. Nearly one-fourth of U.S. married couples are of mixed faiths or denominations. Half of religiously identified Jews and 40 percent of Catholics marry outside their religion, according to scholarly surveys.

Sometimes, interfaith ministers are the only clergy they can turn to.

"A lot of couples who intermarry are ostracized, either by their families or their religions," said Macomb, author of "Joining Hands and Hearts: Interfaith, Intercultural Wedding Celebrations," described as "a practical guide" for couples.

She's led weddings that combined elements of each person's tradition, from lighting a Christian unity candle to the Jewish custom of breaking a glass to close the ceremony. At a Muslim-Protestant wedding, readings ranged from Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, to Walt Whitman.

Today, at least 16 percent of Americans have switched religious preferences at least once, according to a study by the City University of New York.

Carole and Alan Weinman joined the Amazing Grace Ministries interfaith congregation on Staten Island after six decades as Conservative Jews. They define their spirituality as interfaith and their religion as Judaism (though synagogue visits are rare these days).

At Amazing Grace, the Weinmans teach members about Judaism and share the prayers and rituals of those from other religious traditions. But they refrain from taking Holy Communion, a custom shared by those who believe Jesus is Lord.

"I found a lot of ritual and tradition at synagogue, which I love," Weinman said. "But I never found any true spirituality. I never found a connection with God. Now I have that. I've learned to meditate."

Religious pluralism has changed even mainline Christian seminaries over the past two decades. Some that were once strictly centers for Christian studies now require comparative religion courses for divinity degrees. At least 30 employ non-Christian faculty.

Connecticut's Hartford Seminary, which trains Christians for ministry, is also home to a Muslim center. The seminary says its mission is to affirm "the goodness of religious differences."

But some seminaries balk at this approach.

"No follower of Jesus can ever take the view that all religions are basically the same," said Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where only Southern Baptists teach theology. World religions are taught mainly so graduates know what they're up against when they go forth to evangelize.

"Jesus said, `I am the way, the truth and the life and no man comes to the Father but by me,'" Patterson added. "That's an exclusive statement. That's not up for compromise."

Historically, many people drawn to an integrative approach to spiritually have gravitated to Baha'i or to Unitarian Universalist congregations. But today, those who identify their path as "interfaith spirituality" often aren't interested in religious affiliation, scholars said.

As he grew older, the Rev. Michael Carter fell away from his Baptist upbringing. He attended New Seminary's two-year program, then a liberal Christian seminary for additional academic training.

Although an interfaith minister, Carter marketed himself as a nondenominational chaplain to find work in the mainstream. He's employed at two New York hospitals as the "Protestant" chaplain.

"I pray with patients not to impose my own views or beliefs, but to support them in their relationship with God," said Carter, whose spirituality is based on his Native American and African-American heritages.

He disagrees with some views of those drawn to interfaith spirituality - particularly those from the dominant culture who adopt the spiritualities of his heritages without sharing the struggles of those people.

"If you haven't experienced the marginalization of people of color, then what are you doing with their spirituality?" he said. "People are quick to sing `Kum Ba Yah' and stress the similarities of religions. But you can't really be all of those religions."

People drawn to interfaith spirituality don't want to be told what to believe, said the Rev. Diane Berke, founder of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York.

"They want an experience of the Divine based on an inclusive vision of spirituality," she said. "They don't want dogmas. There's much more of a hunger for creating meaningful rituals."