two men greet each other with elbow bump, wearing masks during COVID
By Chelsea Langston Bombino

Fetzer’s involvement in spiritual literacy or “being able to find sacred meaning in all aspects of life”—as Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat define it in their book Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life—has been a longtime pursuit. It is a knowledge base that enlivens our work and relationships, an ongoing study both inspiring and humbling. Spiritual and religious literacy, as fields, have grown and evolved thanks to cultural barometers like the Brussats and scholar-practitioners like Chris Seiple, who have made this their life work.

Over the past few years I have taken a deep dive into the field of religious literacy through my engagement with Chris Seiple, principal advisor to the Templeton Religion Trust, co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism & Global Engagement with Dennis Hoover, and a recent Fetzer partner.

Seiple’s approach to religious literacy embraces “cross-cultural religious literacy,” a concept he has developed over the course of his career of teaching, study, and practice. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Chris about how he sees religious and spiritual literacy as necessary preconditions to the unfolding of Love in every area of life.

Chelsea Langston Bombino (CLB): Chris, it has been a pleasure collaborating with you over the past several years. Can you share a little bit about what cross-cultural religious literacy is and why it matters?

Chris Seiple (CS): Cross-cultural religious literacy is a philosophy of engagement—part of a theory of change pursuant to a world of covenantal pluralism—where each person pledges to engage, respect, and protect the other, without necessarily lending moral equivalency to the other’s beliefs.  

The vision of cross-cultural religious literacy is to prepare individuals to love their neighbor in a language and logic that their neighbor understands, by equipping them to engage elicitively and empathetically, and thus share their own sacred story in a manner that it can be received, and respected. 

This applied theory of sharing—of encounter, ongoing engagement, and action—is pursuant to a covenantal movement of like-minded actors who seek and strengthen a pluralism defined by the dignity of deep difference, a pluralism that is robust, relational, and non-relativistic. 

CLB: Could you give us an example of cross-cultural religious literacy at work? You are familiar with the Fetzer Institute’s Spirituality Study, which among other findings shows that some people have a deep spirituality outside of organized religion. Does cross-cultural religious literacy work the same way if someone identifies outside of the faith traditions?

CS: Yes. I tend to think about this is through the lens of majority-minority relations. There is a tendency in majority cultures to not invite and not welcome non-majority perspectives to the conversation or to the table. And so you always have to be sensitive to that human condition, because it doesn't matter what the value framework is.

I knew a leader with the American Humanist Association, and I invited him and his wife to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, which I co-founded and co-chair. According to them both, their experience and the relationships they developed there [with predominantly religiously observant faith leaders] was the opposite of what their experience was with the majority culture of America, which can be hostile toward secular humanists. The difference, they said, was that they felt valued. And they always felt that they were treated as equals with a seat at the Roundtable. This happens all around the world, wherever someone opens their home, their collaborative space, their faith community, to someone with different sacred animating beliefs, and says “I see you.”

CLB: You mentioned that cross-cultural religious literacy is a means to an end, and you called that end covenantal pluralism. What is that?

CS: Covenantal pluralism is a positive, proactive, and principled pluralism. The central virtue of the concept of “covenant” is that it holistically encompasses both rules and relationships. It requires both a framework of equal rights and responsibilities, and a supportive cultural context of respectful engagement, relationship, and reciprocity—even amidst stark differences in theologies, values, and lifestyles.

CLB: Fetzer has been investing in some of this work, like Confident Pluralism, Courageous Pluralism, Principled Pluralism, and New Pluralists. Is it similar to the other forms of pluralism we are seeing gain popularity?

CS: Each of these approaches to pluralism has much in common and they are making important contributions to the field of engagement across difference.

Covenantal pluralism is rooted in the inherent dignity of every human person. The other element of covenant pluralism, I would say, is that there has to be a top-down and bottom-up approach happening simultaneously. There has to be a Constitution and a set of laws [in a political community] that the state provides to protect all faiths and spiritual systems, and none. But then it has to be owned from the bottom up, there has to be a social cohesion, where people live out the laws, because they believe the governing structures are just. And I think this (top-down and bottom-up) approach is needed for any thriving society at any time, it’s fundamental to understanding civilization itself.

The best way to think about these things is that they are experiential. So, what motivates me? What motivates my neighbor? Where I may provide an alternative take is that sharing begins with the encounter of the other in order to let the other into the essence of your identity.

And I would take it a step further. Sharing is the precondition for a practical partnership that tangibly serves the common good. Because when I share the sacred in me, and I respect the sacred in you, even if we disagree about the definition of the sacred, we are still working together to do something that serves the commons.

CLB: So this is a relational, story-based approach to cross-cultural religious and spiritual literacy. And it starts with internalizing and externalizing our own sacred stories, moves to experiencing our neighbor’s sacred story, and that sharing encounter leads to collaborative efforts around a common cause or challenge. And then you and your neighbor now have a shared story?

CS: It all starts with LOVE. Love, conceptually understood as all forms of earthly and divine care, binds this all together. But L.O.V.E. can also be an acronym: Listen, Observe, Verify, Engage.

I would say the key values of living out cross-cultural religious literacy include patience, humility, curiosity, and courage. How do we teach these? Because this is not only head knowledge. This must be embodied, through an elicitive and empathetic posture. This is especially true for educators, and I am very passionate about this. A student often encounters differences for the first time in an educational setting. And the teacher must embody and model how to encounter difference, the process of inquiry interaction, so the students can take it out of the classroom to the community.

This process of encounter based on love (and L.O.V.E), is what I'm focused on for the rest of my life. It's imperative.

Chelsea Langston Bombino is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute. She is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged and contributing author to Breaking Ground: Chartering Our Future in a Pandemic Year and The Routledge Handbook for Religious Literacy, Pluralism and Global Engagement.