Dynamics of Interfaith — Don Knebel
Rachel Koehler interviews CIC founding board chair Don Knebel as part of her “Dynamics of Interfaith” podcast series
Don Knebel has been with the CIC board from the beginning and has largely contributed to its formation. He offers a Presbyterian voice and is extremely passionate about preserving the differences found in each religion so they remain distinct. According to Don, true interfaith dialogue can occur when each religion is respected in this manner.
Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Center for Interfaith Cooperation (CIC), works to create an environment for meaningful engagement and peaceful dialogue between and among a wide variety of faith communities. This podcast seeks to record the stories of CIC Board members representing the Jain, Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Pagan, Church of Latter-day Saints, Buddhist, Ba’haí, Catholic, and Hindu religious traditions. Each individual brings a unique, enriching story, so tune in to begin “de-othering” unfamiliar faith communities.
Music: LXtronic “Run Away (Stay With Me)”
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Don Knebel Interiew
Rachel: Today we have Don Knebel. Welcome, Don.
Don: Thanks, Rachel. It’s good to be here.
Rachel: First, to start, I would love to share your history with the CIC and what that has looked like.
Don: Well, my history actually with interfaith starts before the CIC which I think is an important part of the story. I grew up Methodist in a small town in Indiana. I had very little contact with people of other faiths. Then I joined the Zionsville Presbyterian Church. In 2006, the church took a group to Israel, which was my first time in the Middle East. I got to know something about Jewish history, and in February of 2007, my wife and I went to Egypt where our tour guide was Muslim. I began talking to her about her tradition, and she said, “you know Don if I’d been born in the United States I would probably be a Christian, and if you’d been born in Egypt, you probably would have been a Muslim.” I said that’s probably right. From there we became more interested in religious tradition, so we went to India in 2009. We went to Turkey in 2009, and when I came back people asked me to do talks and presentations about what I was learning and I began focusing those presentations on the differences and similarities in religions. That fact came to the attention of some people at Purdue where I was an engineering graduate in the sixties and they said that a Purdue electrical engineering alumnus, Marwan al-Muasher, who is the first Jordanian ambassador to Israel, was coming back to Indiana and wanted to know if I would host a presentation that he was going to make and I said sure that’s right among the things I’m interested in. My law firm at the time was Barnes & Thornburg. I sponsored an event at Barnes & Thornburg and brought in people of the community to talk about Israel and Palestine and Jordan and among the people in the audience was Charlie Wiles who heard this presentation and after the event, I took a group to the Columbia Club, and we talked about interfaith and Jane Gehlhausen was in that meeting. Charlie was in the meeting, and sometime after that probably in the spring of 2011, Charlie came to me and said, “Don, I have this idea for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. You seem like you have an interest in that.” And he knew from that that I’ve been involved in a lot of community activities including the United Way board and he said, “why don’t you help me start this organization,” so I said sure and that’s what happened.
Rachel: Nice! Were there some challenges to starting that or was it…
Don: Well we had no idea what we were doing. We had no money. The CIC had no money. They had a corporate registration for the state of Indiana and did not yet have a tax-exempt status. Charlie had been involved in some interfaith activities but had never really been involved in starting an organization of this magnitude and so we talked about sort of what the board structure would look like and we decide we wanted a lot of board members so that we could have a lot of representations of different faiths. We settled on forty board members, and I sat down and drafted a set of bylaws that would define this organization, and we went to the National
Bank of Indianapolis where I had an account, and we got a $20,000 line of credit and that’s how we got started.
Rachel: Amazing. Has there been a lot of great feedback from the community and just interest…
Don: Well, I think the fact that so many people have been willing to join our board and I mean we’ve had approximately forty people as board members and we have term limit, so we’ve had more and more people coming onto the board. We are always asked to go out into the community and talk about interfaith. Our board members are on speaking circuits. I was as a part of this about two years ago asked to go to South Bend and be a speaker at their National Day of Prayer which I talked about interfaith. Other people are getting opportunities to do that, so yeah it has been a pretty popular undertaking. We went from having a budget $20,000 line of credit so we are up to a 4, 5, or $600,000 line of credit. It’s really pretty amazing.
Rachel: Look at y’all! That’s amazing! Now, what is your faith journey specifically? I know you talked a lot about traveling and stuff, but was there something before that that made you interested in just pursuing faith as a concept?
Don: Well I just said Rachel. I grew up Methodist in a very small town in Indiana where you either went to the Methodist Church or you went to the Catholic Church and so my parents were Protestants and so we went to the Methodist Church. I went off to college and had very little religious experience in college. Then, I came back and had very little connection to a
church until my daughter was able to understand and I thought we have to give her some religious tradition, so we started going to Zionsville Presbyterian Church. But I had always been interested in religious history and biblical history. I’ve always thought of myself if I came back in a different life that I would be an archaeologist and so I was reading something called a biblical archaeological review and got a pretty good sense of biblical history so that’s when I went to Israel and actually saw some of those sites. began to get a better sense of the common traditions of all religions and that sense really developed more completely when I went to Egypt in the spring of 2007 and saw how many of the religious traditions of Christians and Muslims really derive ultimately from views that the Egyptians had two, three, four thousand years ago. So it was that idea that I’ve sort of carried forward and I speak now an awful lot about religious traditions and religious origins. I’m actually working right now on the series of presentations that I’ll give in the spring at the Second Presbyterian Church on the history of Satan, history of hell, history of heaven, and the history of final judgment. Many of which tie back to other traditions so that’s been my interest.
Rachel: How have you seen your profession in law and your interest in faith inform each other?
Don: Well they certainly inform the ability to quickly do research that other people I think wouldn’t have the skills to do. If you are a lawyer, you have to read an awful lot of materials quickly and summarize them into something that is coherent and you don’t have to read the entire book you quickly learn or read the entire case. You can quickly use indices and keywords and things like that so that’s one of the things it has done. The other thing that I think the law profession creates in you is a sense of trying to find the history of things, trying to find out where things come from, what was the origin of some traditions of heaven and hell and Satan and so I think it’s that curiosity that sort of informs what I’ve been doing.
Rachel: Yeah definitely. Have you ever found that it is hard to live out your faith on a day-to-day basis through your profession?
Don: When I many, many, many years ago told a probably ninety-year-old aunt that I was going to go to law school, she thought that I had just committed the gravest possible sin because she couldn’t imagine that there were ethical lawyers out there that really could maintain consistency with their faith tradition and that just turns out not to be true. There are many lawyers of all different faiths who are perfectly able to practice their faith within their tradition. They just have to do it in the way that’s consistent with their ethics and morals, which I think I’ve always done. I’ve tried to – not sure that I’ve always been successful.
Rachel: There you go. And I’ve always been curious in looking at Christianity as a faith and in some nature, it can be exclusive in just the language and perspective on this is the way that you get to heaven by following this Savior, so how do you understand that and reconcile that with your work in interfaith?
Don: Well I have a talk Rachel that I give called what truth can set us free and the conclusion is that we can have multiple truths. Let me just give you an example of that. If you say to a Buddhist that following Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, their response will be well I don’t have any sense of heaven to begin with so why would that be important to me? Or if you were to say to somebody a Muslim, for example, that Jesus can be your Savior, the answer is I don’t need a Savior, all I have to do is lead moral a life so all of those things can be equally true to the people who have those beliefs. They just simply don’t have to be true to everybody. It’s impossible to explain to a Buddhist how Jesus is the key to heaven when your belief system has no heaven in it or hell in it. So you have to sort of make sure that these truths are in your own tradition because if you tried to take them to other cultures they won’t make any sense to those people so if you have a belief in a heaven and hell or a heaven and not hell or any kind of belief
in an afterlife, then the idea of Jesus being the only way to that afterlife may make sense to you, but it doesn’t make sense to somebody who doesn’t have an afterlife in their future. So that’s how I try to reconcile this Rachel, which is I that have this idea that you can have multiple truths. In fact, I use an example of the fact that we still today with our incredible science still don’t know how to describe light. We sometimes describe it as a wave and sometimes describe it as a particle. They are inconsistent with each other. Einstein says they are both true. Well if we don’t have the ability to determine what light really is, I don’t think we have the ability as human beings to determine what the ultimate truth is. We just have to get comfortable with the fact that our version is good for us. That’s my view of the world.
Rachel: So through conversations maybe in your travels or with the CIC has anything stood out or any great stories come of it?
Don: Well I think the thing that was most remarkable as I think back about it is just a long discussion I had with a tour guide in Egypt who is a Muslim woman, a very articulate practicing Muslim woman, who was also a WOMAN and saw herself as a woman and we talked about religion and we talked about Moses and we talked about Islam and we talked about Christianity and that’s when she said to me, Don if you’d been born in Egypt you’d be a Muslim today and I said if you were born in the United States, you would be a Christian today. We had that exchange and that’s true. And so well if I’d been more in Egypt, I would’ve been speaking Arabic. If she’d been born in the United States, she would’ve been speaking English and so it sort of came to me that our religions are something that we’re born into just like we’re born into our language and so we don’t typically pick our religions. The religions pick us by where we’re born and so nobody ever says well is Arabic true or is English true? It’s just what we have. It’s just what we’re born into and so we can make the best of that history and environment, but we can’t go out and say that someone else’s religion can’t be true because we were born into ours and they were born into theirs.
Rachel: Does that shake your faith at all realizing that it is all circumstance?
Don: Well, I don’t think it shakes my faith. It shakes my confidence that I can say to anyone else from a different tradition that mine is the only version of the truth is or that they can say that to me. I can certainly say within the tradition I was born into that I’m trying to make the best of that. I go to church. I do the things that Christians do. I expect them to go to the mosque or go to their temples to do the things that Muslims and Hindus do. I don’t have anymore, in my opinion, an ability to say that what they’re believing is wrong than I have the ability to say that their language is wrong. They are simply different ways of looking at the world. And by the way that doesn’t say anything about my faith because my faith is sort of who I am. It comes up with me and where I was born and where I was raised. It would make no sense to me to say that I can become a Hindu or I can become a Buddhist or I could become a Muslim. It just wouldn’t fit. It just wouldn’t fit who I am.
Rachel: Yeah there have been claims from certain theologians from what I read that it is a language. It’s synonymous to that so conversion is very hard.
Don: It is a language, and I think people sometimes have this view that well if I am exposed to Islam – I know people are unwilling to pick up a Quran – because if I’m exposed to Islam, it will somehow rub off on me or it will challenge my faith. Well, learning a second language doesn’t mean you lose the first one. It doesn’t make you less articulate in your first language. It’s just a second language, and it will always be your second language and so you can learn as much as you want about other religions, and it doesn’t shake your faith, and the truth of what you believe any more than you going to someone else and saying I would like to tell you about my religion will typically shake their belief of what they believe. Conversions, real serious conversions, not based on force, not based on fear, are very difficult. It is difficult to say to somebody that I’m going to change your language, so when you think you’ll no longer think in your original
language. It’s very, very difficult.
Rachel: I can imagine. Yeah. And to looking at interfaith as a concept, where do you see it fitting into the current world, maybe here in the United States, and the importance of interfaith?
Don: Well surely in the United States and probably all around the world, we are more and more seeing that religion is being used to divide people, being used to provide a basis for hating people. I think this is clear in Islam where the Sunnis and the Shias are fighting each other because of their beliefs, but it’s certainly true in the United States where we have a rise in anti-Semitism. We have a sense now perhaps that some Christians, the fundamentalists, are different or perhaps should be feared compared to the more progressive Christians, so religions are being used to divide us and that’s unfortunate because we all have within our beliefs thing that could unite us, but we don’t use them that way. So I think it’s probably part of human nature that we look for reasons to fear people of other beliefs, but it’s an unfortunate part of human nature so part of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation’s goal is to make sure that people understand that they can have different beliefs and still be friends with people. I mean one of the most extraordinary things that we’ve learned is we have brought together the board members with different faiths is that once the board members see each other as human beings with the same concerns that they do they begin to look beyond those faith differences.
Rachel: So with the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, it attracts people interested in interfaith, right? So how can we try and expand this interest to allow those that may be comfortable being surrounded by people who are similar to them, more comfortable and willing to go out [and interact with people who are different from themselves]?
Don: well I think the CIC is at a point where we’re beginning to think about how we can expand these ideas beyond simply our board members. We can take this out to the hospital chaplains, for example. Hospital chaplains today are seeing people whose faiths they do not understand and that they have to comfort them when they are dying. But it’s hard to comfort somebody when they’re dying, who is not a Christian. You cannot say well you are going to get to go see Jesus because this person doesn’t believe that. So you’ve got to be able to talk the language of the person’s faith. The CIC is now trying to think about how can we do that. How can we take this idea to seminaries? As people learn Christianity in the seminary, we can say okay you’re going to have to, from time to time, deal with people of other traditions. To answer your question, how can you learn that Jesus is the only source of salvation and how can you communicate to a person for whom salvation is a meaningless concept? So I think CIC is beginning to try to think about how we can expand this thought beyond our board members into people who have a faith tradition, whether it’s the one we have not. That’s a challenge. It’s going take money. It’s going to take resources, and it’s going to take people, but that’s the goal.
Rachel: Yeah that is hard. So with your time on the board, have there been any great interactions with people of different faiths that come to mind?
Don: Oh my goodness! I mean every time I have met somebody new on the board from a different tradition… I have become really good friends with Anita Joshi who is obviously a Hindu. I have had interactions with K.P. Singh who is a Sikh and so when I went to India on one of my trips, I actually sought out the Sikh Golden Temple and when we reached India because I knew his tradition and got a better sense of that. I’ve gotten to be really good friends of Ruth Ellen Homer who is a Mormon and learned a lot about her faith tradition. In fact, I was invited by her to come to the to the opening before they consecrated the temple, and she had me interview with some reporters from Chicago about my experience, so it’s just been a wonderful experience interacting with people with different beliefs and trying to understand that their beliefs do not define them anymore than their language defines them.
Rachel: Nice and with your travels, what is one of the best places you have been?
Don: You know, I have been to forty-five or so countries. I write a weekly column on travel. I have written about forty of those. I write every week. For me the most interesting place was probably Egypt, where they have religious art going back to 2500 BC, and you can see how so many of the traditions of all the religions, the idea of a final judgment, the idea of a soul, all can go back to those early Egyptian beliefs. They looked at multiple gods, but they all had the sense of perhaps they are all manifestations of the same one God that we believe so for me, that’s the most fascinating. I mean I’ve been to a lot of fascinating places. I’ve been to Syria in 2010. To places that no longer exist because they were destroyed in the Civil War. I learned something about the connection between Syria and early Christian history, but I think for me the most fascinating place to go, especially the context of interfaith, was Egypt.
Rachel: To summarize, so interfaith to you, in a succinct two or three sentences, what does it mean?
Don: To me, it means that we’re not defined by our traditions. Our traditions have defined us based on where we were born, and we cannot assume people of different faiths are any less devout than we are, any less committed to faith than we are, any less good moral people than we are. I think the thought that people cannot be moral unless they believe a particular faith that if we didn’t have the Ten Commandments we would be murderers. I think that’s just a false premise. I think we’ve used our religions to help us articulate our values. I think we have used our religious to help us articulate our values, but I don’t think our basic human values come from religion. I think they come from our humanity.
Rachel: Well thank you so much for being here today.