Ridiculous Encounters of the Inter-Religious Kind

Well this is my fifth post on this inter-religious site, so I thought I might share some thoughts on the topic. I’ve intentionally kept my first four posts tradition-specific. I’m a United Methodist Christian and any inter-religious dialogue I enter begins there. So I hope that some readers have been able to get a sense of who I am and the way I use Scripture and Christian tradition to grapple with the world around me. What I’ve written so far obviously can only provide a brief introduction, but enough I believe to begin to offer extra-traditional thoughts.

So my first thought is that most inter-religious interaction is either violent or ridiculous.

I will not go into the violent aspects of inter-religious interaction, because this blog post would be too long and depressing. Instead I opt for the more light-hearted and only slightly less depressing reality of inter-religious dialogue in general…

Exhibit 1: Coffee shop holiday sign the University of Virginia Religious Studies Department

I admit that I must have stood in line by this sign at least 10 times without noticing it. It wasn’t until Rebecca Levi, a cynically amused Jewish friend and colleague of mine, posted a version of this picture on Facebook entitled “Religious Studies Fail” that this fabulous example of inter-religious life came to my attention. As you can see Christmas is the main theme: the colors, the Santa’s boot, the half eaten cookies, the tree lights, and the punny allusion to a Christmas song, the star of David, a menorah… wait a minute. I wonder… were these standard additions in many major coffee shops? or did the context of a Religious Studies Department call for a couple of Jewish symbols to be added to this Christmas theme? Notice also not even a nod to Kwanzaa… no comment (at least not on this post). Also, a Santa’s boot? really? Is this what Christmas has come to?

Surprising? No. A little depressing? Yes. A inter-religious reality? Most definitely.

At the University of California at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate in mid-to-late 90s my experience of inter-faith dialogue mainly consisted of groups or programs that brought people from different faiths together to find common ground. Most of these discussions focused on the commonalities of the faiths involved in the dialogue with the underlying assumption that ultimately all religious traditions are about love and peace, just manifested in a diversity of practices and beliefs.  While studying at Wesley Theology Seminary I spent an entire summer at a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program under the guidance of an Interfaith minister. First let me say I am indebted to that minister for her insights, patience and guidance on my journey of self-awareness. I learned much from the confrontational program focused on behavioral transformation, but much of the interfaith interaction and dialogue was just plain shallow and safe. Most Christians were apologetic or silent about being Christian  and/or claimed Christianity as their faith while denying its basic tenets. Other traditions were represented romantically by those who did not practice the particular faith (or were showcased by one practitioner) and all were boiled down to “universal” truths. These universal truths, such as love and compassion, were also applied to the “true” meaning of Christianity.

Nothing annoys me more than “universal” concepts. All the concepts I utter are informed by my formation as a United Methodist Christian. When we begin a dialogue with others who have been formed by different religious doctrines I do not expect compassion, love, justice, salvation, etc. to look the same and to assume that they are is condescending and hegemonic.

In my case, “love”, “compassion”, “justice”, “salvation”, etc. are concepts that are Jesus Christ-shaped:

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ– he is Lord of all…   how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him… They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;  but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear… he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

For me as a United Methodist Christian love, compassion, justice, salvation, etc. have to do with God’s incarnation in the flesh of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; with Jesus’s good works, teachings, healing and miracles; with Jesus’s suffering and death; with God’s resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit; and with the commission to tell everyone about God’s love in Jesus so that all might have salvation from sin (both personal and structural) and manifest God’s kingdom of justice here on earth.

For me, inter-religious dialogue begins when we ground universal (read meaningless) concepts in the traditions and assumptions from which we speak. Otherwise inter-religious dialogue is no better or worse than this sign; it becomes a few token symbols thrown together… an earnest yet ineffective attempt at inclusiveness and community.

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10 thoughts on “Ridiculous Encounters of the Inter-Religious Kind

  1. That is a much better picture of the sign than I got!

    I really appreciate much of what you are saying here; the line– “It’s okay, the important part is that I tried!”– runs sarcastically through my head when I read the accounts of what passes for “inter-religious dialogue”. (Incidentally, if you are inclined either to shoot coffee out your nose or bang your head against your desk, I recommend searching on YouTube for “Sandra Lee Hannukah Cake”. The Kwanzaa one is even worse.)

    However, I don’t know that I’m sold on “universal=meaningless”. Perhaps it’s my own secular background (and yes, I admit that I am grounding my assertions in said background), but I would argue that the concept of “humanity” at its most material level is indeed a universal, inasmuch as all humans share certain physical (genetic, etc.) qualities.

    Now, I’m inclined to agree that concepts like “love”, “justice”, “salvation”, etc. that incorporate elements beyond the purely physical cannot be universal and that their definition is dependent on the context in which it is grounded. And I am in complete agreement that any attempt at inter-religious interaction that assumes otherwise is doomed eventually to the same sort of shallow tokenization you describe so well here. But I believe that any such attempt also has to begin with the acknowledgment of the basic universal of humanity.

  2. Kelly, I’ve been reflecting on your post since I read it last night, and I’m sure this will continue! I value your sense of the particular–and your belief in the meaningfulness of the context from which you have developed your values. While I recognize the potential for “ridiculous” discussions when we move too quickly toward dialogue-lite in the interest of common ground (I remember well a Muslim faculty member saying, “You Christians abandon the very uniqueness of your faith with some of what you say!”), I guess I don’t share your annoyance with those universal values we can express in this situation. I look to what I believe is the intent behind them–to find ourselves more together than apart–and so, while it might look lame or messy or sloppy, I think the impulse is toward something good.

    I also believe there’s a whole dynamic of privilege that isn’t fully explored in your post. One of the reasons it is often Christians who “go soft” on their theology in dialogue is because in this culture, Christians have had extraordinary privilege. To own the exclusivity that has been exercised upon people of other faith is part of that reluctance to claim the full particulars. I think there are more nuances and intentions behind dialogue experiences than your annoyance necessarily acknowledges.

    With this said, I think you should be proud to be who and what you are, and to have developed a capacity to be both-and–who you are, and open to others.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Thank you for your thoughts and comments!

      I appreciate the push-back and would say that actually I have thought a lot about Christian hegemonic privilege. My annoyance actually stems from there… I feel that if we are not clear, if we back peddle from our beliefs in the midst of inter-religious conversation and we “envelope” the other in our own understandings of “commonality” we actually erase the other as we simultaneously erase ourselves. I don’t think there is necessarily a bad intention on the part of Christians when they do this; I think it comes out of a good impulse as you say, but ultimately I believe it is actually more destructive than examining the reality of our differences. Ultimately I would argue these types of interactions subsume other non-Christians under quasi-Christian “universal” concepts and beliefs.

      I look forward to continuing this conversation and again appreciate your thoughts.


      1. Nice, Kelly–I can see that we devalue others in devaluing or lessening ourselves and our beliefs….powerful thought. I look forward to continuing the conversation as well.

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