We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, 1529
Martin Luther’s commentary on the eighth commandment may seem like an odd place to begin a reflection on interfaith leadership. And yet Luther’s words succinctly give voice to one of the most important lessons I have learned in my seven years of organizing interfaith activities on college campuses. Let me illustrate.
I am currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School in a program I chose in large part because of the religiously diverse student body. Students, faculty, and staff gather weekly to take part in a Noon Service hosted by one of the student organizations on campus. The hosts alternate: one week we are meditating with the Buddhists, the next we are singing gospel with the African and African American students’ association. As you might imagine, Noon Service is a time for sharing and for celebrating our community’s diversity. Yet I have also found that Noon Service can be a time of challenge and growth.
Last year, the atheist, agnostic, and humanist group led a Noon Service, and as a part of their program they invited the choir to sing a song entitled “I Ain’t Afraid.” The song included lyrics that emphasized that no sacred text or sacred being aroused fear, rather it was what the followers of those texts and beings do in their name that was frightening. I left feeling perplexed and hurt. Was this really the kind of experience my colleagues had within our community? Did they feel like those of us within the community who espoused religion were to be feared as hypocrites?
I took these emotions and questions with me and sat with them for a while. After several weeks, I ran into one of the leaders of the group and asked if we might have tea and talk about the Noon Service. He readily agreed and within a couple of days we were sitting in our school’s cafe over a hot cup of tea and deep conversation. I explained to him how I felt coming away from that service and asked him about the song in particular. After stating – half in jest – that there are a limited number of humanist and atheist hymns to choose from, he made it clear the song was not intended toward our community but rather as a commentary on the destructiveness of religious extremism—a concern that I, as a person of faith, also share. At the conclusion of our conversation we shook hands and I left with a renewed understanding of what it means to live into pluralism—that is, intentional engagement with people from diverse backgrounds—on a daily basis.
Right now, my daily environment is a safe laboratory for experimenting with the kind of multi-religious engagement that is increasingly necessary in our multi-religious context in the United States. Intentional engagement can seem like a difficult task, especially if we try to go about building a culture of pluralism without undertaking sometimes challenging conversations. When I took a leap of faith with my fellow community members, I experienced the truth of Luther’s words. When I interpret my neighbor’s actions and motivations in the best possible light I help create a space where trust and mutual understanding can flourish. Pluralism is, after all, a dynamic collaborative effort.
Whittney Barth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School and a research associate at the Pluralism Project.