Posted on September 30th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, Learning, Theology
Tagged with Christianity, combatting islamophobia, Humanism, Interfaith dialogue, Liturgy, pluralism, seminary, Unitarian Universalism
The thing about diversity is that, if people are being intellectually honest, tensions will arise from time to time.
The brochures that talk of rich learning opportunities don’t tell you that the photos of a carefully selected group that fills many available demographics don’t suggest it; the list of event supporters includes names that cover all the bases.
But the people at the leadership level will, quietly and away from the crowd, acknowledge it in a myriad of ways. It might be explicit, saying that Group X thinks the event was too geared toward Group Y and that Group Y thinks it coddled Group X. It might be implicit, the hesitant (nervous) laugh that precedes the spoken, “Oh, we learn so much from each other!”
And learn we do, if we’re committed to the project. But not every lesson is fun; not every laugh is joyous. Most of the time, you learn that the other group – whoever it is – contains mostly really good people and a few jerks. And if you’re intellectually honest, you’ll learn the same thing of your own camp.
Andover Newton Theological School has a mixture of Christian and Unitarian Universalist students, for the most part. I am neither at this point; when I enrolled for classes this semester, I identified myself solely as a member of the Ethical Culture movement for the first time. In my time here we have recently had some students who were open atheists unaffiliated with any religious movement, a handful of current students are Jewish (and our dormitories house more from other Boston-area schools), and this year our Doctor of Ministry program has gained its first Muslim candidate. We share a hill with Hebrew College, which contains a rabbinical school, and sometimes professors from the two schools team-teach a course; our interfaith work with our Jewish neighbors has a formal structure, known as CIRCLE, which recently brought State of Formation and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue under its umbrella.
My thoughts here should not be construed as representing the opinions of Andover Newton, where I am a student and part-time staff member; nor of the American Ethical Union, with which I’m not even formally affiliated at the moment, my inaugural membership in the Ethical Society Without Walls having a while ago and gone unrenewed for financial reasons. My opinions are my own.
And one of my opinions is this: The minority at a religious school is entitled to respect, but not to deference. When the minority becomes sizable and represents a sizable portion of tuition payments, it has the leverage to demand a certain level of accommodation, but not acquiescence to its every wish.
As a humanist student, I have never felt pressured by professors to represent myself as a Christian in my time here. I have enjoyed latitude to draw in themes and sources from other world religions, from the social sciences and popular culture, in discussing biblical literature and Christian theological themes. In chapel services, some professors end prayers with the words “In Jesus’ name we pray,” to which I remain silent while others say “Amen” – but some say “In Jesus’ name I pray,” a sentiment I can affirm. But the teachers and my peers have never tried to convert me, to use the canon of scripture as a cannon of coercion, to tell me my life will be just perfect as soon as I come to think exactly as they do.
Our previous chapel director was a United Church of Christ minister and former Catholic nun; the new director is a United Methodist. The UCC and UMC are more than a letter apart. He’s likely to be deemed “too Christian” even for some of the Christians here, and I know he’s likely to hear from the non-Christian segment of the campus – those who attend weekly services – sooner rather than later. I have not spoken with him about this, just heard the rumblings from my classmates.
If I, as a humanist, were to approach my professors or the chapel director and say there was too much talk about God, I hope someone would tell me the same thing I have told a couple of classmates: “You chose to come to a Christian seminary. There were other options.”
On the other hand, I have also reminded some Christians that they chose to come here knowing that UUs are the second largest cohort among the students; and one seemed shocked that an open and affirming seminary in Massachusetts had such a strong LGBT presence.
If one would not cross oneself while walking into a synagogue; if one would think seriously before signing up for the Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary and suggesting “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day” (yes, it's a thing, and no, I won't link to it) as a class arts project; if one would not wax Calvinist at Starr King; if one would refrain from volunteering to give a Sikh friend a haircut on a hot summer day; then one might be advised to allow the Christians the same right to be true to their own faith that one reserves for oneself, especially if one is the Christians’ guest.
In my younger days, I was a Unitarian Universalist of the ABC variety: Anything But Christianity. I can understand the impulse, especially among those who have been hurt by orthodox traditions, those who have been victims of heterosexism or racism. But in the same way that I think that internal healing from 9/11 will likely be evidenced externally by a decreased need to rehash them on every anniversary, so too do I think that true recovery from toxic Christianity – call it Christianism, akin to Islamism as distinct from Islam – is evidenced when one no longer feels the need to offer counter-apologetics to the cashier because she’s wearing a cross necklace and the ex-Christian has not yet had the morning coffee.
We can learn from each other, yes. But we have to get over ourselves first.
Oh, and one more thing: It would be great to see other non-Muslims stand in solidarity with the #MyJihad campaign on Twitter. Visit Facebook for details.
Tennessee native Jason R. Tippitt is pursuing a master of arts in theological studies at Andover Newton Theological School in the Boston area. He is a "religious independent" with an interest in collaborative efforts within, between, and beyond religious communities for the common good. Follow him on Twitter: @TippittJason