Religious Pluralism Within

This week, I’ve been navigating multiple spiritual and religious identities. Growing up in a Roman Catholic tradition, I feel quite connected to the rituals surrounding Ash Wednesday and Lent. My father still asks me what I plan to “give up” for lent, and I do try to be more mindful during this time of reflection. This year, for instance, I have been working on my health and instead of explicitly cutting something out of my routine, I’ve decided to work hard at maintaining healthy habits that maximize my happiness. Don’t ask me what that means specifically…that’s another blog for another time. The real point is, I am not a practicing Catholic. I identify most with Japanese spiritual traditions- Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, and Taoism. These past few months I have been exploring my faith privately and really come to love the comfort it brings me, as well as the constant questions that arise which allow me to look critically at my beliefs and to grow continuously on my faith journey. The real reason for this growth is that I live a faith that constantly changes, because I inhabit multiple spiritual identities. I do not simply live in a religiously plural society- I live in a religiously plural identity.

This week the University of Chicago hosted an interfaith conference called Coming Together 6. The conference brought together approximately 120 students from different faiths, spiritual traditions, religions and other traditions to explore issues in multifaith cooperation and social engagement. I found the overwhelming theme at the conference for me has been looking within myself to realize how pluralistic my own religious identity is, alongside my fellow conference participants who also encompass complex spiritual identities. I believe this is a key idea the interfaith youth movement needs to explore. In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of understanding our collective narrative as interfaith leaders in a collective movement. I would like to take this idea a step further now and suggest the first step in understanding our collective narrative is to look within before we look around. This idea resonates with the Buddhist notion that we must understand our own mind before we can begin to engage with others’. Teresa Owens, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, noted in her opening talk that “the easiest way to get good at dealing with others is to get good at dealing with ourselves”. I believe in some way we all find our identities to be pluralistic, and an important exercise is to become aware of how the multiple components fit together, especially as some elements in our identity might conflict with others.

Dean Owens also made the point that when we engage with someone for the first time, we cannot reveal all elements of our identity at once. We are forced to choose aspects that will engage the other person, whether confrontationally or cooperatively. This is the joy of forming a relationship, that we can reveal more and more about ourselves, and likewise learn more and more about someone else, as we further the relation. We learn what we agree on, and we learn how we can disagree. In a workshop with Reverend Cynthia Lindner, Director of the Master of Divinity program at the University of Chicago, we engaged in an activity all the new MDivs at the university complete when entering their new cohort. The activity instructions are simple: write a 12-line poem in which each line starts with “I am from…” and then share the poem with another person. The idea is both for us as individuals to pick apart different aspects of ourselves, and to recognize that we choose to engage with certain people in different ways. We inevitably seek to find common ground, to form a basis for a relationship. As Reverend Lindner noted, the purpose of pastoral care is to engage people who are “stuck”- in a negative relationship, a spiritual rut, in any situation that seems to lack a path for growth. Pastoral care seeks to help the individual get “unstuck”, to find space for change and growth. If we recognize this need for all of us to change and grow, even within traditions toward which we feel devout loyalty, we find a common element in sharing our humanity.

In a workshop led by my fellow Divinity School student and friend Anil Mudra, we broke down what it means to have multiple religious identities by placing some different religious groups (i.e. Christianity, dharmic religions, Judaism) in different corners of the room and placing ourselves in the groups with which we identify, one by one. The caveat was, while we sat in one group we could only discuss our religious views from that perspective. While in the Christian corner, we could only speak from a Christian perspective. In debriefing this activity, we found this to be quite challenging and quite easy at the same time. Some participants thought the ease came from sometimes having to “pass”, to intentionally hide aspects of our religious identity due to uncertainty about how others might judge us or respond. The difficulty, though, came from wanting to express our full identity, and feeling like we had to hold back part of who we are. I think putting ourselves in this discomfort more often would allow us all to grow within our religious and spiritual identities, something that would greatly enhance interfaith dialogue and activism in our movement. We know that in order to bridge relationships with others in the interfaith movement, we cannot be afraid to ask others difficult questions. Why not start by challenging ourselves to answer the same questions?

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2 thoughts on “Religious Pluralism Within

  1. There are some really insightful ideas here, Jem. I’ve been thinking a lot about your definition of pastoral care and working with people who are “stuck.” If engaging with others can help us “grow within our religious and spiritual identities,” can interfaith engagement be a form of pastoral care?

    1. Hi Joseph!

      Thanks for commenting. I absolutely believe engaging with others can be a form of pastoral care. From experience I know that engaging others about their faith traditions has made me reflect on my own beliefs and ultimately made me come to realize how pluralistic I am in my approach to the divine. It was quite comforting last weekend to find that while no one shared my exact beliefs, many young people feel uncomfortable choosing one tradition in which to worship. Pastoral care should both provide a comfortable path toward growth but also one that challenges us to ask ourselves tough questions which we may not know the answers to right away, and I think putting multiple religions/spiritual traditions at odds with each other and finding shared values can do both.

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