Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?
I was raised on the outskirts of New York City by a secular Jew and a former Episcopalian. My religious upbringing followed the predictable contours of this time context—menorahs at Chanukah, an advent calendar at Christmas, and a few rescheduled play dates because other kids were at Hebrew School or CCD. My parents never spoke of God, or the afterlife, or why we were born in the first place.
After a childhood untouched by faith, religious conflict ushered in my adulthood. On my third day of high school, a voice came on the PA system and asked that all students with parents working in the World Trade Center report to the office. There were a lot of funerals in my town within the next few weeks. I was one of the lucky ones, only an observer of my classmates’ grief.
Again, my story becomes predictable. I told anyone who would listen that religion was destroying the world.
After high school I headed off to Haverford College, an institution where I found myself part of a vocal majority on the subject of religion. Only one member of my freshman hall identified as religious, and she rarely spoke of it. She seemed ashamed to admit how deep her faith ran. I remember thinking, in what I hope was the height of my arrogance, that this shame was warranted.
During my first semester I randomly enrolled in a religion course. The world cracked open for me that fall, spilling itself all over my trite slogans about opiates and masses. I began to see that faith gave color to many living in a colorless world, that it captured everything that was most awesome about humanity, both the beautiful and the ugly.
I realized that my friend was not ashamed of being Christian—she just knew we wouldn’t listen to her story. She didn’t blame us for our arrogance so much as she felt sorry for us, fenced in by our narrow views of enlightenment. I knew that I was the one who should be ashamed, that it was I who hadn’t been open-minded enough for meaningful exchange.
I learned, too, that my outright dismissal of religion was a deflection, a way of papering over the yawning fears about life and death and meaning that made of my consciousness an existential minefield. I was proud of my moral compass, but I learned that the faithful possessed another sort of compass, one that oriented them in the world and made of the universe an intelligible cosmic map.
For the past decade, my explorations in belief have led me to moments of pain and rapture from sources as diverse as Thoreau, the Quran, Virginia Woolf, Thich Nhat Hahn, Emerson, the Sermon on the Mount, and Exodus. I am an agnostic, a seeker, a humanist, a sort-of Quaker, a “None.”
But most of all, I am open and ready to listen.