Joseph McLendon On Building Relationships with those from Different Traditions

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?

My tenacity towards interfaith dialogue is tripartite. My personal upbringing, academic, and chosen religious beliefs all call me to responsible peacemaking.

Being interfaith began at home. My parents were, unconventionally, an interfaith marriage. My mother – raised-Catholic-turned-Evangelical – married my father who could accurately be described as apatheistic (“Is there a god? Meh.”). This is the core of my paradoxical faith structure; the root from which divergent branches have grown.

And grown divergent they have. I have constantly straddled the secular/religious divide. My atheist/secular humanist friends belittle my tenacious faith; my Christian friends and students decry me a heretic. When I was at a secular college, I became more antagonistically Christian; when at a Christian college, more aggressively secular. Again, as I moved to an overwhelmingly atheist/unattached society (China), I [re]became more steadfastly theist.

My life has been a constant volley of beliefs and manifestations. What has remained constant, however, has been that it is a life of ideals and values.

Who I am – who we are – is paradox: simultaneously constant and evolving. Encountering this paradox led me to study interfaith dialogue at deeper and more intentional levels. As a professor of anthropology at a Christian liberal-arts college, interfaith dialogue is integral to curricula. It is my joy and passion to challenge my students to engage faith traditions unfamiliar and uncomfortable for them. The rhetoric of identity is of utmost importance in understanding ourselves, others, and intersubjectivities. As Jerome Bruner notes, “[I]f our selves were just there, we’d have no need to tell ourselves about them” (Making Stories, 2002:63).

And so, I self-identify as a Quaker. Central to Quaker thought and practice is the requirement to be mindful, active participants in our faith. As there is no clergy, no hierarchical structure for soteriological purposes, all members are ministers. It is the fundamental Quaker belief to “respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern” (Advices & Queries §1•17). This places responsibility upon every individual gathered to own one’s faith journey. Moreover, the call to action extends further than one’s own subjectivity outward again to intersubjectivity: to that nebulous space of ‘us’.

I am devoted to interfaith dialogue because I do not think my story is unique. I do not believe my voice to be a lone cry. As a professor, I tell my students: If you have a question, ask; chances are you are not alone in your queries. Straddling the religious/secular divide is what any religious person must do when they engage a secular society, and it is what any atheist/unattached person must do when speaking on matters of faith and belief.

It is in the paradox of intersubjectivity that life exists, and so I believe we are called to be responsible contributors.

Though overtly expressed, interfaith dialogue cannot be forced. It must simply happen. Our world emerges deeper, daily, into another paradox: ever-increasingly diverse and interdependent. I think responsible, active citizens need to provoke and guide the dialogue.

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2 thoughts on “Joseph McLendon On Building Relationships with those from Different Traditions

  1. Joseph, thank you for your beautiful expression of the paradox of “intersubjectivity” of life, your great presence as a teacher and brother of humanity. Yes, your journey will resonate with many who may get to know you, yet I still think it is unique. I believe each journey, like each life, is unique. We share our common ground on which we stand, we call planet and/or Mother Earth, and as you said we are called to be responsible contributors on it. I bow to many Quakers I have met in my life for holding deeply in their heart sacred principles of respect for each life, as they walk humbly with God.

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