My eyes begin to move clock-wise around the circle, pausing briefly to engage with the words and hidden fears of the heterogeneous mixture of individuals that occupied the seats around me. The topic of discourse was two-fold: is the institution relevant and where do we go from here? Intentionally, I begin to ruminate about what my response should be and the experiences that had shaped my perceptions on both pluralism and the institution that had been so essential to my life, religion.
The first conscious encounter that I had with the religious “other” occurred when I was seven years old and made my first Muslim friend. At the time, her religion did not matter to me because, from my perspective, she was nice and willing to play. She was willing to make a connection. The only difference that I did notice at the time was that she was of a different phenotype than me. Over the years, through high school and my matriculation at Morehouse College, I continued to make interpersonal connections with individuals from a range of faiths including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many others. With each new connection I engaged the individual as a person that has lived experiences and needing love. This framework of encounter was partly due to the role of my family in Christian ministry and my own civic engagement. Consequently, my greatest moments of epiphany came through my work with my non-profit and my subsequent work as a grant writer for the socio-economic disadvantaged, as well as my work as a Chapel Assistant via my matriculation at Morehouse.
Thus it was during this time at Morehouse, that I discovered the works of Howard Thurman, which allowed me to synthesize my life experiences, theological positions, and my theoretical definition of pluralism. Pluralism became an extension of the global society in which we dwell, and the capstone to forming the realization of a community based on love. More specifically, religious pluralism became the ability for diverse communities of faith to engage one another’s traditions, dogmas, and cultures without precondition and the love for the eternal as the binding tie. This “epiphany” on pluralism was derived from a series of contemplative sessions that I engaged in during moments of solitude; searching for what Howard Thurman calls the centering moment. It was from this centering moment that pluralism became more than a theory but a call to action; a call to maximize my potential and mend the broken body of the sacred.
When one emerges from this centering moment, they experience a strange sense of freedom; a type of mysticism. It is here that one can find their self in harmony with the universe, while maintaining a balance of consciousness. A soothing peace between the cosmos and the self ensues, and nothing that is fathomable is out of its grasp. The infinite energy that binds human to nature resides within the individual and connects it to all existence. Those things that once were hidden to the self are now freely revealed and accepted for its essence. Societal barriers of race, gender and class are shattered by the consciousness of mutuality. It is at this state, the self has mastered actualizing its potential. The being of the human is freed from mere existence and forced towards intentional living. Once the individual is liberated to love the humanity of the “other”, the common energy that flows between them is magnified. An environment that fosters community ensues and is both accepting and affirming. This is only possible when the self can love the God, divine energy, of the individual without societal or cultural barriers, but as two free spirits in communion with God. Hence, it is from this philosophical framework that I engage pluralism and life.
Once more I find myself sitting in the circle, nervous energy now building within me. I look around and the individuals take on more than their religious title of traditional Shi’a and Ismaili Muslims, Orthodox and Conservative Jew, Catholic and Protestant Christians, younger and older or black, brown and white. Instead of the other, I see members of the community of the sacred meeting as friends concerned with doing the work of repairing the world. Then the moment came; it was time for me to add my points to the conversation. I was conflicted; should I first address my disdain for conferences of this sort that usually unraveled to therapy sessions of various religious people who feared that they had to be converted to understand the other, or how some members of the community seemed to mask their intention of saving everyone else from eternal damnation behind the title of “progressive”. Then my dear new found Ismaili friend leaned over and asked “ Eddie, what’s your big idea? I know you have one.”
Suddenly I responded with the “call” that I felt was the groans of my time. The call of millennials. My story and journey are ubiquitous to a generation. Millennials, each day give a clarion call to the booming generations before us to make a connection, make a change. We use spirituality and proudly subscribe to a tradition that is yet to be determined as a way to be the hands and mouth of the divine; to resolve political conflicts and heal the broken body of the sacred. In some sense, we engage in what the theologian Katherine Keller dubs polydoxy. That is to say, a tradition that emphasizes our agency void of the edifice of the institution but based upon the edicts of our religious institutions of choice. One might ask why has this phenomena occurred? What ripple in history has affected our present realities concerning religion? The answer is simple, bad religion. For us, bad religion begins the moment we become comfortable, for there is no need for sin, redemption or charity if the institution of religion soothes our guilt. To this end, we mobilize for causes that deal with the plight of humanity (WaterWars, Occupy movements, Kony 2012, Trayvon Martin, Arab Spring) and support fellow millennials who give us a connection to our world TOMS,Facebook and Living Social to name a few. To engage millennials religious institutions need to become unorthodox, not just in creed but in action. Unorthodoxy could be achieved by putting the social justice back in religion. For interfaith youth one avenue that provides this opportunity is pluralism because pluralism is America.
Pluralism is America because engaging in pluralism means talking to one’s neighbor or engaging in society. Inherent in the experience of America is the implication that religions and cultures will interact. Social justice is the best way that we can circumvent making pluralism reductionist. Social justice is useful because it is encouraged in every religious tradition to uplift the least of these in society. It is an imperative by our respective religious traditions to not only serve the community in traditional ways but to engage with the people of the community. In a modern context social entrepreneurship or benefit corporations do this. A social entrepreneur according to David Borenstein, author of How to Change the World: Social entrepreneurs and the Power of Ideas, is a person that identifies resources where others see problems. Social entrepreneurs look at the community or village in which they dwell as the solution rather than imposing their ideas onto the beneficiaries. Religious institutions seeking relevancy with their interfaith youth should look to this model as a path forward for three main reasons.
First, it holds the institution accountable for the doctrine of charity and compassion towards the least of these. Second, it allows the religious institution that is suffering from the burdens of the economy to diversify their assets within the community in which they serve. Most importantly, it activates the creativity of a generation to solve the problems that they deal with on a daily basis. This not only allows millennials to deeply engage their faith but it also in a practical sense employs them while providing a sense of value. One only needs to glance at the most recent HuffingtonPost or USAToday to see that the rates at which millennials are defaulting on their student loans are ever increasing. In fact, some reports indicate that this number may reach up to thirty percent in the coming years. This does not mean that religious institutions have to become the Google or Berkshire Hathaway of social entrepreneurship in order to keep their seeking youth in the pews, but it does mean that there is a imperative not to be complicit in the social ills of their context. For the local religious institution, partnering with local schools to create entrepreneurship competitions, or collaborating with the local grocery store to grow neighborhood produce could do this. An example of a religious institution that has positively impacted their community is the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York and its’ development corporation. The development corporation of Abyssinian led by Pastor Dr. Calvin O Butts develops commercial space and facilitates corporate investment in the Harlem community; they are making real the edicts of their tradition by allowing the community to solve their problems. This is just one example of how religious intuitions can make a difference and engage their youth as partners.
To engage the youth of the interfaith community one simply needs to look inward for a solution and let the creativity of the millennials speak. For we have heard the dream of Dr.King, watched the marches for freedom, occupied the lawns of failed institutions and mobilized for revolution. We have been told we are the future, and now we boldly proclaim that we are ready.
Once again I find myself in a circle, but no longer surrounded by strangers, but friends. My Ismaili friend looks at me, smiles and says, “I like your spirit, you can do it.” To which I thought, this is pluralism. Now if only our religious institutions thought the same.