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 mother was a former nun named Mary and my father was a carpenter named Joseph.” This was the first line of my application to divinity school. Where else, I argued, could someone like me go other than a divinity school? I had hoped to grab the admission committee’s attention with a singular story and show that I had a sense of humor, all at once. It seems I succeeded, but reflecting on these words now, I wonder how someone like me, caught between commitments to both Christianity and Buddhism, began as someone else, a child deeply devoted to his Catholic community and its imaginary, both sublime and warm, rich and sensual, yet sometimes rigid, hierarchical and even scary.
Interfaith engagement is personal for me, because I am a product of such engagement. It began in middle school after my parents agreed to reconcile after a few years of separation. They had been attending a Franciscan house of prayer, an alternative to the Sunday church-going routine that for some had become static and stale. The house was located in a farm house surrounded by soy fields. It incorporated meditation and contemplation, and in a quick transformation that I can neither fully remember nor look back on without bewilderment, it became an eclectic Zen center that drew on various traditions.
For a teenager interested in all things spiritual, it was nothing short of Disney Land. I had the chance to sit, discuss and practice with individuals from different traditions, with different ways of seeing the world. There was a couple – an orthodox rabbi too liberal from his own congregation, and his wife, who said she had been specially trained by nuns in Italy to be a mystic. I learned Buddhist meditation and began to see my own Catholicism in a new light.
I am realizing that interfaith engagement for me is no practice. There is little formal dialogue. Instead, it is embodiment. And for many, if not all, interfaith engagement is a dialogue going on within, as well as around us. To be sure, this is exciting, but its ethical implications are also daunting. To whom are we accountable, if we so easily exceed the boundaries of community? To whom or to what do we look, for moral companionship, for ethical mentorship? Where do we take our stands, when the ground of our moral and spiritual lives will not stay still? And how do we reconcile the differing traditions we embody in a way that does not smooth them over but allows the unique, moral critiques immanent in each to speak to our societies and communities in such great need of moral vision?
These are old questions, perhaps in new wine-skins. The only way through, as ever, is to drink deep.