On Studying Religion to Argue with Religious People

My professional commitment to ecumenical and interfaith relationships stems from a realistic worldview: To not so do would be irresponsible. I tell my students that the world is a big place. Go live in it. The religious landscape we live and teach in grows more pluralistic by the day. However, my desire to engage in interfaith dialogue began by a hurtful exposure to a very narrow expression of religion. I lost my high school best friend when his family became ‘saved.’

Over dinner they informed me that I was no longer a suitable friend because I was Catholic. They further warned that if we all died that day, they would be rewarded in heaven and I would find myself in hell. I left angry with both my trusted friends and this image of G*d. I decided I wanted nothing to do with faith. I began my academic study of religion to better argue with religious people – maybe even to hurt them back.

Yes. You read that right. I was my mother’s worst nightmare. I had a motorcycle, tattoos and a penchant for persecuting my faithful peers. I refused to go to Mass and was soon kicked out of confirmation class for asking questions the volunteer teachers could not answer. I studied Buddhism as an undergraduate and traveled to India thinking I would never come home. However, when I returned I attended a Baptist seminary and joined a Catholic religious order. Clearly something happened.

In my rebellion, I found the opposite of what I had witnessed and reacted against so strongly as a teenager. Rather than a punitive G*d and a justified ‘othering’ that made the world very small, I discovered wisdom, mystery and a profound theological tradition that is never taught unless it is sought. As I like to tell my students now, contrary to what Marx observed: if we are doing it right, theology is not a sedative. The world’s wisdom traditions are the history of humans trying to understand what it means to be human in relationship with each other and with the god(s) of our understanding. I have found nothing as interesting, engaging and, frankly, important as these systems of symbols and relationships we have developed to interpret and influence our world.

As a scholar and practitioner, I am committed to interfaith relationships because of the deep wells of wisdom we pull from in our different traditions, and the simple enjoyment of collegial dialogue. I want to live in a big world. As a teacher and minister, rather than create in-groups and out-groups, I endeavor to expose students to a Christian tradition that can engage religious pluralism in the communities they live in.

What I bring to my teaching, research and relationship building is a background in both Christian theology and comparative religious studies – and a little of the irreverence that began it all.

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3 thoughts on “On Studying Religion to Argue with Religious People

  1. Thank you very much for your article I agree whole heartedly with you about in-groups and out-groups. This is the second article I have read that mentions children being taught to reject those that were once their close friends. This is an activity that I so fail to understand about those that call themselves religious. If their objective is to bring people into their fold, how is that they see the most effective method is first rejecting those closest to them? Why exclude people from the joy, freedom, and love that a relationship with a higher power can bring to individuals? How does exclusion make sense on any level?

  2. Thank you for sharing this – your story overlaps in many ways with my own, although I came out a humanist chaplain rather than a member of a Catholic order. My views on religion, however, are quite similar, and I love the way you phrased, “The world’s wisdom traditions are the history of humans trying to understand what it means to be human in relationship with each other and with the god(s) of our understanding.” Beautifully articulate.

    I think too many people approach interfaith dialogue as a chance to debate one another and see who wins. Or, perhaps even worse, a chance to proselytize your faith without really engaging the chance to learn something new. In true multifaith work and relationships, all parties have to be open to learning not only about one another but also about themselves. Only in seeking to learn from one another and learning to embrace our shared humanity – while celebrating our incredibly diversity – can we erase the divisions that separate us. I, too, want to live in a big world.

  3. Thank you, Esther & Ellie
    I appreciate hearing that my story resonated with yours. I agree that some practices of religious education, and even interfaith interaction, can produce the opposite of the ‘big world’ we live in.

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