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.