When asked what I plan to do with a Master of Theological Studies – a question I encounter frequently as a recent graduate in a field many are unfamiliar with – my well-rehearsed, though honest, response is always something along the lines of, “I plan on doing non-profit work, focused on issues of social justice and human rights, using an interfaith approach as a platform for finding common ground and facilitating conflict resolution.” I then pause and smile, anticipating the follow-up question, already mentally scrambling to throw together an answer that might make sense. And then, inevitably – “So, what is your faith tradition?” After nearly 7 years of studying religion and being asked countless times about my religious background, my reply to this question is surprisingly and decidedly unrehearsed and never fails to leave me flustered, inarticulate, and generally befuddled.
This is in part because the question itself implies that having a strong interest in matters of religion is the result of – and perhaps even requires – having a strong personal faith in the first place. It’s not so much that other people assume this that bothers me, it’s that part of me assumes it too.
I am what the Pew Forum has dubbed a religious ‘None‘- a member of the class of the religiously unaffiliated, the ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the ‘don’t-put-me-into-a-religious-box’ type. I don’t particularly identify with any of these labels but, alas, that too only conforms to the general idea. I grew up with a culturally Jewish mother who had a very personal spirituality and a father who had long since left behind his Catholic upbringing and instead defined his moral framework largely through science and environmentalism. Religion, therefore, was not a common topic in our household, nor something I was particularly drawn to or knowledgeable about. Being raised in the conservative Christian atmosphere of central Oklahoma and having increasing contact with the Muslim community of greater Oklahoma City illuminated for me the importance of understanding the complexity and influence of religion, as I saw the ways in which religion was not simply something abstract to be studied in the classroom, but a lived phenomenon that had direct implications for civic participation, community development, and relationships at various levels of society.
In order to understand religion as a lived experience more fully, I went on to get a Master of religion and have spent time working with various non-profits that have an interfaith or community-engagement focus. I recently relocated to Amman, Jordan in order to volunteer with Syrian refugees and continue to work on my Arabic. I still, however, continue to grapple very much with my own spirituality. Despite the fact that being a None in the US is an increasingly accepted norm – particularly among those of my generation – I’ve felt uncomfortable with where my place at the table is, so to speak, throughout my academic and professional career in theological studies. Without a solid platform of faith to stand on, but with a strong belief that religious literacy is critical in today’s world, I struggle with how to personally participate in the faith-based relationships and conversations I intend to facilitate professionally.
Moving to the Middle East has raised my existential crisis of None-ness to new heights as religion here infuses practically every part of daily life and culture. It is present even in the most basic components of conversation – from the standard greeting of asalaamu’alaykum (peace be upon you), to any statement of planned or potential future activity, after which should never fail to say insha’Allah (God willing) – ; it’s not uncommon to climb into a taxi and hear recitations of the Qur’an softly playing from the radio; I hear the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times per day, echoing between Amman’s many hills. Additionally, I recently began interning with an interfaith organization that is run by a Catholic priest and have been attending Mass in the modest church next to the office where we work. Thus, while my interior, spiritual life remains largely defined by my None-ness, my outer, day-to-day life is characterized by a continuously present religious Some-ness. Here, my fumbling, ambiguous response to “So, what is your faith tradition?” evokes in the inquirer a befuddlement that seems to rival my own.
Life in Amman has brought me face-to-face with questions and concerns I was previously inclined to brush off: How important is personal faith in the pursuit of interfaith work? Can I ever truly teach the religious literacy I find to be so essential without having had a tradition that provided me with a reference for my own religious language? It has also, however, given me better insight into some of the unique advantages of being a None: I have the ability to act as a go-between of sorts among faith traditions and religious actors. I can facilitate interactions and faith-based dialogue without being perceived as having a theological stake in the issue. I can start up interesting conversations with people who are just as curious about my lack of a defined faith as I am about the presence and influence of theirs. Perhaps most importantly, I see that personal struggles with questions of faith are not uncommon, even among the most devout practitioners. I find that moments of ambiguity and confusion regarding religion and its role in life can often inspire deeper revelations and foster closer relationships than can comparing and contrasting theological absolutes.
I may never feel perfectly at ease in my spiritual skin and I may never have a confident or clear answer when asked about my faith tradition. I hope, however, that my experience of being a religious None in the interfaith world will continue to fuel my theological curiosities and help me navigate both the challenges and opportunities that come with living a life that is, in one way or another, touched by faith.