Moving Past Religion as an Abstraction

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Posted on October 23rd, 2013 | Filed under Interfaith
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Managing Director’s Note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

Growing up in a secular home in the Southern Baptist atmosphere of Central Oklahoma, religion was not only absent from my daily life, it was something I was neither drawn to or knowledgeable about. This changed when I enrolled in a Comparative Religions course at the University of Oklahoma where I began to build a foundational understanding of the world's faith traditions. Religion, however, remained for me an abstraction – a topic about which I was deeply curious, but continued to perceive as distant and largely irrelevant to my own life.

This changed in my early twenties when the Islamophobia that had been quietly seeping into the mainstream consciousness of my home state erupted into something angry and dangerous. While interning with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Oklahoma City in the midst of the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding the anti-Sharia law bill, religion suddenly came into focus and at last appeared to me as an immediate, lived reality. I witnessed the ways in which fear and the misinformed perception of religion could directly threaten the rights and well-being of my Muslim neighbors. I also saw how religion could positively mobilize the Muslim community - and the non-Muslims who stood by them – to take effective, peaceful action in order to speak out for their constitutional and human rights.

When my internship ended, I returned to religious studies with renewed vigor, beginning to understand the ways in which interfaith dialogue and religious education could be tools for effective peace-building and conflict resolution. Since then, my intention to do non-profit and NGO work that uses an interreligious approach to address issues of social justice has not changed.

I believe that religious literacy is absolutely critical in today's increasingly globalized world. That the majority of the world's citizens identify with a particular faith tradition entails that religion, to some extent, infuses practically every aspect of human existence and experience – from the most mundane activities to global questions of politics, economics, and international relations. If local, national, and world-wide conflicts are to be effectively addressed, serious attempts must be made to develop an active and robust religious literacy.

It is not enough to simply learn the basics of “Islam,” “Christianity,” “Judaism,” in a classroom context. Instead, religion must be conceived of, taught, and experienced as a lived, dynamic, exceedingly complex, and vastly influential force, both in the lives of individual people and in the context of wider patterns of behavior. It must be understood as a lens through which actions and ideas are perceived and responded to. With this understanding, we can begin to construct a faith-based approach to positive, peaceful change.

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3 Responses to “Moving Past Religion as an Abstraction”

  1. Enver says:

    Chelsea, welcome to the State of Formation! Thank you for your wonderful reflection and your work both as an intern with the Muslim communities in US, and the refugees in Jordan. I too think that we must teach world religions with a sense of fairness, respect, importance and equality of meaning of the traditions, and not just from a particular historical perspective. We shall learn in school the values they represent to billions and millions of people on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps as we learn more early in our development, we will be then less afraid to ask meaningful questions from our parents and neighbors different from us. This will also help us prevent the conflicts that arise from our own lack of knowledge and experience. Education is certainly the key to change.

    • Thank you for the warm welcome and thoughtful comment, Enver! I think you’re right on target in pointing out that educating children from a young age on the values of tolerance, coexistence, religious diversity, and dialogue is absolutely critical, especially in today’s world.

  2. It is through the encounter of our neighbors of other faiths that we grow in our own. I have experienced this and am reduced to tears if I let myself reflect on this.

    As a 70 year old human being I learned this “late” in life. But I’m so glad I did!

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Chelsea is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School where she received her Master of Theological Studies focused on Comparative Religion. With a passion for interfaith dialogue, social justice, and faith-based community organizing, Chelsea plans to pursue a career in the non-profit/NGO world upon her return from Amman, Jordan where she is currently working with Syrian refugees and continuing her Arabic studies.


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