Untangling Representation: For Whom Do You Speak?

Student Religious Life at Johns Hopkins University emphasizes interfaith education and collaboration. 15-20 students, many of them representing one of the campus’ active student religious groups, participate in a weekly forum, the Interfaith Council. The subject matter of these meetings varies. Students may go around and share a particular aspect of their tradition, such as prayer, coming of age, gender roles, holidays, or food customs, and sometimes the evening centers around an exercise or activity designed to help students develop greater religious literacy and sensitivity. The aims of this council are not only to encourage our students to get to know and work with one another on campus, but also to help cultivate tools for dialogue across difference – we want our students to learn to see the diversity and plurality of our world as a resource, and to know how to use it for the betterment of all. Quite often, our students remind us – the “adults” in the room who convene the meetings each week – that the work of interfaith is a constantly moving target, and that we are a far way off from having all the answers to its difficulties. Over the past semester, questions of representation and tokenism have been raised by the students, who struggle to balance the pressure of speaking for more than themselves with their desire to speak from their personal experience. After a few months of talking about this, and discussing it with my students, I turn to you – the State of Formation community – for your thoughts and responses to this important and often difficult question.

There aren’t too many rules regulating these weekly council meetings, but the big one is that everyone must speak from their own personal experience and never treat themselves or others as though they are a spokesperson for an entire religious group. We encourage students to make comments “from my experience with Catholicism” rather than “as a Catholic” or “as a Christian”, and to ask questions about “your worship experience”, “your family” or “your perspective” instead of “the Jewish worship experience” or “all Jewish people” or “the Jewish perspective”. These seem to be a pretty basic structure for many interfaith conversations, especially with college students who are actively engaged in learning how to navigate the pluralism of their school.

The benefits of having such a personalized structure are many. No one should feel pressure to speak for an entire religious group, especially given the incredibly wide-ranging views and practices that are active in nearly every major religion today. We hope that it allows students to speak without anxiety about misrepresenting their entire tradition, or without elaborating on the extensive divergences within one tradition. No one has a universal perspective, and no one has been selected as the spokesperson for their religion, or has the right to claim such authority.

It doesn’t always work out this way, unfortunatley. We can make every effort to stop students from tokenizing themselves or others, but when the the Sikh student in the room is the only Sikh individual that any of the other students have ever met, it can be difficult for them to imagine this individual perspective within the context of a greater tradition, and with his or her opinions and traditions as only one of many possible ways to embrace Sikh spiritual life. Since most of the students involved in our Interfaith Council are leaders within their own religious communities, there is the added pressure of representing one’s student group, even if not representing one’s entire religious population. How can students navigate the tensions between speaking as an individual and being a default representative?

There are downsides to our individualized approach, too, most notably that students sometimes begin to feel as though they are loosening their communal ties to their tradition if they are forced to speak as though their experiences, beliefs, and practices are not shared. For many, it is the community of their religious group that invigorates their faith and fortifies their commitment to religious life. It may be ostracizing or confusing if we act as though there is no authentic group voice, and may even cause students to feel as though their religious community is not being adequately understood.

Questions about representation in interfaith settings were raised recently during a meeting of the new Interreligious and Interfaith Studies group at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. I was relieved to hear other educators discussing the difficulty of untangling representation in interfaith dialogue, because it comes up so frequently with my students, and the group agreed that this is an important topic of discussion that deserves more attention in future years. I am eager to see where these conversations take us, and to uncover new ways to help students (and ourselves) balance our individuality and the fact that we are all ambassadors of our communities, whether or not we seek out the appointment.

In the meantime, I want to know what others in the State of Formation community think about these questions, or how you have found ways to navigate the pressures of representation in your own communities. We rely on forging relationships across difference as a way to educate one another and to encourage one another toward equality. Through learning to recognize others as individuals rather than as representatives – and to learn not to see the instances of religious extremism in the news as representative of a whole religious community – maybe we can learn to engage one another without fear of misrepresenting, or without pressure to speak for the masses, while still feeling embraced by a shared community.

The 9 symbols in the picture, for Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Jainism, Bahaism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity, are displayed on banners hung from the Interfaith Center at Johns Hopkins University. They represent some but not all of the diverse religious life of students at the university.

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2 thoughts on “Untangling Representation: For Whom Do You Speak?

  1. This emphasis on individual religious experience takes on a different shade of meaning when considered in the larger context of western european philosophical thought and tradition. In my M.Div. program we often had to write about our “personal and communal theology” and this was a struggle for a close friend of mine who is Native American. For her, there is no personal theology separate from a communal theology. The daily life of religious experience is, for my friend, always communal: it is always rooted in her communities’ sense of the sacred, in all the variety of ways that her many communities — from ancestors to living relatives to larger regional groups — experience it. So I’m curious about how having to speak from a purely individualistic perspective might actually be difficult for those students whose theological experiences can’t be accurately described as “MY worship.”

    I also encourage you to consider how power factors into the conversation. Is tokenizing something that happens to specific groups but not others? For example, given Christianity’s dominance in theological schools, is it easier for Christians to talk about their experience without the rest of the group assuming that they speak for ALL Christians?

    How does race, class, gender & sexuality factor into the conversation? I encourage students to make their social location visible. As a white lesbian christian, I often HAVE to talk about being gay in order to explain what it means to me to be christian. But I rarely talk about how being white and middle-class impacts my faith — yet it does. The locations I don’t have to name are often the ones where power and the risk of speaking-for-all is greatest. Naming and owning social location can bring awareness of the other forces that shape our religious experiences, and open up avenues of shared connection with others who may share an aspect of our social location but not our religious belief.

  2. Liz, thank you for your comments. We must be careful when talking about individual faith and experience because the whole notion of individualized religion is – as you rightly point out – an inheritance of western philosophical thought. Since a handful of our students involved in these discussions are not from the United States or Western Europe, we definitely need to be aware of how the ways in which we separate religion individually is not necessarily compatible with other cultural and religious ways of being.

    When we ask students to speak from personal experience we are not just asking them to talk about their “personal faith”, but to own up to their own experiences as being true to their person (and quite likely, their religious community) without being universal. It has been educational for the entire group (leaders wholeheartedly included) to witness when students of the same faith tradition attempt to untangle cultural differences in their practice of the same traditions. Without being completely overwhelmed by the murky practice of determining what falls within the bounds of “religion” versus “culture”, this idea of geographic and cultural differences in practice is something we hope to explore further next semester and is directly related to the questions I am trying to raise with this post.

    Your point about Christianity is well taken. While the Christian students are not the majority in our group, we live in a predominantly Christian country and are constantly arguing over just how Christian our country is or should be. What I find most interesting about the Christian students (and here I am including Protestants and Roman Catholics but not the Orthodox Christian students) is that they seem to be the most determined to separate themselves and their specific worship communities from the Christianity presented by public media. Even students who are relatively conservative are quick to assert that they aren’t one of the “crazy, gun-wielding fundamentalists” out there. They seem to be more fearful of religious stereotypes than the rest of the group, despite the privileged status that Christianity has in U.S. culture.

    Other aspects of social location do come out in our weekly introductions, and we do try to locate one another on multiple planes, which helps to lessen the risk of seeing someone has a caricature or stereotype of a religious group. There are obviously certain questions or social concerns that pull out more details of students social location, and we work to actively cultivate an environment that is supportive and affirming of however students wish to identify themselves, but we largely try to leave it up to students how much they want to disclose.

    Thank you, again, for your comments. You’ve given me a lot to think about moving forward.

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