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.