The Work Compels Us to Interfaith

Managing Editor’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.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation I grew up in practiced a beautiful ritual in which congregants light a candle and share their joys and sorrows. When I was around 12, I joined in. I walked to the chancel, lit a candle, and said “I wish everyone were a Unitarian Universalist, because then we’d have world peace.” People laughed, and I felt pretty righteous. But after the service, a wise adult approached me and said “Grace, what if insisting that everyone believe the same things is the problem, not the solution?”

As a kid I thought my reasoning was infallible. Among my early convictions was a disbelief in the divine that I disdainfully articulated to anyone who would listen. But that Sunday something changed, and I became transfixed by learning about religion and conflict resolution. The more I learned, the more ashamed I became of how I had spoken to (and about) religious people. I became obsessed with figuring out how to do better.

A decade later, when my college Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers group had a meeting with one of the Christian groups on campus, I was among the first to arrive. At the event, I watched nontheists ask questions of the Christians, first from a place of curiosity and then as a full-out interrogation. I was appalled, and shaken. I went to the next AAF meeting and asked the questions that had been dogging me: “What does that animus accomplish? What good does it do us? What good does it do our world?”

I didn’t get a clear answer, and I fumed about it for much of my walk home, until it occurred to me: they were all good people. Every single person in that room wanted to make the world a better place, but they got so caught up in debating which perspective to do it from that the bigger picture was lost. I realized that it would have been an entirely different conversation if we’d been talking about something like, for example, immigration reform. In that conversation, whether your conviction comes from Matthew 25, or (like me) you’re brought to tears by “Give me your tired, your poor…” we have a shared purpose: to build a nation that is Great because it is truly compassionate, truly good. In that conversation, sniping at one another about our beliefs is a waste of time.

Since then, I’ve pursued these conversations endlessly. I’ve learned that interfaith understanding is not a prerequisite for working together, the need to work together compels us to interfaith understanding. I’m not saying it’s always easy. Just the opposite, interfaith work will always be hard. It will always be tempting to walk away when we’re frustrated and tired. I believe that we need common causes to keep bringing us back to the table, to remind us that we cannot ignore one another. I am committed to this work because no matter our sources of moral authority, we are all responsible for our world, and for each other.

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