The Mutual Benefit of Working to Understand Others

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.

My parents did the best they could to explain other faiths as I grew up. In my small Texas town, the scope of religion was narrow. There were the Catholics down the street who cared too much about Mary, the Methodists who sprinkled instead of dunked, and the Mormons who came to our door and liked the wrong Joseph. My religious world was defined in relation to my identity as a Southern Baptist, the same identity I shared with the majority of my friends and the community around me until moving to Boston this year.

Growing up in the Bible belt allows for many things to go unchecked. There is a certain kind of Christian agenda that runs a type of civil religion that most members in the community go along with, making Christian initiatives a social norm. Within churches and Sunday school, my friends and I developed a form of speech popularly known in the South as “Christianese,” a group of cliché phrases and words that frequently receive a good Amen, but nobody really knows what they mean.

I bring up “Christianese” to elicit a core reason why I value relationships with people from other religious or ethical traditions. Interfaith dialogue presents an opportunity to make the comfortable person into an alien, putting them in the shoes of the other. I remember the first religious conversation I had with an atheist friend of mine, trying to explain the concept of the trinity without the assurance that I would be agreed with in the end. “God just makes it work,” and “that’s just the way it is,” carried little weight with someone who didn’t believe in God’s omnipotence, much less God at all.

I engaged in interfaith dialogue aiming to bring others into my faith but ended up having my own tradition reflected back at me in a fresh way, showing me my own flaws and shortcomings. I felt like an alien in an area of my life that I had always been an expert in to those around me. Not only had I defined my faith in relation to familiar friends, but also that faith itself had been handed to me from my parents. I was living and representing a faith that worked only in a certain context and community, but when forced to stand on its own quickly crumbled.

Building relationships across faith and ethical traditions doesn’t always lead to religious meltdowns, but I think a bit of decentering is healthy for everyone. For me, interfaith dialogue was instrumental in helping me form my own religious identity and language. My story highlights one of the many benefits of religious dialogue in our ever more pluralistic society. There are few things as mutually beneficial as trying to understand others.

As I continue on this journey of understanding others and myself, I recognize that I have much to learn. I’m comforted by the fact that I don’t have all the answers, and I’ve come to accept it’s okay that I don’t.

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2 thoughts on “The Mutual Benefit of Working to Understand Others

  1. Dear Michah —

    Your statement that “…a bit of decentering is healthy for everyone.” is intriguing. I recall Jesus meeting the Canaanite woman who wanted his blessing. Through her wisdom and persistence, she decentered Jesus so much that he changed his attitude toward her. From a pastoral counseling perspective, the experience of being decentered does not always feel good — it can lead to anger, resentment, and also new truths. Thank you for your essay.

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