Globalization and Pluralism: How to be an interfaith advocate in 2016

The world is changing faster than it ever has. Globalization constantly has an effect on religion and almost every facet of life. While there are certainly positives to the type of access to information and current events globalization affords, with it also come many questions for religious people, especially proponents of interfaith activity and peaceful pluralism. When current events break on the news, within the hour there are hundreds of reaction pieces posted, already making the rounds on social media. While globalization has drastically changed technology and access to information, another type of globalization is happening right in front of us. The people around us are increasingly diverse and complex. With both strands of globalization occurring rapidly, advocating for pluralism and interfaith activity will necessarily look different in the coming year. In this post I want to lay out two main ways pluralists can respond to growing diversity, while being open to and aware of the rapidity at which the scene for interfaith work is changing.

Pluralists are people who know there is more to the story. If you have participated in interfaith activity then you likely have an idea just how complicated and complex humans are. To understand this, think about how complicated you are yourself. For anyone to completely know me or to assume my reasons for doing something, is next to impossible. Although my identity as a twenty-five year old middle-class white male, a former Southern Baptist who is religiously confused, and a newly found political liberal might seem simple on the outside, these markers of identity did not appear without their own narrative. Trying to imagine a news crew nailing my motivations for my actions would be laughable at best. To see only one part of the whole of my actions does not mean that this action explains the whole. Pluralists are aware of this fact of themselves and the people around them, that it takes time and patience to arrive at the whole story.

A good example of this type of ignorance is in the ISIS bombings of the past year. In the immediate aftermath of many events there were cries of hate and ignorance against refugees and minority communities in the US. What I want to point out is that there is no standard way a pluralist should respond. Pluralism is not an idea set in itself, but is rather a way of posturing yourself in the world. Being a pluralist says nothing in itself about your foreign policy or stance on military responses to ISIS. The role of the pluralist is to be able to believe that stories are rarely understood on first reporting and should never be taken at face value. If you didn’t follow the Ferguson story long enough to understand why such a shooting outraged the entire black community, then you didn’t do your job. Pluralists are for people, are for stories being told, and are for giving people a voice. The first story I read on Ferguson didn’t tell me about the systemic racism that had been happening for years, the many other stories of oppression, and the heartbreak of a community. To form a response based on first reporting silences voices. In many places, it takes patience to understand that every Muslim isn’t an active member of ISIS, to know that every refugee isn’t a sleeper agent. While these examples sound extreme, the amount of times I saw those exact phrases on my Facebook feed is sickening. By taking note of the complexity and depth of our own and others’ stories, pluralists participate in the act of giving people a voice, making hearing the full story more important than our immediate responses to them.

While the presence of interfaith activity has a rich and growing history in the US, globalization will bring about new layers of diversity and difference. As mentioned above, the complexity of our religious faith and commitments is intense. There are well-documented interfaith bright spots that any interfaith proponent would be familiar with, such as the Abrahamic faiths and many other combinations who have begun working together and committing to fruitful dialogue. Many scholars in academia who have problems with pluralism note the way it often skirts over racial, gender, and religious diversity. The complexity of people is precisely the reason for this. It is not enough to have a few Muslim men and women come to your church and explain their faith, when they are such a small representation of their own community. For instance, you might have two men, one single and one married, who come to your church from any given religion or commitment. It is foolish to think you can get a full grasp on their community or faith. What perspectives of the Muslim faith might appear through the lens of a woman, or any other unrepresented groups there? I say this not to knock the interfaith work being done, but rather to remind all advocates of interfaith activity that you will never have a full picture, that interfaith activity is incredibly diverse, and that it is happening everywhere. A Muslim refugee likely has a different story of faith than someone born in the US. If you have followed interfaith activity then you have a good idea of what many dialogues look like, the topics discussed, and the common ground found. What I want to suggest is that we need to remember that the common ground and outcomes are constantly shifting. Nobody knows what it will look like for new religious groups to come together. The conversations will differ from congregation to congregation, and even down to the individual person.

In Natick, Massachusetts there is a community called Common Street Spiritual Center. The leader of this community, Ian Mevorach, visited a class I was in last semester to speak about the development of this center. What was formerly a First Baptist Church has now become a spiritual center that housed and welcomed all kinds of faiths and traditions. Rev. Mevorach describes the center as being rooted in Christianity, yet based on the idea of becoming the beloved community. With a vision of inclusivity and radical acceptance, the center has become a place where each Sunday gathering is a mixed bag. While Rev. Mevorach typically teaches from the Bible, it isn’t uncommon for that to be followed by readings or rituals from various other religions. What stuck with me from Rev. Mevorach’s talk in class was how he says he never expected this type of community to form where and how it did. He says that the diversity and people were always there, he simply had to put out the vision for that type of community. I think this is an accurate depiction of the nature of religious encounters and a reminder that each community is unique and complex. The results and common ground of religious dialogue in Natick might not work on the next block, street, or city. Interfaith dialogue will continue to happen in places we never expected, and it will constantly look wildly different, even in the places we feel we already understand.

Both of my suggestions laid out above work together. When we remember the complexity of each individuals, it reminds us to enter into interfaith activity with an openness about what we will hear and learn. No Muslim, Atheist, Southern Baptist, or religiously confused person is the same, which should be embraced. When we remember this fact it reminds us to be slow to make assumptions and quick to listen. 2016 will bring a new round of stories, a new round of tension, and many more questions. While interfaith advocacy doesn’t push us to all agree, it does demand that we are committed to giving others a voice, a demand which we only need to look into ourselves to see.

Picture courtesy of Common Street Spiritual Center

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2 thoughts on “Globalization and Pluralism: How to be an interfaith advocate in 2016

  1. Micah, I just read all three of your postings in State of Formation. I’m thinking about going to Divinity School and I must say, you are inspiring me. I really appreciate your insights into yourself, and into what academia and multi-faith dialogue have to offer me in terms of personal growth and also sharing with others. Please keep writing here, I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    1. Victoria, thanks so much for your comment! Divinity school was a huge step for me, but a personal decision I knew I had to make. I took two years off between my undergrad and this year, and I realized that the best way pursue the questions and ideas within me was to be around others trying to do the same thing. Divinity school isn’t a place of answers, but so far it’s been a place where my questions have life breathed into them by the others around me. Thankfully, this community has been a place where I can think and process what I’m learning.

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