Why Interfaith is a not a Safe Word

Two weeks before I moved to Boston this past August, my parents received a letter in the mail that was for me. The card read in bold letters “ONE WORLD, ONE FAITH, ONE WORLD RELIGION.” I first found out about this letter a week later when my family invited me for a dinner that turned out to be more like an intervention. After playing twenty questions, “make sure Micah is a Christian,” style, and mostly confirming my infatuation with the bible, my family breathed a huge sigh of relief. In fairness, they received this letter shortly after my acceptance into a liberal seminary, and a week before my moving halfway across the country into democrat controlled territory. Had my parents’ fears been realized and I had lost my faith, there were offers on the table from family members willing to take me in and teach me the “truth.” If you were raised in an evangelical baptist home, you know that this is the highest form of love that can be shown. To love someone is to make sure they are eternally saved from the fires of hell. My family knew that I wanted to study topics that had to do with interfaith dialogue; however, their google searches of the term landed them on some pretty harsh critiques of the practice itself by conservative Christians.

While there is a LOT of unpacking that could be done of that incident, (still processing it) what I want to focus on is the way interfaith dialogue has such a stigmatized reputation. It always seems like the ones who are most against or afraid of interfaith dialogue are people who have no idea what it really is, or how it really works. Where I’m from in the south, interfaith dialogue is thought of as a black market where religious ideas are sold and exchanged with little regard to the bible, much less to what Jesus would do. What I want to propose is that interfaith activity is terrifying because of the way it reflects ourselves back at us, forcing people of faith to face their own insecurities and presenting them with new ones.

Faith and religion are no small matter. There’s few things in life in which we have more at stake. For instance, I might believe that Trader Joes has the best cookie butter ice cream. If someone else were to make a more delicious ice cream or make me question my loyalty to the TJ’s brand, it wouldn’t change the way I view the world. When it comes to religion it couldn’t be more different. For many, faith provides the answers for the questions of; Why do I treat people the way I do? What happens when I die? What is my purpose in the world? While some have religions with openness to other faiths built in to their theology, others are told that there is one narrow path to God and salvation. The latter is the context in which I was raised.

Interfaith activity brings you face to face with difference in the form of deeply held religious beliefs that people hold on to just as much as you hold on to yours. In facing religious difference, the first thing that happened to me was the examining of my own views. I quickly learned that the trinity sounds like a pretty wild concept to someone who hasn’t had it preached to them for twenty-three years. For the first time in my religious experience I was the alien, the one who was different, and it was incredibly disorienting. As a pastor’s kid growing up, religion was my specialty, the thing everyone knew I knew a lot about. When most of the people around you agree with you, there is not a lot of questioning and alienating that happens. Interfaith dialogue made me into the visitor who didn’t know what to do with the offering plate, or know when to stand and sit during the service. What I quickly learned was that there were many things that hadn’t added up when it came to faith. There were questions I had never had to answer, and life situations I had never thought of. What do I think of my friend who is a better person than I am but is an atheist? Why is my brand of faith the “right” one?

To stare down these questions and wrestle with them is what I believe Soren Kierkegaard was referring to as taking the great leap of faith. Responding to Orthodox Hegelians of his time, he rejected society’s desire to have their faith handed to them. Kierkegaard recognized faith as a journey into the unknown, one that can be experienced with others but that is on the whole uncommunicable. What my parents and others are reacting so strongly to, is that the outcome of such a leap is never completely certain. While most recognize the leap of faith to be the decision to accept that Jesus died for your sins and rose again, I would argue that the leap happens when your own beliefs are reflected back at you, and you begin wrestling with your own experience in light of what you see. The difference being, I did the former when I was 7, and I did the latter when I was 23 and am still in that process.

I’m not trying to say that my family, and others in the south, have an inauthentic way of believing, for I can only speak to my own experiences and draw my own conclusions based on that experience. Interfaith dialogue forced me to ask the questions I never knew I had, and constantly serves as a vehicle for greater self-understanding and growth. I constantly take this leap of faith, not knowing the outcome, but knowing that whatever it is will be something that is real.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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