Seeking Diverse Voices in Interfaith Studies

There are incredibly exciting strides being made in the field of Interfaith Studies. We are seeing more and more campuses engaging with interfaith ideas and learning outcomes in the classroom, in addition to robust co-curricular offerings for students of all ages. In addition to having a group at the American Academy of Religion dedicated to Interfaith and Interreligious Studies, there are several smaller conferences and formal convenings to bring together scholars interested in supporting this field to discuss the hows and the whys. As excited as I am to see so much energy and success in this area, my colleagues and I are compelled to ask: how can we promote and engage interfaith work and study to be equalizing and inclusive, without inadvertently perpetuating white Christian normativity?

The term itself is often contested (does the “faith” in interfaith demand religious or spiritual faith?) and so many scholars and practitioners opt to use other words, like interreligious or interbelief to describe the interaction of people with different religious and ethical perspectives. The difficulties of language is important, but a far more pressing challenge to the model of interfaith work as it exists today in the United States is that interfaith work itself is built on the architecture of white Christian identity.

One of the iconic moments in the history of modern interfaith work is the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 … when predominantly white Christian Americans invited predominantly non-white non-Christians to share aspects of their religious identity and practice in an Exposition. Attendees could learn about and maybe even experience aspects of “Eastern spirituality” from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and more. Fully acknowledging this grossly simplistic and cynical description of that truly momentous event, the fact remains that interfaith work in the United States is and always has been dominated by white Christians, disproportionate even to the percentage of American residents who are white Christians.

As the idea of interfaith cooperation because more and more common as a framework for community service, especially on college campuses, the study of interfaith relationships has also been growing. This new field differs from other areas of study, like Comparative Religion or World Religions, because it focuses specifically on the interactions between people with different religious backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives, and the ways in which those interactions influence larger society as a whole. The field, though young, has already brought about some fascinating and exciting scholarly work, a handful of scholarly texts, and dozens of college-level courses, along with more and more academic course sequences and programs dedicated to Interfaith Studies.

We are presented with the opportunity to help shape a new academic field, and it is exciting for those of us invested in this field to discover the boundaries and expectations for ourselves. In our excitement and our desire to build something sustainable and meaningful, we must address the oft-noted observation that the field continues to be dominated by white Christians. This could have several sources, including:

1) Academia and higher education in the United States is disproportionately white across many disciplines, particularly the humanities. We see this in studies about racial diversity in awarding tenure, in hiring practices, in admissions, and although we can say that it is improving, largely through intentionally cultivated awareness of the importance of racial diversity in scholarship, it remains a serious issue in many places of higher learning.

2) So far, being such a newly emerging field, Interfaith Studies has been most attractive to those already drawn to this work, which we have already seen is dominated by white Christians. This does not diminish the great and often difficult work of building this field, but it does demand that we ask ourselves whether our responsibility is to focus on those who are already bought-in and help them succeed, or to focus more attention on building a more diverse network of scholars. At this relatively nascent stage, which is more important for authenticity, rigor, and success? Leading to…

3) …We have not completed the hard work of going out and finding people who may already be doing important and relevant work but would not consider it part of this new field — once we locate more people who are studying the interaction of different religious identities, we may find far more diversity than we currently see. Those invested in the success of this field have already moved beyond Relgiious Studies and Theology scholars into the social sciences, history, literature, and professional fields like education, medicine, social work, and business. We have started thinking about Interfaith and Interreligious Studies as inherently interdisciplinary, but what fields and areas of exploration are we still missing that might help us better capture an array of interreligious experiences and applications less dominated by white Christianity? What would it look like if we structured this field as inherently intersectional as well as interdisciplinary?

4) There is something in the way we define Interfaith and Interfaith Studies that perpetuates white normativity, and without intention we are not being as welcoming and inclusive to scholars of color and scholars of different religious idenities as we think we are. This goes hand in hand with my earlier comment about the importance of difficult language, and how even the term “faith” is not universally applicable to different religious and ethical identities, though it is of primary importance in many Christian denominations. This could be an issue of language or of primary focus. How can we pay better attention to the concerns and needs of non-white non-Christian scholars and practitioners as they relate to this new field of study?

At the 2015 American Academy of Religion annual meeting, State of Formation showcased three outstanding Contributing Scholars on a panel that focused on the intersections of interfaith racial justice. This excellent panel is only the beginning of how we can explore, expand, and direct our energy as a community of emerging leaders and scholars to ensure that this new field that explicitly explores the ways that we interact with difference and diversity comes to life in a way that represents the best of what interfaith can offer an often broken and divided community, country, and world. In order to do that, we have to push ourselves to examine not only the effectiveness and purpose of the work that we are doing as interfaith leaders, but the bones and structure of that work itself. Knowing we can’t do it all, and that a field that was truly inclusive of all identities and intersections would be unwieldy in any classroom, the least we can do is ask ourselves: how do we determine where to draw the boundaries?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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