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.
I have always been a “learner.” I was born to two MBA students, including a mother who was a career professor after earning her PhD in Economics – so it’s hardly hyperbole to say that learning has always played a leading role in my life.
Despite that consistency, the reasons why learning matters to me have evolved over time. At first, learning helped me build concrete, academic skills. In my youth I pored over books – The Giver, Phantom Tollbooth, Harry Potter – as they taught me new words and showed me new worlds. I deliberately pursued skill-building outside the classroom, learning to code websites with my friends and to challenge assumptions as a member of the debate team. The sum of these experiences yielded a high school graduate who wanted to learn everything about every topic he could – with one notable exception: religion.
In the beginning, religion wasn’t something I learned, it was something I lived. I was raised to believe in God. My parents named me Christian, and all of my friends and mentors in the faith-first suburbs of Minneapolis believed just as strongly as they did. Both nature and nurture led me to an unthinking faith; I knew of no alternative.
When I left the suburbs for the diverse campus of the University of Michigan, however, that tacitly constructed worldview was challenged as my classmates shared with me ideas to which I had never been exposed. I realized that I didn’t have rational, defensible reasons for believing in God, and that I therefore had a lot of learning to do: about myself, about my peers, and about the world around me.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I surveyed my classmates and uncovered convictions that ran the gamut from devoted belief to skeptical doubt. Some of those conversations were difficult, for faith isn’t exactly the lightest topic; many drove me to read books on modern science and its interplay with spirituality; and every one inexorably formed the foundation of my reinvented perspective on religion.
In some ways, those conversations taught me more than my classes, as they forced me to look within myself and challenge my most deeply-held assumptions, including those about my love of learning. By sharing their stories, my peers taught me that academic learning was just part of the puzzle – and that it had a natural complement in empathetic learning: proactively connecting with the individuals around me, intently listening as they shared their formative experiences, and deeply understanding the beliefs they had developed as a result.
I returned to Minneapolis after graduation with a strong belief that the lessons I learned could make a difference for my peers in the suburbs. The question, and my new challenge, was how to distill my experiences into something useful for those who taught me to love learning in my youth.
In early 2014, I began drafting what would become my first book, Agnostic-ish: My Search for Faith in a Scientific World. Writing took two years, but I was driven by the knowledge that every night of work brought my external words closer to my internal truth and my years of learning closer to making an impact in my community. In the end, Agnostic-ish became an academic exploration of the intersection of religion and modern science, and a case for intentionally developing empathetic understanding, particularly with individuals with whom you have little in common.
And now, that’s why I am committed to helping build relationships among individuals with different religious and ethnic traditions. Our world is too often torn along ideological lines, and we need empathetic learners: bridge-builders driven to learn about (and from) their neighbors, and to work through the multifaceted issues that most often divide us.