When I came to seminary I immediately jumped in to the world of pluralism and interfaith studies. Much of my own questioning and faith journey had been inspired by people of other faiths, and I was interested in how Christians could engage in the conversation. My first semester included a course at Harvard Divinity School taught by Diana Eck that served as an overview of current works on pluralism. I quickly learned that the popular interfaith movement did not have much room for evangelical Christians. The message was clear: in order to participate, people with “exclusivist” beliefs and tendencies either have to change or must simply leave behind those fundamental parts of themselves while in interfaith spaces. Exclusive religious strands and denominations came up as the problem to pluralism in many books, a challenge to be overcome, or the main crowd that needs convincing. This presented a fundamental problem in my work and interests. While this attitude towards exclusive traditions does not necessarily effect me personally, it has deep implications for my friends and family who fall into that group. Two central questions emerged from this situation. Is pluralism a productive movement if it cannot fully include those who proselytize, those who are offensive, and those who are seemingly antithetical to many common values of the movement? At what point does pluralism, as perceived by many advocates of it, become exclusive in a similar fashion as exclusivist groups?
As I write the body of this post I want to be clear that I am an advocate for interfaith dialogue, for spaces that confront us with diversity, both internal and external. However, I want to question the limits of the “common ground” approach to interfaith spaces that seek a shared sense of the good. In this post, I will do my best to speak in specifics and to be fair to the communities of which I speak. This post is in an attempt to question something that is held by myself and many others as a positive thing, so I think it is important that questions are asked. This is really a starting point in the conversation. I am writing this post as a way of improving my own thoughts, and to hopefully gain insight from others on this challenging subject.
Most of the interfaith events and spaces I have participated in have been great experiences. I get to learn more about the other, and many assumptions I may have had about theology and practice are debunked or confirmed through conversation. However, in the previous month of reflecting on these experiences, I have been struck with the realization that those events did not ask much of me. I am a Christian humanist who cares about social justice and who votes democrat. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis care deeply about LGBTQ rights, just voted for Hillary Clinton, and have a relatively open view of who God is. What I have found in many interfaith spaces is common ground that looks much like myself, despite our differing faiths. While there are many different traditions and a diversity of gender and race, the common ground and common goals are often very similar. The diversity lies not in differences in values, but rather in how people arrive at that point. For instance, you learn how different faiths draw on their tradition to care about homelessness, or about ecological justice. However, it seems as though there are not many instances where a dissenting value is there. I attended an interfaith colloquium last week and what I am describing could not have been more obvious. I came away from the event learning much, but realizing that it asked nothing of me. Interfaith dialogue has been a breeze for me because I am essentially finding others whose values are the same as mine. In a sense, I’m simply meeting more people who look like me, albeit from different traditions.
While I think it is a great thing for people to learn from others who believe similarly but are from different faiths, who share common ground, my thoughts continually draw me back to how my family and friends from previous contexts could fit in this space. It is easy to sit in the room with those who I agree with, but not so easy with those with whom I fundamentally disagree. Essentially, it is not hard for me to pursue social justice with others who want social justice, but it is hard for me to live side by side and share spaces with those who mock social justice, with those who don’t see it as a need or who fundamentally oppose it. Interfaith dialogue, for me, has taught me how to better live with those I agree with, but not so much those with whom I struggle. This leads me to my next question: who is really “the other?” I have grown too comfortable with who is included in this category. While I think my Muslim and atheist friends with whom I share common ground are to some extent “the other,” I’m finding it is those with whom I fundamentally disagree who truly belong in this group. My sense of otherness has become too much like a reflection of my own sense of the good rather than something that is truly different.
The truth is that I have faced more challenging interfaith spaces while on the phone with my parents than I have at any dialogues since moving to Boston. I cannot stress the importance of interfaith spaces that stress the finding of common ground, but if we truly want peace and understanding for the world we have to be seeking out a version of the other that is truly just that. Interfaith spaces have trained me to live in Boston, but they have not trained me to go back home to Texas. I think we need to challenge interfaith spaces that don’t include real difference or a truly other. The assumed common ground can be a great opportunity for those who are similar to unite, but it can at the same time limit those who feel invited. The prospects for peace in this country will require this kind of work across thick boundaries and fundamental differences.
In conclusion, I first came to interfaith dialogue as a way of expanding my world. While accomplishing that goal in many ways, I have found that I regularly engage with those who look like me rather than those who hold different values. Too often, I think my passion for the interfaith movement is more progressive and challenging than it actually is. While I have met those from all types of backgrounds and faiths who I share common ground with, I have seemingly lost sight of the blatant difference that does what interfaith dialogue initially did. If we want to make good on our claims that we need “the other” and difference to be ourselves, then we can’t simply embrace the type of difference that looks the same as us. Interfaith dialogue changed my world because it asked me to be vulnerable, to be wiling to learn, and to affirm that my experience of the world is not complete. If it is to continue to be that type of work, interfaith dialogue must include not only diversity of beliefs that reach common ground, but also those who fundamentally oppose it.
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