Friday, February 24, 2006

Interfaith Impediments

Can one participate in interfaith work while still believing in truth?

This is a question that I'm dealing with. One of our students has begun feeling uncomfortable in the group because she's conservative (politically) and believes her religion is best. That's perfectly okay with the rest of us. In fact, we purposely look for students who are strong in their beliefs because they can teach the rest of us the most about their tradition, and also will usually find their faith strengthened by being part of our council.

Our hard and fast rule is that nobody is there to convert anybody. However, the students do tend to relax their ideas about exclusive truth claims. I've found my own ideas about ultimate truth challenged and about how God relates to humanity expanded. It's very hard to sit across the table from a devout practicioner of another religion, week after week, and still be able to say that person has no access to God or is fooling him or herself. You do start to wonder if maybe God has reached into the world in a few different ways...maybe still believing your way is best, but also being unable to deny not only the devotion but also the fruits in these others' lives.

But by the nature of the group mostly liberal (politically) students join up in the first place. And mostly they do not represent Christianity. Other proselytizing religions come - Muslim, Jewish - but the Christians pretty much stay away. We have only 2 Roman Catholics and an LDS purely representing Christianity. We also have a Christian guy who is there representing a spiritual exploration group, and another who was raised in a Muslim/Christian household (so obviously he knows how to straddle the line). We lost our Episcopalian to a study-abroad program, and our two Presbyterians to busy schedules. We never had an Evangelical, despite my fervent attempts to recruit someone.

I don't know how we can be more friendly to more conservative religions. I'm sure it's very hard for our LDS rep who is about the only conservie in the group these days (although the Baha'i and Muslim faiths are also pretty conservative). Recently a few students met with our Religious Directors (clergy/etc who help run the student groups) and they were asked how they deal with conflicting truth claims. Our Jewish rep was saying how they're all pretty liberal and open to other beliefs, but the LDS girl stopped him and said that she believed in truth and believed her religion had it. Which is the kind of lovely moment that we hope for when we have these students on the council, but I think it made her feel like a weirdo.

Nobody should be made to feel that way for simply trusting in their faith. That's quite unfair.

So I'm wrestling with this. We're losing more conservative people and maybe that's just the nature of the beast. But at least the Catholics and Muslims will sit at table with the rest of us - the Evangelicals won't even show up! They refuse to participate in our multi-faith events, as if they could somehow be tainted by contact with other religions.

I do sense a reluctance, even in my Fuller colleagues, to engage other faiths in dialogue. I don't know if people are scared or what. Maybe they fear becoming like me. :)

I've only had great experiences with people from other faiths and they have taught me so much. It's those of my own tradition that I have trouble with.

But I do also bear some blame for helping to create this atmosphere that is intolerant of intolerance. The plain fact is, everyone has a place at our table and in practice it does come off as everyone's opinion/belief being equally valid. That's threatening. And we think the students can handle it but I'm watching one crumble under the weight of it and that breaks my heart.

What should I do? What would you do? What would Jesus do?
(ha ha couldn't resist)

Actually now that I think about it, our group is really a motley crew. We have:
a Zen Catholic
a Hindu interested in Buddhism and Christianity
another person raised Hindu who now leads an nonsectarian meditation group
a spiritual explorer who was raised Catholic
a Jew raised Catholic/Jewish
a Christian raised Christian/Muslim
a Buddhist who is also Episcopalian
an Episcopalain who is also Buddhist
an athiest raised Christian
a Christian who's representing a multifaith spiritual exploration group
and a Baha'i, and they consider all religions equally valid.
The only straight up one thing people we have are the LDS, Muslim, and the other Catholic.

This is it people - this is what religion looks like on a college campus today. These students have been raised with mixed notions and they are seeking even more ways to be spiritual. Rather than one way, most go with several to see what works best. Christians bemoan this state of affairs. But I wonder....

Should we let ourselves be threatened? Or should we find a way to work within it?

By not showing up to the table, Evangelicals are giving up their voice. They are losing the opportunity to be one among many paths that a student can choose. Now perhaps they have no interest in being one among many - it's my way or the highway. But the reality is, you can't really think that way anymore. Not in our global pluralist culture. You don't have to say the others are right, but it wouldn't hurt to at least offer your option too.

That's what I think anyway. I wish Christians would at least stand up and say yes, we're a choice too!


Anonymous said...

you got my brain going!

Sarah said...

I doubt the evangelicals think they'll be tainted by those of other faiths. They probably just don't want to pretend that everyone can have his or her own truth. They interpret the scripture to say exactly the opposite, that there is ONE truth ("I am the truth and the life"...etc).

But I love what you wrote about it being tough to sit across the table from someone of another faith, week after week, and deny the work of God in his life. This is why diversity breeds tolerance.

And if there really is a God, don't we think He/She/It has been reaching out to humanity in all cultures throughout time? And if so, isn't it likely that those cultures interpretted those "reachings of God" through the lenses of their own experiences (geographical and social)? And so couldn't the different religions that have come to be actually be many different responses to the same divine reaching that God was doing? Even the most conservative Christians can't deny the similarity between the moral messages of major world religions, or the repetition of certain mythologies, like a Garden, a flood, an immaculate conception, or a sacrificial death.

I am not saying that religion doesn't matter. In fact, I think that the existence of religions in nearly every culture and the similarities between them are strong circumstancial evidence that there is a divine power at work in the world. So use your Torah, your Bible, your rosary beads, your liturgy, your icons, your yoga, and go out and harness the divine at work in yourself! Be a force for good/God in the world.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stasi said...

Evan, I needed to remove your comment b/c the link was too long. But thanks for it - I enjoyed reading it.

Here's Evan's comment:
I am undoubtedly a neophyte at this, but your entry prompted a memory of an entry in another blog I often read two months ago.

The section four paragraphs down is what is relevant. For me, it was a novel interpretation of that line of scripture.

I liked what Sarah had to say, and I enjoyed this interfaith post and the recent one that preceded it--hope more is to come on this subject.


Stasi said...

As to the question of Fuller suiting me, there's already been a lot of whining on here about how it doesn't, so I won't rehash. But you can find posts about it, to be sure.

Anonymous said...

Well, speaking as an ex-fundamentalist, I think I can understand why they don't show up. Their world view is that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ. Any other way to God is either delusion or an active work of satan.

If they were to engage in the idea that there were other ways to God, it would crumble the world view. And if the ground rule is no proseletyzing, then why go?

I think that it is very much a shame that conservative Christians tend not to take part in those kinds of conversations - it does dilute the richness of the conversation possible.

And I want to echo Sarah's comment about your statement sitting across from someone week after week. I went to a retreat yesterday morning, with people who are more conservative theoligically than I am (in fact, one of the participants had gone to Fuller), and although we didn't talk theology during the retreat (it was a retreat to learn and practice Lectio Divina) being with those people for those few hours made a huge difference in my willingness to talk to and engage with Christians who are conservative (and I imagine they would be more willing to talk with a heretic like me) because of that time of seeing thier connection with God.

Christine Bakke said...

Hmmm. Reading this brought back some memories.

When I was active in evangelical circles, I definitely had a hard time with the notion of interfaith kinds of gatherings. It seemed dangerous to me and I look back now and remember a lot of fear of "the other" and of a fear of either losing my own faith, or being seen as intolerant (because I had the truth; the only way to God), or being seen (to other Christians) as compromising my own faith by putting it on par with the faiths of others.

I'm not sure I would have been able to articulate all that during that time, though. It just led me to think that "interfaith" pursuits were a form of compromise about my beliefs that I just couldn't participate in. I think if I had been in any kind of interfaith thing during those years, I would have really come off as incredibly closed-minded, though. I look back now and read the kinds of papers I wrote for my college classes and I cringe.

Mike said...

Interesting...however, other religions are a choice, christianity is not. Specifically, my church is the only church with the whole truth. Other churches might have some truthes but mine represents God's true church. You can choose to be a part of another church, but if you want to get to heaven there is no choice.

Stasi said...

Well, that's easy enough for you to say, but what if I think you're wrong? Can you actually prove your church has the "whole truth"? I think each religious practicioner believes the same as you - otherwise, they wouldn't believe in their own faith! So that argument really gets nowhere.

Also, most people are looking for good news in this life, not just a promise of "pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by".

A couple quotations to consider:

"It is much easier to know the truth than to seek it."

"Adhering strictly to particular interpretations of truth claims allows people to feel justified in holding all kinds of attitudes and behaviors, including beliefs and actios that contradict well-known teachings of their religion."
(Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 68 & 44)

It is important to untangle the language of absolute truth from confessional statements. What you say out of devotion and obedience is heartfelt, to be sure, but that does not make it (absolute) truth. And it's hardly convincing for someone who is faithful to another tradition, who doesn't see the Bible as God's Word.

You think they should just take your word for it?