A Diversity of Diversities in Interfaith Dialogue
By Leigh Rogers, posted with permission by Onleilove Alston.
In the New York Times, Stanley Fish writes on the complexity of political correctness in academia. He notes that the liberal slant on many college faculties can be extreme.
In discussing a new book on the subject, Fish cites Cary Nelson’s, uber-PC example:
“His own example of absurdity (it occurred in his home department) is a faculty appointment that was derailed when it was discovered that the candidate, then teaching in New Zealand, had written a letter to a newspaper criticizing the practice of going barefoot in public places on the grounds that it promoted the spread of disease. A department member decided that the letter “was an attack on the Maori people and thus racist,” and even when it was determined that it is not the Maori, but “white hippies, who go barefoot in New Zealand, the majority voted against pursuing the candidate in order, says Nelson, to prove “themselves to colleagues of color.”
Though it sounds unrelated to interfaith dialogue, a lot about this subject has affected my participation in discussions with others of different faiths, especially within academia.
As a privileged, white, agnostic-Christian-raised participant in faith dialogues, I always felt like I wasn’t an asset to the group. Our interfaith dialogue group had plenty of white pseudo-Christian girls; instead, there always seemed to be a push for “diversity,” which meant a recruitment of those from more seemingly obscure faiths (Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, Jainism, Shinto) whose members were often people of color.
Even though I eventually became a leader of my collegiate interfaith group, I often felt like I was going to be “fired” from my role in order to meet quotas of diversity that others could fill with their religious and ethnic backgrounds. It always seemed to me like the diversity people were looking for was only the religious or racial kind. Those are obviously important for an interfaith group, but what about diversities of political viewpoints, cultural values, gender, or sexual orientation?
Of all the religious groups we recruited to attend our interfaith dialogue group, there was never an active push to recruit those attending Campus Crusade for Christ. The reason? I believe it stemmed from the fear that the discussion would turn into a proselytizing session by those who believe they can lead us to heaven if we believe in “Him,” and thus need to “save” as many souls as possible.
I was briefly a part of Campus Crusade for Christ and had many friends and acquaintances that attended. No one from Campus Crusade really took my offer to attend our interfaith dialogues seriously. But for me it was unlikely it would turn into a soul-saving rally. And yet, within the dialogue group, there seemed to be an unspoken fear of messianic religion and of the presence of political and intellectual difference of opinions on non-religious matters.
While we were perfectly fine and accepting of religious difference of belief and opinion, we were not so tolerant of strict political difference. Evangelical Christians convey more than evangelizing fervor to other faiths; they also convey a sense of secular conservatism that has a checklist of values meant to keep the cause pure.
Evangelical Christianity believes that it is the only means of salvation and that other religions are hocus-pocus. This, of course, was a problem for us. We seemed to have a preempted the tacit rule that all religions were not just valuable in their own right but also other roads to salvation. This made us contradictory to our own cause. We valued the general statement of “diversity” but weren’t willing to step out of our comfort zones in case we had our own liberal biases threatened.
We in fact did have a Pentecostal Christian as a regular attendee of our interfaith dialogue group. He regularly stepped out of his comfort zone with us, and I learned a lot from him as a friend and participant in our discussions. One day, in the student union, I sat with him after one of our meetings he explained to me why he attended the dialogues, even though he felt persecuted as a convicted Christian.
“I go for the educational aspect, to learn about other religious traditions,” he said. “I also go because it makes my faith stronger; when I learn about other faiths, it tests my own faith and instead of feeling threatened by other faiths, I can respect them as I strengthen my belief in my own.”
“It is a lack of one’s own faith that makes one threatened of other faiths.” he said. My friend has now recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School.
As a Pentacostal Christian, you don’t merely need to believe that Jesus is your personal savior to go to heaven, you must also be baptized twice (once in the holy spirit and another in the name of Jesus) and have an out-of-body, tongues-speaking experience. So, for him to find value in other faiths while having such conviction in his own could be a real challenge.
As people interested in interfaith dialoguers, I hope we can channel my friend’s mentality and showcase a diversity of diversities: the welcoming of not just religious and ethnic tolerance, but also political and intellectual tolerance of viewpoints. If we work from a fear of disagreement, of offending an objective PC truth then we won’t be able to find the center of our personal beliefs and where we might meet as a group of diverse individuals.
As one tweeter said, “In groups where everybody agrees, not much deep thinking will be done.”
Leigh Rogers is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and works in communications for a women’s faith organization in New York. She blogs at Faithful Democrats and AJGita.