Conversation Partners: We Need Each Other

Jennifer Peace

Basma was soft spoken by nature, but as the only Muslim student in a class on interfaith leadership she had a lot to contribute. Before she moved to the US from Egypt, her contact with non-Muslims had been limited. Since coming to the US, she had met many people from different religious traditions as well as Muslims from various backgrounds. “Our experiences change who we are,” she told the class.

It was an assertion she repeated more than once. Basma’s openness led her to become an interfaith leader on our campus.

Web of Relationships

Helping students explore each other’s religious traditions and share their stories animates the model of interfaith education at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College. “Interreligious learning through relationship-building” has long been a guiding maxim of our shared work at CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education), where I am co-director. Our commitment is rooted in a belief that these experiences make Christians better Christians (and Jews better Jews, Muslims better Muslims).

Beyond the paradigms of comparative theology, world religions, or religious literacy, we are committed to coformation.1 By coformation I mean that students in theological education are formed within a web of relationships and not simply in isolation. This reflects the pluralistic world we are preparing them for.

Students eagerly embrace the power of personal narrative and storytelling. At the same time, there is a potential hazard in over-idolizing one’s own story. This insight was brought home to me by Sister Chundru, a Hindu nun and fellow interfaith activist. We were talking about how hard it can be to build an authentic dialogue when people get overly focused on their own personal experiences in ways that leave no room for other – potentially contradictory – experiences. “Ah yes,” she said, “the tyranny of personal experience.”

When building interreligious relationships, one of the best strategies I’ve found to combat the tyranny of personal experience was shared with me by Father Ray Helmick, a Catholic priest, life-long peacemaker, and interreligious bridge-builder. When he comes up against a dogmatic position forged through a deeply held personal experience, he says simply, “My experiences have not led me to the same conclusion.” This simple sentence acknowledges the legitimacy of experience without capitulating to the ways we can use our stories to build exclusivist ideologies.

Shadow Side

This shadow side of personal experience, as identified by Sister Chundru, was further nuanced and expanded for me by Buddhist scholar John McKransky. John had contributed a chapter to a collection I co-edited called My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Transformation and Growth (Orbis, 2012). Speaking on a panel of contributors to the book, he made a comment that intrigued me: “We Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Humanists, etc., need each other to liberate us from our own stories.” After the event I asked him to elaborate. Via email, here is what he wrote:

“The stories of our own tradition are foundational for us, orienting us to our religious identities and ways of being and understanding. But we all tend to get caught in the stories of our own tradition, imprisoned in them in ways not fully conscious to us. We get caught in a kind of idolatry that clings too exclusively, in too limited a way, to our own culturally conditioned current understandings of our own stories.

“For this reason, we are dependent upon religious others to liberate us from bondage to our own stories. Religious others do this by sharing their stories, which interrupt our own narratives and point beyond them to more of the richness of human perspectives and experiences, thereby opening us to further possible meanings in our own stories.”

This imprisonment in our stories in “ways not fully conscious to us” makes it urgent to address the internal dimensions of grassroots interfaith work – the need for self-awareness and self-knowledge, a confrontation with our own biases. Though peace-building, social justice, and coalition-building across religious lines are important forms of interfaith work, a critical facet of this work is akin to spiritual formation. In all of my classes, I begin with attention to the unconscious biases that undergird our relations to others, and then I introduce students to practices that help them explore this inner landscape.

Unmasking Hatreds

Without this orienting self-awareness, interfaith work runs the risk of remaining shallow and self-congratulatory. It can become an exercise in reinforcing rather than dismantling destructive stereotypes. In this sense, interfaith work shares many of the same challenges and dynamics of consciousness-raising, the work of unmasking racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, classism, and the myriad other ways that hatred masquerades. Consciousness in one area is not necessarily a predictor of awareness in another. I’ve met racist feminists, sexist interfaith activists, and homophobic champions of racial equality.

One disconcerting conclusion I’ve drawn from decades of work as an interfaith organizer and educator is that consciousness in one area is not necessarily a predictor of awareness in another. I’ve met racist feminists, sexist interfaith activists, and homophobic champions of racial equality. We can be bigoted when it comes to one group of people and enlightened advocates for others.

This is both disheartening and fascinating to me. Because the more I explore these intersecting forms of exclusion, the more I recognize the same patterns of thought underlying them.

Mutual Transformation

This brings me back to Basma’s insight: New experiences change who we are. One way to disrupt the patterns of thought that underlie bigotry is to expand experiences. Basma became an interfaith leader on our hill because her willing exposure to new viewpoints enlarged her outlook on the value of religious pluralism. As a seminary educator I am constantly thinking about how to fine-tune programs we design for our students in the classroom, through campus programming, and with our interfaith fellowship program to arrange for new connections across religious lines. Religious diversity is a fact, but cultivating healthy interfaith relationships takes skill, practice, curiosity, and will.

Much seems to hinge on our relationship to our own stories, the narrative chronicles of our personal experiences. Will we cling to them rigidly in a kind of unconscious idolatry? Or can we offer and receive them as gifts, allowing my story to expand your understanding even as I allow your story to expand mine?

When we commit to the latter, I’ve found that it creates a powerful opening, a space for mutual transformation.2 This is key to the kind of learning that marks interreligious education at its best – new connections made amid our irreducible differences, without ignoring them or flattening them out.

Even now, as I tell this story of my own education in the power and pitfalls of personal experience for interfaith work, I’m aware of the cohort of interfaith conversation partners who I have to thank: a Muslim student, a Hindu nun, a Catholic priest, a Buddhist scholar, my UU and Christian students, an Islamic scholar, and a rabbi. We need each other.

Jennifer Howe Peace is associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA., and a pioneer in contemporary interfaith initiatives. At Andover Newton, she co-directs CIRCLE, a joint center shared with Hebrew College. CIRCLE promotes interfaith learning for students in and beyond the classroom. Peace has helped organize interfaith groups such as the United Religions Initiative, the Interfaith Youth Core, and Daughters of Abraham. With Or Rose and Gregory Mobley, she is co-editor of My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis, 2012).

Notes 1 Jennifer Peace, “Coformation Through Interreligious Learning,” Colloquy v. 20, No. 1 (2011), pp. 24-27.

2 For a simple exercise that introduces students to the power of giving and receiving stories, see my “Teaching Tactic for Interfaith Engagement,” Teaching Theology and Religion, vol. 16, Issue 4 (October 2013), p. 388.