Last night I attended an event called “Islamophobia Forum: Dispelling the Myth.” Quite a crowd—Baker Theater was standing room only, and there were plenty of people standing. Which was encouraging in that so many people are looking for a way out of the oppositional mindset we’ve been fed about religion.
As a Unitarian Universalist, one of the things I bring to UCM is a decidedly interfaith orientation. And thre are some reasons why that orientation makes sense for a 21st-century campus ministry whose history has been progressive ecumenical Christian. Our world is small and getting smaller; and Thomas Friedman tells us it’s getting flatter too—in the sense that more and more people around the globe are gaining access to information and communication technology that permits us all to compete, to connect, and to interact on an equal footing, a level playing field.
In Athens this means that on any given day, each of us is more and more likely to meet and interact with people from other countries, other cultures—other faiths. And as technology pushes the boundaries of community outward, we have to figure out how to be community with the people we share this shrinking world with. This is proving difficult in many areas, not least in religion. Because there’s a very human tendency to understand humans in terms of “us” and “them,” and to pay lots of attention to where and how and by whom the line gets drawn between the two.
At bottom, to draw that line we have to think of people in terms of general characteristics of a group—which means in stereotypes. Our faith traditions, though, agree on the basic “sharedness” of our humanity; in the Abrahamic traditions we call this “being made in the image and likeness of God,” and believe we all are. And what we’ve learned is that the most effective antidote to our tendency to define others by stereotypes is to engage in dialogue—to sit down together and to experience each other in the fullness that only comes with presence and listening.The problem in the case of religion is that our differences seem to go to the very core: who we are, what we’re supposed to do, what happens when we die.
And in some sense they do; but the real problem is in that “othering” move, the one where we say “my faith tells me this truth, which is right, therefore the different truth your faith tells you must be wrong.” And that’s the trouble, right there–we expect our truths to be exclusive, we see them in either-or terms: either I’m right or you’re right. But we live in a both-and world. We live in a world where, when I sit down with you face to face, I learn that underlying our cultural differences is our common humanity; that in your cultural context your truth claims make perfect sense; and that granting that does not diminish the importance or validity of my own truth claims.
In this world my life as I live it is my faith witness, and it is as compatible with the Christian Great Commandment to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself as it is compatible with the pagan injunction against harm, or the Buddhist goal of freedom from the illusion of self, or the various ideals of a raft of other religious traditions.
Why interfaith? Because modern biology and physics teach us we’re all connected, and because these different faiths exist among us, and because ultimately I (we?) believe it’s not just possible, but true to our very nature, for all of us to live in community. What if we ALL embraced this both-and way of thinking, what if we could satisfy our curiosity about each other’s beliefs without tripping over the fear we’ve been handed? I don’t know about you, but that’s a world I want to live in.
Reverend Evan Young, Campus Minister, has been with United Campus Ministries since 2005. He graduated from Methodist Theological Seminary in Delaware Ohio and serves part-time as a pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens. He has played a key leadership role in the interfaith movement at Ohio University over the years, and has, by example, showcased the key link between social justice projects and interfaith community.