Faith and Interfaith

28 Mar

Twenty years of ministry at two universities, one state and one private, teaches me that the metaphorical “global village,” coined decades ago, has been taking tangible shape in the world of higher education at an accelerating pace. While the religious preference data at Vanderbilt would still bear out that our undergraduate population is predominantly Christian, it is far from being monolithically Christian. Other religions, once barely visible on the margins, now assume a formidable witness that compels more of our campus community to listen, learn, acknowledge, affirm and celebrate the budding richness and complexity that is organic to our emerging new world.

However, because faith (singular) now gives rise to multi-faith (plural) as a more accurate expression of today’s collegiate community, the critical question becomes: how does a multi-faith campus become an interfaith community?  I do not pretend to know, nor have I walked, all the viable paths that could facilitate a mutual coming-together into a truly equitable give-and-take. After all, mutual vulnerability and equitable sharing are ideals that, at best, are approximated to the degree that all parties are willing, and able, to take risks. And since I don’t know the absolute best way to nurture and inspire interfaith unity in the midst of multi-faith diversity, I will briefly describe a good and a better path.

One good path is based on the assumption that “something is better than nothing.” What I mean is that a growing number of Americans, especially millennials, now describe themselves as “nones.” (Taken from the 2006 Faith Matters Survey as reported in American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell.)  While nones come to campus with no religious background or commitment, they are often desirous, sometimes starving, for something that will satiate their thirst. This represents the kind of student that I encounter as the “religious tourist.” From the start they flit from one group to the next, delving into religious studies and extra-curricular activities that broaden their knowledge and, in turn, cultivates a receptivity to what God is doing in the world and, quite possibly, in their lives. This is a good path that should be encouraged.

A better path, in my opinion, that leads from multi-faith to interfaith begins with the individual who is grounded in a tradition and yet is confident enough to risk relating to the “religious other.” In his essay “No Religion Is an Island,” Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith is faith…Interfaith must come out of depth, not out of void absence, of faith. It is not an enterprise for those who are half learned or spiritually immature. If it is not to lead to the confusion of the many, it must remain the prerogative of the few.”

In closing, this past weekend I took a small group of students representing VU’s Interfaith Council to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived until his untimely death in 1968. We had a mix of people who were on a continuum that spanned from no faith, to multi-faith, to faith.  As we entered into conversation with Brother Paul Quenon (mentored under Father Merton in the late 1950’s), it became clear that God advances all people from faith to interfaith through the integrity of love more than the purity of dogma, through relationships of trust that give us courage to risk accepting the voice and witness to which we are individually being called. One lesson that I took away was that real “interfaith dialogue” requires more listening than talking, and that progress is slow, incremental and not subject to force. The trend on many campuses to expand and popularize interfaith programming is sometimes motivated by warm, yet vague, notions of tolerance that downplay, if not dismiss altogether, the necessary tension and conflict that comes into play whenever faith, out of its own depth, strives toward interfaith.  As Rabbi Heschel reminds us, interfaith is the prerogative of the few and is not for the faint of heart.

Thomas Merton eloquently articulated the path from faith to interfaith in an informal talk in Calcutta shortly before his death. I can’t think of a better note on which to end: “And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among those people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest levels is possible.” (Signs of Peace: The Interfaith Letters of Thomas Merton)

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Mark Forrester has been the United Methodist Affiliated Chaplain and Campus Minister at Vanderbilt University since 1994.

Vanderbilt Interfaith Council seated with Brother Paul Quenon inside Thomas Merton’s hermitage, Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky.

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One Response to “Faith and Interfaith”

  1. Deborah Lewis March 30, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Thanks for this, Mark. Well said, insightful, and provocative.

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