Here is a story about why deep thinking about religious pluralism doesn’t get you out of tight spots with actual people.
The scene: I am at a Starbucks in San Diego sipping my giant American coffee and dutifully researching the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. I mention this detail perhaps too loudly on my cell phone, and then something happens that ALWAYS happens when strangers hear that I study religion. This guy comes up to me and says, “I could not help but overhear that you study religion.…”
Then he sits down and tells me his life story about how he was a Mexican Catholic until he discovered that Islam is the One True Faith. He insists that, because the Qur’an has no internal contradictions (unlike the Bible, he hastened to emphasize), it is therefore perfectly Of God. With a chipper and openhearted mien I try to explain that just because a closed system is consistent, it doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone, or the truest or the best. And then the other thing happens that ALWAYS happens when strangers hear that I study religion: he asks me what I think is the Best Religion. Like usual, I say, all of them--they are all talking about the same thing, they are all symbolic language frameworks for responding to suffering, developing compassion, and transcending the ego, you cannot separate religion from your culture, so none are best for everyone and not even the same religion is totally similar in different places.
He doesn’t like my answer. He wants to fight with me about what I think is the Best Religion (I don’t think that my religion of Jewish UUism with Western Buddhist semiotic framing and a deep appreciation for mystical Christian traditions would have been too clear at the time). He keeps encouraging me to look into Islam more. He’s angry about American culture's closed-mindedness about Islam (understandably).
He starts trying to manhandle the conversation and I push back for a while about subjectively meaningful frameworks and family tradition, until it starts to feel futile and frustrating. Then I excuse myself. He gets angry and tries to hook me with incendiary taunts about the afterlife but I pack up my Saint Ignatius stuff and hasten to leave. I can see in his face he feels abandoned and bereft. I hesitate--maybe he just needs a listener and not a dialoguer--maybe he just needs a new friend--but I don’t want to deal. I leave.
Outside Starbucks I sit in the Jeep with my brow furrowed. Huh. As an interfaith encounter, that went rather poorly. We were obviously operating off mismatched ethical frameworks for the discussion--there was no mutual agreement to learn. He was, after all, rather evangelical. Could I have engaged him differently? I am afeared I did not handle the conversation well. The exchange brings into focus a goal of mine in this world of Interfaith Dialoguing: getting better at speaking the language of the person I am talking to, and of seeing when they are not interested in mutual understanding, and then disengaging constructively.
I couldn’t have conscionably agreed with what he was saying. I supposed I could have placated him and said, “You’re right, because the perhaps the Qur’an does not have internal contradictions like the Bible does, it is more right and perfect, I will read more, thank you.” Agreeing usually ends the argument, right? But this type of engagement would have been non-engagement, passive-aggressive, and perhaps even disrespectful to myself. I figured that at least one of us had to respect me in that context. It’s tricky to disengage from an uneven exchange about anything (let alone religion) without the other person feeling cut off. I know this guy did. Well, I felt coerced and, frankly, bullied. What to do, what to do?
Obviously, this dude was way more interested in being right and validated than he was interested in mutual learning. It’s hard to know, when you start talking to someone, whether they are open to considering your point or whether they just have an agenda to sell and will be dogged about it until you validate them. I related the conversation to my big brother and he said, “Sometimes you have to be more nuts than the nuts to make them leave.” His prime directive: refer all weirdos to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Then tell them with a straight face I am a devout pastafarian, believing that divine semolina will strangle all nonbelievers. Arrr, matey.
The Starbucks scenario occurs quite frequently when people find out I study religion. Everyone has something to say about it; and they are usually quite passionate too. When they aren’t passionate, that’s also interesting. This is part of what I love about my field, and it’s part of what I have to be careful of, because I could take an hour to get down the street if I am not selectively cagey about what I study.
In all my studies of interfaith scenarios and pastoral caregiving contexts, I have yet to receive effective instruction on developing better time and space boundaries in religion discourse, identifying and constructing more productive interfaith encounters, making effective word choices, revealing strong yet personable conviction, laboring at personal frustration restraint, and how to engage (and disengage) when the other person has a closed-minded or unreasonable agenda.
These things can’t be taught or quickly learned; they are skills emerging over time, over a journey. They are the hallmarks of masterful communication, no matter the topic. I suspect the conversation itself is the classroom. Unless people like me respond to this fellow as I did, I fear he will never have to ask himself questions.
Thus we trudge on gingerly, mediating what little enlightenment we can to each other, through speaking our hearts and having courage to be offended, to fail, and to learn from what went wrong. How else are we supposed to grow if we can’t see what we’re still terrible at?
This photo is used with permission from Mirah Curzer Photography.