If I am purposefully, actively engaged in interfaith work or some similarly open–minded religious pursuit, am I more mature, or “better” by some other measure, than those who for some religious reason or another refuse to engage in, and even in some cases directly oppose, such work?
If I answer “yes” to this question, am I denigrating the religious beliefs and commitments of another, a practice I otherwise detest as an ostensibly accepting, open–minded individual?
If I answer “no” to this question, am I diminishing the value of what some would argue is clearly a higher good, over and above the lesser good of intolerance or closed–mindedness?
These are just a few of a number of questions I find myself puzzling over with various developmental theories of religious identity, social psychological theories of interfaith relations, and the like. One reading of such theories might suggest that certain paths of religious development are “better” than others, or result in a greater level of “maturity” than others. If I follow a certain normative path of religiosity, so it goes, I will be more open–minded and therefore more accepting of others who are different than me.
If, however, I get snagged at a certain point in my religious development and cease growing upward in a positive direction, I might spend my life wallowing in abject fear and hatred as an intolerant, closed–minded bigot who has an immature faith and distaste for diversity.
That’s one reading, at least.
On the one hand, this idea makes sense, it “feels” right, and it clearly is validated by an impressive number of empirical studies. Fundamentalists (the “underdeveloped”) are more prejudiced. Seeking, open–minded individuals, or those with a “Quest” religious orientation, as it’s commonly referred to in the literature, are less prejudiced. Social science has spoken—take that, Jerry Falwell (God rest his soul)!
On the other hand, I wonder if we run the risk with this line of reasoning of becoming intolerant of the intolerant, of closing off the closed–minded, of subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) asserting our own sense of superiority even as we ask others not to do that very thing. We might argue, then, that any attempt at theorizing about normative religiosity will be shot through with certain biases, value judgments, exclusionary boundaries, and other things we might wrongly assume we don’t possess.
“Physician, heal thyself!” as the saying goes.
The task in navigating these tensions, I think, is to earnestly reflect on and claim our values as interfaith persons (or otherwise open–minded persons, in whatever setting that gets expressed), while at the same time coming to terms with the fact that our values may not be as taken–for–granted or justifiable to others as we assume they are. In other words, the importance and right–ness of interfaith work may simply be lost on some—defensible though that work may be—for what to them are perfectly legitimate, rational reasons, and not just because they’re bad or underdeveloped people.
Intolerant people are people too, after all, as hard as that may be for some of us to hear. They’re someone’s mother, or husband, or best friend, or great uncle’s roommate’s nephew’s cousin. They have real fears, real concerns, real loves, real commitments. They lie awake at night pondering issues of religion and diversity, just as we ourselves have done. This is not to excuse being intolerant, mind you. As I’ve suggested, we have to know our values, and claim and defend them.
But, if nothing else, this may begin to give us an idea of where a conversation with intolerance can start, and endow us with a measure of understanding and humility so often needed to engage in conversation in the first place. It may even someday get us to the point of being able to sit down across the table from someone we would otherwise demonize and diminish (God rest Jerry Falwell’s soul) and to hear them and be heard by them, a difficult task that seems to elude so many interfaith programs and initiatives. Then, of course, the real hard work can begin.
Photo by Kevin Vanden, via Flickr Creative Commons.