At the risk of stating the obvious, it has occurred to me that some of us leading our own little interfaith efforts actually have no idea what it is we’re doing or what it is we’re hoping to accomplish. At least, I fear that this may be true of me, and I’m sure it has been true of some of you as well.
While I’ve been involved in interfaith work in one way or another over the past few years, several days ago I stood at the helm and facilitated my very first interfaith class at my United Methodist church here in Nashville, TN. A rather simple manifestation of the interfaith impulse, we advertised ourselves as a basic guest–speaker–from–another–religious–tradition class model—no frills, no special programs, or initiatives. We are what I would consider rather bare–bones.
I asked a Mormon friend of mine to step in as our class’s inaugural guest speaker (we are, after all, potentially months away from electing a Mormon president – what a timely interfaith class!), and he bravely and graciously accepted the invitation. Actually, it turns out he does this sort of thing for local churches all the time, which surprised me, and comforted me.
Despite my confidence in my friend’s half of the arrangement, in the weeks and days leading up to our first class I wrestled with feelings of terror, anxiety and self–doubt.
What are my motives?
Is anyone going to show up?
What if the class turns into a Methodist Inquisition?
While I’m still sorting out my honest answer to the first question, I was happy to see we had a decent turnout for our first class (about fifteen or so, with only moderate advertising in the preceding weeks) and everyone was on their best behavior and made my friend feel safe and welcome, at least from where I was sitting. All in all, it was a good first go at it.
And yet, as I sit and reflect on our first class, there are the nagging questions – why are we doing this, and what did we actually accomplish?
My friend, for his part, was charming and refreshingly candid in his presentation. He fielded questions from the class perhaps a bit cautiously but ultimately without pulling any punches. He shared some insights on the Mormon tradition that may have been difficult for some to hear. He supports traditional marriage. He pointed out that women are barred from the Mormon priesthood (though they do, he also pointed out, serve in other important roles). Otherwise, he gave us the standard bullet point outline of Mormon beliefs—ancient North American prophets, golden tablets, baptisms for the dead, and so on, all of which he seemed perfectly comfortable with and unapologetic for believing. In other words, he was in his presentation completely true to himself and his tradition.
And this bothered me at first, I think, if I’m to be completely honest. I suppose I went into this first class expecting and hoping for a more “palatable” Mormonism, for my friend to “put his best foot forward” and make the class feel at ease with his faith, to not leave any loose ends or lingering reservations. In fact, he ended up doing quite the opposite. I think most in our class walked away with more questions about Mormonism and with more unresolved issues than they had when they first showed up. Who has the nerve to baptize the dead, anyway?
All of this leads me to the larger question of what it is we think interfaith encounters like this should be in the first place.
Is it a game of folks in the minority placating the folks in the majority? Just tell us you don’t really believe some of the things you purportedly believe, or that you’re more like us than we thought you were, and we can all get along just fine.
Certainly there’s something to be said for commonality, for having shared values and commitments, particularly when we start to think about just how it is we’re supposed to steer this big ship of a society if we can’t all agree on some basic, fundamental things.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for allowing one another to be who we are and to believe what we believe. Should these encounters, then, be more an exercise in learning how to be completely open and honest with one another about what we believe and value, even if that does tend to make things a little messier and, at times, leave us with more unresolved questions?
In the end, reflecting back on our first class, my friend did precisely what he should have done given the circumstances and what I’d asked him to do—he graciously and civilly allowed us to get to know him, laying himself and his faith bare. Which was perfect for our class, now that I think of it, because we are rather bare bones.
Photo by lifecreations via Flickr Creative Commons.