Who Am I? Reflections on Religious Pluralism

The Gordon College community, where I work, has been traumatized in the last few weeks.  My personal silence has come from the need to reflect in order to speak from my heart in a way that builds understanding rather than fuels more misunderstanding, anger, and mistrust.  I’ve been struck by the rhetoric that fails to engage the real issue facing our country, which is the issue of religious pluralism and how we are going to develop the skills of listening, of understanding, and of working together toward the common good.

Religious pluralism is a reality in the United States.  We have communities of faith that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and even New Age.  Native Americans are increasingly drawing on their spiritual roots.  Out of that plurality of religious traditions, my faith tradition, inherited from generations before me, is evangelical pietism.  My religious tradition goes back centuries, has its roots in Northern Europe, and found a strong home in the Midwestern U.S.  But increasing number of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa come from the Evangelical Pietist tradition as well.  Congregations are springing up across New England and urban America that reflect the Evangelical Pietist tradition among these new immigrants.  Are we going to figure out how to engage with them?

One of my daughters was newly arrived in New England on July 1.  She came from a month of doing educational programming in a rural community in Appalachia (with a Catholic organization).  She has followed my family’s faith tradition.  And she says her world has shifted this month.  She has never seen such a lack of understanding of the plurality of religious faith traditions in our country, nor has she ever seen them so stereotyped as she has since arriving in New England.

In many ways, our Christian tradition is most akin to Catholic monasticism.  The tradition can be characterized by the practice of spiritual disciplines within the support of a faith community in order for us to deepen our relationship with God and conform our lives to the image of Christ.  It has a central element of sacrifice of self and individual desires for the good of others—modeled after Christ.  In my family it looked something like this:  I come from generations of pietists who practiced prayer and the reading of scripture, along with other pietistic practices (choosing not to smoke or drink alcohol for example) with the support of a faith community in order to better listen for what God might be asking of them.  For my grandfather, this meant he visited the local jail every Sunday morning and quietly gave away most of his wealth to those in need.  My grandmother and my parents were always taking in people to live with their family for extended periods of time, and my daughters and I did similarly.  My father, a Baptist minister, initiated the development of the Headstart program and community mental health center in my home town, and reached across the racial divide to the African American Baptist pastor during the civil rights era.  Today, the last congregation he served is led by an African-American pastor, something that he would have celebrated as the result of God’s spirit working in the hearts of that congregation.  In their retirement my parents volunteered for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Love, Inc.  My family’s religious tradition was the fuel out of which service for the common good arose.  This is the same religious tradition that led the entire French village of Le Chambon to take in their Jewish neighbors during WWII.

Another way to see this tradition is an emphasis on holiness—the choice to subsume your own desires in the context of a faith community, for the good of others.  So for example, the evangelical pietistic Christian tradition has traditionally honored the choice of someone remaining single in order to be free to better serve others.  This is why evangelical pietism has commonalities with the Catholic tradition where monastic practices of chastity, spiritual disciplines, and the choice to live within boundaries develops virtues that enable the greater service to others. My mother would often say that my father could have easily been a Franciscan monk who spent his life in prayer and service.

This comes out of a central tenant of the tradition—that our central identity is our faith identity.  Our community is made up of people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and social classes.  What holds us together is our central faith identity.  Do we struggle to understand how to incorporate the diversity of backgrounds into a central faith identity?  Daily for 125 years.  Gordon, which has its 125th Anniversary this fall, welcomed women, people of all colors, and all social classes into its community from its beginning.  One of our early deans of the faculty was a woman.  What keeps us working at community within this diversity is our faith identity—it provides our center and calls us to keep learning and listening respectfully to each other.  Finally, this tradition sees every human being made in the image of God.  Thus the tradition asks that we develop the self-control, and virtue needed to make every encounter with another person worthy of our faith commitment.  It is a tradition that is focused on transforming ourselves—not imposing on others—our choice to conform ourselves to particular spiritual disciplines and practices is that—our choice for ourselves.  It is not about imposing on others—all are welcome to partner with us in working for the common good, or to come and enjoy programs that any campus provides—whether it is to enjoy the beauty of nature in our natural areas on campus, to challenge yourself through our outdoor recreation programs, to explore the richness of the human experience through the arts, or to come join us for lectures that encourage respectful conversations, a phrase that shapes the culture of our campus.

Coming out of an evangelical, pietistic faith tradition, contrary to popular belief, does not lead to intolerance, but quite the opposite.  Our students are able to engage deeply with other traditions because they understand and appreciate the depth at which beliefs are held.  We take belief seriously.  This has meant that we have always welcomed people of other faiths, or no faith, to dialogue with us at Gordon College.  This has included LGBT community members.  We are a place that desires and wishes for difficult conversations because it requires us to think more deeply about our faith.

Furthermore, our faith asks us to focus on the transformation of ourselves into the image of Christ in order to love and serve all others without prejudice since each person is made in the image of God without exception.  This gives us the ground on which to demand high standards for the Gordon community in its interaction with our geographic neighbors, and other faith communities.  And we know and recognize that we fail daily.  But in spite of our failings, we continue to reflect and offer welcome to any who would engage with our particular faith community in a mutual journey of understanding.

Every religious community has documents and practices that call its members or people back to faithfulness to their tradition.  Each has a rich history and tradition behind it that resonates with those from within the community.  When we in the Gordon community affirm our statement of faith, we are reminded of what is at the center of our identity and our life together as a community—an evangelical faith.  And we read this with a particular history in mind, a context.  The statement itself has a history and context to it—we are coming up on our institution’s 125th Anniversary, meaning that our history and understanding of ourselves precedes the terms Christian fundamentalism (which arose in the 1930s), the religious right and the moral majority (which came about in the 1970s and 80s). When we affirm our life and conduct statement, we are reading the context of our tradition—going back hundreds of years—into the document as well.  It is a document written by us and for us.  It is a document that governs our life together.  It asks us to daily choose to love our neighbor, to seek holiness, to sacrifice our individual needs and desires for the common good, to serve the poor, and reminds us that we fail in all these areas daily, and we need forgiveness to begin anew.  It creates a context in which we have the ability to be consistent across our curriculum and co-curriculum to challenge (not punish) our students to go deeper and to demand higher standards for themselves, in a context of giving each other grace along with mutual accountability.  And they in turn demand much from us.

If we are going to learn to live together—Evangelical Pietists, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, “nons”, we are going to need to stop throwing words, and begin listening.  We at Gordon are waiting and open.  In the meantime, I have been praying for my Muslim and Mormon neighbors, who each may have different belief systems that mine, that they may feel safe in the midst of this firestorm.