This week, I had the privilege of attending an interfaith retreat in Pottsboro, TX, in which members from the world’s three major monotheistic or “Abrahamic” religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) spent roughly 67 hours breaking bread together and discussing these visions and versions of faith that made us all distinct, yet simultaneously converged.
The event was catered to seminary students (those pursuing a Master’s Degree or higher in studies concerning their respective religions) and there were students and faculty representing schools such as ACU, TCU, SMU, Austin Presbyterian, and Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary, among others, with at least six Christian denominations offering a voice; as well as four students and a faculty member from Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and three students and a faculty member from Al-Rahmah Qur’an Academy in Baltimore, providing voices for the Conservative Jewish perspective and the Sunni Muslim perspective.
Now this week was not, as some might expect, the start of the next round of the Crusades. Nor was it political correctness run amok (though we did seek to be polite and respectful in our conversations, because that’s how grownups interact with each other). Nor was it, I would say, a naïve pursuit of a long lost cause.
Rather, it was a beautiful gathering of strangers united by a common goal, a common God, and a common devotion for this God that digs so deeply into our souls that it brought us here to what [too] many of us considered to be the Great Unknown.
Here, the playing field was leveled. The line between professor and student was skewed, and lifelong scholars found themselves asking questions with the same self-consciousness as a college freshman (I mean, maybe).
Throughout the week, we all gathered for lectures on the things that both divided and united us. And then in our small groups, we fearlessly, yet cautiously, discussed some of our own unique experiences with our faith–being sure to use “I” instead of “we” when we spoke to avoid generalizations, as the only thing any of us are truly experts on are our own individual stories–and we, of course, also uncovered some uncomfortable truths along the way. But come dinnertime, we were all laughing together like old, reunited friends over a plate of vegetarian lasagna. Each tradition got the opportunity to express their faiths individually for the rest of the group, complete with beautiful chanted prayers and solemn, devoted acts of surrender to the God we all knew to be good.
(Below is a little faux-word cloud I made throughout the week concerning some of our major topics of discussion. Extra points to whoever finds the word I accidentally put in twice.)
My group leader, a professor at SMU, made an important point to the group the first night we met. He said, “A lot of people outside of particular groups of people often have rather misconstrued ideas about what it means to be a part of these groups. The perception that a lot of Christians have about Islam, for example, is based off what they see in the news concerning a small sect of a much bigger and more complex religion. But on the other hand, many of us also encounter the logical fallacy that says everyone here is exactly the same. ‘Oh, a Muslim is just a Methodist who prays 5 times a day and has a different idea about Jesus.’ We shouldn’t try to dismiss our differences, but neither should we necessarily demonize them. Our diverse group of people here is constantly walking a tight rope, because we are all, very intentionally and often unapologetically, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. But the best way we can grow, both in understanding and appreciating not only someone else’s faith, but also our own, is by acknowledging our differences and seeking understanding through our dialogue.”
A couple years ago, while I was in undergrad, one of my professors introduced the concept of the Methodist or Wesleyan Quadrilateral to my class. Roughly attributed to the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is more or less a model that helps determine one’s view of God and faith, using Scripture, Reasoning, Experience, and Tradition as factors (my professor wanted to amend it by adding Prayer to the equation, as well). This week, I realized how deeply those things can be embedded into any person of faith. So much of a person’s future identity is determined just by when and where they’re born, and there is nothing we can do to change these fixed factors. I am where I am right now in large part because I was born in the Bible Belt to a family of devoted church-goers. (I’m not sure how different of a person I would be had I been born in, say, Saudi Arabia or Israel, but I truly hope I would be seeking to love God and love others with the same kind of fervor I try to have right now.)
The people I encountered this week were all some of the best people I’d ever met, and, like me, they were all doing the best that they could to be devoted servants of God. My hope for myself, for my fellow Christians, and for anyone else who’s reading this post, is that we all seek to love and understand one another before we produce labels or build up walls against each other, be they metaphorical or physical.
Of course, that is much easier said than done. This week was beautiful and more valuable than anything I could have read about in a book or heard about in classroom or in the news, but our world–our nation, our hearts–still have a long way to go before we encounter any sort of sense of peace between our world’s nations and faiths.
In the evaluation I filled out at the end of the retreat, I wrote about this very thing (believe it or not). As wonderful as this past week was, it’s going to be hard to leave this Bubble (like the one in this SNL sketch) and encounter not only people who disagree with us, but people whose intentions are hostile and harmful for the sake of humanity. I said,
It’s one thing to read about different religions and discuss them with other people who know about as much as you do on the matter. It’s another thing still to talk to someone different from an academic perspective to put a face to what you’re reading about. But it’s a whole other thing entirely to break bread with, play games with, and share a bedroom with, someone totally different from you. It’s like The Odd Couple in the realest form. It’s beautiful, even if it isn’t always pretty. Conflict is seemingly eventually inevitable, even if we all come in with pure intentions (or think we do).
Is it possible for diversity to exist without some real tension? I don’t think so, because otherwise there would a lot of inner repression built up from failed attempts to “unify”. But if we refuse to branch out past our own little bubble, division becomes more inhibited and growth (be it among the group or the individual) is stunted. So I think we should continue to pursue unity so that a sense of mutual understanding can be ensued.
I know that I learned a lot and hope to continue to do so, but it’s also sobering knowing that it won’t be an easy task moving forward. It requires community, it requires accountability, it requires honesty, and those are rarely things that come easily when other human beings are involved.
I was humbled this week by the ways people of different faiths and denominations seek to serve God with their lives. But one of the greatest commonalities here was that we were all living our lives as a direct response to God. God, we all believe, is so much better than we can ever deserve, and because of that, we want to give back in whatever ways we can: through worship, through prayer, through writing, through service, through religion, through scholarship, through scripture. But no matter what, all of efforts come up impotent when compared to the goodness of God. Yet we pursue him still, because that’s all we know to do.
My friends, old and new, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and anything else, may we learn to love better. And may we never cease in this pursuit.
Thank you for reading. Until next time. Below is a picture of a sunset from the first night.