"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Talking About Religion Well: A Recent Success Story

This past Thursday I gave a school-wide lecture (about 160 or so students) as a part of our weekly lecture series at EF International School at Evergreen State College. The lecture series is generally focused on some dimension of American culture. One of our veteran teachers traditionally has given the lecture, though it’s recently been opened up to other teachers. So I decided to sign up, and present on a particularly challenging topic—religion in America.

Challenging not just because religion can be a taboo topic in the U.S.; challenging because I would be speaking to a room filled with Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, atheists/agnostics, likely several other faiths, and likely many who are generally disinterested in religion. And challenging because with a language barrier, sometimes people hear something that isn’t said or fail to hear something that is said, in which case people can become defensive and accusatory. Plenty of risk involved.

And yet, religion is what I know, where my interests lie. More than that, my interest is in talking about religion in a way that is meaningful, fruitful, productive, respectful, clarifying, illuminating, reconciliatory, and hopeful.

I was pleased with the results of my lecture and the extra hours of research and preparation that went into my talk and slideshow that were unpaid (Research is its own reward, right?). I spent the time tracing the development of the various religions represented in the U.S. I first opened by encouraging the students that this was not a time to defend your faith, but to learn and listen.

I also comically modeled some appropriate and inappropriate ways to ask questions of one another, favoring questions asked with genuine, warm inquisitiveness (in wording and in tone) and discouraging questions that are more accusatory or mocking. I was a little concerned that some students would, for example, mock atheism as foolishness rather than as a credible way to understand the world, and vice versa—the atheists belittling the religious in the room.

I presented some of the minority religions in the U.S, than did a sort of “top five countdown” in order of least to most represented religion in the U.S.: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. I talked about the U.S. history of each faith and tried to present some of the basics of each faith. I was especially apologetic about this, trying to make clear that I am not an expert on non-Christian faiths and creating several moments during the lecture for students’ response in correction (no one corrected me, for whatever reason).

I guess it went as well as it could. Students were fairly responsive during the brief discussion times I created between each section of my presentation (e.g. “tell someone next to you something new you just learned about Islam.”) There were of course students talking, sleeping, staring at me having no idea what I was saying. But I guess I figure if even 10-20 students heard me and learned something, even simply realizing that talking about religious faith in a pluralistic community can not only be done respectfully, but is worth doing...then it was worth it.

I asked students at the end if they felt there was any value to interfaith dialogue, any point to it. I got a few short responses that all pretty much summed it up. “Respect” said a student from Spain. “Tolerance” said a student from Venezuela. “Peace” said another student from Spain, to which I believe a Saudi Arabian student added “no more fighting.” I only added that there are serious crises in the world that could be common causes for differing faiths. I was pleased that they seemed to "get" my message.

I was really tempted to go fishing for feedback afterwards, mostly to give me peace of mind that I hadn’t upset anyone. Not that upsetting someone is inherently bad. I know I can’t always control that. But I didn't really do any such fishing. However, a few comments were made to me. One student told me he expected me to be preachy or condemning and was surprised at how respectful and honoring the lecture was. Another thought it was a bad topic because talking about religion is taboo, but essentially said that I did it in a way that worked. Another was inspired by all that she learned that day and seemed to find it valuable on her own spiritual quest.

A potentially sticky situation came right after the talk. A Muslim student asked me why, if Jews are supposed to be peaceful people, the Jewish people in Palestine something, something (I didn’t catch his words, but I got his point). Knowing this student, I’m not convinced it was total sincere curiosity instead of a leading question, but I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. I told him I didn’t know why any better than he did. I asked what he thought. He said he didn’t know and was just really confused.

To avoid any hint of accusation, I just told him that in Christianity we have this same problem of people doing “violence” especially with their words, when our faith is at its heart a peace-centered religion. I told him maybe it’s because we can’t live up to our ideals, or we’re scared and threatened and need to be in control, or that extremists in our faiths shouldn’t represent the heart of the faith…just what came to the top of my head. We didn’t really resolve the question, though I don’t think he expected resolution.

I am pleased with the outcome of the lecture, and I guess feel like I should probably trust that God used the time to plant seeds…seeds of reconciliation, of a deeper search for Truth, for understanding, for God. Hard to know for sure what good, if any, will come of it.

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