Across America today, more and more people are learning how to talk with one another about diversity. Much of the conversation centers on...
Across America today, more and more people are learning how to talk with one another about diversity. Much of the conversation centers on gender, age and culture, as there is a recognition that it is critical for us to examine our assumptions about people who are different from us as a first step toward establishing common ground. Yet, despite the progress we have made in embracing diversity issues at the workplace, we still sidestep religious diversity.
I believe we are extraordinarily ill-prepared to talk with one another about our religious and spiritual beliefs and practices and to tell one another how they impact our actions, careers, vocations, decisions, affiliations, commitments, relationships and elections.
Our religious differences are like tectonic plates that move us toward or away from one another, causing us to grind against one another and, once in a while, build up the pressure, heat and friction that cause a volcanic eruption in our civic life.
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We have seen how bipartisan citizenship has been diminished in this country by harsh political polarization, which, at root, is a religiously based polarization. Globally, we recognize that while the major wars of the 21st century have been and will be fueled by economic, political, humanitarian and cultural causes, they are ignited by religious differences. We cannot prevent war unless we learn to talk with and understand one another religiously.
Let me suggest two things that I believe keep us from publicly bridging our religious diversity, and then deal with the more thorny issue of fundamentalism.
First, we have adopted and internalized a false sense of the proper meaning of the separation of church and state in our country. Our Founding Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters — and the second half of both of those pairs are important here — created a necessary separation of church and state in our national life, not because they thought religion should not impact public life, but because they knew it would impact public life to the extent that they needed to keep any single religious persuasion from taking over or trumping all others.
Instead of envisioning a state free from religious inspiration, advocacy, motivation and commitment, they wanted a free space so that all religions and persons of religious motivation and those of none could freely and publicly bring their full selves, including their religious selves, to public debate and decision-making.
Today, a popularized, false notion of the separation of church and state in America has unfortunately led not only to polarized politics over the issue of religion in the public square but even to what I would call a separation of church and state within ourselves personally. This has led us to do the impossible of separating our public lives from our private religious depths and inspirations.
I strongly believe that we can begin to overcome this false separation of church and state, the separation in ourselves, if we begin to talk from within our religious diversity.
The second obstacle to engaging one another within our religious diversity is that most of what separates us from one another is not belief or religious practice, but the cloud of culture all religions create around themselves. There is a Catholic culture, a Protestant culture, an Anglican culture, a Jewish culture, a Muslim culture. All religions create these thick cultures from ritual, customs and tradition. They are not the religion; they are its cloud, its skirt, its exterior, not its interior.
The cultures are hard to penetrate and are often mistaken for the real thing rather than the wrapping. We need more neutral space to talk about what the heart of religion is rather than its cultural wrapping.
A more troubling thing for all of us in seeking to dialogue from our religious diversity is the issue of fundamentalism, which is found in all religions. To me, fundamentalism is getting stuck halfway down the well of your religion’s deeper beliefs and aspirations. It might mean getting stuck in a passage of religious text rather than going all the way to what that text points to as the mystery of God, life, death, human reality and vocation.
Fundamentalism is a problem for religious dialogue not because it is deeply religious, but because it is “halfway religion” that cannot talk from the deeper, truer places where all religion should and can take us. On their deepest and truest levels, all religions impel and command their adherents to engage with others, love, appreciate and work with them, whatever their religion or no religion.
We don’t need to step out of our religious diversity in order to talk. The diversity itself commands our conversation. And one place where all of us can begin to talk is from our spirituality.
I define “spirituality” with five words: one’s lived relationship to Mystery. Every person has some experiences in life — in birth, beauty, love, creativity, sorrow, suffering, death, nature, art, childhood — that reveal to us a deeper dimension to life than the level on which we ordinarily live. I call this “Mystery,” with a capital “M.” It is a sense that there is more to life; that life is sacred.
Our lived way of relating to this deeper dimension of life is our unique spirituality. Each one of us has a spirituality; no one is without one. Spirituality may not be expressed as religion, but it is the stuff of which religion is made and it is the Mystery that religion seeks to know. Spirituality is a good place to begin to talk with one another if we are to develop the much-needed capacity for religious dialogue from diversity.
It may well be true that Seattle is now religiously where the country as a whole is going soon — i.e., where there are more “exers” than anywhere else and where the fastest growing group is those who say “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. If that is true, we have an opportunity if not an obligation to ourselves and to our nation to fill our rooms wherever they are and however large they are with warm conversation of our beliefs, our sacred values and our spiritual aspirations for our people and our Earth.
Seattle is, as they say, a “nice” place, but it could be warmer. People who move here from other parts of the country almost always come to appreciate how pleasant and courteous people are here, but puzzle about why there is not the warm neighborliness, the deeper connecting and caring they experienced elsewhere.
For most parts of the country, going to church or synagogue or mosque naturally weaves and strengthens the network of connections and caring among people. Church is not all about God. It’s about people coming together.
If our religious habits are significantly different in our part of the country, in our state, and even more so in Seattle — and they are — then we need to find other ways to bridge our diversity and to warm up our niceness.
The Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., is a Jesuit priest and has served as president of Seattle University since 1997.