The Coming Together 6 Conference, held at the University of Chicago from Feb. 14-17th, opened a whole new can of worms for the participants. College and university students from around the United States and Canada 'came together' to learn, teach, discuss, argue, and find common ground with each other. The 120 participants hailing from 35 campuses at CT6 represented diverse religious and spiritual traditions, including "agnostic," "seeking," or "none" alongside the larger world religions. Everyone proved significantly different from everyone else, and this made for some quite interesting workshops, panels, and most importantly, conversations. Though varying in regards to their experience with interfaith dialogue and interfaith work on campus, the participants asked poignant, urgent questions. Some students questioned the practicality of improving interfaith presence on campus:
• "How can we make our campus more 'interfaith' oriented?"
• "Who can I recruit to form an Interfaith Council at my university?"
• "What are some ways we can be more inclusive of all faiths and traditions?"
• "Why is interfaith dialogue and action important to me, and how can I spread my message to others?"
Beyond the practical, students engaged in deep personal questions, first with one another, and then with themselves:
• What does it mean to be spiritual and not religious? Are these concepts mutually exclusive?
• How do I represent my own faith at the table when engaging in interfaith dialogue?
• What about those of us who inhabit multiple spiritual and religious identities?
For me, CT6 highlighted a new realm in religious pluralism, highlighted by the last question posed above. As an activist and advocate in the Interfaith Youth Movement, I have focused on religious pluralism from an external point of view -- that is, working on bridging divides between individuals and groups claiming different religious and spiritual traditions. At interfaith dialogues and events, we often seek to draw people that represent one faith or another and engage in how our faith (singular) finds common ground with someone else's faith (singular). Yet, in conversations with my beloved peers at the Divinity School, the workshop presenters, and the students themselves, I couldn't help but notice that in the Interfaith Youth Movement, we are not asking a key question: How do we deal with religious pluralism from within?
My friend Abbas Chinoy studies in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School and works in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life on Campus. Abbas grew up claiming both the Muslim tradition, yet when I asked him how he identifies spiritually, he so eloquently responded: "I identify with whatever moves me. Sometimes that means Islam, sometimes that means Christianity or Buddhism. Sometimes it's not even a religion. Wherever I find something that impacts me deeply, makes me wonder about my own identity, that's spiritual to me. I'm looking for truth where I can find it, via the Vedas or a physics book. And I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for "the more," as my spirituality." Similarly, my friend Antonia has recently begun exploring her Jewish heritage more deeply, but has identified with many spiritual traditions, including Native American spirituality. Both Abbas and Antonia feel confident in their spiritual identities, but admit that sometimes, claiming traditions that clash head-on with one another on specific beliefs or values proves tough to navigate.
What does this mean for the Interfaith movement? We have focused heavily on conversations based on individuals claiming one faith, be it an institutional religion, like Islam, or a spiritual practice, and putting many individuals around a table. But we have not asked ourselves the difficult questions we ask others at the table. How do we reconcile our own identity as human beings with so many different components of our identities clashing with one another? In my opinion, this inner struggle proves productive to growing within our own overall identity. As Teresa Owens, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Divinity School noted in her opening remarks at CT6, "the easiest way to get good at dealing with others is to get good at dealing with ourselves." My largest takeaway from CT6 is that in order to improve my work in the Interfaith Youth Movement, I must first look within. I believe that by asking myself how I can navigate my personal faith as a Buddhist, my background and family tradition in Roman Catholicism, and my utmost respect and admiration for all faith traditions, when these traditions may disagree vehemently with each other in certain aspects, I might learn how to extend my search for common values within my own identity to the practice of interfaith engagement with others. A key common value we all share, regardless of our faith tradition(s), is the fact that we hold many elements in our identity, and we must learn to wrestle with how to combine the parts into a whole.
Even if we do claim one faith tradition as our own, we cannot forget our experiences and interactions with other faiths. My longtime friend Steven, another Master of Divinity student and the president of USC's Interfaith Council when I joined back in 2008, recently celebrated his bar mitvah and now fully claims his spiritual identity as a traditional egalitarian Jew. I remember at USC when Steven would describe his faith as "interspiritual" or "seeking." Just because Steven now claims one tradition does not mean his spiritual identity is not pluralistic. He cannot lose the experience he had growing up in the Christian tradition -- it will always play a role in his identity. Even if we practice the religion of our parents, and have since birth, we have interacted with people from different faiths and those experiences leave marks on our conception of ourselves because we are forced to question how our spiritual identity is unique. Coming Together 6 surely proved that as leaders in the Interfaith Youth Movement, as the movement grows and changes, we must constantly engage in self-reflection. I felt a certain energy at CT6 that I always feel immersed in a group of passionate religious and spiritual leaders, and I hope that this energy will sustain itself on our campuses and in our future endeavors.
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