Religious Illiteracy and the Mistake of Fearing Interfaith Engagement

My friend Jeff, who is Asian American, is a gifted vocalist and was an enthusiastic member of the University of Illinois Black Chorus during his undergraduate studies.  As I started thinking about literacy and interfaith work, a specific incident from his experience came to mind.

I remember Jeff talking about an upcoming Black Chorus concert one day when one of our friends asked him: “are you the only white person in Black chorus?”

These were poorly chosen words – Jeff is unmistakably Asian American. In this situation, our friend was unaware of the disrespect that was inadvertently embedded in her language. However, my point is not to broach a discussion on racial microaggressions, but to illustrate what I mean by illiteracy.

Naturally, any setting outside of our comfort or experience is going to produce literacy-related apprehension.  Do I know the proper way to act, dress, talk, or eat?  Will I unintentionally offend someone with what I say?  Will my naivety show?

Engaging people of other faiths is a similar situation.  I imagine it is common that many Christians fear being embarrassed by an insufficient understanding of other faith traditions.  In fact, after four years of organizing interfaith programs with Interfaith in Action, a student organization at the University of Illinois, I still occasionally worry that I will make a remark that reflects my incomplete understanding of my friends’ faith traditions.

But we cannot let this fear keep us from pursuing interfaith cooperation. Religious literacy is a goal of interfaith work, not a prerequisite.  And while we must make it our desire to understand other faiths with respect as our goal, the interfaith relationship is the mechanism through which we learn about our neighbor.

Cameron and I mention frequently that we follow a model for interfaith cooperation that has been developed by the Interfaith Youth Core (see Pluralism), which stresses respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.  There is no requirement for an expert understanding of other faith traditions in order to participate; respect is established by asking questions instead of making assumptions.

As a Christian, I feel that this is just another component of “love your neighbor”.  I desire to understand my friends’ faith traditions better because I hope to better understand my friends.  It’s that simple.

Here at Faith Line Protestants, part of our vision is to be a resource for Christians who are struggling to understand how to live in a religiously diverse world.  As a part of that vision, we hope to feature guest bloggers from other faith traditions who can provide some insight into their traditions.  So stay tuned as we continue the conversation, and look for opportunities to learn along the way!

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