The blog post below was written by Congregational Studies’ Team Engaged Scholar Ria Van Ryn for her college newspaper.
In a 2014 article in the Observer Rachel Renz defends her decisions to attend a Catholic Christmas Eve service and to write about her experiences in a medium representing a Modern Orthodox institution. Renz notes with disappointment that these decisions were subsequently characterized as “dishonorable” and “un-Jewish.” Here, I commend her on her powerful pieces and offer scholarly evidence supporting her claim regarding the potential positive effects of interfaith curiosity. As a sociologist of religion, I study religion in its social context – how individuals and groups create, modify, and live within religious communities as well as how those communities (or the lack thereof) in turn shape individual and societal experiences. My research in particular examines interfaith youth engagement in light of the very concerns that Renz highlights, namely the risk of losing one’s own religious particularity or serving as a poor representative of one’s singular religious community having participated in an interfaith encounter. I offer no normative evaluation of Renz’ choice to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Midnight Mass but hope that the following points will illuminate the wider context of what she learned there.
First, Renz writes in her original piece about her application of Cardinal Dolan’s sermon to the scriptural motif of the “moment of birth as the start of a leader.” She notes that his words concerning the birth of Jesus prompted her to think in a new and fruitful way about the infancy of Moses in a Jewish context. Intellectual and spiritual exercises of this kind are some of the most common outcomes of interfaith engagement. In fact, the burgeoning field of comparative theology takes this process as one of its core assumptions, working as “a practical response to religious diversity read with our eyes open, interpreting the world in light of our own faith and with a willingness to see newly the truths of our own religion in light of another.”[i] Choosing to attend Stern College for Women (or Yeshiva College, or the Sy Syms School of Business) does not somehow negate the pluralism that Renz and her classmates encounter as part of their daily lives in that bastion of religious diversity, New York City. Interfaith experiences abound here, not only to be sought out proactively, as Renz does, but in their potential role in walks down the street, conversations with shopkeepers, and examinations of great works of art. Not every encounter of the religious Other need or should be theologically fruitful, but neither does that mean it cannot be.
Second, prominent organizations associated with the growing interfaith movement value the religious particularity of their members as an asset. These programs encourage the kind of interreligious cooperation that is only possible when religious differences are honored and seen as important contributions rather than subsumed in the name of partnership. In fact, some interfaith organizations make it a point to tout growth in one’s own tradition as an objective for participants. Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)[ii], says in an autobiographical work explaining why he aims to make interfaith cooperation a social norm that the IFYC exists in part to meet the challenge of “ … how to maintain faith identity in a religiously plural world.”[iii] Patel goes on to say to a skeptical religious leader that “ … one of the top priorities of the Interfaith Youth Core was to help young people strengthen their religious identities by creating a safe space where they could talk about faith.”[iv]
My research this academic year at Walking the Walk[v], a youth program sponsored by the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, indicates that Patel is correct. Over the course of several months of observations, I have witnessed on multiple occasions high school-aged participants naming learning about and developing pride in their own tradition as the highlight of a particular session. Teens meet once or twice a month in interfaith networks sponsored by local congregations, gathering at those congregations’ sacred spaces to engage in dialogue and service-learning. Along the way, they gain the opportunity to lead one another around their religious sites and meet their religious leaders, answering questions from their peers and even noting when they are unable to do so. The process allows these young people not only to gain the appreciative knowledge and develop the relationships that Patel argues[vi] are conducive to positive attitudes about religious neighbors but also to craft their own narratives[vii] about what their religious identity means to them in light of those who do not necessarily share it.
The undergraduate colleges of Yeshiva University offer unparalleled resources for the academic study of Judaism. From courses to libraries to experiential education, YU presents its students with plentiful opportunities to grow Jewishly. Intentionally and understandably, YU does not, however, often make available at the institutional level the kind of interreligious encounter that Renz describes in her piece. What groups like IFYC and Walking the Walk teach us is that such encounters can be uniquely useful – not just in promoting peaceful relations and social justice, as has been their historic purview, but in learning and speaking about who we are and what we value in the context of religious pluralism. As a sociologist, I do not portend to speak to the halakhic and hashkafic complexities that may influence students’ decisions regarding interreligious experiences. What I do argue is that Renz demonstrates deep sensitivity both to the community she visited and to those which she represents, and she does so in good company.
Ria Van Ryn, Ph.D
[i] Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 69. [http://www.amazon.com/Comparative-Theology-Learning-Religious-Borders/dp/1405179740/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396189879&sr=1-1]
[iii] Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), 166. [http://www.amazon.com/Acts-Faith-American-Struggle-Generation/dp/080700622X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396189956&sr=1-2&keywords=acts+of+faith]
[vii] For more resources on narrativity and religious identity, see especially the work of sociologist Nancy Ammerman. [http://www.bu.edu/sociology/faculty-staff/faculty/nancy-t-ammerman/]