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Thinking Out Loud

Deepening Our Interreligious Learning

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 25, 2015


Christine HongEditor’s note: Today’s blog post is guest-written by the Rev. Dr. Christine Hong, assistant professor of worship and evangelism at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Hong (pictured) previously served as an adjunct professor of worship at Louisville Seminary and as an associate for interfaith relations at the national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She began her tenure-track with the seminary this past July.

Louisville Seminary’s commitment to making interreligious learning and dialogue central to training people for ministry is a significant step toward transforming theological education. As we engage in interreligious learning in our classrooms and in other areas of our lives, we live into our commitments by internalizing humility as our posture of learning and pushing beyond what is comfortable. Here are two basic principles of interreligious learning that help us deepen our commitments to the good work before us.

1) Proficiency is fallacy: Repeat after me: There is no such thing as interreligious or intercultural proficiency. The word “proficient” assumes that the mastery of a subject or issue is possible, but can anyone claim proficiency in the inner workings of other human beings, let alone ourselves? Precisely because of this, our posture when learning with and among our neighbors of different religious traditions and cultures should be one of openness and humility. Active participation in interreligious learning and community requires us to accept that no matter how much we study, there is always more to learn and deeper ways to listen to one another’s stories.

For example, even though I am a Korean American woman who is bilingual and bicultural, I cannot possibly know all there is to know about Korean and Korean American culture. Along the same vein, even though I am someone who professes Jesus Christ and claims the Church, I am not suddenly an expert in all Christian histories, all human experiences with the Divine, or the rich diversity represented in the Christian tradition. In fact, the more I learn about the cultures and religious traditions that are part of the fabric of my personal identity, the more I am astounded by how little I actually know and how much more there is to discover.

There are no experts in interreligious dialogue and life, only commitments. Even within those commitments, there are depths we can never fully plumb. We can never reach the point where we have learned all that there is to know about one another. This is a wonderful thing; it means our work together will always remain fruitful. It reflects the great mystery of God, a testament to the beauty of Imago Dei (image of God). So, let’s put aside our assumptions of mastery and for proficiency.

2) Deepen solidarity: Nowadays, it is common practice to highlight both differences and similarities in interreligious relationships and dialogue. These are often theological or cultural, but there are other differences and similarities - harder realities - that are unsettling for some of us to discuss. For instance, the differences and similarities in the ways American Muslim and Christian communities of color experience law enforcement and surveillance or the way Christian privilege coupled with systemic white supremacy perpetuates a cycle of oppression and violence against both American Sikh and Christian communities of color. These are tough but necessary conversations that require a great level of risk to unpack. The risks are more significant for some communities than others. Acknowledging this disproportionate risk, we work together to move past our fears and hesitancies in order to support and advocate for one another, especially for our partners and communities constantly under threat.  

When we are open to advocacy, we commit ourselves to a new level of partnership with our neighbors, one of deeper solidarity and friendship. If we only wrestle with the most surface issues between our communities, we are not doing enough to usher in the societal transformation we seek. Let’s lean into the difficult conversations and broach the dangerous topics, challenging one another to focus less on our need for the familiar and more on what our community needs to thrive.

Interreligious learning and interreligious commitments mean that we will never be experts in the lives of others or even of our own communities. Interreligious learning and commitments push us to come face-to-face with our best and worst selves and to repent and seek reconciliation. The relationships we have with our interreligious and intercultural partners invite us into a deeper form of solidarity that at times takes significant risk. It is hard work worthy of our attention and best effort.

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