An imagination of one’s own

How had this happened? I’m sitting in front of a small audience along with a Christian reverend, Muslim imam, and Jewish rabbi.

Technically, the reverend is Presbyterian, the imam is Sufi, and the rabbi falls on the less orthodox side of the spectrum. Together, they comprise the Interfaith Amigos, Seattle-based religious leaders who came together in the wake of 9/11 to demonstrate and encourage dialogue and cooperation between faith traditions. In addition to the work they do individually, they give presentations communally as well as write award-winning books, a new one of which is forthcoming. (Visit their website to learn more.)

Today, I’ve joined them. (Or, is it more accurate to say that they’ve joined me since the formal reason for this gathering is the release of my book, A None’s Story?). We are at the University Bookstore on the campus of University of Washington, on the second floor where there’s enough room for chairs: several rows for the participants and four facing the rest for the Amigos and me.

This arrangement—me with them—feels like a strange experiment. They are familiar with each other, having worked together for many years, but I’ve just met them for the first time 10 minutes earlier in the bookstore’s café. There is no moderator, no real plan. We’re flying by the seat of our pants here.

Each of the Amigos was given a copy of my book to read in advance, so they know where I’m coming from. In a nutshell, I spent several years rummaging through each of their faiths, and emerged from my journey with the firm stance that—at least for the time being—I would claim no loyalty to any one faith.

Given this, the Interfaith Amigos appear to have more in common with each other than they do with me. They all come from a monotheistic or “Abrahamic” tradition. Their holy books overlap in obvious ways. From my point of view, it doesn’t seem so strange that they would get along with one another.

But what happens when someone outside of their tradition is invited to the table?

As if to underscore our less tangible differences, there are the more apparent ones: I am female. I am a good 20 years younger. Sitting with the Interfaith Amigos feels like a real life version of that old Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the other.”

I thought they’d change their minds about this event after reading my book. But each of them is here—having made time and substantial effort to drive from different parts of Seattle—to join me. If for this alone, I am deeply grateful.

To start us off, I read a small part of my book. At every reading so far, I’ve read from a section where I’m still exploring and haven’t quite figured out what my religious identity will be. Today for the first time I read from the conclusion. In it, I share the lessons I appreciate about each of their faiths (and Buddhism) but state clearly that I remain firmly planted outside.

After the reading, it’s time for conversation. This starts off awkwardly. The Amigos are practiced at talking to one another, but how are they supposed to include me? Audience members ask questions, which helps. Usually the comment is addressed to one of the Amigos who provides his own answer. I pipe up here and there, but we are not really talking to one another.

I have worried about what motivates faith leaders and believers to engage with me: is it a hope—even buried deeply—that I will come to understand their way of thinking as the truth? Or is it something bigger and more profound: a desire to connect and communicate regardless of the different points of view from which we come?

Some are very explicit in telling me that not only is their faith correct, but their version of their faith is also the most accurate. In addition, even the nuances within their version must be conceived of in a specific way. Often these righteous will couch it in the nicest possible way: love motivates them to share the facts.

With this in mind, I gathered the courage to pose a question to the Amigos that I haven’t yet asked any other faith leaders. Is it okay, I wanted to know, to understand their faiths—and even the details within their faiths—in ways that might be unique to me? Am I allowed to bring my own thoughts and twists to the task of pondering their religions?

I guess what I was getting at is if they thought I could try to conceive of God and still be me. Does faith require a surrender of one’s imagination?

The Amigos listened intently and then looked at one another to see who might want to answer this strange question. I suppose I was nervous that after reading my book they might not appreciate the quirky ways I had interpreted aspects of Christianity or Judaism or Islam.

Jamal, the imam, did the honors. “Only you have authority of your own imagination. Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged. It is the only way, really.” The other Amigos nodded their agreement.

This answer felt pure sunshine. No one resented me for my idiosyncrasies or was interested in explaining how I might be wrong.

In fact, they seemed to welcome my perspective—however unrefined it might be.

With that, I felt safe and the conversation grew deeper and more interesting.

But how will I approach a conversation like this with anyone whose worldview automatically invalidates my interpretations or identity? It doesn’t matter what religion or non-religion we come from, if we’re not given the freedom to be ourselves, I’m not sure a constructive conversation is possible.

As I am being invited to speak with of all types of believers and nonbelievers—some of whom I know will believe they have ownership of the one and only truth—this question is haunting me.

It takes an incredible amount of respect and compassion to go from, “I’ve chosen the path that’s right” to “I’ve chosen the path that’s right for me.”

15 thoughts on “An imagination of one’s own

  1. So glad the conversation with the Amigos grew into a positive experience.

    I imagine many of us have a similar question about how to converse with persons who believe they are the holders of absolute truth about any spiritual, moral or ethical topic.

    • Hi Val, Yes, I think this problem can be found not just in the realm of religion…our political system suffers from it as well. With the election debates, I struggle with how to form an opinion but not in such a way that dismisses an alternative viewpoint. It’s not easy!

  2. Corinna, this is a great post for a couple of different reas\ons. First, it shows that not all people of faith are exclusionists; some of us really do believe God approaches each person in the way he or she can best respond. Really, if God is omnipotent, is that so hard to accept?

    Second, it’s really not a new concept at all. Even the great Anglican traditionalist C.S. Lewis said if God wanted us all to be the same, He would have stopped with Adam and Eve. From my own faith travels, I’ve learned there is no “perfect church” or even a perfect faith, except for the one that works for each of us. Any institution that involves human beings must, by definition, include human frailties and failings.

    I think the trap a lot of faithful people fall into is the smug attitude of “I accept you despite the fact you don’t see God as I do.” That’s just as patronizing as all those people on your blog who’ve tried to convince you theirs is the only way. The real key is saying to oneself, “God has chosen this way to open Himself to me, and another way for my neighbor.” If I believe God really is God, I shouldn’t presume to tell Him how to think.

  3. “Jamal, the imam, did the honors. “Only you have authority of your own imagination. Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged. It is the only way, really.” The other Amigos nodded their agreement.”

    Well, I guess that individual freedom to interpret the Koran as desired partly explains why some Islamic Jihadists feel justified in killing others and themselves, in anticipation of being rewarded by Allah with 70 virgins awaiting them in Heaven….

      • I suppose that’s the problem with believing in ‘Divine Will’ (which within theological discussions is always contrasted with human ‘free will’: it boils down to God’s will vs man’s will).

        In all Abrahamic faiths, Divine Will (as found in holy scripture) ALWAYS trumps human free will, no ifs, ands, or buts.

        So when an Islamist kills 50 people in a nightclub, he’d inevitably cite his faith as justification for his actions, saying he was only following God’s orders (as found in Quaranic scripture) wherein Allah commands the faithful to kill ‘infidels’ (even as reflected in the Latin word, ‘fidelity’, the term ‘infidel’ literally means anyone who doesn’t share the same interpretation of ones faith, since per the Imam, faith is constrained only by the limits of one’s imagination ).

        My point is that faith carries a significant cost in human lives and blood, and to deny that fact today (after yet another mass killing, except now in Orlando, also likely driven by Islamist ideology) would be a hard-sell, indeed.

        Hopefully you’ll readily admit that expression of faith at times is in fact quite “destructive”?

        • Hi Dave,
          Of course the expression of faith can be destructive. Really, the expression of anything (we kill on behalf of love, freedom, etc.) can be destructive if we use it in that way. We’re humans with our own issues of self-hate and fear, struggling toward greater acceptance of ourselves and others. In my understanding, the core teachings of faith are another way to help us get to a place of seeing ourselves as a part of something greater. But some of us will focus on those parts that appear to further our agendas of fear and hate. You should read my book, it goes into greater detail about my thoughts on the matter if you’re interested.

  4. “Spirit will work with each person, with each one of you, in a way that is right for you.”

    Harold Klemp, Touching the Face of God, p. 33

  5. Having been a Jehovah’s Witness and then turning to New Thought metaphysical teaching I feel like I have been on both sides of this coin. As a JW spouting triumphantly that only the JW’s have THE TRUTH and consigning all other religion as false and then moving to a very inclusive place where everyone has their own gifts to share. To even suggest to a sweet looking JW at the door that they might think about things in broader terms may begat politeness but definitely not a change of thought. You lucked out to find the wonderful group that you did in the Amigos. You’re right in assuming that there can be no constructive conversation although I doubt that any of them will invite you to come and speak with them. It will set up a polarity of thought much like our current political chaos. That’s why it’s important to know and accept that which resonates to you. It helped me when I realized I was no longer seeking but continue to enjoy observing.

  6. You are certainly right about the dismissive attitude infiltrating our political system. Disrespect has permeated many realms of our culture and society to our detriment. I received some old family letters belonging to my grandfather and great grandfather, (some 80-100 years old). The most striking thing about those letters was the civility and courtesy between writer and recipient. I was amazed.

    As to your question about truth, an interesting conversation is that between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate did not believe truth could be known. It’s one of the most astounding exchanges in the Bible. Jesus didn’t beat Pilate over the head. Jesus gave him jurisdiction even to the point of the loss of his own life.

    But that does not tell the whole story. Interactions between Jesus and others show an amazing freedom to express oneself. People’s thoughts, questions, and beliefs are embraced by him, but expect your knowledge to be expanded by his probing comments and questions. That’s the fun challenge which I love. We as Christians are the ones who fall short.

    Culturally we are at a very low time in terms of respect for one another. It’s sad. Perhaps this is the work you are called to, since you “get it.” Your entrance into this discussion has a trailblazing element. You can in some ways insist by your very own entry into the discussion to be a legitimate and vibrant member. Your respect for them will help them see the requirement for same toward others who come with differing thoughts. Yet passion is an element of belief and faith. Faith is not benign. Knowledge can be benign. But you have entered a different realm.
    Good luck!

    • Interesting perspective, Ginger! I think anonymity allows people to be insensitive to one another (I’m thinking specifically of the internet, but also just sticking with people who see things just as you do can close us down and make us suspicious of “the other” too). I suppose it’s all about fear on some level. Just putting that aside and speaking to others without judgment is a radical act of love in our time.

  7. I enjoyed and appreciated your comments, Ginger. I thought about Corinna’s work and these blog statements we have come to appreciate as I watched the Memorial celebration for Mohammed Ali. I really enjoyed the feeling of interfaith and the many expressions of love for him and his life that it engendered. We have so much we can give to each other to open up an evolving appreciation for God and the universe instead of believing that there is only one truth and the group we belong to has it.

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