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.”