This Interfaith Insight appeared in the Kaufman Interfaith Institute Inform on 7/18/17 and in the Grand Rapids Press on 7/20/17.
I am writing this Insight as my final piece working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Having been the Program Manager for the last four years, and as a college intern before that, the interfaith community across west Michigan has become my own community.
However, the time has come for me to build community elsewhere, and that place will be Harvard Divinity School in Boston. This fall, I will begin studies on religion, politics and ethics through their Master of Theological Studies program, learning alongside students of all religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds.
So in this final piece, I wanted to answer the question that many of you have asked me over the last four years: why do I, as a non-religious person, do interfaith work? And more relevant to my current plans, would would a non-religious person go to divinity school?
As I have written previously, I am one of those millennial “Nones,” a term that Pew Research coined to include the over one in three people under the age of 30 who are atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and basically anyone who would check on a form, “None of the Above” in regards to religious or spiritual identity.
Being a so-called “None” who convenes and facilitates religiously diverse interfaith spaces, my secular identity has often come up. Almost always the reaction I get is one of surprise and confusion. “But, if you’re not religious, why are you interested in religion?” Or phrased differently, “If you don’t have a faith, why would you be involved with interfaith?”
I never felt the need to ask myself this question until I moved to Grand Rapids. In my undergraduate studies, while certain stereotypes existed against atheists, I was never questioned as to why I was in such spaces. In my religious studies and political science classes, it was clear why I and my secular counterparts cared about learning about religion. Religion, spirituality, and faith were important to us – not only in our political activities nationally and internationally, but in people’s lives – in their activism, organizing, and careers.
For me, it was obvious: religion still matters. It was important for me to understand the traditions and followers in order to understand the world I am a part of. It makes my study of history, politics, and activism deeper and more authentic to the human experience, of which religion is such an integral part for so many individuals and communities.
While I may not be a person of faith, I am a part of a world where faith is an active dynamic affecting all of our lives. To engage with interfaith was a way of appreciating this aspect of existence, with an emphasis toward the lived experiences of people’s stories of faith as well as the doctrines that shape our lives and institutions.
Over these four years of organizing interfaith efforts in west Michigan, our dialogues and service projects did more than teach me new things about religious traditions. Each conversation, each relationship, quickly invoked a sense of “holy envy” in me. A term from Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, holy envy is the recognition of something so beautiful in another person’s tradition that you wish to reflect it in your own tradition.
Realizing how deepening I found interfaith work to be, both personally and professionally, I sought to continue this formation through divinity school.
But this leads to a second question you may be asking: why does a Divinity School let in someone who does not necessarily believe in the Divine? What even is Divinity School?
To many people’s surprise, Divinity School is about much more than training future pastors and ministers. Most notably, places like Harvard Divinity School and many others leading schools have programs that intentionally reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of our country. Harvard itself has multiple theological and ministry initiatives around all religious traditions, not just the Christian tradition.
Further, more and more atheists and spiritual seekers are attending divinity school out of a desire for grounded, morally-rooted education toward careers in activism, social work, and community organizing. Instead of the pulpit, though, these leaders are taking their divinity school skills into the streets, political offices, non-profit organizations, and more.
Specifically, I chose Harvard Divinity School because, as leaders they just marked their 200-year-anniversary, they are on the forefront of the conversation around the future of religious life in America. This is a future that they recognize not only includes the secular, the spiritual, and the seeking, but it is a future that needs these voices in particular to shape our society and communities that will serve all.
It is in this space that I wish to bring my experiences learned from Grand Rapids over the last four years into a place where we can imagine what the future of our shared public life looks like – across the religious, spiritual and secular diversity that too often divides us. After all, in the enduring words of civil rights leader Vincent Harding, we live in a time that calls us “to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground.”
I hope to continue to be a part of this conversation beyond the old boundaries, and seeking out new common ground, both continuously in Grand Rapids, and in my new home in Boston.
For those I have worked with and gotten to know during my time at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, I want to thank you for the ways in which you have welcomed and challenged me in my growth as an individual, an interfaith leader, and as a human being seeking spiritual meaning. I hope to keep up with as many of you as possible during this next chapter in my life! Please never hesitate to reach out and stay in touch. My continuing email will be firstname.lastname@example.org.