By Philip Clayton
I always thought that the way to believe more deeply was to surround myself with other Christians. After all, isn’t that the traditional tool for religious socialization? Send the child to Sunday School, surround her with Christian friends and teachers, make it a Christian high school and college if possible … and then her faith will hold for life. Teaching a child to be Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, it was said, works much the same way.
Perhaps this practice worked in previous generations, but the challenges institutional religion faces today are unheralded in the entire history of the United States. In fact, you’d have to go back to the Reformation to find an equally revolutionary period of transition. A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72% of “Millennials“–Americans between the ages of 18 and 29–now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even those who self-identify as Christians no longer follow traditional forms of Christian practice. Church attendance, Bible study, and prayer have all declined dramatically, and doubts have increased.
“Eclectic” is the word of the day. Major movements of generic spirituality blend practices from across the world’s traditions. If one does not have specific beliefs, one does not make any truth claims; hence we can all be right and no one is wrong.
By contrast, those who seek to insulate their beliefs from all doubt have to build higher and thicker walls around their religious communities than ever before. Conservative religious groups are increasingly resorting to this strategy. Only by preaching the falsehood, perversion, or evil of religions other than one’s own can one block them from having influence. And the fruits of preaching hatred we know only too well.
But are there really only two alternatives? Those of us who study religion in American culture are now seeing the widespread emergence of a third way. It’s the way of difference without exclusion, distinction without hatred, knowledge without fear. The religious “other” is not the enemy; quite the contrary: it’s through her that one’s own religious identity and practice emerge more clearly.
I can’t explain this trend without getting concrete–which is precisely the point. The religious other will be different if you’re a conservative Jew or a Shia Muslim. Paradoxes abound. For example, it was Muslim students who first led me to rediscover my Christian identity.
I was to lecture on “Christian views of the human person” at the University of Yogyakarta in Indonesia. In the midst of a deep crisis of faith, I’d prepared a very cerebral talk, keeping my own feelings and doubts well hidden. But as I stood up before those 300 intelligent, open, and interested Muslim students, it was suddenly clear: I am not a Muslim, Jew, or Hindu. I associate myself with a specific teacher and set of scriptures, and with the tradition that they spawned, blemishes and all. I set aside my notes, reminded them that my tradition was responsible for the Crusades that had done such harm to Islam, and apologized for what we had done. My view of humanity, I said, starts from those wrongs, this apology — and the dialogue we’re about to have.
One last example: I’m part of a first-of-its-kind experiment here in Claremont to train Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams side by side at the same institution. We help religious leaders deepen their own religious identity through their encounter with leaders in other faiths. What emerges is not a weird, watered-down blend of religions, but men and women of faith who become wise leaders within their own communities, working separately and together to heal the world. This is an unprecedented new world of religious encounter, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.
Philip Clayton is Ingraham Chair at Claremont School of Theology.