We understand and define our selves through stories.
We've discussed how passions, people and processes shape and define us. When we share our story, we integrate all of these various influences into a coherent narrative complete with characters, crises and climaxes.
In my "Reporting on Religion" class, former Asia correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor Sheila Tefft challenged our diverse collective of undergrads (and yours truly) to interview one another about our respective religious backgrounds for the purpose of posting on the class blog.
Dr. Tefft didn't give us a whole lot of instruction about how to go about the interview. She didn't need to. We are all adept storytellers. We have been absorbing stories since birth and practicing the art of storytelling ever since we learned to craft complete sentences.
When I sat down with Emory junior Jessica Katz in the crowded Starbuck's wing of the campus Barnes & Noble, she knew right where to begin. Jessica intuitively recognized that her story begins with the story of her parents.
Jessica's parents' Jewish families "weren't religious," but her folks decided to practice Judaism more rigorously when they married. This decision would frame Jessica and her sisters' childhood squarely in the context of the diverse Jewish community of Philadelphia.
While her family did not strictly observe shabbat, they shared a kosher family meal every Friday ("unless the Sixers were in the playoffs") and were regular participants in the community life of their conservative synagogue. She and her sisters each chose to attend a coed Jewish day school which became the central locus of their socialization throughout childhood and early adolescence.
The student body encompassed the entire spectrum of practice, from "ultra orthodox" to reform. This diversity required a sensitivity to stark differences in belief and practice, which meant that theology was generally omitted from the "Jewish studies" curriculum.
Her parents and teachers "never talked about God." She describes the religion of her youth was "all practice and no belief." The rhythmic practices of celebrating the holidays of the Jewish calendar, attending synagogue, eating Kosher, and studying the history and culture of the Jewish people all reinforced a strong cultural identity and sense of membership in the Philly Jewish community.
Jessica observes matter-of-factly that "it's odd to become more religious in college." Yet through her participation in the orthodox student group Meor, Jessica's involvement in the Jewish community has increased while her practice has become more theologically oriented.
After travelling to Israel with Meor, Jessica "realized that there was so much I had never known about religion." "Growing up, practices made me a good Jewish person and member of my family." Now, Jessica sees these very same practices as a means of realizing God's purpose in her life.
When Jessica says, "there's a reason for everything," she means two things. First, that there is a deeper spiritual meaning behind the performance of inherited traditional practices. And second, that "God is involved in your life," molding the faithful through practices, decisions, relationships and experiences. "I used to dismiss it, but now it seems obvious."
These providential processes may not always be clearly interpretable, but Jessica's faith equips her with a profound peace. "Life is more complex, but also more simple. It's easier to understand why it's complex." The ambiguities and perplexities remain, but her trust in God recasts former sources of anxiety as opportunities for gaining wisdom and theological insight.
Still, there are significant challenges. Jessica describes her beliefs as basically in line with Orthodox Judaism, and she struggles to align her practice with the rigorous commitments those beliefs entail. She makes a concerted effort to eat kosher and observe shabbat, but she is willing to give herself some slack under difficult circumstances. "It's tough when you're in college. Over the next few years, I'll sort out which practices I am willing to commit to. I'm constantly thinking about where I am going religiously."
"I'm very thankful to have found religion. I try to learn about other religions too, but I pretty much just think about Judaism. But you know, giving people the benefit of the doubt is a Jewish value."
When it was time for me to tell my story, Jessica lent a keen and perceptive ear, fleshing out my somewhat jumbled narrative with insightful questions.
Although our religious practices and their social context are quite distinct, Jessica and I found more commonality than difference in the way our practice informs and frames daily life. We effortlessly brushed aside centuries of tumultuous history and significant practical and doctrinal disagreements. Indeed, we expressed a strong sense of solidarity in our respective efforts to claim the religious identity we inherited and worship the God of our fathers--shaping and being shaped by traditional practices.
This is exactly the kind of lovey-dovey interfaith dialogue Harvard's Diana Eck catalogs and advocates in her 2001 book, A New Religious America. She argues that "It is vital to the health of religious faith that we appropriate our faith not by habit or heritage alone, but by making it our own within the context of dialogue with people of other faiths."
Of course, the roots of my Protestant Christian faith are anchored in ancient Judaism. Jessica and I can draw upon shared scriptures and symbols to describe our distinct practices. Constructive Jewish-Christian dialogue has been commonplace in America since World War II and the Holocaust. In Eck's eyes, the challenge of this century is to include the entire spectrum of religious traditions in an ongoing substantive national (and international) interfaith conversation.
This is easier said than done, and it is a challenge we will discuss in greater depth in the future.
But the simple act of sitting down with someone and sharing your religious biographies is a simple yet profound way to initiate such dialogue. You can't argue with my story and I cannot dispute yours. All we can do is choose whether to listen.
What's your story? What understanding do you gain from crafting it? How could others benefit from hearing it? How might we all grow--collectively and individually--through the sharing of our stories with one another?