This week’s true story comes from the Rev. Marianne Borg, canon of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. She is married to best-selling author and Bible scholar Marcus Borg and she is the founding director of the Center for Spiritual Development at Trinity. Given the international fame of the Borg name and the top-flight reputation for scholarship at the spirituality center, Marianne responded to the terrorist attacks in 2001 by refocused her center’s considerable resources on healing religious divisions. Some elements within her 2002-2004 program were successful, including occasional weekend guest lectures by visiting teachers, but the core of Marianne’s two-year program … Well, to be honest, it failed. Here, she shares the major lessons she learned through that failure.
THIS IS MARIANNE BORG’S STORY …
After 9/11, there were so many misunderstandings between our religious communities. There was a great deal of ignorance about Islam. There was so much bias. People didn’t realize we all are children of the same father in Abraham. So, we planned a major effort that went on for two years called the Abrahamic Initiative. The moment we announced it, we immediately had 100 people sign up and pay the enrollment fee, so we thought it was going to be a great success.
I hoped we would learn to share a common language and I invited experts to talk with us about these traditions. I wanted top academics in Islam, Judaism and Christianity to share basic information with us about revelation and scripture and practice and mysticism, themes I thought could form a common ground for us. My hope was that taking this academic approach would help us to level the playing field for people more easily and, of course, I knew a top academic in Christianity who was available to do this series: Marcus Borg.
Because Marcus regularly speaks from his position in the academy to general audiences, my thought was that we could bring this down to a more personal level for people. But that assumption was a mistake. Very quickly, I Iearned that the other two academics thought that to share anything personal in this classroom setting we had set up was inappropriate. Rather than really engaging the people who had signed up for this, this lack of a personal connection I think actually caused us to lose a lot of people.
I made a lot of mistakes in this process. I also came to see that our hosting of the program was one of those mistakes. Our audience was mostly Christian from the start and it became almost exclusively Christian as our numbers dwindled and dwindled until we were down from 100 to about 20 at the end. This second lesson was a very hard piece of learning for me because, as a Christian, I am firmly committed to the integrity of interfaith dialogue. But here I was in my own sense of hospitality assuming that our cathedral easily could say to everyone including Jews and Muslims: Come to our place and we will host this conversation. We will look for similarities together here at our place.
I soon came to see that in hosting this program there already was a Western Christian bias to my hospitality. As Christians in this country, we have nothing to lose in dialoguing with Muslims and Jews because we are the dominant presence. I don’t perceive myself this way, but I realized the truth of this problem when the Jewish scholar pointed out that the approach we were taking smacked of assimilation and that’s dangerous to Judaism. This hadn’t occurred to me, but when I thought about what he was saying, I realized the bias was there in the way we had structured this. Of course, we were not trying to convert or assimilate anyone, but as Christians we’re the majority in this country. We’re not under any threat for our survival as a minority.
Ultimately, we found that what people really wanted was a sharing of personal stories. What is Islam for you as an individual? What is Judaism for you? Who is my neighbor? What is your story? They were interested in what the academy had to teach and we did have large crowds for some of the special weekend guest speakers, but the academic approach was not enough and over time it was clear the academy wasn’t what would touch people’s lives in an ongoing way.
This really was a stunning learning for me. I was embarrassed by the end of it, discovering that something I thought would raise understanding, in fact, confronted me with some of my own biases. Finally, I concluded the program was a failure.
If we do this again, we will design our program around sharing stories. I am a person who cares about our planet and I began this effort in 2002 in a genuine, sincere and logical way, but we undervalued the many ways people can come to know each other. Our thought was that the academic approach was the most important, but sharing our stories and our lives also is a very important form of learning. We’re in a different time now that calls for a different kind of engagement between people. We must keep trying to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together, but now is a time for smaller groups in which we can begin by sharing our own stories.
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(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)