How Do We Speak, and Hear, Across Interfaith Boundaries?
Spirituality & Health's former poetry editor says language is key.
This article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.
I’m grateful to have been raised in Hawaii, which in terms of religion is America’s future. It has long been the only state where no one religion has a plurality; thus, I grew up taking for granted that Americans were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Shinto, as well as Christian. But my early exposure to religious diversity also has left me wary of the notion, if you will pardon an unpardonable pun, that the grace is always greener on the other side. I am especially wary of people whose fervent embrace of a new religion is marked by an equally fervent maligning of the tradition in which they were raised.
As an unapologetic Christian believer, all too often I am approached by people who characterize Christianity (and by extension Christians) as rigid, closed, doctrinaire, fundamentalist, or imperialist. They are often reacting against bad personal experiences with a pastor or church, or have a simplistic, ideological take on the religion’s history. “I don’t understand,” one woman commented, “how you can find such comfort in a religion that has done a lot of good, and a lot of harm. I am one of those who believe that the good far outweighs the bad.
But when I am confronted by angry, skeptical people, my task, my challenge as a writer and lecturer, is to gently assert that the God they rail against is not the one I encounter in the Scriptures, and the faith they hold in contempt bears little resemblance to my own, or that of most Christians. I seek to communicate my faith in language that is accessible to anyone. And I find that my background as a poet helps me here, as poetry does not seek to argue a point of view, but to give readers an experience that will resonate with something in their own experience. I find that both poetry and storytelling allow me to express my faith without trying to convince others of its truth.
But how do we speak, and hear, across interfaith boundaries? Language is the key, and I am fortunate to have a Jewish editor who mails me whenever I slip into Christian jargon. “You speak of ‘the living Christ,’” she once noted. “Do you mean that Christ is someone who once lived, or who lives now?” That is the Jewish question, and in asking it she forced me deeper into the writing process, trying to articulate my faith in a richer, more personal way than I had thought possible.
This experience is common to those who engage in interfaith dialogue. But there is always the danger that in our desire to please we won’t let people be who they are. I once prepared a lecture for a seminary entitled “Incarnational Language,” and was told that the phrase might be offensive to Jews. I could only respond that I had been invited to speak as a Christian, not a Jew, and that I intended to discuss the subject of the Incarnation in such a way that listeners of any faith might reach a better understanding of what Christians like me mean by the term. I’ve been fascinated to find, in tracing the history of the word “incarnation,” that it contains an obsolete word, “incarn,” meaning the flesh that forms over a wound. This gives credence to the ancient Christian motto, “Crux est mundi medicini.” But when I say that (and mean it), I am not being exclusivist, triumphalist, or critical of another religion. I am getting to the heart of my faith, that Christ’s coming, death, and Resurrection have sanctified all human flesh, and are for the healing of the world. It is a Christian’s response to the mystery addressed by any religion worth its salt – how human suffering is redeemed by compassion and love.