Three tables of two face this small auditorium audience. Six students and three faiths are on show: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
I’m playing a perverse game of ‘pick that stereotype.’ A friend next to me affirms her participation. That guy seems Christianey? “He’s a prodestant, a Catholic would seem less scruffy” say my prejudices silently. It’s a fine and scary line playing ‘Are they actually that predictable?’ at this Wednesday night inter-faith panel.
‘Abrahamic Perspectives’ is the name of the event organised by the Muslim Students Association at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This is the first year of the event.
Contrary to our dull assumptions, Eric the Ashkenazi is actually a progressive Christian and Justin the Methodist has ‘aspirations to become an Orthodox rabbi’ someday; It’s nice being reassured that stereotypes aren’t accurate (though it would be safe to say, in this context, that the two darker skinned students on the edge of the table probably aren’t Lutherans)
Four questions were asked of the panellists, with other questions coming from the crowd. Topics included the ideas of God’s relationship with humankind, and how panellists individually communicate with him.
“A finite being can’t understand infinitude. The most immediate way to understand God, is just to read his words, that’s what Religion would tell you” said Rashid, a Muslim student on the panel.
The event was framed with a tacit understanding of the similarities shared across faiths, and of the fundamental human questions people sought to answer beyond boundaries of faith and culture. “It’s cool to find these parallels” Rashid said to the panel.
Indeed, both the Jews and the Muslims seemed totally ok with sharing the table.
Yet, when grappling with the enormous, each answer seems a sad dilution of personal reality, or worse yet, one which panders to politically correct mass conceptions of God.
“I’m sorry for the broad terms, I’m trying to make this as clear as possible” said Justin, a Jewish student on the panel.
Indirectly referring to the idea of submission in Islam, student Rashid explains “Once you realise that everything is a product of the hand of God…you enslave yourself to it…absolute submission is total liberation”
A student from the crowd calls out, suggesting that ‘self-surrender’ might be a better translation from the Arabic.
Laura, a Christian student, responds by mentioning ‘taking up the cross’ in the Christian tradition. She affirms the unpleasant connotations of ‘submission’.
It may have been the most telling conversation of the whole night. It was certainly the most awkward.
On belief, Rashid explains “You’re learning about it, you see it, and the third level is revelation, with a capital ‘R’, when you (truly) believe it”
Yet, what we truly believe is hard to debate when the questions are hindered with self-censorship.
Will my faith sound scary? Will mine look like a love-fest, while their God likes to smite? Conversely, is mine distant and judicial, while theirs is ‘spiritual’?
When arguing that one’s faith is as pleasant and wonderful as theirs is, one can quickly forfeit the inherent legitimacy. Ultimately I mustn’t have it both ways, right? If I belong to one faith, then I don’t belong to all faiths. Titles imply difference. I can’t take the restrictions out and just keep the fulfillment without losing the fulfillment as well- otherwise I wouldn’t be one of God’s people, we’d all be God’s people, and so we’d all have to agree on what kind of God he is.
None of us really agree about that.
(Though everybody was on the same page about Jerusalem seeming pretty important and that sex before marriage sounded overrated)