world council of churches

Effects of Religious Plurality in my Work and Thinking
Kelly Jensen

It is difficult for me, both in my mind and in my experience, to separate religious plurality from cultural plurality and in that sense, both very much affect my work and my thinking. However, each must be examined separately in my life for the effects are markedly different.

As the child of a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I grew up without having really made the choice conscientiously to be a Christian. Baptized into Christianity at 8 years old, I participated in the Pastor's Class and in the mentoring program and joined other children in Sunday School and in church camping programs during my older youth. I have served several positions in our denomination at the local, regional and general church levels. "Church" is very much a part of who I am and what I do. That identity however, has changed with experience and though I still choose Christianity as my faith home, I have studied and shared and adventured into other faiths - all as a part of defining the Christian I am today. This journey for me, ends in the praise of one God, one creator of humanity, one giver of blessings and challenges, called by many names.

As we become a planet more interdependent and as our technology moves us even faster in that direction, the links between humanity cannot remain only non-personal. We transact business from one side of the planet to another in seconds, we successfully pass needed information from one continent to another through a variety of multimedia, we send our loved one living on an island greetings through a portable device - we have become plurality. We have become cultures inextricably linked. To acknowledge and live into that seems somehow the logical path. In my work as a Forecast Planner for a local PC manufacturer, I spend time with Iranians, Egyptians, Americans, Koreans and people of countless other countries. Cultural plurality is a part of my life each day both in the workplace and in the home. Since childhood, I have held a great interest in the study of cultures. Religious plurality as a part of my workplace however, is more difficult to define and measure.

Because of my work, environment and its corporate culture, matters of religion and faith are not regularly discussed. I have, on several occasions, initiated dialogue with my coworkers regarding their faith beliefs. In my discussions with those coworkers, culture is as much a part of their religious life as is the theology itself. For that reason, I have come to a limited understanding of their faith backgrounds in the context of their ethnicity. In the workplace, religious plurality has only one effect for me that I can identify. My faith and my limited understanding of my coworkers' faith interpretations, contribute to my ethics being somewhat different than the ethics of coworkers, who do not consider religious plurality as an essential part of their being. I notice that decisions I make toward others and words I use, differ from others whose thoughts are only of business and not of human resources and human links. Being a faithful person is the initial part of that difference; working with people of other faiths completes the observation. My work at this time in my life is a very small part of who I am and where my interest lies. It is therefore much more meaningful for me to speak of the effects of religious plurality have upon my thinking which is a significant part of my identity.

Religious plurality affects my thoughts and for that matter, my theology in ways much more easily quantified. About five years ago, I made a personal change to my regular Sunday worship program. As part of our service, prior to Holy Communion, we as a congregation in unison speak the Affirmation of Faith "I believe that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the World" found in the Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was about five years ago that I began to understand the inherent Christian arrogance and imperialism in that statement. From that place on my theological journey, I was moved to follow a new and different path. Probably considered syncretic by some, this part of my journey has brought me closer to understanding my choice to be a Christian. I stopped reciting the last portion of the statement and realized the importance in choosing Christ as my own Lord and Savior and not proclaiming, rather dictating, that He be that for the world's population. A relatively small step, but for me the beginning of a spiritually nourishing journey.

As I have studied and shared over these last years, my interest and conviction in religious plurality have come to the very deepest core of my identity. Christianity has come to mean not a pedestal, but a knee bent down with eyes open to one God in the light of many faiths. I understand that there are places where this na´ve explanation will break down - begin with the cross as an act of grace which presupposes the need for a Savior, consider the communion table as a gathering place for Christians only, think of the Bible as the inerrant word of God given for the Chosen, look to the whole Christological debate for Christians, examine the ecumenical movement reaching beyond the Christocentric movement and into an ecumenism of plurality; I can't fully address these questions and don't want to limit myself to such an exclusive view as their answers might suggest. Rather, I want to consider these questions as my friends from other faith perspectives consider their own difficult theological questions. As we struggle together, we not only come to a closer (though maybe not agreeable) understanding of one another, but also to a closer understanding of ourselves. This understanding transforms an otherwise segregated planet into a woven blend of heritage and culture.

Almost three years ago, I married the man whom I had been dating for about two years. For both of us that was as much an act of faith as it was an act of love - faith in the one God who called us together in holy matrimony as heirs of God's grace, though we be of different religious traditions. In the most defined sense, my husband Merrill is not a Christian. But in the most unlimited sense, Merrill has an understanding and an appreciation of the gifts of Christianity. Having been raised in a fairly conservative Christian denomination, Merrill has come to find Christianity rather exclusive. And it is, by the nature of the doctrine. But for him, the exclusivity does not bring about intolerance. He spends much of his time reading the texts of Eastern religions while at the same time respecting and encouraging my own Christian growth. His days and mine begin with the reading of a more liberal Christian devotional resource and end with the reading of something far removed from Christianity. To explore and develop this rich tapestry of religious plurality within one's own life requires a complete and whole sense of self.

Complete and whole such that venturing into the unknown, unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable does not move one to the point of losing identity. To be moved and changed is a meaningful step in the journey but to understand that change in the context of your own identity and to affirm it begins the reward of affirming diversity. The desire and ability to do that have been richly blessed our lives . We began our life together with what some considered a very strange wedding ceremony. The service included readings from Native American works, the Tao Te Ching, the Bible and several other seemingly unrelated texts. Our hope was to openly express our commitment to diversity and plurality to one another and to those gathered with us. That remains our hope as we live out our life together. God is rich with diversity and in all things homogeneity is not Godly. God has created for us a time and place not limited by one interpretation. God has also given us the gift of discernment. The ability to discern one's own unique path through so many possible paths is one of the greatest moments in defining self. Faith is a choice made individually. To make that choice in any other way may not be true and the choice itself not genuine. Ultimately the path rests with one individual and with God. Meditation, prayer, repentance, praise - all a part of a daily relationship with God rest with the individual and with God.

Collectively, we may worship together or pray together or pilgrimage together, meditate, fast or commune together but the creation of the relationship itself with God requires the soul of an individual. And so as I have gathered together with Buddhists and Hindus and on previous occasions with Muslims and Taoists and Christians, there is a oneness of fellowship and a oneness of spirit that we have found together in our collective relationship with God. In many ways, and not to appear at all flippant, the rest is truly semantics. Again, there are places where this explanation of a commonality with other faiths will break down and in no way do I presume such a lighthearted view as to say that all faiths can or should, come together as one in this commonality. But, I am so bold as to say that God created humanity rich with diversity and by understanding that diversity, we gain a necessary appreciation of it, thereby making dialogue possible. It is in the understanding then, where we must begin. This kind of comprehensive understanding and letting go of preconceived notions does not come without struggle. But its rewards are immeasurable. To discover our common humanity together across faiths and bring that discovery together for a greater good is the challenge and the blessing. Partnering together need not be a process of merging, but a process of standing arm in arm with one another, as faces of one humanity seeking greater understanding of ourselves and of one another through God the creator.

We must look to the unlimited possibilities for expressions of social justice and reconciliation when seeking a common understanding and partnership. Though we may not find that our path is the same, can we find that our need for reconciliation and that God's hope for justice and reconciliation amidst the gift of diversity are worthy? Engaging in dialogue and stretching to learn about another's faith journey are essential parts of creating human bridges and links where before they might not have existed. But, in my opinion and in my experience, the dialogue, the openness and the transformation are most importantly building blocks. The next step is where religious plurality in its finest moments can take shape. As interfaith partners and friends, we begin the more difficult steps of affirming and lifting up differences, of listening to God's call to bring people together in new and meaningful ways and of working together to enhance our spiritual lives. More difficult because it requires giving up "I" language and more rewarding because of the possibilities for growth and renewal. My Christian faith is very young and my understanding very limited, but in this short time that I have shared, my faith has been richly blessed by the gifts of my friends whose journey takes a different path than my own.

Kelly Jensen works as Forecast Planner for a personal computer manufacturer in Nampa, Idaho

Go to Contribution by Sung-Hee Lee-Linke
Return to Current Dialogue (34), February 2000

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