Definitions — Sarah Eckhardt

One of my aims for this fellowship was to formalize a definition of religion that explains why I was drawn here initially, and why I followed through with it.. Every week I discuss traditions that are not my own, and many of which will never be my own. Every week I deliberately choose to come to this interfaith group rather than one of the many other religious spaces on campus. Every week I choose to be a part of this community. Like every other interfaith fellow, I have thought deeply about the matters we discuss and am far from indifferent about the place of religion in human lives. But I cannot say that this fellowship is a theistic quest. This is partially because my spirituality is profoundly personal, and it would not be mine if I discussed it with another. But this view is common; we wouldn’t be ourselves without our private lives. More importantly, I am puzzled by my fascination with religion because I am an ardent atheist. And I am not the only one in this fellowship…Atheists who love religions passionately! Is this not paradoxical? To account for these seemingly contradictory facts, I have been searching for a formal conceptualization of what religions are and should be to me.

What draws me, I think, is a clear consequence of religion that has seeped into our conversations. In autumn we laid down rules of dialogue that command respect, but we never determined our objectives for the program. Nothing we are doing together is in pursuit of some grand interfaith goal. We are cosmopolitans and do not need to learn to live peacefully together, we are not here to convert, and we are not here to discuss a predetermined set of ideas.

The closest conceptualization we are given is Leonard Swidler’s first commandment of the Dialogue Decalogue: “The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn.” Learn what? Learn in order to do what? Swidler clarifies learning to mean to “change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality and then to act accordingly.” Understanding the goal of dialogue as having an actionable outcome does not help my definition, as action is not what brought me here. I have come to understand that the point is instead to have the “something”. Interfaith dialogue is left intentionally unbounded, because its topic material is also.

Religions are political institutions, economic systems, cultural traditions, identity conceptualizations, concepts of existence, and approximations of the spiritual and divine. They are a record of human history, the evolution of thought, and rulebooks on how to live a good life. They are deeply concerned with scientific advancement and the future of humankind. They are weapons used for personal gain and prove all the dangerous pitfalls of group behavior. They encompass all and everything, or at the very least that is what they intend to do.

“All and everything” is quite expansive. Definitions are useful in their relation to other things: just as important in a concept of ‘religion’ or ‘interfaith’ is what these things are not, as what they are. Yet I believe I am attracted to these topics precisely because my definition cannot not narrow them. I seek to explore something that has become everything, and do so with a group of curious young people who appreciate ‘religions’ as plurals. Each fellow’s unique contribution to the “alls and everythings” continues to pull me from my books each Tuesday evening toward the concrete dungeon that is the Humanities Building. By the end of the semester I may come to a better understanding of precisely how these “everythings” affect my daily life, but for now, I am satisfied.