Fundamentalism and interfaith dialogue

I had the privilege of participating in Colorado State’s first “Better Together” Day: a collaborative effort of various faith ministries on campus. The point was to wear a nametag with your faith affiliation on it so you could find someone of a different faith tradition to talk to and learn from. There were “Christian,” “Jewish,” and “Atheist” labels along with more creative ones: “Spiritual but not religious,” “Love is all you need,” and “It’s all good as long as you don’t try and convert me” (I liked that one best).

Me, well, I briefly considered “Jewish-born Christian” and “Jewish-born Christian with agnostic tendencies,” but in the end I settled on simply “Christian.” I like my labels to be neat and uncomplicated, even if that means people might make assumptions about me that aren’t completely true.

Those details were bound to come out in conversation anyway. This circle alone consisted of Christians (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and me), Jews, agnostics, and atheists (I’m on the far left in the blue shirt and sunglasses).


I don’t know how other conversations went, but this one seemed to discuss religious background more than our current beliefs. I’m continually fascinated at how some people raised secular grew up to become religious, while others raised religious ended up secular. Me, I fall into the former category. Perhaps Christian parents should raise their kids without religion to guarantee they come to church? 😉

I live for conversations like these, though it occurred to me that my college self would not have done too well at this sort of event. Not when my involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ taught me that the definition of a True Christian™ was extremely narrow. It was hammered into me that the gospel is an offensive doctrine because (to paraphrase Rachel Held Evans) of who it keeps out: basically everyone who didn’t believe exactly as we did. Today, I think the gospel is offensive because of who it lets in: all the people on the fringes of society; the misfits, the doubters, the poor in spirit.

If fundamentalism is True Christianity™, are its adherents capable of participating in events like Better Together Day? According to an Amazon review of the book The Faith Club, interfaith dialogue like this only “works” if all the participants are “lukewarm”; not very engaged in their faith. Because the moment anyone claims that only their beliefs are correct, the conversation pretty much ends there.

My college ministry claimed to be free of all the “rules” of man-made religion, but we really weren’t. Our list of things that True True Christians™ did and did not do was so long, and constantly getting longer. The “lifestyle sins” like homosexuality got far more scrutiny than “bad habit” sins like gossip. My uneasiness about evangelism might have been the worst: by not doing it, I was essentially letting my friends drown when I could have thrown them a life jacket. I’d be held accountable for that on Judgment Day: all those souls I let perish.

Looking back, what saddens me the most about those days is how much I wanted to get to know people who believed differently from me. I wanted to hear their stories, ask them questions, and learn from them. But I felt that I couldn’t, because it was a waste of time. Friendship evangelism wasn’t the best track because it took so long. I could spend an hour at a coffee shop listening to a classmate explain why she’s an atheist, set a date for another meeting, and then find out she got hit by a bus. Opportunity blown.

At some point over the last few years, it finally dawned on me how much better it is to be Jesus than preach with the repetition of a talking parakeet. I’d rather be known for what I stand for rather than what I stand against, and I say so with the confidence of knowing that the people who influenced me in my faith were like that. I’d still have found a way to faith on my own, but had my mentors been fundamentalist know-it-alls, it might have taken me a lot longer.