From Bubble to Bridge: Interfaith Engagement as a Civic Imperative

Why is it imperative that Christians move beyond their “bubbles” and engage with their neighbors of other religions? In the first two chapters of From Bubble to Bridge, my Bethel colleagues Marion Larson and Sara Shady argue that interfaith engagement is both a civic and religious imperative. We’ll continue our series with the first.

A Civic Imperative (ch. 1)

Larson & Shady, From Bubble to BridgeMany commentators have noted that globalization has not necessarily accelerated secularization. Instead, we live in a world in which religions like Christianity and Islam continue to grow, while economic, political, technological, and other forces have created movements of peoples and ideas that leave us, in Diana Eck’s words, “wrestling with new levels of religious diversity and cultural encounter.” This change, write Sara and Marion, is both “exciting” and “confusing and disconcerting.” They cite a 2015 Pew study showing that “roughly a quarter of the world’s countries are still grappling with high levels of religious hostilities within their borders.” But

Religious diversity doesn’t have to lead to fear, confusion, or violence, however. Throughout history, strong religious partnerships have been formed across faith lines to promote the common good and bring about social change…. To pursue peace in our century, we have to be willing to build bridges with other religious communities. (18)

America has long been a religiously devout and religiously diverse society, yet “we don’t always view the world outside our religious bubbles constructively. We don’t treat all religious traditions with equal respect, and we don’t appear to be as willing to build bridges with some groups as we are with others.” (They could have developed this more historically; it’s an old problem for a nation supposedly built on the foundation of religious liberty). While the vast majority of Americans claim to believe in the value of religious diversity, that’s less and less true the more and more religious someone is.

(In fact, a more recent Pew report found that Americans are feeling much more warmly about most religious groups, including Muslims. But when asked about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists, white evangelicals are at least ten points colder on this “thermometer” than the national mean. They do, however, feel even more warmly than most Americans about Jews.)

Fortunately, we’ve yet to see anything like the scale of interreligious violence afflicting other countries — and, as the media present things, “[s]trident voices of hatred and dissension drown out the quieter voices of those seeking mutual understanding and peace” — but Marion and Sara note evidence of religious prejudice, such as that collected by sociologist Robert Wuthnow.

From Bubble to Bridge came out just before the new administration took office, but there is no mention made of Donald Trump. As someone who, like Sara and Marion, spent 2016 writing a book due in 2017, I know firsthand that it’s challenging to know how best to respond to current events. Suffice it to say that what’s happened since the book’s publication simply amplifies the urgency of its argument.

So what’s to be done? Some would simply suppress religious voices, deeming the public square to be a secular space. “But this isn’t the solution,” argue Marion and Sara. “Religion is important to so many people that it simply can’t be excluded from public deliberations about our life together.” (Their focus is on this country, but they might have pointed to ongoing tensions in France to show that secularity doesn’t necessarily improve discourse or inhibit religious conflict.) Nor “should we push for a false consensus” (24-25).

Putnam & Campbell, American GraceInstead, they echo Eboo Patel’s call for a truly pluralistic society, one marked by mutual respect, healthy relationships, and common action that cross religious (and nonreligious) lines. At a time when there’s much angst about our fraying social fabric, Sara and Marion emphasize that “such cooperation helps to strengthen social bonds as we get to know our religious neighbors” (They develop this further on pp. 29-31, with the help of social scientists like Robert Putnam and Ashutosh Varshney.)

As with their introduction, Marion and Sara don’t duck the inevitable objection from religious believers: “Some beliefs and teachings are ultimately irreconcilable, and ignoring this fact can be deeply problematic.” So they suggest setting aside such theological debates “when exploring civic issues.”

Now, I’m not sure it’s always possible to draw clear lines between theological and civic questions when you profess faith in someone who is both Savior and Lord, as Sara, Marion, and I do. But it’s clearly worth attempting. I appreciate that they not only quoted Patel, Eck, and Miroslav Volf (perhaps the most important influence on the whole book) but pointed to the example of “The Evangelical Manifesto” of 2008, whose authors professed a commitment “to a civil public square—a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too.”

I’ll stop the summary here — you ought to buy the book itself in order to see how Marion and Sara connect this civic imperative to their primary message, about interfaith engagement within Christian higher education. But as a final thought…

Beyond the argument and evidence, I’m struck by the tone already evident in From Bubble to Bridge. They’re right that “Scripture says that… love” is the “antidote” to the fear holding us back from “build[ing] bridges of trust and partnership between our various communities” (28). But another Christian theological virtue also runs through this book: hope.

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationI don’t expect that they’ll have much to say about Pietism in this book, but reading Marion and Sara reminds me of what our Bethel colleague Christian Collins Winn argued in a 2012 convocation address that eventually made its way into our book on Pietism and higher education: that for Pietists, civil discourse is ultimately rooted in “a hopeful commitment to God’s peace.” He continued:

Pietistic work for the revitalization of Christianity was not rooted in optimism, but in the conviction and hope that the work of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was continuing to unfold in history in the power of the Spirit, and that this work was a work of healing….

When seen from this perspective, the “irenic spirit of Pietism” is really more of a challenge than a possession. It asks us: Are we committed to God’s peace, God’s shalom? We all know only too well, and some of us perhaps more than others, that the practice of good faith, humility, and genuine neighbor-love is hard work, at which we fail daily and in which we are often afflicted by the failures of others. What hope does, is to call us to begin again at the beginning. To turn around, and to start over once more—to practice good faith, humility, and love—in the hope that God’s peace may break into our common life now.

<<Read the first post in this series