“Familiarity can lead to unfamiliarity. We see something so much that we assume we know and understand what it is.” These two sentences were the most impactful to me of what I read in the chapters for this week because I have totally been there.
You see having grown up Jewish in a community that is predominantly Christian, I thought I knew what it meant to be a Christian- until I got to college. Prior to college, being Christian to me meant Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and people who said they were monotheistic but really had three gods, and even though I didn’t know exactly why- it meant Jesus is a big deal. And that was about it, Christianity in a nutshell according to Beth.
The university I attended as an undergraduate is a Jesuit Catholic college and so I, along with every other freshman who matriculated there, were required to take a several theology courses, the first one being Christianity In Context. This basically meant that you spent a class each on Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam and then the rest of the course was devoted to learning about Christianity. “Cakewalk,” I thought. “I’ve lived among Christians my whole life. I know all about them.” So imagine my surprise when I learned that most of my ideas about what it meant to be Christian were wrong. How could this be? Well, I had done exactly what Rob Bell described. I had mistaken being familiar with Christians and Christianity as being knowledgeable about Christians and Christianity and those are two very different things. And in the process I had reduced Christianity and Christians to a monolithic pool of stereotypes and commercialized pop culture references. My ignorance had stripped Christianity of the rich diversity and complexities of the people and experiences which comprise it.
I also know what it is like to be on the receiving end of this. Many people take the images they see in the media and popular culture or what they read in the New Testament or in the Hebrew Bible and think they understand Judaism and what it means to be Jewish. Think again. Just like Christians and Christianity, Judaism and the Jewish community are complex, varied, and nuanced. And in my work in the interfaith movement, I would say the same is true of Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, Muslims and just about any other religious or spiritual group. But the only way to truly understand this in an authentic way is to become educated about religious diversity while at the same time finding meaningful ways to interact and become in relationship with people who actually live out these traditions and beliefs.
Unless we take the time and effort to push beyond the comfort of that which is familiar and wade into the messy, awkward, sometimes uncomfortable waters of being in relationship with people of different faiths and beliefs, we will all be inoculated from true understanding and connection by the assumptions and stereotypes that we hold.