Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Affirming one’s identity while learning from others
The challenge for America is to embrace an ethic that includes “respect for different identities, relationships between diverse communities, and a commitment to the common good.”
This is the theme of Eboo Patel’s 2018 book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise. He is clear that our effort is not the “melting pot” image, often used to describe how we come together. That assumes we are somehow absorbed into a common mix that obliterates our differences. He prefers the image of a “potluck” where we bring our various dishes to share, and where the variety enhances our experience with mutually different experiences.
An important part of this manner of coming together is sharing our stories in ways that enable us to learn from each other as well as learn with each other. Patel shares some of his personal experiences as he learned to appreciate his own heritage while also learning from others.
He tells of when he was in junior high and very self-conscious of his minority status. When his grandmother from India attended one of his junior high functions “at my largely white suburban school, dressed in her Indian clothes and speaking with her Indian accent, I quaked with embarrassment.”
One of his teachers, sensing his situation, told him that his grandmother reminded her of her Italian grandmother. She continued, “Outside of native peoples, we all come from somewhere, and we should take pride in our heritage and customs of our family.” Patel recounts how this made him feel more fully American.
He also recounts the story of how his father came from India to America. Patel explains, “I am in this country because an institution started by French priests in the Indiana countryside in the 1840s, committed to the faith formation and economic uplift of poor Midwestern Catholic boys, somehow saw fit to admit a wayward Ismaili Muslim student from Bombay into its MBA program in the 1970s. That man was my father.”
Patel continues to describe his father’s devotion to Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team, leading to the occasion of what he identifies as one of his earliest interfaith memories. Frequent trips on Football Saturdays from Chicago to the campus always included a stop at the Grotto, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. On one occasion, Patel quizzed his father about why he as a Muslim would pray at a shrine dedicated to a Christian figure. His father pointed to the hundreds of candles and quoted from the Qur’an that God should be seen as “Light upon Light.” He then said, “You have a choice whenever you encounter something from another tradition, Eboo. You can look for the difference, or you can find resonances. I advise you to find the resonances.”
Patel learned from his father that one’s identity can be multiple, just as our nation can affirm multiple identities. His father could affirm his Muslim and Indian identities while also identifying with the Fighting Irish of the Catholic Notre Dame University who had given him a place in his education.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, also examines the important concept of identity as well as its danger when it becomes toxic. He says that identity is a part of our “primal, irrepressible need to belong: to identify with something larger than Me.” It can be a powerful motivator for the good, or be extremely dangerous when it leads to war or when it dominates politics in ways that actually threaten our democracy.
He outlines how nation, race, and class identities have historically led to wars, prejudice, and racial purity concepts such as that which led to the Holocaust. Led to the extreme, a society can lose not only the ability to negotiate differences, but even a common understanding of truth. It is in this way that Sacks worries about the current individualism and toxic polarity that places Western democracy at risk.
Is it possible that as we can, as Patel urged, learn more about, and with, those of different faith traditions, that we too can “look for the resonances?” Can we even find ways to communicate with those whose positions and politics are not our own, as Sacks urges, to seek ways that bring us to further understanding rather than promoting ways to confront and divide? It may not be easy but our identities might actually be enhanced and strengthened as we relate deeply to others while working for the common good.