PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION IN FAITH

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Those involved in the interfaith movement will spout the benefits of sharing and experiencing faith across religious boundaries. Such benefits include creating a more peaceful world, as well as deepening the experience of one’s own faith. For example, “You don’t know your own religion if you don’t know another, you can’t understand your own religion. You get a much better perspective on what religion is about, on who God is, by understanding how others see God…” (Kirkwood, 168). And yet many religions operate in a world of mutual exclusivity. Respecting another’s tradition is one thing, but participating in another’s traditions often crosses the line. This can be seen as a betrayal to one’s faith, and even a sin against God. How do we foster genuine respect through understanding if we keep other religious groups at arm’s length?

We can get some inspiration from the evolution of methodology in the social sciences, namely anthropology. The field started with ‘armchair’ anthropologists analyzing distant cultures with only the reports of others, namely merchants and missionaries. Their results were largely inaccurate and biased. Later anthropologists started traveling to study their subjects in person, though their analysis were often rather anglocentric. Finally, with thick description and participant observation we approach the anthropology of today. Today’s researchers often walk a very thin line between an insider than can be trusted with information and an objective outsider. Working to find balance in these circumstances encourages holistic and in-depth results.

Similarly, people of faith can move past tolerance to understanding with a bit of participant observation. This is essential for people of faith in this global world. We can no longer remain enclosed behind religious walls and cloak the diversity outside under a blanket of ignorant tolerance. Like anthropologists we must participate in other faiths to understand them. We must read their sacred texts, go out and see how others pray, worship with them, feast and celebrate with them. This will give us a more holistic view of the world we live in, and give us a new lens to view our own faith with. Seeing the commonalities and points of differentiation between spiritual systems, we can appreciate our traditions in new ways and worship and pray with new fervor.

To insiders the reason for mutual exclusivity is often wrapped up in the concept of sin. Functionally I believe the reason is no more complex than survival. By keeping other faiths at a distance you ‘preserve’ and ‘protect’ the faith. But this is attempted in vain. Religions do not reside in a vacuum, but in the world. They aim to keep out what might taint the faith. But they might simultaneously keep out that which will revitalize and strengthen their respective faith. Discernment is a must in this endeavor. But this endeavor is a must.

 

Kirkwood, Peter. The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness. (Interview with Sister Joan Kirby in September 2006.) 2007. Sydney, NSW: ABC Books.

 

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2 thoughts on “PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION IN FAITH

  1. Some good notions here. Having worked in interfaith circles for many years, I now wonder how religion in a secular world can be more bridgebuilding, to include “participation” with freethinkers, humanists, agnostics and atheists. I know it may mean crossing the bridge of fear, but what is the alternative: more exclusivity and misunderstanding.

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    1. Thanks Chris! Building bridges between different faiths is one thing. Building bridges between people of faith and free thinkers, humanists, agnostics and atheists etc. is another animal entirely. But a worthy cause to be sure. I’ll think on it! Thanks again!

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