As a queer, Jewish artist, when I told my friends and family that I would studying at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, many were confused. “So like, are you becoming a priest?” some would ask. Others more directly retorted, “But you’re Jewish!?!?!?! Why would you want to do that?”
The fact is, there are numerous reasons why I think it is important to study at a progressive, pluralistic seminary rooted in Liberal Christianity. Three key reasons are that Christianity is a defining theological and ideological component of our culture; that being in conversation with Christians helps us better understand our own traditions; and that our presence and voice helps decenter Christianity as an assumed norm.
1. Christianity is a major ingredient in the U.S. Cultural and Religious Soup.
Before moving to the Midwest, I lived in Providence, Rhode Island. In our country, Rhode Island is the state with the highest percentage of Catholics, at 42%. While Catholicism contains a huge realm of political, cultural, racial, ethnic and observational differences, when working on various social justice trajectories in Providence, for instance, it is strategically salient to know some common themes and beliefs in Catholicism. For example, when building an interfaith coalition, knowing the doctrinal shifts concerning Jewish people and Protestants from Vatican II is essential, as is paying attention to the current Pope’s work with Muslim communities. Pointing to the theological and ecclesiastical movements in Catholicism toward reconciliation, solidarity and dialogue among different denominations and religions utilizes the language of a significant majority of religious people to benefit a wide range of identities. Familiarity with the languages and cultures of Catholicism will help anyone in Rhode Island know the challenges and the areas of agreement when it comes to reproductive justice, immigration justice, LGBT issues, economics, etc.
As Catholicism is in Rhode Island, Christianity as a whole -- in its many forms and denominations -- is the dominant religion in the United States. While there in principle there is a separation of church and state, in practice, legislators and officials often appeal to their religious, usually Christian, backgrounds when making policy and running campaigns. There are churches in the smallest towns and in the largest cities. Christians holidays, like Christmas and Easter, constitute the closings of public institutions and many businesses. God is in our Pledge of Allegiance and on our money. Even in very secular arenas of arts and entertainment, academia, sports or the medical industry, Christian, especially Baptist and Methodist ethics, mythologies, values and communication styles are heavily at play. Fluency in the dominant religious ideologies of our country is necessary for any spiritual leader, theologian or activist who wants to build coalitions, speak to our times and make a difference.
2. Know thyself.
In Dr. Carolyn Pressler’s Hebrew Bible courses, we are consistently asked to reflect on our experiences with sacred text and our religious (or a-religious) backgrounds as part of social locations. We are asked what we have learned about the Bible and how we have learned it and, furthermore, how we might use the texts in ministries -- whether as pastors, as activists, as chaplains or as artists. These questions help me articulate what I learned growing up in a Jewish community and attending a Jewish day school. But whether or not I still ascribe to those values is revealed in my encounter with other students and with my professor’s interpretations.
Dr. Pressler brilliantly names where she is coming from with her interpretative lens just as she asks us to name ours. She is a feminist, UCC pastor, strongly formed in the United Methodist Church, a Biblical scholar, and an anti-racist, anti-apartheid activist. When she articulates her Christian values, I am able to listen and evaluate: I agree with this, I don’t agree with that, I see this very differently, I’ve never thought of that before, how might I come to a similar idea from own tradition, etc. I learned I value rabbinic discourse, Midrash and community-centered/this worldly conceptions of the religion and the divine. In my courses I also discovered aspects of my beliefs align with pantheism, polytheism and liberation theology, and yet how important it still is for me to find justification for these new allegiances within Jewish tradition.
When I started seminary, even though I had a strong sense of being culturally Jewish, I was unsure which religious community I belonged to or where I could locate my theology. Confronting Dr. Pressler’s views, as well as Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and African Methodist Episcopal professors and students, I was able to differentiate between Jewish and Christian convictions and hermeneutical processes. I have a clearer understanding of how I do and do not align with more traditional Jewish values, and how Christianity can help me to think outside of the Jewish box I grew up in.
3. Challenge the center.
James Baldwin once said, “If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.” Even the most progressive, open-minded and justice-oriented Christian might have few encounters with people from other religions, lifeways, philosophies or spiritualities. Many might have a flat understanding -- or even grave misunderstandings -- of Judaism, Shinto or Islam. My Christian classmate might sometimes think of their own Christian perspective in opposition to other religions without really knowing what these people believe and practice. Being in conversation with non-Christian students makes Christian students reflect on their own biases just as much as being learning about Christianity has helped me affirm and challenge aspects of my Jewish identity.
Christianity is often an assumed norm in this country. A commitment to pluralism and interreligiosity at United can help decenter a Christian perspective as “normal,” “best” or “most just.” I can share the ways that Christians have inspired me and the ways they have harmed my community in the past and to this day. These reflections help Christian leaders do better in the multifaith world. By being in community with a multitude of perspectives during seminary, Christian chaplains, pastors and non-profit leaders will be better equipped when engaging difference in their post-seminary careers.
While no religious minority should feel obligated to teach Christians or be a representative of their community, I have grown to appreciate when I can help Christian students see their own biases as they help me see my own. At United, being one of the voices de-centering a Christian perspective difference has strengthened my relationships with my peers, making subsequent conversations easier and/or deeper.
Learning at a seminary that is both rooted in progressive Christianity and committed to pluralism has helped me grow as a leader at the intersection of religion and the arts. I have a better understanding of the contexts in which I make art and that have helped form many of my actors and collaborators. I am self-aware of my commitments and more cognizant of where I need to grow. I am better prepared to be an instigator and a comrade in the work of social justice and solidarity in the U.S. context.