Redrawing Boundaries Without Sacrificing Distinctions - Jay Marshall*

For a religion that spends a lot of time speaking about love, Christianity enjoys a good fight. I marvel at that tendency. Though a member of a tiny group known as “Quakers” or “Friends” whose heritage touts peace as a virtue, if not an integral part of life, my own spiritual kinfolk can duke it out with the best of them. We do that despite the deep conviction that “there is that of God in all persons.” I recognize that love and peace are complicated topics for discussion and confounding practices to implement. However, that doesn’t lessen my dismay at the tension that seems inherent in many religious traditions.

One can name any number of lightning rods that has represented the “cause of the day.” Within my own tradition, it didn’t start with the Crusades, and it won’t end with the question of ordination of gays and lesbians. Outside my tradition where I am more an observer than a participant, I see similarities. The arguments are saturated with polished rhetoric, religious imagery, and soaked with appeals to holiness and purity. Calls are made to accept some designated set of Truths.

The cause beneath the symptoms seems to be a compulsion with marking the boundary that determines who is an insider and who is not. What accounts for the delineation of those marked as insiders? Though often discussed in terms like truth and obedience, the underlying question is “whom does God love more, and therefore knows the mind and will of God? Based upon that, who deserves to have authority and control?”  These are high stakes! I have spent a good portion of my life watching, even participating, in these types of conversations. The sentiment, “There simply are no good wars.” echoes strongly in my mind.

Meanwhile within the larger context in which these disagreements persist, cultural wars bring both progress and confusion. Greater respect for marginalized populations and sensitivity to our own egregious complicity in systems that perpetuate these injustices are important and precious advances made in our global struggle to live more respectful, equitable lives. The mantras of “tolerance” and “inclusivity” are working their way downward into society’s collective consciousness. Interestingly enough, certain studies (e.g. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) indicate that in the face of pressure to accept differences, the bulk of the U.S. population is merely retreating from public life. This amounts to a shrinking of the boundaries of engagement in which an individual chooses to expend energy and build relationships.

We are faced with a problem for our future that is not easily resolved, as “inclusivity” and “particularity” come into contact and conflict. When not critiqued, movements for tolerance and inclusivity leave unaddressed questions about the place, or even the propriety, of particularity. For those who attempt to remain engaged and involved, important topics are never addressed, or if they are, bland and generic answers assume the role of truth. As a consequence, persons can feel as though their own lives lack integrity. Perhaps this accounts for the withdrawal noted by Putnam, and even the elevated importance of drawing boundaries that define and distinguish, which frequently uses religion as its venue. The tensions between the multiple layers of our identities are complex.

ESR has not escaped being predominantly middle class and white, for that is the prevailing demographic of Friends in the U.S. We have, however, labored to be open and welcoming of those who are not part of this demographic.  Neither have we avoided being well educated, which contributes to class separation; and really how could we, since education is central to our mission? However, we do seek to avoid elitist tendencies fueled by the privilege of education. We have not forsaken our identity as a Christian school in the Quaker tradition. However, we have chosen a commitment to inclusivity without the sacrifice of particularity. To do so, we work to clarify our own identity and belief systems, examining them and critiquing them, recognizing that the more we understand why we think as we do, the less threatened we are by those who disagree with us. We intend to claim these conclusions as our own while not requiring that others accept them exactly as we do, or at all. Meanwhile, we expand the circle of conversation partners, whether through literature, film, or guests to campus, and commit to making space for engaging conversation and thoughtful reflection. It is proving to be a powerful way to draw the circle wider, discovering that much exclusion made by previous generations no longer seem valid. At the same time on some level we all know that “not anything goes.”

ESR is hardly a monolithic group. Some days it seems we fit nowhere and please no one. Personally, I am tired of the religious wars that primarily use coercion to impose belief systems upon unwilling victims, or to ostracize those who are different. At the same time, I recognize a weariness in being bombarded with cultural messages of tolerance and inclusivity, the effect of which can mute the freedom to live with spiritual conviction.  

These days, I find myself pushing a different question into these verbal battles: Must religion be exclusivist? If so, how tightly drawn are the boundaries? As dean of Earlham School of Religion, I witness the delight of enlarging the boundaries, the dilemma of not being able to escape the unpleasant dimensions of our ingrained tendencies, and ultimately the realization that there are some boundaries and preferences on the horizon that participants do not want to erase or discard. At that point, respect in spite of differences is preferred over the dilution or dissolution of our distinctions. This is terribly difficult work, and is much too important to ignore.

*Jay Marshall is dean of Earlham School of Religion.