by Adam Kirtley
Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life

Whitman College Baccalaureate
Saturday, May 19, 2012 

I was once told that I place too much value on the quality of being liked by others. So, in my never ending quest for balance, I’ve written a talk that will likely alienate many of you…

Coexist bumper stickerI am a fan of a well-crafted bumper sticker. I admire the ability to string together just a few words which, on one hand don’t take themselves too seriously, and on the other serve to make people think. There are good bumper stickers and not-so-good bumper stickers – and there are pervasive bumper stickers. I presume you have some awareness of the extremely popular “Coexist” bumper sticker. In case you’re not, the bumper sticker merely says the word “Coexist” but the word itself is spelled not with English letters, but with the iconic symbols (primarily) of the world’s great religious traditions. It is a bumper sticker, of course, that is directive and not descriptive. That is, when it comes to religion, coexistence often is not the current state of things. Or, in the words of Jon Stewart, one of my heroes, “Religion [gives] people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” So, coexistence comes to us on this bumper sticker as an articulated idea, a suggestion, a plea.

The “co” in coexist has Latin roots which mean “together, mutually, in common.” Thus, “coexistence” for the purpose of this talk should be understood to be distinctly different from simultaneous existence. The type of coexistence about which I’d like to speak implies an existence with cooperation, not malice or ambivalence, or even the oft-articulated goal of tolerance.

Now before you revolt, allow me to explain why in the world would I choose to steal eight minutes of the lives of this group to talk about religious pluralism. You see, I do in fact know my audience reasonably well. Over half of you came to Whitman claiming no religious heritage whatsoever. And four years later, that proportion has probably increased. But religious coexistence matters, and not simply to “believers.” The intersection of religion and society is being played out in frustratingly inarticulate ways in the current political arena. As the general election draws near, we find ourselves in a season of polarization. Nuance is lost in favor of a sound bite and I fear that citizens are being asked to take a stand on religious issues that are often falsely constructed and fail to benefit either religion or society at large. But more importantly, and perhaps not surprising to you, in a recent article in the International Journal of Peace studies, Luc Reychler cited no fewer than 24 wars happening around the world which have religion as a central dimension. The ability or inability to negotiate peace in a multi-faith world affects every one of us.

That said, despite the frequency with which religion is linked to violence and conflict, I fundamentally see religion as having the potential to be a force for unification and peace in this world. But for that to happen there needs to be a paradigm shift. This shift – this fundamental change in understanding – rests in the strengthening of the moderate and progressive voices from within each of these traditions that are struggling to be heard over the din of inflammatory rhetoric.

A man by the name of Eric Greene is the regional director of the Southern California Progressive Jewish Alliance. Greene and his organization were quite vocal in support of the establishment of a Mosque in a southern California community that had met with fierce resistance from many locals. Following a town hall meeting on the issue, Greene was quoted as saying, “Last night, we heard a lot of irrational fears and they’re the same irrational fears that many of our ancestors heard when they came to America. We cannot stand idly by – we have an obligation to stand up when we see injustice and inequality. That’s the Jewish thing to do.”

Green’s quote is merely representative of religious coexistence in action – one example from one religious tradition among many examples and many traditions. What is particularly useful for our purpose this afternoon, however, is the last line, “that’s the Jewish thing to do.” Green and other progressives are most effective when they speak squarely from within their tradition. The pluralistic views they espouse are not held despite their religious understanding. They are held because of it.

People will tell me that such progressive pluralism is inconceivable. They argue that that type of cooperation is only possible by individuals who have shed their essential religious identities – that what they bring to that table of pluralism is only able to be a shell or a whisper of any actual religious conviction. I suspect I’ll be arguing against those claims for the rest of my life.

Elusive coexistence in regard to religion is far too often framed as stemming from incompatibilities between one religion and the next. There is a divide, but the divide is not between the world’s great religions. It is between individuals who value pluralism and those who do not. I am tempted to say that the divide is simply between religious progressives and religious extremists. This characterization, however, leaves out the largest swath of religious practitioners. This group doesn’t actively engage in the destruction of other religious perspectives (as an extremist might), nor does it, however, identify religious pluralism as a priority. My claim is that simply living out one’s faith without regard for the “co” in coexistence is not a zero sum game. Such practice contributes to the failure of religious coexistence. My hope is that moderate and progressive voices from diverse religious traditions might see each other as allies in the struggle to establish harmony among the traditions. Feisal Abdul Rauf, best known for his work to establish the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” said in a recent interview on NPR that these allies (progressives from the world’s religious traditions) must work together to “marginalize the voice of the extremists.”

So if I haven’t done so already, let me really alienate you now… If you’re a person of faith and you take seriously the bumper sticker’s plea for coexistence, then I encourage you to claim boldly a stance as a progressive voice from within your tradition, and seek to ally yourself with other progressives from other traditions. And if you are not a person of faith, but you do long for peace and justice in the world (and I suspect that there are one or two of you out there who do), your answer of course lies not in the abolition of religion (an inherently intolerant goal). Rather seek to ally yourself and to work with moderate and progressive people of faith. When you stand shoulder to shoulder with them against the powers of oppression and tyranny, you can lean over and debate with them the existence of God. But know that that conversation isn’t as important as the work you are doing together

You see, I am a person of faith. My religious practice is the language I use to experience the Holy…the unknown. My faith is an essential component of my identity. I cherish my religious heritage. But, do I know it to be true? No. I don’t. In fact, there are some tenants of my faith that I very much doubt. Dancing with my doubt is an important aspect of my own spiritual journey. More importantly, however, I fundamentally believe that part of what is essential to the kind of peace religious coexistence might bring is an acknowledgment that none of us – not the Christians, Muslims, Jews, or even the realm of science – know or will know all of the answers. We can believe. We can organize our lives around those beliefs. But Truth does not belong to one group over another. And as terrifying as it is to surrender it, it is in fact that modicum of humility, that willingness to acknowledge the limits of our understanding, which create the essential hinge. So you’ll notice the question mark at the end of the word “Coexist” in my speech title. That punctuation does not question the possibility of coexistence. I would argue, rather, that it is essential for the possibility of coexistence.

Slapping the coexist bumper sticker on your car or guitar case is an important step. But the relationships established across boundaries (built upon common goals) is critical. You have learned and accomplished so much in these last four years. You may even claim expertise is something. Yet, we know that true wisdom can be found in understanding the limits of our knowledge. My sincere hope for you, Class of 2012, is that you will move into the world with confidence and compassion, and (despite all you have learned) the willingness to employ the question mark when it’s called for. Congratulations and Godspeed.