A Baptist, an Episcopalian, three monks and an Atheist travel together in order to celebrate Navratri, a Hindu festival.
What may sound like the beginning of a bad joke actually took place on Oct. 19 when Emory’s Inter-religious Council (IRC) brought together this seemingly odd mixture of students, all of whom were share a common interest in interfaith dialogue.
The Inter-religious Council gathers together again for dinner and discussion on Nov. 26 in the bottom of Cannon Chapel. At this meeting, students had the opportunity to anonymously submit any religious questions that may have been weighing on their minds.
One student inquires whether practicing religion at an academic institution like Emory ever leads students to doubt their faith.
The attentive and respectful group listens as a Christian student shares that reading arguments for and against the existence of God in her philosophy class actually strengthened her faith.
Shortly after, one Jewish student expresses feelings of doubt, noting that she believes it is not uncommon for Jews to consider themselves “practicing Jewish Atheists.” A third student then says that she doesn’t believe she needs to accept every Hindu doctrine to consider herself a Hindu.
“These aren’t always the conversations that are the easiest to have,” said Chaplain Intern at the Emory University Office of Religious Life Rachelle Brown. “But they seem to be easier to have here because you’re in a room full of people who are having those conversations within themselves and are happy to be able to have that with someone else.”
It’s no secret that Emory prides itself on the diversity of its student body, but what is the value of having peers with radically different world views if discussion only takes place between like-minded students? Emory may be able to publish statistics indicating the diversity of its students, but how does the university even begin to measure an increase in understanding and respect of other cultures among them?
While many students may shy away from controversial, thought-provoking conversations about religion, the IRC brings together students of different religious traditions each week to discuss both their similarities and differences.
“This is the place to come to have the type [of] conversations that you don’t have at church, in the synagogue, in the temple or even at the family dinner table,” Brown said.
The IRC fosters a safe environment that enables students to learn not only about their own religious traditions, but also the traditions of others.
“When you feel the pressure of speaking for something that is the biggest part of your life, you think long and hard about what to say,” said College junior and IRC member Jenni Seale, who realized how much she could learn from studying different faiths after attending a Bible Study on the similarities between Christian scriptures and the Quran.
The IRC also seeks to form relationships among its members, even though they may disagree on fundamental issues, in order to learn how to live together in peace. College senior Aaron Leven joined the IRC after discovering a passion for interfaith dialogue while talking to his friend on the council, College junior Blake Mayes. He said he felt that the closeness of their friendship is truly remarkable because of how different they appear on the surface – Leven is a Jew from California, while Mayes is a Christian from Tennessee.
“Despite our different religious traditions, we see the world in very similar ways,” Leven wrote in an email to the Wheel. “And I identify with his values more than most people I have ever met.”
The IRC has also hosted two open meetings this semester, which were open to all Emory students as opposed to exclusively IRC members.
Brown said that she felt every college should have an organization like the IRC on campus because it provides students with a place to have the conversations they need to have.
“You’re in this institution of academic learning, you’re already challenging yourself, stretching yourself to think about different things and believe different things, ” she said. “Why not with your faith as well?”
– By Elizabeth Howell