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It Takes Courage to Cross Religious Boundaries

by Shirley Paulson

Bridge with Rainbow Lights Shining Through

I’ve had difficult conversations before. Some people have told me I would go to hell for my religious beliefs. Others have snickered behind my back. Those don’t throw me too much. It’s the ones that meet me at my own worldview boundaries that cut to the quick.

A few years ago, I stumbled onto the edges of my religious boundaries, and they called forth more tears than I would like to admit. My conversation partner was my brilliant PhD supervisor. All his explanations were logical and consistent with his scholarly background and his mainstream thinking. But … I could not go down that path with him.

I was on the other side of a religious boundary, and everything about that conversation felt threatening. He was kind and recognized the angst of my struggle, but he couldn’t see across the boundary any better than I could see from my side. The more he talked, the more choked up I became, until it was clear there weren’t any words left in me that day.

I walked away to think. What caused the reaction? Was there such a thing as a bridge over these religious boundaries? Was it worth looking for this bridge? I thought I was pretty tolerant, open and respectful of others. So, why did I fall apart at that moment, in that way? I didn’t even know I had religious boundaries, until I got stuck at its edge.

All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be isolated or insular, staying inside my own self-made bubble. But how to break out, and to experience an honest relationship outside my religious boundaries?

Three ideas appeared:

  1. I got it that religious boundaries are not theories, but real action-guiding worldviews. These worldviews identify the core of my identity and worth, and so the same must be true for those on the other side of the boundary.
    Note to myself: Acknowledge the boundary as an identity marker.
  2. The reason for building a bridge over the boundary is not to convert or be converted, but rather to grow and encourage others to grow beyond our mutually limited views.
    Note to myself: Consciously choose between isolation and relationships.
  3. It’s scary facing the threats to my worldview. But part of my own worldview is that God, good, is the creator of all humanity; therefore even with different worldviews, I believe we are meant to enjoy the good in each other. I should be able to trust my worldview to keep me safe while I explore the meaning of others.
    Note to myself: Be courageous when you feel your religious boundaries threatened.

I made an appointment to see my supervisor the next day. It would have been so much easier to drop the idea of that bridge and stick with people I know. But then, I’m cutting myself off if I don’t try to learn.

I knew if he really heard me, my worldview would be a threat to his, as his were to mine. I had to be sensitive and listen carefully. That’s being true to myself, being honest about what I really think, and finding real mutual understanding. Bridge-building is a courageous act, but I think it can always be done with the right motive, right information, and willingness on the part of both sides.

We did it. Honestly, it surprised both of us. Our big discovery was that we experience God differently! The technical term for our differences is the contrast in our ‘epistemologies’ (how we learn what we know). We simply related to God and God’s role on earth differently, even though we read the same scriptures and worship what we think of as the same God. Who would have guessed we’d enjoy learning each other’s epistemologies?!

But that was the bridge I needed to cross over to his side, to understand why he could say what he was saying. It also gave him access to my minority view that made more sense when he knew why I see the world as I do. But we could also return safely to our own ‘identity’ homes, both of us understanding just a bit more of the bigger world we inhabit together.

We, in the community of the Early Christian Texts: The Bible and Beyond look forward to building and crossing bridges together. Let us know the boundaries you’re dealing with, and we’ll look together for the keystone for you.