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Talking about God: Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue

By: Devika Ranjan

March 4, 2014

As an Indian growing up in a 97 percent white, Protestant New England suburb, my Hindu background was yet another divide between me and my white, Protestant New Englander friends. My pre-teen years were dictated by tyrannous cliques and wavering friendships. All I wanted was to fit in, and Hinduism branded me with the “outsider” stamp. So, I did what any other outsider would do—I quietly obscured my spirituality in hopes of assimilation.
It was easy. Religion was taboo in sensitive public schools. Don’t ask; don’t tell. Conversations about God were reserved for an hour on Sunday mornings with other reluctant teenagers, also dragged out of bed by culturally-driven parents. I disregarded spirituality as a distraction from the ever-increasing whirlwind of my high school life.

At Georgetown, I fully expected to continue on this trajectory. My focus would center on the SFS curriculum, my wild ambitions, extracurriculars, and friends. Religion? Not extensively. Now that I was freed from Sunday School, I vaguely promised to sustain my Hindu traditions, say my prayers, and frantically attend puja before midterms and finals. It was then, during my first chaotic month at Georgetown, that I ran into the Jesuit values.

I was fascinated. How is it that a school so rooted in Catholic tradition welcomes religious pluralism? For the first time, I understood that faith was no longer sealed in scriptures; it was relatable and relevant. From my Hindu grandfather, I learned of the foundational love underneath all religions. From my Catholic chaplain, I learned the value of serenity as a student. From the Muslim imam, I learned that I was welcome despite my beliefs. And from my professors, I learned of worldwide religious conflict and refocused my career path towards a remedy for this violence. Every day, I am inspired by religious and non-religious students who apply their personal beliefs to everyday struggles. Within this community, I can openly express my spirituality while embracing other faith traditions.

We are not afraid to talk about God. The Jesuit value of “interreligious understanding” frames our penchant for religious conversation. From reflections to retreats, contemplation is an enormous aspect of life at Georgetown. On-campus services are extraordinarily inviting, and students and leaders are always willing to explain their backgrounds and practices. We emphasize religious literacy through panels, lectures, and theology requirements and especially recognize the professional need of public sector skills built on interfaith dialogue.

Many schools, however, are not so open to interreligious conversation. Through my participation in the Interfaith Youth Core's Interfaith Leadership Institute this past January, I met students who are struggling to unite various faith and secular groups on their campuses. A common concern was universities’ unwillingness to discuss religious issues, preferring silence to possible insensitivity. These conversations reminded me of my childhood attempts to water down my beliefs in order to blend in with my peers.

Despite its pluralist ideals, Georgetown has room to grow. “Spiritual refugees,” or those who are afraid of interfaith dialogue for fear of exclusion or attack (like I was), remain isolated on campus. As Hoyas, it is essential to reach out to these students and build a safe community for discussion. Although interfaith dialogue can be difficult, the key is not to simplify opinions or debate ideologies but rather to respect the existence of diverse beliefs. Whether religious or not, individuals who participate in interfaith dialogue better understand their own identities, build stronger campuses, and help to create a thriving community that truly cares for the entire person.

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Talking about God: Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue