Editor’s note: The Commons will be running interviews with authors, artists, and filmmakers through 2024. For this first installment, editor of The Commons, Brent Rodriguez-Plate spoke with Rachel Mikva about her book Dangerous Religious Ideas.
The interview here has been edited from a 45-minute zoom conversation. An excerpt from Dangerous Religious Ideas is posted here.
Brent Rodríguez-Plate: Thanks for being with us today, Rachel. To get us started, I’d be interested in knowing how much of this book grows out of the classroom and how has it returned to the classroom?
Rachel Mikva: It did very much start in the classroom. The seminary where I teach, Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) has a reputation for being very progressive both politically and religiously. But a lot of the students come from more traditional backgrounds. I noticed this kind of very complicated mix of feelings about it. They still had some residue of what I often find in traditional spaces where people worry that asking critical questions somehow weakens faith. They might be OK because they’re doing this serious theological education project, but it would weaken their communities if they brought these kinds of questions to them.
I wanted to challenge that, and I also wanted to challenge the idea that I often find in progressive spaces, including CTS, where people often imagine that they’ve already reformed their traditions enough so that their religious ideas are never dangerous.
I found myself really wanting to press the students to re-examine this complex of assumptions and to see the deep roots of self-critical faith that are designed to strengthen it. And to recognize that the work is never done, because when we assume that all the dangers of religion belong to somebody else’s faith, this becomes, I think, part of the problem.
It started in the classroom, and I struggled as many of us do when we’re doing a different kind of take on religious ideas and religious thought and religious practice, especially if we’re doing it across multiple traditions. I was struggling to find the resources that I needed. So, I decided to write a book that ultimately did become the core text for the course.
BRP: The book came out in 2020, right at the beginnings of the pandemic and I’m wondering what’s been the reception so far? Would you change anything?
RM: It came out on election day in 2020. The pandemic affected the reception in some ways, I did over a hundred book talks which I never could have done if I had to go to all these places! I would have done half a dozen maybe and found it strenuous. I borrowed an idea from Amy Jill Levine, that you should agree to talk for free and just make them buy some books to give them to the people who are attending. Because that’s the whole point of doing book talks, right? So, I did that.
It meant that the book got into places that it wouldn’t necessarily have gotten otherwise. And yeah, people were spending a lot more time at home reading and there were people who reached out who’d read the book that just surprised me.
What would I do differently? I think I would try to make it a slightly easier read because it is meant for everybody. It is a set of ideas and a challenge that’s important for religious leaders, for community members, for activists, for people in the political sphere, and it matters for people doing interreligious work.
BRP: You make a point in the introduction to situate yourself. How do you situate yourself? What is your perspective coming into this?
RM: I am a committed progressive Jew. Progressive both politically and religiously. I teach in what is now a robust multi-faith seminary that is still affiliated with the United Church of Christ and is just barely predominantly Christian.
We have about 51-52% Christian students of one sort or another, but it’s become a destination for folks who orient around religion in all kinds of different ways, including spiritual but not religious, inter-spiritual, secular humanist, pagan, a large Muslim community because we’re in partnership with Bayan (Islamic Graduate School), and Jewish students as well who are doing theological education for one purpose or another. They’re always the audience that informs my perspective.
The fact that I’m a committed Jew means that I have a stake in this work, and I want to improve the religious project. This is not simply an intellectual critique; I’m looking to animate and activate this self-critical tradition to improve the religious project. And the fact that I am a Reform Jew and thereby a religious progressive means that I read the tradition in a particular way. Not all Reform Jews will read it the same way, but there are certain kinds of commitments that I bring to redeem the text including believing in its human authorship and sets of commitments around gender equity and LGBTQ equality. They inform how I read my own tradition and how I read others’.
Even though I’m studying Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, my primary expertise and my life experiences are in Judaism. So that shapes the way I see the world. I see the rabbinic dialectic, which is so profound in my own training: it informs the whole book and the way that we get towards the capacity to recognize truths by looking at ideas in tension with one another.
Truths are not simple black and white kinds of things but things that we can approach and get our minds around by seeing the tension: looking at both the destructive and constructive aspects of religion. So that’s some of what informs the project. And shapes the book.
BRP: How are you thinking of tradition? Would you give a definition of it?
RM: Right, I don’t use the word tradition, you know, like Tevye on in Fiddler the Roof, as it’s-always-been-this-way kind of tradition. Because I don’t think any really religious idea or practice has been always anything.
The Latin meaning of “tradition” is to move across. It’s an ever-evolving journey of transmission. There’s a long story to tradition.
I share one of my favorite examples in the book. In the Talmud, there’s a story that Moses shows up in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, because he’s learned from God about Rabbi Akiva and is curious. There’s this future teacher who’s going to be able to discern all this significance from the letters of the scroll. Rabbi Akiva is a sage in the first century of the common era.
Moses sits in the back, which is the sign of a beginner because he doesn’t understand anything that’s happening. And he gets more and more confused and concerned until one of the students asks Rabbi Akiva a question about the truth of a claim: “How do we know this?” To which Rabbi Akiva responds, “We know it from Moses on Mount Sinai.” And Moses was comforted.
It’s a longer and complex narrative. But one of the ideas we can draw from this is that a tradition might be unrecognizable to its ancestor. Moses might not recognize what Rabbi Akiva was even talking about and how that connects to what he learned and taught the people from Sinai.
Nonetheless, it’s an authentic “giving across,” an authentic transmission of an evolving journey of faith. In Muslim tradition, we call it an isnad, this chain of tradition. Of course, in the Muslim tradition the isnad is the guarantee that tradition hasn’t changed: the Hadith tradition has remained the same, overall.
When I use the word tradition, I’m talking about this ever-evolving journey.
BRP: Is there a sense of hope that individual readers might also come to grips with their own tradition?
RM: I definitely hope so. And I think it’s ongoing work. It’s not, we’re gonna refine it and then it’s going to be all cleansed of its impurities, because I do think that you’ll never be able to fully discard the dross and be able to get rid of it. It’s all bound together. But I do think that with an embrace of self-critical capacities and a sense that it is both, as you said at the beginning, “a gift and an obligation,” we can improve the religious project. I believe it’s possible. And especially if we can do it no matter where we orient on the traditional-progressive spectrum or how we orient around religion.
BRP: What’s your experience with engaging more conservative theological and political groups?
RM: A lot of interreligious work and spaces are dominated by people who are moderate or progressive religiously. I think the Catholic community is kind of an exception to that and it’s partly because of the hierarchical structure and the commitment to interreligious engagement made in Vatican II. They can be a model for other less progressive groups, certainly around some of the cultural liminalities around gender and sexuality, for instance, and how to be in those spaces.
I personally tried to develop some relationships in the evangelical Christian community, in part because I sensed some of my own biases were based on the way that white evangelical Christianity—which represents some voices within this very diverse world—has been shaping the body politic in ways that I consider to be a threat to my religious freedom. And the religious freedom of others, and our well-being. That makes me want to reach out and develop relationships, because relationship is key to undoing bias.
It’s all about building relationships. I’m finding it much easier with colleagues and folks who get the self-critical piece right and who are self-critical Christian evangelicals.
It’s hard because of deeply held differences that matter to people. This is where the conflict comes from: differences that matter. There are lots of differences that don’t matter. These are the ones that do. So how do you navigate in that space? I think it’s easier for me to do so on an individual basis rather than figure out how to get them to come to your local religious group.
There are also evangelical Christians working in interreligious engagement, for instance around the climate crisis. These are folks who aren’t the climate deniers, but rather those who are really trying to use creation care as a religious value. And bring that to the interreligious table as evangelical Christians.
I think it will change mostly from the inside.
BRP: What are some of these dangerous ideas for us moderate progressives?
RM: In the book I talk about scripture, which is the foundation for these three religions. And about the complex intersections of Chosenness, election, supersession, and salvation. My students who would identify mostly with that moderate progressive part of the spectrum find that that they do have work to do in these areas.
Interestingly, one of the issues for my students around scripture occurs once they embrace the idea that it is humanly authored, and it reflects the perspective of those who wrote it, including some of its less progressive ideas about women or gender or sexuality. They ask then what makes it scripture? What makes it sacred? How does it still animate your spirit?
And how do you use it? If we’re not proof texting to show that God is on our side, what is scripture to us? Once they see all the problems, they ask, how is it still my sacred scripture? And how do I use it? What does it mean?
And, in the matrix around chosenness, election, supersession, and salvation, my Christian students recognize how much supersessionary ideology is still embedded in them somewhere . . . this idea where they want to juxtapose negatively, you know, the law, which is bad, versus the spirit.
The dangerous ideas are interconnected. You could put God on there. You could put sin on there. One of the options for the final project is to select a dangerous religious idea to research using some of the voices through history, in at least two traditions. And students have elected to do heresy, conversion, etc.
God and Sin are some of my favorite things to talk about because a lot of people who believe in God assume that you have to believe in God to be an ethical person. There’s like over 40% of Americans who say this and I think, well, that’s problematic.
There’s the idea of sin. Well, it can be potentially useful to think about the responsibility for our actions and to be accountable and to be on a path of self-improvement and to repent and to make good on where we’ve caused harm. But the idea of sin has loaded down so many individuals with terrible burdens.
In the book, I tell this story. I ask the students what they would put on the syllabus of a course called “Dangerous Religious Ideas.” They almost always start with somebody else’s ideas first. For example, they may with jihad because we are still immersed in a climate and of anti-Muslim bias.
Even in a progressive space, it’ll usually be first. But within 10-15 seconds they get it. Every religious idea and practice they can think of ends up on the list–including their own. I can end the class right there. I’ve done the work where they realize that it’s all potentially dangerous.
Of course, the bright red cover of the book makes it look like it’s a screed against religion: these dangerous religious ideas. But if you look at the subtitle, that’s the real work. And that’s why I don’t end the class after listing the dangers on the first day because I want them to see that these tools are available to them.
They’re authentically embedded in their traditions for self-reflection and self-critique.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Dr. Rachel Mikva, is the the Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair & Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and senior faculty fellow at the InterReligious Institute of Chicago Theological Seminary. She served as a rabbi, studied and published on the Hebrew Bible, the history of its interpretation and retains a commitment to social justice issues. Apart from Dangerous Religious Ideas, her books include Interreligious Studies An Introduction, and the edited collection Broken Tablets, Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves.
Born in the year of the Fire Horse, S Brent Rodríguez-Plate has traveled the world seeking ways that people practice and/or fight against religious traditions, whether ancient or modern. Convinced that religion has less to do with beliefs than with bodies, Rodríguez-Plate queries the ways people connect with physical objects through sense perception: the things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are what give us our spiritual dimension.
Alongside their work as a professor at Hamilton College, Rodríguez-Plate is a writer and an editor, presenting research at museums, cultural centers, and universities across Asia, Europe, and North America. They’ve authored or edited 14 books, and essays have appeared in Newsweek, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Christian Century, The Islamic Monthly, and the Huffington Post. Rodríguez-Plate serves on the board of the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica, NY and lives in Clinton, New York with his partner, two kids, and two black mutts. They are Executive Director of APRIL, and editor of CrossCurrents. www.sbrentplate.net