by Corey L. Wozniak
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is part of a collection of essays on teaching religious studies for K-12 teachers. The essays were collated and edited by one of the CrossCurrents Editorial Board members, Henry Goldschmidt. We always welcome essays and ideas on pedagogy, particularly when connected to interreligious work, social justice, and the arts.
At 6:30 any given morning, eating my bowl of chalky, off-brand Captain Crunch Berries, I’d look out the window of my high-rise apartment building to see my building’s twin, and peer in wonder at the hundred-something windows on that side of the building – some dimly lit, with the flickering blue of a TV set, and some still sleepy and dark. The twin high rise apartments were situated on Lakeshore Boulevard in Euclid, Ohio, and from my balcony I could look out at Lake Eerie, the shore only fifty yards away, which in summer reminded me of the Pacific back home in California, but which in winter was immense, stark, and somehow existential.
I shared the apartment with Elder Fonz, an earnest 20-year-old with a Muppet-y voice with whom I had little in common. I had been Elder Wozniak for only a few months, and my winter boots had yet to be broken in. We were missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent to preach the Gospel to the people of Euclid.
As I stared out my window to my building’s mirror image, trying to discern shapes in the shadows moving in the windows, I was often overcome by the rather obvious fact that behind each of these windows lived one or more human beings. It was overwhelming to consider that each of the human beings living in each one of these hundred apartment buildings lived a whole human drama, the shape and plot of which I was not at all privy to. These people had names, histories, beliefs, hopes, and relationships; they ate and quarreled and made love. They knew things I didn’t know. They had religious convictions entirely different from mine, which nevertheless brought meaning and significance to their lives.
Looking at these windowpanes and the shadowy figures behind them, I recalled Paul’s famous phrase, in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I realized that we are all mysteries to one another, but with time, I thought – or at least I hoped – we can achieve some meaningful knowledge of each other.
David Foster Wallace once described, with incredulity and perhaps a little shame, the naive solipsism of his childhood:
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? – that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? – that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory?
Somehow, I had grown almost to maturity without relinquishing the solipsism characteristic of children. I was “Elder” Wozniak, but it had somehow never occurred to me, not really, that I was not the star of the show. But it was on my mission, over soggy Captain Crunch Berries, that this delusion slowly started to melt away.
Many people have misconceptions about Latter-day Saint missions. As a blogger once wrote on Real Clear Religion, “LDS missionaries inspire an amalgam of images: proud, hapless, white-shirted Caucasian boys simplistically tap dancing their way through Africa, South America, and Cleveland with ne’er a backward glance. According to stereotypes, they somehow remain deluded for two pivotal years of young adulthood in an insular universe guarding them from reality.” But while it’s true that missionaries are sheltered from some aspects of “reality” – they don’t watch TV or movies, or go on dates – it’s a distortion to describe the mission experience as an “insular universe.” After all, on my mission I spent an average of ten hours a week knocking on strangers’ doors, and entered hundreds, if not thousands, of people’s homes, to have discussions on the most personal and pressing topics: God, the soul, death, suffering, evil.
I’d grown up in Southern California, so unlike some of my mission companions from Utah, I’d had some experience discussing religion with non-Mormons. Still, my previous encounters with people of different religious faiths were rather limited. My classmates, for the most part, had been different varieties of Christian. I’d had a few (rather unpleasant) conversations with a Protestant kid on my water polo team, who casually told me he thought I’d go to hell. I recall with shame that in middle school I’d made a Hindu-phobic remark to a classmate who would go on to become our high school valedictorian. My Mormonism had been the subject of gentle ribbing, but rarely did I speak earnestly with peers about what I believed. I had never attended a friend’s church, or had a meaningful or respectful dialogue about religious difference.
It was on my mission that I had my first meaningful encounters with people of different religious faiths. I was gifted an English translation of the Quran by a Muslim family I met knocking doors. I attended a jubilant Baptist service with a purple-robed choir; I was floored by the electric energy of the service, so different was it from the staid services I was accustomed to. I was prayed over by Pentecostals who slipped seamlessly between plain English and unintelligible tongues. I attended Easter Mass. I chatted with Wiccans on suburban porches. I swapped pamphlets with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Black Hebrew Israelites. Each of these encounters helped me better appreciate the diversity of perspectives that exist in the world. Over and over again, I was humbled and healed of my solipsism. Perhaps paradoxically, it was through these experiences that I also grew to love what was unique and beautiful about my own faith tradition.
I often thought back to my mission during the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute. During these invaluable three weeks in New York City, I had meaningful, face-to-face discussions with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and others. Experiences like these had been rare since I’d returned from my mission, and I was grateful to once again have the experience of listening to understand. During the institute, I was invited, along with my colleagues, to visit sacred spaces and observe prayer and worship services – without exception, these experiences were deeply moving. I even invited some of my colleagues to attend a Latter-day Saint worship service with me, at the Harlem 1st Ward on Lennox Avenue.
It has been through experiences like these (on my mission, and again at the summer institute) that I have begun to develop what Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl has called “holy envy,” the quality of “being open to aspects of others’ faiths that you admire so deeply you are inclined to wish they were part of your own faith.” This is not to say that my experiences have caused me to forfeit my own faith, or to embrace a squishy, anything-goes relativism. To the contrary, I remain deeply committed to my faith tradition and its foundational truth claims. These experiences have not made me a relativist; they have, however, made me a committed pluralist.
A pluralist, to me, is one who recognizes that all people have a unique and valid perspective. My students sometimes talk of “NPCs” – non-player characters. The idea, which originates from video games, is that some people in life are so boring, so “basic” (to use another Gen Z slang term), as to be like one of the many faceless non-player characters that populate the background of open-world video games. In video games, NPC’s walk around aimlessly and accomplish nothing, repeating a few lines of canned dialogue. Only some people, the logic goes, are interesting enough to be PC’s – player characters – the protagonists of life’s great drama. Everyone else is just a single line of code – two-dimensional, and hardly real.
One of the core objectives of my Comparative Religions course is to help my students understand that in the real world there is no such thing as an “NPC.” Every person on the face of the earth has a rich and coherent inner world. Only a naive child imagines that they alone inhabit a fully furnished world, while everyone else exists merely as props to decorate the background. This was the realization I had on my mission, and again at the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute, and this is the realization that any honest student of religious diversity will have.
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/
The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute for teachers is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York, in partnership with Union Theological Seminary, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Corey L. Wozniak (he/him) teaches English and Comparative Religions at Equipo Academy, a public charter school in Las Vegas, NV – where he designed what is (as far as he knows) the only “World Religions” course in a Las Vegas public school. He has a BA in English from Brigham Young University, and is currently an MA candidate in English at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English. He has published scholarly work in Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, and published reflections on his work as a religion teacher in The Revealer.