“All religious ideas are dangerous—not only those that we might consider extremist, but even those we embrace and even those that stand at the heart of faith.” —Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva
On Nov. 10, Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva joined ICJS Jewish Scholar Benjamin Sax in dialogue about issues addressed in her latest book, Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mikva serves as the Herman E. Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Dangerous Religious Ideas analyses the ways in which religious ideas inspire both harm and healing, and seeks to reframe the way we talk about faith, creating a space in which public discussion of religion is more constructive, nuanced, and socially engaged. The lively conversation addressed issues of religion and the public square and the need to remain self-critical in one’s faith.
“I wanted people to re-examine their assumptions to see the deep roots of self-critical faith that are designed to strengthen faith and improve it, and to recognize that this work is never done,” Mikva stated. “The minute we assume that all the dangers of religion belong to somebody else’s ideas, somebody else’s faith, we become part of the problem.”
Recognizing that “the power to heal is bound up with the power to harm” is the first step in self-critical reflection of one’s own deeply rooted religious beliefs. Mikva offered the religious idea of Jubilee as an example, noting that “it would be terribly disruptive to the economy to redistribute wealth every 50 years. But that commitment that there won’t be a permanent underclass: that’s a really important, desirable, dangerous religious idea that we can imagine the world differently. So all kinds of ideas fall into this dialectical tension of danger and possibility.”
For many, coming to terms with the pervasiveness of religious ideas and the ways that these ideas are woven into our thoughts and societies can be quite daunting. According to Mikva, it requires “epistemological humility” and a willingness to maneuver outside of one’s general understandings to recognize “the role of religions as custodians of cultural values.”
Consider, for example, the many ways that Christian values have made their way into the everyday lived experiences of those residing in the United States. What effect does the recitation of the pledge of allegiance, amended from its original to include “under God,” have for non-theistic children working their way through our public education system?
“The separation of religion and state serves a vital role in preserving American democracy and creating this broad space for spirituality to flourish,” Mikva shared. “Religious people have an obligation to seek an equilibrium between the considerations of our own tradition. It’s balancing what my religion teaches with a plural understanding of the broader public good. I have to stand, both inside and outside my life stance and see its impact.”
This “plural understanding of the broader public good” is the same dynamic that is so integral to interreligious dialogue and understanding. Without the willingness to consider how one’s own religious ideas impact others, and how these ideas relate to those expressed by others, we run the risk of letting religious values cause harm rather than healing.
“The first goal of interreligious work is to understand why somebody believes what they do, and sometimes that opens up a possibility for change and for self-critical analysis,” Mikva added. “[Life] will always be an existential bundle of both [religious values and political objectives]. We have to talk together and walk together to try to find our way to that balance that tries to hold our religious values inside a diverse society in a way that advances the common good.”