This summer, I have spent more hours in O’hare International Airport than hours shopping online or trying new recipes. That may sound rational. In my case, it means O’hare has become a second home (NOT- but Frontera is delicious).
This time, I was headed to the Windy City for a University of Chicago reunion and retreat with a great group of former Master of Divinity students. The themes of our retreat were integrity, multiplicity, and innovation. We spent some time thinking about each theme in the form of lecture/presentation, and then meeting in small groups to discuss our own “case studies.” On the first day, we discussed moments or experiences when we felt challenged in our integrity. We thought about our multiplicity, which Rev. Cynthia Lindner defines in her wonderful new book Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Well-Lived Pastoral Life as our “plural selves”-the different passions and gifts (and quirks and growing edges) that make up who we are. The next day, we grappled with innovation, and how the struggles we face in our respective ministries might be better answered by calling upon different parts of ourselves.
As a college chaplain, I think about the plurality of self quite often. My own self consists of many identities: a young professional, an avid reader, an emerging writer (most humble, of course), a marathon runner, an activist, a sister and daughter. In my work I often walk with students to discern how they can fuse multiple passions they hold. Often, the line of work they find easy and stable is not the work that truly feeds their spirit. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with diversity of identity, both out in the world and within ourselves. Pluralism comes when we cultivate a way to make these differences enriching, not divisive. We know this to be true in interfaith advocacy work, and I learned this weekend that our own selves can and should enrich the other parts of us. Sometimes, this is much easier said than done.
Dr. Dwight Hopkins, who facilitated our conversation around innovation in multiplicity, noted that “theology is autobiography.” I dwelt on this idea for a while. If this is true, and we consider ourselves to be multiple-minded, then our theology must also consist of various ideas from distinct roots. Our theology, the system in which our beliefs amalgamate, is constructed through a variety of experiences, relationships, and passions that we hold. As someone who works to build relationships across differences in young peoples’ theologies (among other elements), I believe that ignoring the multiple parts of our identity puts all of ourselves in crisis. If I spend no time reflecting on my identity as a higher education professional, and subsequently on my calling as an interfaith activist, my integrity is compromised because the norms and values each identity holds are in conflict and not in conversation.
On the other hand, the students that frequent my office who have embraced their multiple selves, who have lived into conflicting sets of norms for their identities by putting these identities in conversation (imagine a group of people in your own mind speaking to each other), thrive in their ability to make change. An eighteen year old Muslim woman leads one of the largest student organizations committed to dismantling institutional discrimination, utilizing her Muslim and Black identities to organize. Another Muslim student teaches his classmates Qur’an and uses mathematical analogies to help his peers understand (he studies physics). The examples of these students demonstrate their innovation within their own multiplicity, their courage to put different aspects of themselves in conversation.
In my world, the heroes who inspire me are often the people who have built their theologies upon both the plurality in our society and the plurality within. My advisor in college, Dr. Varun Soni, originally piqued my interest because he was not just a chaplain- he was an entrepreneur, an academic, and a sports enthusiast. He maintained his integrity and developed deep relationships with his students.
As I think about multiplicity with my students in this election season, this time of immense polarization, fear, and hate, I know that students seek safety and embrace of all the pieces of their identity, especially those under threat. My commitment is to keep ourselves in conversation with ourselves. By doing so, we turn a crisis of self into a dynamic autobiography. We begin to see common values across our different identities, and even find ways to mediate the values that conflict within ourselves.