Ingrid Mattson knows something about being a religious seeker. She knows it from her own story and from her work as a scholar. And her search has led her to an extraordinary place.
Mattson was the final speaker at an extraordinary conference put on this week by the University of Wisconsin's Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions. The Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each of which holds the person of Abraham in high regard. Scholars, clerics, lay people from all three faith traditions gathered to examine what they hold in common and what their differences are.
As the conference closed, Mattson told her story standing in the sanctuary at Pres House on State Street - a Muslim leader speaking in the same spot in a Christian building where the previous night Jewish Rabbi Brad Hirschfield spoke about the dangers of fanaticism.
Mattson grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Canada, but found herself feeling alienated from that tradition in her mid-teens. She talked about later withdrawing to the mountains northern Canada to plant trees, feeling totally disconnected from any organized religion, only to discover Islam and then to become an adherent of that faith tradition.
She talked of sorting her way through the various Muslim communities she could join. One wanted her either to renounce or convert her family. She could do neither. Another was marked by negative messages about Jewish people -- messages that conflicted with her own experiences and relationships with Jews. So she searched until she found a Muslim community that could build on the best of that tradition.
Now she teaches Islam at a Christian seminary -- Hartford Seminary in Connecticut -- and is the president of the Islamic Society of North America, which is the largest Muslim organization in North America. She is the first woman and the first convert to be president of that group. That in itself reflects the ever-evolving face of Islam on this continent.
Her own story provided the subtext for her discussion of how all three Abrahamic faiths need to take seriously the spiritual quest a growing number of people are on in North America in this era. A fast growing segment of people in the U.S. are those who define themselves as "spiritual but not religious," a group Mattson herself once belong to.
Some of them have no religious upbringing, but are looking for transcendent meaning in their lives, she said. Others have rejected religious institutions as authoritarian, judgmental, esoteric, or corrupt.
"It is important that we do not scorn or belittle the person who is trying to shed negative experiences with religion," Mattson said. The religious traditions need to acknowledge that they are human institutions in need of constant reform and to acknowledge the tension that comes with that.
"All of the the Abrahamic religions tells us something of our relationship to God and to each other and the world," she said. Yet they all have to struggle with similar issues:
* How to get rid of patriarchy yet still coming up with a positive definition for the role of men in the religion and in the world;
* How to deal with the sources of hatred and intolerance within each tradition while not getting rid of a sense of religious identity;
* How to get rid of soulless bureaucracies while still providing for accountability and standards for religious leaders;
* How to get rid of authoritarianism while still maintaining a role for authority.
Mattson noted that some surveys show that young adults today are feeling "multi-religious." One faith may be dominant in their lives, but they embrace parts of others as well.
So at a gathering like this, when people from three related but distinct religious traditions spent time exploring commonalities and differences, the scholars, clerics and lay people were learning not only about each other, but also about how to appreciate the richness of traditions other than their own.