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Self-Critical Faith, the Litmus for Dangerous Religious Ideas

A Q&A with Rachel S. Mikva

Rachel S. Mikva

All religious ideas are dangerous. Just ask religious scholar Rabbi Rachel S. Mikva. Scripture’s abiding relevance can inspire great goodness, such as welcoming the stranger and extending compassion for the poor. Likewise, its authority has also been wielded to defend slavery, marginalize LGBTQ individuals, ignore science, and justify violence. In Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Rabbi Mikva reveals how Abrahamic religions have passed down constructed mechanisms for self-critique and correction that are integral to their teachings. A self-critical faith, she explains, is the litmus that properly distinguishes contemporary camps and encourages the willingness to grapple substantively with the potential harm their ideas may inflict. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Rabbi Mikva to chat with her about her book.

Christian Coleman: What was the inspiration behind writing Dangerous Religious Ideas

Rachel S. Mikva: Teaching and speaking in religious communities, I kept bumping into two assumptions. In progressive spaces, people often imagined that they had already reformed their traditions enough so their religious ideas were never dangerous. In more traditional spaces, people often worried that asking critical questions would weaken faith, when in fact it strengthens faith. I wanted people to reexamine these assumptions, to see the deep roots of self-critical faith and to recognize that its work is never done. 

CC: You’re a Professor in Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary. And you earned your PhD at Jewish Theological Seminary. Tell us a little about your background and what led you to specialize in rabbinic literature and the history of scriptural interpretation. 

RSM: I was a congregational rabbi for thirteen years but always felt that a rabbi is, above all, a teacher. So I decided to get my doctorate to study what I love to teach the most—the amazingly creative, multivocal interpretive traditions of rabbinic Judaism. I knew that many of the stories and teachings had profoundly shaped Jewish life and continue to do so. I’m fascinated by exploring how interpretation influences what we do and how we see the world.  

Living amidst the rich diversity of spiritual lifestances in the US, I think it’s imperative to understand something about other people’s traditions as well. So my focus expanded. As religious difference repeatedly emerges as a source of conflict, this work seems increasingly urgent. 

CC: You write that religion is a potent force, like fire, that has the potential to be wielded for good or evil. “Its very power makes it dangerous.” Tell us why that is.  

RSM: Power is always wielded both for good and ill. Religious power is particularly fraught because of its claims of ultimacy. It has astounding capacity to justify actions and beliefs that we would otherwise declare harmful or ill-conceived, even to create cultures of violence. At the same time, its power to imagine that the world could be different than it is, to inspire hope and motivate goodness, is necessary to our existence. Just like fire, it is immensely valuable, despite the potential for abuse. 

CC: What’s interesting is that you emphasize that all religious ideas, not just the extremist ones that make headlines, are dangerous. Why was it important to include this point in the book? 

RSM: The minute we assume that all the dangers of religion belong to someone else’s faith, we become part of the problem. 

CC: Why did you decide to look at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to explore the importance of self-critical faith? Were there commonalities that you wanted to draw our attention to? 

RSM: Well, first because they are the three traditions I know anything about! And yes, there are countless intersections between the teachings and histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, encountering each other through the centuries. When I write about the tools used to moderate the use and abuse of scripture’s power, for example, they all show up in each one. 

But most of all, I want people to understand that this phenomenon is not about only one religion having dangerous potential, or only one tradition having the capacity for self-critical faith. We are all in the same boat. Doing the work together can also draw us closer, deepening our understanding through our shared struggles. 

CC: I like how you write about religion having cultural memes that get passed down generation after generation. Would you say that religion has been resilient and adaptable precisely because of its tools of self-critical faith? 

RSM: Yes, religion has to be able to adapt, because the world keeps changing. Of course, it could adapt simply to survive, not necessarily improving along the way. Richard Dawkins, one of the “new atheist” authors, described “faith as one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Religion is resilient because it is woven into the psychological, sociological, anthropological, evolutionary, and neurological dimensions of our being.  

Adaptation is a-moral. The evolution of religion cannot be. It is self-critical faith that works to make it a force for blessing. 

CC: You teach a “Dangerous Religious Ideas” course. Have you had any surprising student reactions in response to the curriculum or to any key concepts you cover? 

RSM: When the students start thinking about dangerous religious ideas, they frequently start with someone else’s. What delights and surprises me is how quickly they realize that all religious ideas are potentially dangerous, including their own, including ones that stand at the heart of faith. They intuitively grasp that their faith will be better, stronger, as a result of the process. 

On the negative side, it surprises me how little most people know about religions other than their own—and that includes many of our students. Our seminary mandates Master of Divinity candidates take a course in a different religion, because we believe interreligious literacy should be a requirement to be a religious leader or teacher today. 

CC: As we see intolerance rear its head toward religions like Islam and a kind of herd mentality gear up on the evangelical side during the peak of election seasons, what would you like readers to take away from the book?  

RSM: There are all kinds of “others,” people we deem not like us because of their race, nation, ethnic identity, tribe, gender, sexual orientation, class, politics, etc. Religions create them too. But they also transmit teachings of transcendence, enabling us to see a fundamental unity of all humanity, an interdependence of all creation.  

We must look critically at the role of religion in our collective public life. That’s why the book keeps coming back to the way these ideas play out in our own time. 


About Rachel S. Mikva 

Rachel S. Mikva serves as Professor in Jewish Studies and the Senior Faculty Fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary. Rabbi Mikva went to teach and earn her PhD at Jewish Theological Seminary, focusing on rabbinic literature and the history of biblical interpretation. Her courses and research address a range of Jewish and comparative studies, with a special interest in the intersections of scripture, culture, and ethics.