Learning From Religious Pluralism

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A Local Temple in Nepal

One of the challenges of spiritual growth is developing the ability to step outside of the world we live in and to enter the worlds of other people. We never do that completely, nor would we want to. Yet my ability to understand myself and my world depends on my ability to, at least in some respect, enter the worlds of other peoples and to see myself from that perspective. It also enables me to enhance and enrich my faith through the things I learn from others.

The best and perhaps only way to truly do that is through cultivating friendships with people who come from different cultural, social, and spiritual backgrounds. That is the interfaith journey I began traveling when I became friends with a Filipino pastor and met a Muslim man from Pakistan who told me of his deep respect for Jesus. There was no turning back. To use an analogy from J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I was Frodo Baggins the hobbit who left the shire in a spiritual quest among many different peoples. Frodo would eventually return as a different and wiser person who never again comfortably fit back into life in the shire in the same way.

When we do that we realize that the various boundaries we meet are not as fixed or impermeable as we imagine. Part of our perception that there are fixed boundaries comes from our modern, scientific penchant to categorize things in our effort to understand and manipulate them. They’re instead generally more fluid than we imagine. For example, before I worked in Nepal and learned to know a Nepalese man named Bal Krishna, I thought of Hinduism and Buddhism as two distinct religions. They probably never were, as least not in Nepal.

Bal Krishna and I became good friends and had lots in common as we worked together at various peacebuilding and rural development projects. I thought he was Hindu because he is named after the Hindu god Krishna. Then I visited his village and he showed me the local Hindu temple and but also various Buddhist shrines near his home. When I asked about that, he told me that he considers himself to be a Buddhist but these categories overlap in his community. It helps to recognize that Westerners created these fixed Asian religious categories during the colonial era.

This realization gave me new eyes to look at my own religious heritage. Certainly, the lines separating Christian denominations are fluid and porous. Doing my graduate studies in religion and culture at a Catholic university gave me an added understanding of the differences and similarities between Catholicism and my own Anabaptist heritage. Studying among Catholics gave me another window into my community of faith.

Beyond that, it made me take a closer look at the broader religious categories in my world. We think of Judaism and Christianity as distinct religions, yet we share the scriptures that Judaism calls the Torah and Christians call the Old Testament. Furthermore, Jesus and his first disciples were Jews. And Islam has historical roots in both Judaism and Christianity. We all trace our faith heritage back to Abraham.

Recognizing such historical relationships gives us a greater capacity to relate to others and, in turn, to grow spiritually. There’s risk in passing over, immersing oneself in another religious world and then returning home, as there are risks in any friendship. Still the rewards are far greater. I’ll write more about this in my next blog.

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