Religious Pluralism in America

P1050626   Buddhist Temple Next to our Church

Religious pluralism has become a part of life in America. I began this series of posts on interfaith relations by sharing about becoming friends with the imam of a Muslim mosque several blocks from our church. There’s also a Buddhist temple adjoining our church property. This close proximity of places of worship from three of the great world religions is indicative of our changing religious landscape.

I then noted that such religious boundaries are not as fixed as we often imagine. I talked about my encounter with Muslim man in the Philippines who has a deep respect for Jesus. I also talked about my friend in Nepal who told me that there is no clear boundary between Hinduism and Buddhism in his town. Now some scholars are arriving at surprising discoveries about what is generally assumed to be the mutually exclusive boundary between Judaism and Christianity.

It’s common knowledge that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews. It’s also evident that neither Jesus nor his disciples consciously sought to establish a new religion. Even the Apostle Paul, evangelist to the  Gentiles, remained a practicing Jew throughout his life. The question then becomes, “How did it happen that Judaism and Christianity evolved into two distinct religions?”

It’s generally assumed that the schism happened in the first generation after Jesus’ death. Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish rabbi and scholar, and John Howard Yoder, a Christian theologian, have studied that question and come to the similar conclusion that it actually took place hundreds of years later. (See Boyarin’s book Border Lines and Yoder’s book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. See also the chapter “Interfaith Conversations” that I co-wrote with J. Denny Weaver in his forthcoming edited book John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian.)

Followers of Jesus and other Jews certainly disagreed about the claim that Jesus was the Messiah but that in itself did not lead to a parting of ways. Judaism was able to absorb such differences as it had absorbed other messianic claims. More crucial to the eventual schism were political-religious factors related to Christianity becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. It was a long, drawn-out process, but the schism was given the status of imperial law in 438 in the Code of Theodosius, which established Christianity as the true religion and Judaism as a false religion.

How do we understand and respond to this history in our day? Yoder came to the conclusion that the historical trajectory could have gone in a different direction and that the schism did not have to take place. Boyarin acknowledges this yet sees value in distinct religious traditions. This raises the question of how we affirm our faith traditions in ways that respect people of other faiths and enable us all to work together for the common good. To make it personal, “How do I unabashedly live and share my faith?”

As a Christian it will include sharing my personal faith in God through Jesus. Furthermore, like Gandhi, it gives me the freedom to learn from others and to “experiment with truth” from other sources in ways that enrich my faith and the way I live my life. It also means learning how to be good neighbors with people of all faiths in our increasingly pluralistic communities.

All of this often involves concrete pastoral matters. Interfaith marriages are becoming more common and this creates unique challenges for faith communities. Among them are finding ways to conduct ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and other religious rituals in a way that is rooted in our faith and still respects and, as much as possible, includes the faith and religious sensibilities of other family members.

A personal experience was officiating at a child blessing at our church where the mother of the child was Christian and the father was Jewish. I remember using our blessing liturgy in a way that expressed our faith yet slightly adapting it in ways to not create offense or make it unnecessarily uncomfortable for the Jewish side of the family to participate. We even included them by having them read a blessing to the child that drew on their Jewish faith traditions.

In many ways we’re only beginning this interfaith journey in America.

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