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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Gandhi’s Example of Interfaith Friendship

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Statue of Gandhi in Kolkata, India

Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, had an extraordinary ability to draw from various religious and secular resources in his nonviolent struggle for human dignity and Indian independence. He described his life’s work as “experiments in truth.” His deep respect for the basic humanity of all people allowed him to embrace “truth” wherever he found it and to incorporate it into his life and social strategy.

Gandhi’s respect for the basic humanity of everyone even extended to his adversaries. Jan Smuts, a wily segregationist military general and politician, was his primary adversary when he fought to end segregation in South Africa. He refused to vilify Smuts even after he jailed Gandhi and refused to honor an earlier compromise agreement they had reached. Smuts, in turn, learned to respect Gandhi and, later in life, even esteemed him.

When Gandhi returned to India, his many interfaith friends included Abdul Ghaffar Kahn, the towering Muslim Pashtun pacifist who fought alongside him in the independence movement. Another was Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer who introduced him to the nonviolence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Yet another Madeleine Slade, who Gandhi affectionately nicknamed Mirabehn, was from an aristocratic British family. She became part of his inner circle and worked with him for many years.

From his Hindu tradition, Gandhi drew on religious holidays and purity rituals to develop nonviolent political actions of general strikes and boycotts. From the Sermon on the Mount, he learned the persuasive power of loving one’s enemies. From secular principles of equality, freedom, and the rule of law, he developed the action of civil disobedience to unjust laws. Going to jail for refusing to obey an unjust law applies moral and social pressure on the government.

I have come to appreciate the genius of Gandhi’s ability to cross religious and social boundaries and to experiment with the “truth” he found in diverse places. People of all faiths can learn from him. For example, a deeply troubling religious phenomenon is an exclusivism that disparages others and easily becomes narrow and violent. We usually associate this with religious fundamentalism but there are forms of liberalism that are equally demeaning. Those of us from monotheistic religious traditions can be especially susceptible to such self-duplicity. It’s so easy to imagine we’re fighting the good fight against our enemies, even going to war, with God on our side.

That way of framing the struggle was foreign to Gandhi, which can most likely be attributed to the fact that he was a devout Hindu. When I lived in India, the sheer number of Hindu gods and the seemingly never-ending seasonal festivals celebrating one or another of those gods astonished me. We Westerners tend to think of this as unbridled polytheism but that’s mistaken. My Hindu friends told me that there is instead one divine Other but in many forms.

What can those of us from monotheistic religions learn from the Hindu understanding of “the one and the many?” It’s certainly a reminder that we dare not succumb to the temptation to think that we have a handle on the divine. God is beyond our understanding or ability to imagine. Humility and respect for all others are therefore always necessary religious virtues.

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.

An Interfaith Encounter in the Philippines

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A Filipino-Catholic religious procession

My recent conversation with the imam of our neighboring mosque in Fairfax brings back memories of an earlier interfaith encounter in the Philippines more than thirty years ago. My wife Ruth and I, with our three young children in tow, had taken a mission assignment and lived in the town of Los Banos, south of Manila. I became friends with the local Filipino pastor of the Church Among the Palms, a United Church of Christ congregation. Our family worshipped there and I was occasionally invited to preach the sermon.

Because the church was on the agricultural campus of the University of the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute was nearby, there were frequent international researchers and students who regularly participated in our worship service. One Sunday, after the worship service, a man from Pakistan thanked me for my sermon. He told me that he was a Muslim who had great respect for Jesus.

My knowledge of Islam was so limited that I didn’t even know that Muslims revered Jesus as one of God’s prophets. My religious world was still quite narrow and it felt like a stretch (but liberating) to be actively involved in the life of a congregation from a different Christian denomination. I was still struggling to come to terms with the Catholic version of faith in this majority Catholic country. Many Protestants were sure that Catholics were not true Christians. Many Catholics, in turn, were sure theirs was the “one” true church. Now I had met a friendly Muslim who, at least in some respect, was a fellow follower of Jesus. I didn’t know how to put it together.

I now see that encounter as the beginning of my interfaith journey. Soon afterward, Norman Kraus, a Mennonite theologian who was on a mission assignment in Japan, arrived as a lecturer in the school where I was teaching. He was writing a theology book called Jesus Christ Our Lord that sought to incorporate Asian cultural sensibilities. We had various conversations and he introduced me to the short book Eastern Paths and the Christian Way by Paul Clasper. It became my first primer in interfaith relations.

Clasper identifies three different models for the encounter of faiths. One of the oldest and most persistent is the “dungeon.” People of other faiths are imagined to be living in a dungeon and need to be emancipated by faith in Jesus Christ. In a good sense, it draws on our own experience of faith and wishes to share it with others. (All religions have their own version of this model.) More problematically, it rarely has deep personal relations with people of other faiths. It often leads to a personal crisis of faith when we encounter people of other faith traditions whose lives display deep spiritual and social virtues as deep as or perhaps even deeper than our own.

Another model is the “round table.” It is genial, tolerant, and generally academic. All religions are considered to be basically the same—variations on the same theme. Clasper says that “this itself needs to be stated; because this is already a ‘faith stance,’ an attitude brought to the facts, not necessarily derived from them” (105).

Finally, there is the “friendship” model of passing over and coming back. It implies respect and deep sharing; the desire to understand each other on our own terms and in our own worlds. It involves the risks and rewards inherent in any friendship. Such friendship becomes the door to a promising different world. I will write more about this in a future blog.

An Interfaith Conversation in Fairfax

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Last week members of our congregation accepted the invitation of our neighboring Turkish mosque to share an Iftar dinner with them as they broke their daily Ramadan fast. They first gave us a tour of the mosque and graciously answered our questions about Islam. We then observed their call on prayer before joining them for dinner.

We divided up around tables, giving us lots of opportunity for informal conversation as we ate together. It’s a wonderful model for interfaith dialogue. At a basic, human level we were neighbors sharing food and learning to know each other. I had an extended conversation with the Imam and we soon became friends. I explained our Mennonite expression of Christian faith, including our sixteenth Anabaptist history. He, in turn, explained some of the unique Turkish Islamic traditions.

Much of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys had been in Asia Minor, now Turkey. This had once been the center of the Christian world. Cappadocia, now is central Turkey, had been a center of Christian theological development in the fourth century. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the capital of the Byzantine Christian Empire for a thousand years before eventually being conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

The Imam talked with me about the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. (Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom.) Built in 537, it had been the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire before being converted into a mosque by the Ottoman sultan in 1453. More recently in 1935 it was secularized and opened as a museum. The Imam told me that some of the original Orthodox Christian frescos that had been plastered over by the Ottomans were now being exposed again.

I still find it a little startling that a Turkish Imam and I were sharing a meal together and talking about these things as neighbors in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s an indication of how globalization is changing our local communities. We’re much more mobile than earlier generations have ever been as we move for schooling and jobs or other reasons. This often means living far away from our extended families. The Imam and I also talked about some of these challenges.

There are more foreign-born people living in the United States today than even during the former peak of immigration in the beginning of the twentieth century. Thirty percent of the people living in Fairfax County are foreign-born. This has created huge cultural shifts, including lots of religious diversity. Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America, reports that today there are more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians and as many Muslims as Jews in America. She claims that we have now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation (2-3).

I thought about that as the group from our congregation was walking back to our church following that Iftar dinner. We were all talking about what we had learned from our Muslim neighbors. I suppose there were similar conversations taking place back at the mosque. Not too long ago most Americans thought such religious and cultural differences were far away in other parts of the world. Today, all the diversity in our world has come to us right where we live.

This brings with it the opportunity and the necessity of being good neighbors and cultivating interfaith understanding. We’re already planning a cooperative “Day to Serve” activity with our new-found Muslim friends along with other congregations and faith communities here in Fairfax.