Yesterday I attended a lecture at the Smithsonian on the history of Islam in Washington, D.C. It covered the formative years, it covered slavery, it covered the civil rights movement, and it covered the high tension we sense today. It was a fascinating two hours that were meant to accompany the final days of an exhibit entitled “The Art of the Quran.”
Throughout my life people have often asked, “Why study other religions?” What do you have to gain? The task is assumed more dangerous than beneficial. It’s been expressed through various statements like “I just have so much more to learn about Jesus, or I’m taking energy away from studying the Bible, or a genuine fear that I may abandon the Christian faith altogether and become a Muslim or a Buddhist.
While most people understand the curiosity of learning about another culture or religion, it’s often for religious homework. In other words, the sole reason to learn about another religion is so that I can better articulate my beliefs so that hopefully, I can convert “those people” more easily.
The other day I did something I should never do…read the comment section of a Christian-Post article. It was comment after comment about how intolerant Muslim’s were of other faiths, all the while Christians bashed and displayed a deep ignorance and intolerance of…other faiths. It’d be funny if it were not so painfully true.
So I want to talk briefly about religious tolerance. And also give ourselves a bit of a heart shift when discussing and learning about other religions.
I studied religion, not at a seminary, but at a secular college because I wanted the challenge. I didn’t need someone puffing me up about how right I was so that I could defend myself against any question. I wanted to hear every reason why I was wrong.
Turns out they convinced me I was wrong about a great many things. It was absolutely painful, but it humbled me. You see it turns out I had a lot to gain from atheist professors; fundamentalist really in their own right. Because there are two types of Fundamentalism when approaching the scriptures. There’s the one side that argues “Well if it says it, it actually happened and there’s no arguing it. If God’s word says Jonah was swallowed up by a whale, then Jonah was swallowed by a whale.” And then there are the Bart Ehrman’s of the world who say “Well we can prove that isn’t exactly what happened so the whole book is wrong.” People who say “well people can’t survive being swallowed by a fish and live in the belly underwater for three days because THAT’S FREAKING OBVIOUS.” Both are pointless arguments, because neither is actually seeking the right thing. And such loud arguing actually misses the point of a religious text: “WHAT DOES IT MEAN!”What do these stories tell us about God? What truth do they speak about us? Jonah’s nationality got in the way of loving other people. Of bringing them good news. Of helping his enemies. God loves even our enemies and shows them mercy. Those are beautiful messages!
And see I make this point because it’s very easy to see these messages in other religions because we aren’t bound with believing they are literally true. I can pick up the Bhagavad Gita and not be struck trying to sort out how these events actually happened and can find myself captured in it’s message of the war happening with my own soul. I can actually read the Quran and see the beautiful teachings and have no issues dropping or never looking back at barbaric notions of God because my faith isn’t dependent upon this book. I can read mystics like Rumi and be blown away by the wisdom of this Muslim man. Or practice contemplative meditation like the Buddhists and have a heightened experience with the Holy Spirit.
The scriptures don’t say “Christian iron, sharpens Christian iron.” We have so much to gain from atheists, and other religions. We’re just too damned afraid to admit it. We think reading someone else’s holy scriptures is dancing with the devil. An atheist may be one of the greatest allies to my faith because they can show me ways in which I might be making idols out of my beliefs and that God has actually shown us something provable that I am ignoring for the sake of fundamentalism and certainty. Atheism and skepticism draw me to seek the meaning of my sacred text more than any other vehicle. They show me the Greek, and pagan religious influences in our scriptures. And this doesn’t scare me it just shows me how the Christians transcended or left behind those ideas about the divine! Would fundamentalism ever have been called out amongst believers if it wasn’t for atheists or people not bound by the task having to prove every little thing we believe? See we ignore a lot of truth because we think we’re supposed to. We ignore scientific discoveries because we trust some Middle Eastern men in a desert from over 2,000 years ago. We assumed that they were scientific geniuses before they even had the tools to ask and observe the right questions that we can ask and observe today. We have information they did not and this is 100% okay! It’s okay! Because as Jesus so eloquently put it “I am the truth.” Not Christianity is the truth. Not some categorical “Well here’s God’s truth, and this over there is another kind of truth.”
There’s not “alternative truths” when it comes to God. Rather if it is true….it’s God’s. And this is the key to interfaith dialogue. This alone should be all that matters.
We shouldn’t be afraid if a Buddhists or a Hindu teaches something that sounds like “ours.” Rather we should understand that there is “unviversal truth” or “cosmic truth” or “God’s truth” and rather “this religion teaches that truth this way.”
When Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” He’s not establishing a new Religion. He’s saying this is the face of God. When I am compassionate, this is what God is like. When I am forgiving, this is what God is like. When I love my enemies, this is what God is like. Way, truth, and life, are all wrapped up in the Cosmic. They don’t become true because of Jesus. They are revealed true through Jesus.
Think about the beautiful word “Namaste.” or “the God in me recognizes the God in you.” We have so much to gain from such a simple word. But it isn’t a Christian word. And yet Paul’s big idea was that the human body was a temple for God. That the divine is IN US! Look at all that yoga has offered humanity of all faiths. A pillar of Islam is helping the poor. Heaven forbid a Protestant learn something powerful from a Catholic. It’s true here in our faith because it is true everywhere. If it is true, it is ours.
See most Christians are stuck in this missionary mindset that only we have something to offer the world. I’ll never forget standing in a line at a hotel in Uganda. This Christian lady was going on and on about how she was out here with a group of high schoolers “helping all the slum kids.” About how happy and filled she was to be able to give these kids something, to share candy. About how she saw things in these slums that no person should ever have to see. But you know we brought them something so special.
Great lady. What did they have to give you? Or is it only us? These “better” humans that get to give to the world? See our Western arrogance assumes we are the ones who have beauty to give to the world. Because of this we fail often to see the God in others. The beautiful creation that is their stories, their cultures, their music, and even…their religion and what it has to offer us. What can I learn about God by studying through the eyes of a Muslim? This doesn’t mean to abandon my grounding as a Christian, but perhaps their mystics have experienced the divine in ways that transcend my Christian frame of reference and actually allow me to draw nearer to God.
For many of you this sounds like dangerous heresy until you actually try it and find the divine in the places you never expected.
For a moment understand, It’s not so unfamiliar to you.
If I were to ask if you’ve ever been moved towards God through a movie, you’d probably say yes. Listen to a tribal chant and tell me you aren’t moved by its beauty! All of creation speaks towards God.
You can sit through a movie like ‘Arrival’ and be captivated by what it says about God’s love for us.
It’s why you can listen to a song about deep suffering and feel the presence of God all around you. Or be at a concert signing along with thousands of people and be so deeply moved towards the divine. Or listen to a Native American pray to the creator and be filled with the comfort of your Creator.
I believe Heaven will be like the realization that God was in all the places we said he wasn’t.
As Jacob so appropriately wrestled; “Surely the Lord was in this place and I, I was unaware of it.”
Grace and Peace.
Listen to these two songs. Close your eyes. Breathe. And feel the divine all around you.