While I had hoped to continue with the Passion story as it is told in the gospel of Mark this week, I have (of my own volition) bitten off just as much as I can possibly chew this spring. Thus, just to keep the momentum going and to stay in the habit of posting something weekly, here is a short essay I wrote for a global religions course in response to an article promoting a greater appreciation for religious pluralism.
It is perhaps dishonest to speak about "Christianity" or "Islam" and perhaps even "Judaism" as cohesive specific belief systems. The plural "Christianities" or "Islams" may be more appropriate representations of reality. There are some Christians, for instance, who are very intolerant of anything that smacks of pluralism and who base their understanding of doctrine more on fear than hope. Christianity, as they see it, is very exclusivist. There are other Christians who would be eagerly on board with a pluralistic, universalist view of people and religion. I regularly engage with people on both sides of that spectrum and many points in between.
With such scattered identities within religious traditions, it's difficult to imagine religious people from exclusivist iterations of those traditions finding value in interfaith dialogue of any kind. We discussed in our chavruta call the arrogance of some expressions of religion that prohibit meaningful engagement with anything that seems like Other. We also discussed the matter of religious privilege. In America, being Christian is a position of privilege, but it is never addressed in the same way that privilege of ethnicity, gender, or sexuality is addressed.
Thinking in terms of privilege, religious people are in a historical and cultural context, yet often wish to distance themselves from those contexts. People who claim the label of a particular religion must acknowledge the harm done by others with that religious identity if there is to be any hope of entering into others' universes peacefully. Twenty-first century people who claim to desire to enter into the mental and spiritual universe of another, yet dismiss the influence of religion in terms of injustice, oppression, terrorism, and genocide cannot be taken seriously. Even though a particular expression of a religious tradition is against any harmful practice, these traditions exist as parts of historical and cultural trajectories.
Thus, while it is possible to "imagine all the people living life in peace," it is easier to imagine that happening in the absence of religion than it is to imagine religious fundamentalism promoting peaceful coexistence. Perhaps the greatest hope would be for the pluralistic-minded religious people to increase in number and the fundamentalist religious people to die out (of natural causes, of course), rather than hoping for an end to any particular religious tradition. A sort of evolution of religious ideology rather than an extinction level event. This hasn't happened with racism as of yet, so this may be a long shot at best.
In any cultural change, there are innovators and early adopters, then there are the early and late majorities, and last there are the laggards. In terms of technology, early adopters already have their Google glasses and laggards are still using their land-line telephone exclusively. In terms of religious pluralism, we are perhaps in the phase of transitioning within a majority view. In the American South, is sometimes seems as though pluralism is still something of an innovation, but globally I'm not sure where things stand. The point is that there will be laggards -- people who cling to their religious exclusivism until they die or until they are forced along with an irresistible cultural tide.
It's both challenging and easy for me to enter into the mental and spiritual universes of the Christians with whom I have seminary classes. Easy, because I am familiar with the language game, having grown up in the church, and because I enter into such engagements with an eye toward common ground. With more liberal Christians (who are usually much more open to pluralism), that common ground is often very easy to find. We can use one another's language and trust that we understand one another's meaning.
This is still a challenge for me, because I feel like an outsider to the Christian language game now. I understand the concepts, but I have rejected the idea that human beings are broken and in need of salvation from an external deity in favor of a more Humanist paradigm. Even though I can understand deeply and be close friends with Christians, I am not a Christian. They are no longer my tribe, and their language is no longer my language. Moreover, I was hurt by that tribe once upon a time, and those scars still inform my opinion of Christianities to some extent.
All that considered, I am optimistic enough to believe that the concept of God can evolve. People used to believe that supernaturals were responsible for weather events and cosmological events like the fantastic and beautiful lunar eclipse some of us had the opportunity to witness this week. Most people know better now. They better understand scientific explanations for their world and can still be filled with wonder without being filled with dread that their supernatural is trying to send them a message that they don't quite understand. The cultural role of gods has shifted.
I would suggest that the only god that an individual can worship is a god that the individual can understand. Even monotheistic religions do not really worship a single god; every worshiper brings to the table personal ideas about the object of worship. Thus, the concept of God changes subtly with every believer and evolves as a result of cultural evolutions. For some time, I sought different language to use in the place of the word "God," settling on "deepest, most noble self." Recently, I began to reclaim the word "God" for the sake of convenience, acknowledging that "God" is a word that people use to speak about a part of themselves. So, personally, as I continue to grow in connection to myself and others, God evolves I suppose.
Mr Lennon dreamed that there might be "nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too." My dream, only slightly less ambitious, would simply be that people recognize that human beings invented their gods and their religions. They did so for very good reasons, and although those useful tools have sometimes been used as weapons, there is a place for religious practice in human culture. Perhaps it would be emotionally traumatic for some people to admit that the object of their worship was something they invented rather than the other way around, but I have confidence that -- in community -- people can adjust to the idea. This awareness could certainly contribute to a more pluralistic curiosity. After all, it is intriguing and enlightening to step into other mental and spiritual universes, and recognition that religion is a human invention can deflate some of the fear around exposure to Other. I honestly trust that people can still make use of religious ideas and practices while recognizing their own role in imagining their gods, but I doubt that many people in my lifetime will be ready for that shift.