I spend a lot of time talking about how we have to stop doing things out of fear. We can’t use fear as an excuse for hatred, discrimination, or ignorance. And I’ll continue to argue that until that day I die.
But I’m realizing how much of a hypocrite that I am. I spend of a lot of time avoiding things out of fear, myself. I spend a lot of time keeping myself from being happy and enjoying things because I’m afraid. I’ve spent my entire life protecting myself from pain and failure. I work hard, but only when I know I won’t fail, otherwise, I just ignore it. I protect myself from people who could be just what I need in my life, because the idea of losing people terrifies me, so it just seemed easier if they were never there to begin with.
But even if my fear doesn’t cause extreme hatred expressed towards vulnerable and oppressed people in the world, I still hurt people. I don’t let them in because when they leave I don’t have to let them go. I push away people who care about me.
So, I can preach all day about how we can’t live in fear of others, until I’m willing to let go of my own fears it means nothing… time for a change.
Bah! I really just love that the person they used is the Ruggedly, Handsome Richard Castle.
At the end of my undergraduate career at Texas Christian University, I was required to take a senior capstone. In this class, we were required to read about a book a week and discuss in great detail how the particular book has influenced how we might define religion. Our book selections included theological, sociological, psychological, and anthropological perspectives. Also included were books of personal faith journeys and how one might apply their definition of religion to life experiences. At the end of the semester, we were required to write our own definition of the nature and function of religion.
One might think that at the end of a semester that you spent eighteen weeks discussing what religion is that the task of defining religion might be easy, however, I found it almost as challenging when I sat down to write my paper as the first day when our professors asked us to list things that we believed religion to be. An easy copout answer is to say that you cannot define religion. I like this idea because I felt uncomfortable placing a box around what religion is in fear of dismissing someone’s religious experience. I felt unqualified to take on this endeavor as I have had limited contact with those outside of some Christian group. I felt that even though I had read about other faith traditions it was not my place to give religion a definition. Ultimately, I relied on the words of Rita Gross from her book, Feminism and Religion, “The question is not whether a scholar has included every possible perspective, but whether she speaks authentically and nonimperialistically from her own standpoint.” (Gross, 51)
My story starts here. I was born and raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In the Disciples Church, we practice what has become known as the “Open Table.” In our weekly worship services, the Open Table refers to the communion table where all are welcome to take part in the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. Pastor Rob Bell, though not a Disciples minister, I believe describes this practice best stating, “The Eucharist is about setting the table for the whole world.” In a broader, long-term concept, the Open Table is the invitation for the world to join in community and conversation.
Throughout the course of history, religion has played a vital role in social interaction, both positive and negative. Religion has motivated the pro-slavery voice, the Holocaust, anti-communist movement, attacks on the World Trade Center and the United States Pentagon, various holy book burnings, destruction of houses of worship, and bans of religions around the world. Religion has also had a strong voice in the abolition movement, social gospel to alleviate poverty, civil rights movements, restoration acts following destruction from human acts and natural disasters, and dialogue between many nations. Religion has been used to promote both war and peace. Whether through act of destruction, or through act of building up, religion has played a vital role in the human experience. Religion is the system of institutionalized faith practices and beliefs that humans have created for the purpose of a journey of building relations with others.
As human beings, we are constantly searching for order and understanding. We are always searching for a sense of belonging. Religion provides that sense of order and community on which humanity thrives. When addressing the question, “what is religion?” it is important to remember that religion is a human-made social construct based on the human experience. Religion then becomes human’s total expression of self in response to the human experience. The human experience is social. Wilfred Cantwell Smith once wrote, “A Christian who takes God seriously must surely recognize that God does not give a fig for Christianity. God is concerned with people, not with things.” (C Smith, 127) The structures of religious traditions and beliefs are based around the human understanding of the transcendent. Smith continues by saying, “God does not reveal religions; God reveals himself.” (C Smith 128) The transcendent is revealed to the world over time and takes its form in the human experience. The construct of religion serves as a purpose to legitimate what humans have come to believe about the world and transcendent. (Berger 35)
According to John MacMurray, the religious attitude “is best expressed in terms of fellowship or communion.” (MacMurray 23) This communion develops out of a sense that there is something bigger than oneself that transcends between one person and another. There is a source that one feels outside the individual that guides one into relationship and how one interacts with another. MacMurray describes that religious attitude as the combining of the utility value and intrinsic values. The utility value searches for purpose and use, while the intrinsic value searches for meaning and beauty. Through these two values, MacMurray says we find the religious experience. These two values are what guide our relationship with others. We search for the purpose and use of a person and the meaning and beauty behind each person. These values are what allow us to serve each other and allow us to be served in return. A person becomes not the means to an end, but the person becomes the end.
Religion is active engagement with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in some of his final days, said, “I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … . I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experience and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.” (Tippett 33) Religion calls us to actively engage in the world now.
The religious experience includes the practice of rituals. These rituals are not for the purpose of walking through meaningless actions each week but to remind us of what our faith means. For the Disciples Church, communion every week is the reminder that this journey is not for solitude but for community. They remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Religion also begets a source of hope. When tragic events such as the attacks on 9/11, the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, the tornados in the Midwest and Oklahoma, the Boston bombing, or the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion occur, people turn to religious communities. Religious communities fill a variety of roles in responding to tragedy. Some provide shelter and necessary resources. Religious leaders offer counseling. And religious communities bring a sense of belonging when people’s lives have been shaken.
I recently spoke with a youth minister of a local Disciples congregation. He has been working with a ministry team to determine what the values of their ministry should be. Relatively speaking, he said that about ninety-eight percent of what they felt their ministry should be is reminding people that they are loved and have a place. According to psychology, “People who lack belongingness suffer higher levels of mental and physical illness and are relatively highly prone to a broad range of behavioral problems, ranging from traffic accidents to criminality to suicide.” (King 169)
A common thread throughout all religion is that they thrive on a sense of community. Religious communities have promoted inclusiveness of all or only those who share the common beliefs and practices. The religious communities either aim to reconcile relationships with the world or they aim to purify the world. Religious communities have promoted superiority and they have promoted unity.
In the United States, there has been a growing fear of Islam since the attacks in 2001, events in the Middle East during the “war” on terror, and the Boston Bombing. Followers of many traditions have claimed that Islam is a violent faith, picking of verses without acknowledging the context, to prove their point, while people within these same faith traditions pick our verses and characteristics of the Islamic tradition that promote peaceful relationships to prove their point.
These growing divisions between religions creates a strong need for interfaith dialogue. Diana Eck, a lifelong member of the Methodist tradition, and professor at Harvard University, writes of her own realization of the hatred and exclusiveness of her own culture in her book Encountering God. Journeying to India to explore the Hindu tradition, Eck says she learns, “Christians did not have a corner on love, wisdom, and justice. Christians were not the only ones nourished by faith and empowered by their faith to work to change the world.” (Eck 9) Once we encounter other persons of other faiths who want the same things that we do it is difficult to encourage such a division. Dr. R. Scott Colglazier once said, “… religion in its deepest sense, is trying to help us move past our ego and into a place of shared being.” (Colglazier 131)
Author Shane Claiborne, and founder of The Simply Way in Philadelphia, several years ago, wrote about his experiences in the Middle East. He and several friends had gone to the Middle East for the purpose of bringing Christ to those countries experiencing war. While on their trip, he and several of his friends were driving along the road in a deserted area and got in a crash. A group of Muslims stopped to help take the group to a safe region, where they could receive medical attention. Claiborne went back to the Middle East several years after the incident and spent some time in discussion with the Muslims that had helped them on their previous journey. Claiborne told them that their actions are what good Christians should do. His Muslim friend responded saying that they did what good Muslims should do. (Campolo and Claiborne 59 -60) Claiborne’s experience reminded him that bringing peace to the world cannot only be accomplished by Christians, but by the human family, that we must be in dialogue with each other to bring unity.
Gandhi spent much of his adult life living in a commune with others, speaking against violence and power, and loving people who were not like him. I once had a friend tell me that all that what Gandhi had contributed to the world had no value because his works were not done in the name of Christ. This conversation left me perplexed. Gandhi lived out compassion, daily, exhibiting effort to treat humans as humans, and yet, some would question the value of his life because he did not live and work “in the name of Jesus.” When we focus on the right belief we lose sight of our right actions. The belief is internal and personal. We must focus on what the faith produces. I appreciate William James explanation that “Our practice is the only sure evidence, even to ourselves, that we are Christian.” (James 16) Diana Eck, reminds us at the end of her book, “The Kingdom of God is much wider than the church. It is the Kingdom of God, not of the Christian Church.” (Eck 230)
I respect those who hold this exclusive view of the religious experience, but I cannot hold the same opinion. When exclusiveness becomes too strong it has the potential to become destructive. Eck proposes a pluralistic perspective. This pluralistic perspective calls us into dialogue with people of other faiths. It requires us to ask questions of others and ourselves. The pluralistic perspective opens a dialogue. Krista Tippett states, “… faith is as much about questions as it is about answers.” (Tippett 2) The religious experience is always reflecting on the human experience. It is the intertwining of what we can know and feel about the world.
This dialogue is very important to the religious experience. This dialogue with other those of other faiths does not require us to abandon our own faith traditions, but opens up a conversation about how we understand the transcendent in the world. The pluralistic dialogue requires us to come to the table with open minds and questions, not only for others but for ourselves. As someone who was raised in the Disciples’ Church, I have to continually be in conversation with others to understand my own tradition. This dialogue allows me to explain more fully why I hold the beliefs that I do. This dialogue allows me to work with others in service. The religious community in which I participate extends beyond the walls of the church. The religious community is the human family.
It is important to understand the nature and function of religion in the world. Too often religion is used as a way to push people away from the human family. Religion becomes the force behind the lack of conversation, when religion actually is the conversation. I appreciate MacMurray’s explanation that those who claim to have no religion have only forgotten that humans are interdependent. (MacMurray 25) Religion is the active engagement with other persons. Individuals bring their personal faith and ideas to the table. Religion is the act of questioning personal faith, ideas, and actions that one experiences on the human journey. It encourages personal and communal growth. Religion is an ongoing conversation that transcends for generations. Religion calls for reconciliation of the human family.
"Christians did not have a corner on love, wisdom, and justice. Christians were not the only ones nourished by faith and empowered by their faith to work to change the world." Diana Eck (Encountering God)
Several years ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of heaven and hell. She told me told me that unless someone is doing good deeds in the name of Christ their deeds mean nothing at all. I have great difficulty with this perspective. This conversation occurred right about the time that Rob Bell’s book Love Wins was coming out and the basis of the conversation was centered around the idea that Gandhi was going to hell. When you can make the argument that Gandhi is in hell while many people who have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior are the causes of great injustice are not, I think it’s time to reevaluate our thinking.
Heaven and Hell aside, how can we define a God or gods of infinite virtue with finite language?
Eck says, “The moment we human beings grasp God with jealousy and possessiveness, we lose hold of God. One might add that the religious point here is quite the opposite of God’s jealousy, of which we hear so much in the Old Testament; it is God’s infinite capacity to love and the problem of human jealousy.”
We are finite beings trying to grasp the understanding of the infinite. It is impossible for us to ever fully understand the desires of the infinite. We can only make assumptions based on human understanding of God or gods, and this will never be a universal belief. But for reasons of greed and pride, we feel the need to hold possession of something that cannot be contained.
Eck tells about a discussion with a parishoner after a service one week about three approaches to encountering other religions; the exclusivist, that our way of thinking about God excludes all others, the inclusivist, that we just understand God better than those of other faiths, and the pluralist that says that God transcends our complete comprehension, therefore we must leave room for understanding from others.
For someone who, generally, has used the term universalist I like this alternative. Universalist just implies that everyone has place in the picture. Universalism would seem to describe Eck definition for diversity; “diversity simply is a fact…” Pluralism implies what you do with it. Diversity is there and everyone is a part of the story. Pluralism implies that once you’ve acknowledged that there are people who are different from you, you gain understanding of their beliefs and begin to learn more about yourself as a person of faith. Pluralism is actively relating to others for the purpose of finding understanding.
By living in a way that says “we are right, and you are wrong,” we blind ourselves to the potentials of the human race. We all have something to offer, and we cannot eliminate voices from the story because they do not align with our own. Our beliefs are not stagnant and we cannot lives as though they are. As social beings we cannot isolate ourselves from people who are different from ourselves. We deny ourselves growth and opportunity.