Why We Respect Each Other
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Under the full moon on the Autumnal Equinox during a reception following a simple pagan handfasting, I fell into a conversation with a sometimes-Muslim about religious tolerance and understanding. He offered compliments for the service I had just led, and then offered compliments to Unitarian Universalism saying how much he appreciated the way we look to all the world’s religions for wisdom. He had grown up in America as a second-generation Christian Arab where most people assumed he was Muslim. Of course, he knew a lot about Islam for the culture of his parent’s homeland was so deeply influenced by that faith and many of their friends and members of their extended family were Muslim. He had developed the habit of visiting both moderate Christian as well as moderate Muslim worshiping communities out in the rural area where he now lived. He said there was no Unitarian Universalist congregation near by, though he wished he could visit one from time to time. He appreciated what a Unitarian Universalist congregation had to offer: a commitment to religious freedom, to religious tolerance and a respect for other religions.
A Pew Forum survey from 2008 reported that 65% of Americans believe that “many Religions can lead to eternal life.” (As cited in “We Are All Hindus Now” by Lisa Miller of Newsweek, August 15, 2009) This indicates willingness on the part of many Americans to not only respect other religions, but even to sample from them. People will chant “Om” while doing yoga (which comes from Hinduism), read a meditation written by the Dali Lama (who is Buddhist), and then drop in for a vespers service at the local Catholic Church in the evening.
For many people, the walls are growing fuzzy – the distinctions between mainline protestant churches are seen as inconsequential. For some time now, many Christians have felt free to change denominations without significant trouble. Fewer and fewer people notice the lines that once meant a great deal. More recently, we see some of this broad acceptance to be growing to include the world’s religions. As in the example of the man I spoke with under the full moon last month, it is not a problem to participate in both a Christian and a Muslim community. The differences are just not that big a deal.
And yet, while all this is true, there is remains a painfully ugly trend to use our religious differences to divide the saved from the unsaved, the faithful from the infidels, the true people of God from those who are unacceptable in God’s sight. Author and social analyst James Wiggins (from his book: In Praise of Religious Diversity) claims that virtually every armed conflict occurring on the planet today is explicitly driven by religious motives or by the memory of a preexisting religious conflict. That’s quite a claim; and yet consider suicide bombers, ethnic cleansing, inquisitions and crusades, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslims and Jews fighting in one land, Catholics and Protestants attacking each other in another, Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other there in another land, and the list goes on.
And that is the part of the story that gets lifted up. This violence is an undeniable part of the story of the way people of faith relate to those who are different. There are certainly many examples of our religious differences dividing us. For all the progressive and open-minded examples, for all the extensive research surveys and reports, it is still the violence that haunts us. Author and controversial Catholic priest Hans Kung has written, “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”
There are countless religious individuals and religious communities that are willing to tolerate and even respect people of differing faiths. There are countless times when people honor the commandments to love their neighbors as themselves, to wish for their neighbors what they wish for themselves, and to refrain from offering to their neighbors anything which they themselves find hateful. There are countless times when religious people and religious communities have actually followed the peaceful precepts of their traditions.
Our own Unitarian Universalism is a religion that features tolerance in a unique way. We strive to honor and accept the difference of each individual within our own community. We do not need to take ourselves beyond our own religious community to meet someone who of different beliefs. We have humanists and pagans and theists and agnostics all mingled together in one community. Respect of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith; it is our covenant. We’ve codified it in our central statement of identity.
In our history, we look back to the most significant early royal edict of religious tolerance and see it was issued by a Unitarian. King John Sigismund of Transylvania issued the Edict of Torda in 1568 proclaiming “in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.” In practice this was a limited amount of tolerance offered, but the language was remarkably universal and planted the seeds for future Edicts of religious toleration.
But I think at times people of goodwill can go too far with such ideas. Stephen Prothero warns of such things in the reading from this morning (God Is Not One.) The goal is not to gloss over differences or dismiss the points of conflict. Our differences are worth noting. As we gather each Sunday, we are not pretending we all believe the same thing. We honor the differences. That metaphor of each of us climbing along a different path yet we all are striving for the same mountain top – that is a great metaphor. But there is a version that goes further.
Radical pluralism would acknowledge that the different religions seem to be climbing different mountains, striving for different summits. Buddhism is seeking nirvana, which is nothing like heaven. The work of being a faithful Muslim is to offer your submission to God, yet the work of being a faithful Jew is to return to God from the exile you find yourself in. Prothero spends the bulk of his recent book, God Is Not One, outlining the differences in the major religions of the world.
Prothero’s point is that it is a bad idea to focus only on the lofty commonalities at the expense of the very real differences. It is counterproductive toward the goal of mutual understanding as well as global peace. And I agree. The details of belief and practice are important. The differences matter. The reality that each of the world’s major religions has divergent claims as to what is true must not be ignored.
But consider this: perhaps our interest is not in creating one grand unified and universal religion. Oh, to be sure that has been the goal of some throughout history. That has been the exact goal of several prominent Unitarians and no small amount of Universalists throughout history. In the 1950s, for example, Universalist minister and poet Ken Patton worked to create a “religion for one world” at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston where symbols for all the world’s religions hung around the worship space, a mural of the Andromeda Galaxy was painted on the proscenium, and a bookshelf behind the podium held the texts of all the world’s scriptures. This experiment was in a way much like the efforts to create utopian societies, and like all such experiences, it met with limited success and disbanded all too soon.
But I do not believe our goal is to create such a universal religion. I think the particulars of time and place, the details of practice and culture, are important to the religious endeavor. Day to day living is intertwined with eternity. This exact spot is an important place in the effort to experience the magnitude of all existence. This tree, this river, this building, this hour, this series of steps and movements – the particulars of time and place are the vehicle by which we each access that which transcends time and place.
Our goal is not one unified and universal religion for all people for all time. I believe instead that our goal is to meet and engage with the diversity of particularities that we may learn and grow from the experiences. That is goal of celebrating all the world’s religions. The various truth claims need not be made compatible with each other. Still, there are those who cling to the modernist view that one person’s claims at truth makes another’s claims at truth to be untrue. And certainly the idea that all claims at truth are equally true is an unmanageable idea – it doesn’t fit objective reality. Either water is hot or it is cold, but not both at the same time! Either baptism is essential or it is not. Either God is one or three or thousands, but not all of the above. Either the practice of praying five times a day is the true way or it is not. When we allow truth to be relative then it loses meaning.
Have you bumped into this idea? ‘Either I am right or you are right – but it is impossible for us both to be right!’ Therefore, why bother being respectful with people of differing religions when the real work seems to be to convince them they are not right? What do we do with that?
What I do with that is turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson. To avoid relativism of truth claims I look to the Transcendentalists. In his great essay Self-Reliance, Emerson admonishes, “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that Experience can hold the authoritative claim above all other claims because by our intuition we run straight to the heart of God.
And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (Oversoul)
The implication of such a connection is not only do we find no wall between us and the Divine, but in this same way we can know what is true and right and just. Emerson writes:
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. (Self-Reliance)
Thus, according to Emerson, there is a Divine moral law inscribe in the heart and conscience of every person. You recognize truth when you see it because you ‘lie in the lap’ of the source of truth.
And so what do you do with this assertion when different individuals recognize different and conflicting truths? As each tree is different from every other tree, as the coast of the northern Atlantic differs from the coast of the southern Pacific, as today’s clouds and wind patterns are not the same as they were yesterday, so too do we find our individual experiences of the holy are different yet true.
We say that every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Each person is different, like a fingerprint. What fits you will not fit me. That is how we are designed and we honor that and find it so easy to tolerate others when we are not threatened by the differences!
In his book, The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks writes:
The human other is a trace of the divine. As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it, “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.” The Challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. (p60)
Your particular connection and expression of the holy is your contribution to the pattern. The differences among us beautify the pattern of the whole. There would be no harmony if we all sang the same note. Talking with people who sound like you do is like walking around endlessly in a cul-de-sac, the challenge is absent and the beauty fades by familiarity!
It is critical to discover the divine spark within you. However, the real challenge is to see the divine spark within another, the inherent worthiness and dignity of another; to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. It is one of the great tasks of a spiritual life: to allow yourself to be challenged from time to time by the perspective of another. It is one of the best ways to stay grounded in your otherwise private spiritual journey. Peace and understanding between people of differing faiths is critical for peace and understanding to take root in the world.
We are one in the call to seek meaning in our lives. We are one in the call to live with compassion. I am aware that this may not be enough, but it is what we have and it will serve if we allow it. Hans Kung has written, “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.” Perhaps you want to be a part of such a dialogue. Consider yourself invited into the conversation.
In a world without end, may it be so.