In the book Healthy Religion, John S. Dunne, a theologian from Notre Dame, is quoted as saying, “The Holy man of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gautama (Buddha), or Jesus, or Mohammed, a man who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a man who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insights to his own. Passing over and coming back it seems is the spiritual adventure of our time.”
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In the Understanding Religion class that I teach at Carthage College we discuss the purpose and meaning of religion as well as the major world religions. One of the students’ assignments is to “pass over” to another religion, to attend a religious service in a tradition that is unfamiliar to them. I encourage them to try something completely different. For many students, there is a little trepidation in this assignment. It’s hard to step out of one’s comfort zone and try something different, especially something radically different, but it is the critical element to learning about religious pluralism. Religious pluralism recognizes that there is not one right way to God, but that all ways have value. This does not mean that you need to agree with, or believe, or practice what they do, but that you respect that this is the right path to God for them.
I’ve had students attend Hindu Temples, Buddhist meditation sessions, the Bahai Temple, the Jewish Synagogue, an Islamic Mosque, Unitarian Universalist churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses Fellowships, and all manner of Christian services. About 90% end up having a really positive experience… and this didn’t mean they came back wanting to convert (though I’ve had a few want to attend again)… it meant they came back having learned something, having gained a new perspective and a new respect, having broadened their understanding and lessened their fear. Most are very grateful for the exploration (albeit forced). In every place, when they’ve shared that they were visiting for a class project and were there to learn, they were welcomed with open arms, and people were more than willing to share their history and traditions and beliefs.
However, it hasn’t always gone well. I had one student this last semester, who decided he would try out an Islamic mosque. He had trouble even entering the building because (being in a small town) he was afraid that someone who knew him might drive by and see him and word would get out that he went to a Muslim mosque. Unfortunately, even though I advise the students to identify themselves as students there to learn, he decided to visit surreptitiously. He wanted to try to blend in so that he wouldn’t be treated differently. What resulted was that he felt very out-of-place, was unable to remain objective, and was extremely sensitive to anything that was said that might be interpreted as “Islam is the only way.” He ended up in such a state of anxiety, feeling like he was betraying his religion and beliefs, that he left in the middle of their “message.”
Personally, I think he got caught in a trap that has been programmed into many of us. Many, many people of all different religions have been told that their way is the only way. This becomes so ingrained that we believe we are betraying our church and our God when we even learn about another religion, much less visit. Gandhi said the “true seeker has no arrogance.” Yet it seems likely that my student went into this assignment with a deeply ingrained, probably unconscious (or at least unnamed) arrogance that Christianity is the only right way, and he could not get past it. Interestingly, what really pushed his button… the concept that Islam was the only way… is the same thing he was taught, only that Christianity is the only way. This situation clearly exemplifies that we cannot truly move to a point of real learning and understanding until we open our minds enough to know that we aren’t right and someone else wrong. We aren’t better than another, just different, but with the same goal of drawing close to the “something more” that is out there.
For the next few weeks in worship, we will be passing over and coming back. We will pass over into Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and hopefully come back with new insights to our own religion and perhaps even new ways of understanding God, the world and others.