Nearly 30 years ago I sat in a group of young people brought together by the then National Conference of Christians and Jews. We were a privileged bunch that were brought together from around America a couple times a year to learn more about each other and talk about issues of interfaith challenges and possibilities. In one session a Jewish woman and Christian man got engaged in a heated argument (over what? I can’t remember). Finally at one point, exasperated, the woman said to the man, “you know it’s my job to make you a better Christian, and it’s your job to make me a better Jew.” That got my attention.
Then, and now, I find myself exasperated when religious traditions and sub-groups of religious traditions cannot, while all worshiping the same God of love and peace, find ways of loving each other and being in peace.
It is, of course, an age-old drama played out on the human stage: Who is in and who out? Who has the right belief and who the wrong? Who is righteous and who not?The more inclusive side of progressive religion – from whatever tradition –is often accused of simply floating around in a sea of relativity drifting this way and that without any real destination and identity. The more exclusive side of conservative religion – in whatever tradition – is often accused of rigid rule keeping and enforcing right belief. The two groups tend not to appreciate each other much.
Every age and place has its challenges. Today the battles rage over the inclusion or condemnation of gay and lesbian folk, of Islam, of the roles of women, on interpretive approaches to sacred texts, of the use of violence, of being pro-life or pro-choice – name your issue. And yet we live in this world of differences that is fast becoming ever more connected through communication, technology and trade, so how can we possibly afford not to connect and respect with each other’s culture and religion?
Instead of connecting, however, we tend to compete and then often hear about how we are “losing the battle” against those who are, simply, different. Increasingly, I find expressions such as “spiritual warfare” to be an oxymoron.
At the same time I tire of those who say we are all the same and it doesn’t really matter what we believe as long as we don’t hurt anyone. It matters a great deal and the unique beliefs and practices of differing traditions are a rich gift not to simply put into a blender and ignore because it, then, has no flavor for anyone. As a Christian, I have always appreciated the wisdom held in the saying about the challenges of being involved in interfaith dialogue: it is better to dig one well deep than to dig many shallow and not ever find water. We are called to go deep in our own wells, but to do so while others help dig theirs too.
Last time I checked, no one has cornered the market on truth. But, if you find someone who says they have, my advice to you is simple: Run.
Peter Shober, senior pastor at University Congregational, United Church of Christ in Missoula, can be reached at email@example.com