Tuesday, June 23, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Other Religions and Spiritualities

I think, sometimes, that nothing threatens religious people in Western societies more than other religions. I say Western societies because in other cultures, respecting and even practicing more than one religion at once isn't seen as a problem at all. If you go to Thailand or China or Japan, for example, you'll find that people in those countries freely combine Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and other faiths, and they find it hard to believe how upset Americans get about pluralism. African Christianity is sometimes unrecognizable to an "orthodox" type, with its mix of the Bible and indigenous beliefs. Again, a Westerner has to expend a lot of energy explaining why this is such a problem and a threat.

(I think this is because long ago Christianity was perverted by Empire, but I'll leave that for a future post.)

So as I talk about this, I realize that I run the risk of upsetting my fellow Western Christians, and I realize that some Christians from other cultures will be thinking "well, yeah, duh."

I should say that I haven't always felt this way. For a long time I thought that other religions were wrong-headed and, if I was honest, kind of stupid. Buddhists were useless navel-gazers. Muslims were AK-47 toting desert-dwellers. And Hinduism was basically a throw-back to the Bronze Age mess of polytheism. Don't they worship cows or something? Clearly, my own white middle-class Protestantism was superior to all other forms of faith and practice.

What changed was when I actually learned about these other faiths and in some courageous moments, tried out some of their practices myself. This, like all machinations of the Devil, occurred in college. I ended up taking the plunge and majoring in religious studies. What I found was that my faith and spiritual life were deepened when I reached outside of the "traditional" bounds of Christianity. I think this is potentially the case for anyone.

One of the things that I had fun doing which was enjoyably iconoclastic was developing a new worship service at my home church in Akron, OH. The purpose of this worship service was to let parishoners encounter other religions and spiritualities and then for us to have a shared worship experience, an experiment actually, together. This wasn's just my evil plan - this was what the committee that gathered at my apartment came up with through consensus decisionmaking. We had college students from the youth group, the pastor, myself, a couple older ladies, and a couple of parents from the congregation. It turns out that the congregation was hungering to encounter other people with other beliefs and practices, and we all found our faith deepened by the experience.

(Side note - this experimental worship service came up in conversation with the church I visited recently in New Jersey. That was pretty interesting, since they lean more toward the Evangelical than I do)

I remember joining in prayer with a Muslim dentist. We stood foot-to-foot and shoulder-to-shoulder, in the style one would in a mosque (except that women and men stood together, which is much more unusual) as he led us in his traditional prayer. He then joined us in a prayer of the people and a Lord's Prayer. It was very moving, and we had some people in the group who were strongly against having a Muslim into our church (this was in 2003, so you can imagine), but I think it was a great thing. I felt like we all stood on holy ground. Reflecting about it after, it really moved people, especially those who felt hostility toward Islam.

This is just one example of months of these worship services every week, involving all kinds of amazing experiences - and a few frankly awful ones.

In college, what first really struck me was Buddhism, particularly of the Soto Zen variety. Soto means, basically, "just sitting". When you imagine a Zen monk sitting silent staring into space, maybe with some green tea nearby, you might be imagining Soto Zen practice. I thought this was pretty stupid - sit still and pay attention to my breath? What? What was surprising was what an impact the experience had. I took up regular meditative practice (Soto Zen meditation is almost identical to what I've heard called Christian centering prayer for those of you keeping track) which I've kept for ten or so years now, and I got into the writings of Buddhist tradition - mostly Zen writings, but also older things like major sutras and the Dhammapada. For an interesting starter, if you're curious about how I connect my Christian faith and practice and my reading and practice in Buddhism, you might want to start with Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh.

A third influence came through my study of Mandarin in college. I found an old copy of the Dao de Qing (everyone spells it differently, but I use the pinyin) and read through it. In Chinese, the Dao de Qing is actually borderline gibberish. You could read it word for word on a street-corner in Beijing and few would know what you were talking about. In English, its easy to see gibberish as well. "The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao." Crazy, right? But I recommend reading it. It is a window into a way of thinking about the world that seems alien to the semi-European one most of us in American share (something like it is in Western tradition as well, but usually ignored). It is delightful evidence that I cannot possibly understand the world the way others do, and faced with that realization, I have to either try to force/convince them to see the world the way I do (traditional evangelism) or respect the way they see the world and try to make room for both of us to learn and grow (traditional pluralism).

I don't want to prattle on at length about other experiences I've had and that kind of thing. I'll say that respectfully investigating other beliefs and practices for myself has been profoundly moving and beneficial to me in every way. Maybe that's enough.

My belief is that God is bigger than Christianity. I am comfortable as a Christian, of making that my claim in this life, but I am also comfortable that others make other claims. I don't think they are all identical and interchangeable, but I also don't think it is my place to tell someone "Your way of viewing the world is fundamentally wrong because it is not mine." I think we can make ethical or logical comparisons, discuss strengths and weaknesses, but I love what I've learned about those who believe and practice differently from me, and I hope to continue to do so for the rest of my life.

What is your tradition, and how have you encountered other traditions and practices? What was it like for you?

1 comment:

Aric Clark said...

This is a subject I feel like I want to have lots to say about. And I do. But I refrain from saying much because of where I am in my journey, looking for an authentic next step.

Before I really dove into Christianity I was a student of comparative religions. I've had a lot of first hand experience with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians of various traditions. Through that experience I came to the very strong conviction that before I could meaningfully progress in my dialogue with people of many faiths, I had to be truly and deeply embedded in one. I chose the faith of my childhood, Christianity - of the Presbyterian variety.

The best way I can describe this conviction is comparing it to a martial artist who has to chop wood and paint fences for a long time. I feel like that's what I've been doing.

I'm getting close, though, I think... I hope... to being able to step out again. I'm pretty well embedded after all.

Basically, I can say that you're absolutely right that we have much to learn from each other. You're also right that religions are not identical or interchangeable. I don't buy Hick's metaphor that we are all climbing the same mountain by different paths. It's more profound than that, and much more important. Which is why, I think one ought to be fairly familiar with one's own mountain before venturing along the slopes of another person's mountain.