Most of us do not choose our religion. We are born into it. This explains why one of my friends is a Hindu from India, another Jewish from New York, and still another is a Southern Baptist from Alabama, and myself, a Swedish Lutheran. Yet somehow we have permitted the accidents of genetics and geography to becomes the basis of a triumphalism that allows and even encourages us to assume that our particular tradition is superior to that of our neighbor.
Dr. Ernest Campbell, a retired minister of the Riverside Church in New York. once commented, “There is a tendency of every religious tradition to be parochial and possessive. The truth is no religious tradition can express or understand, or embrace the full majesty of God.” Such an observation brings mixed reviews from the religious community; some quarters calling such thinking heresy, while there are others who glory in such religious exploration because, while they feel sure of the love of a God, they are uncertain of the many human translations of it.
Dare the members of the world’s religious communities welcome a global strategy of spiritual exploration or should they all play it safe by regressing to the dogmas of a comfortable past? To tuck one’s head under the shell of the familiar is obviously tempting, but does it not create a picture of institutional religion as being engrossed in the boxy little crude planes of Kitty Hawk while the rest of the world is launching spaceships at Cape Canaveral? Can religion continue to engage in Kitty Hawk thinking while living in a Cape Canaveral world?
The distinguished Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung has warned, “There can be no peace among the nations of the world until there is a peace among the religions of the world.” One needs only to look at current spots of conflict to appreciate the basis of his observation.
The journey from comfortable parochial views to the uncharted paths of a world view is, to say the least, a scary one, but the reward may be a Columbus-like discovery of a new world of peace, cooperation and prosperity. What would it be like to live in a world in which differences are celebrated, uniqueness appreciated, pluralism cherished? Can we envision a world in which the winds of the Divine blow across continents and cultures, touching the entire human religious experience just as surely as their accompanying rains refresh the native soils?
Broadening, not surrendering
To be faithful to a particular religious tradition yet open to the values of other traditions is not an exercise in mutually exclusive mental gymnastics. As a Christian clergyman, I am not any less Christian when I honor the convictions of non-Christians. In showing love and respect for fellow humans I am, in fact, drawing closer to the love exemplified by the Founder of my faith.
While the physical sciences explore quantum mechanics and biological sciences work in molecular genetics, the world’s religious communities cannot afford to cling to the alchemy of ancient prejudices. For those who believe the warm heart is better than the frozen creed, exploration toward global understanding has just begun. The world-renowned scholar of world religions Huston Smith once noted, “World religions at their best represent the distilled wisdom of the human experience.” It is precisely this understanding that must happen if our global village is to begin to live in peace.
World peace at stake
Religion cries out for a cosmic dimension that dares to break through the boundaries of parochial thinking and moves on to new frontiers that are both challenging and loving. We remember all too well the biting criticism of the 17th century writer Jonathan Swift, who asserted, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.”
And so we are faced with the problem of how to move beyond the boundaries of narrow-minded thinking to a world view that envisions every human being as a pilgrim on a journey whose pathway may contain more questions than answers. Can the world’s religious communities be nudged from an ethnocentric and egocentric posture and make a leap of faith to a cosmic viewpoint that dares to encompass and indeed, welcome, the varied experiences of human kind?
The winds of our Creator continue to sweep acros the religious landscape. They may well lead us all into uncharted lands. Yet we dare not, out of either fear or prejudice, turn back from the journey. The future of human dialogue and with it world peace may well rest on the willingness of religious communities to move beyond the simplicities of the past and accept the complex challenges of the present and future.
The world’s religious communities can no longer focus on maintaining tents at the Kitty while the rest of the world is lanuching at the Cape.