Fear and Judgment: Why do we have a problem learning about other religions? June 9, 2010Posted by orualundone in Education, Faith Journey, Interfaith, Love, Nature of God.
Tags: buddhism, fear, hinduism, islam, religion, the Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton
(Disclaimer: My mother is a wonderful woman and I love her very much. However many of my issues with Christianity come from the way she expresses her faith and the church she raised me in, and thus she is going to take a lot of heat on this blog. This is one of the many reasons I have elected to blog pseudonymously.)
When my parents were visiting us recently, somehow the conversation in the car turned to polytheism. I am not sure how we got there, but my mom, a long-time conservative Christian, commented on how terrible it must be to not believe in a real God. You know, to just worship one you knew was fake. Now my mother is an intelligent woman, and very educated. Does she really believe that people in other religions just sit around thinking: “Wow, I really hate praying to this shitty fake god I made up. I wish I had a real God to pray to. Oh well. What say we sacrifice a cow, just for the hell of it?”
Of course she doesn’t actually think that. But clearly she hasn’t thought about it all much. And neither have most Christians I know. Most are vastly uninformed about any religion other than Christianity and maybe some Judaism if you went to one of those churches that likes to hold a Seder in the basement around Easter time. Not only that, but many only know about their particular denomination or branch. Evangelicals have a decent grip on most of mainstream Protestantism and sometimes Catholicism (since a lot of them used to be Catholics), but ask them about Russian Orthodoxy, Quakers, or Coptic Christianity and you will get blank stares (as well as an intimation that none of that is “real” Christianity). And forget having any kind of accurate concept of the teachings of Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, or Hinduism. Those get lumped together as “pagan”.
I find this ridiculous. It is important to understand the beliefs of others instead of ignorantly judging them. Not only in order to grow personally and to broaden our own horizons and knowledge, but so that we can learn to love and respect their adherents, and connect with them on a deeper level. In fact, the Dalai Lama recently wrote a piece talking about how you can remain completely devoted to your own faith while still learning from the faiths of others, without sacrificing your integrity. It’s not moral relativism – it’s simply recognizing that even if you possess the most important truth there may still be things of value to learn in other places, as well as people of value to meet and grow to know.
Not only is there judgment on these kinds of investigations, there is fear there too. What I would call an ungodly fear. Because if you trust in Jesus and you know that His word is truth, what is there to fear? There should be no reason to balk at knowledge of any kind: scientific, religious, or historical. If Jesus is your compass then you should be able to study anything carefully, critically, and objectively through the lens of your faith and grow in knowledge and wisdom.
I do not ascribe the argument that all faiths are the same, or equal, or lead to the same place, or even are inherently good. But neither do I accept that Christianity is the only place where teachings of any value at all are to be found. And frankly, although the teachings of Christ are perfect, the way Christianity is practiced is often more destructive than many of the other prominent religions in the world. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist monk and author was a student of comparative religion, and studied Buddhism particularly intensively. He used this study to deepen his practice and understanding of Christianity as well as to reach out to many Buddhist monks in China and Tibet. And yet he was passionately in love with Christ and devoted to his vows to the church.
And yet when I mention studying other faiths, the responses I get range from the dismissive to the downright hysterical. My question is, what is the nature of the fear that surrounds this issue? Is it simply that we might be seduced away to other viewpoints, other religions? If so then we are not really sure of our own faith and we need to do some very serious thinking about why we are Christians at all. Is it pure fear of the unknown? Then we are not trusting God or believing His promises. Is it a fear that if we learn too much about other faiths and the people who hold them that we will not be able to as easily dismiss them to damnation if they don’t turn to Christ? Then we need to do even more serious thinking about our own faith and the nature of the God we serve. And what if we are just not interested, just don’t care? Then we are lacking of love and desire to empathize and know our fellow human beings, which may be the worst thing of all.
That’s right, what I am saying is learning about other faiths is a moral imperative. And I don’t mean learning about them just to find out the best way to convert someone from them to Christianity. I mean learning about them without an agenda, because they are part of the world we live in, because they have some value in and of themselves, and, most importantly, because they form the core of the lives of the people around us – people that God loves no matter what they believe, and people that we are supposed to be loving unconditionally. And you cannot love someone if you make no effort to understand them or to honor what is important to them.
I have been blessed to have had a relatively liberal education, and I do know more about various other religions than many other Christians my age. But there is a lot I have not studied, and probably a lot I am misinformed about. In that vein I intend to work harder to learn more about the other faiths that are around me, starting (but not ending!) by reading “God Is Not One” by Stephen Prothero, an overview of how the eight major world religions interact today and the differences in belief and practice between them. When I am done reading it, I will write up a review/summary of what I have learned. I hope other people will also take the time and effort to educate themselves, and to make their faith in God and their love for others bigger, not smaller.