Is My Religion Better Than Yours?

Is My Religion Better Than Yours? Hebrews 7:23-28

By Jaime Clark-Soles , Oct 25, 2015
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Ignorance or intolerance of other religions continues to plague our world. I live in East Richardson, TX (a suburb of Dallas), which is highly diverse religiously and ethnically. The Islamic Association of North Texas is located here. Dallas has one of the largest Muslim populations and number of mosques in the nation. Yet, the call for Christians to protest at mosques, sometimes encircling the mosque while armed with rifles, continues. Google “Christians protest mosques” and see what’s happened just in October.

We could talk about ISIS in Syria, the slaughter of Syrian Christians, and the Syrian refugee crisis that urgently demands a global response from all people of good will, whatever their faith tradition. Global migration patterns due to a variety of factors, including religious conflict, make it a concrete fact that a plurality of religious traditions in society is here to stay. Period.

So here’s my question: Is it possible to fully embrace my religious tradition, to be able to articulate eloquently what is distinctive, and true, and holy, and meaningful, and beautiful and life-giving, and even genius about it without denigrating or playing off of another one? Does my tradition have to be superior to another in order to be true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Does it have to be the only one that conveys what is true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Do we have to compete or can we cooperate?

I’m a Christian; not always a well-behaved or particularly perspicacious one, but a Christian all the same. I have intentionally been Christian for a long time now. Did I choose this tradition? Yes. Did I canvass all available religions before I chose, picking Christianity as the clearly superior one to all others? No. I am a mere mortal with limited time on this earth, so I have not explored all of the world’s religions, made a spread sheet to compare them like a Consumer Reports product search, and then chosen the “Best Buy.” Christianity rings true to my experience (except where it doesn’t) and gives me language to articulate what I’m experiencing and what I’m hoping for at any given moment. If you ask me, I can most certainly tell you what is distinctive, true, holy, meaningful, beautiful, life-giving, and even genius about it. You’ll need to set aside some time.

But is it possible to robustly embrace, confidently articulate, even exult in my own religious tradition without derogating another or insisting that mine is better than another? Might other traditions have something valuable to add to my understanding of God and the human condition? It’s an important question to answer not only for the sake of our own personal pilgrimage, but, more importantly, for the sake of the world: in fact, world peace may depend upon how we answer it.

Why has the subject been at the forefront of my mind recently? A number of reasons, from the global to the personal.

  1. I’m leading a group of Christians to Palestine and Israel in January where we will learn from Jews, Muslims, and Christians, from Israelis and Palestinians.
  1. On Sunday mornings my son, his friend, and I go to Sunday School and then church (we’re Baptist). On Sunday afternoons, we head over to a class where we learn about our chakras and how to open each one of them up. I bet some of you readers do some similar “mixing.”
  1. Recently my daughter and I were privileged to see and hear His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at SMU; we even got to sing “Happy Birthday” to him for his 80th birthday (along with thousands of other folks). He spoke of compassion and cooperation and the power of a unified vision. I was inspired and recounted the experience for the next couple of days. I was a bit taken aback by more than one negative reaction from people who couldn’t imagine how the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, could have anything to teach me, a Christian (and an ordained Baptist minister and seminary professor at that). They made two moves that seem to be so typical for us and are part and parcel of the human condition. First, they immediately jumped to differences: this is different from that. Second, they moved to hierarchy: this is better than that.

 

The Bible: the solution, the problem, or both?

The seeds of this problem as well as its solution are found in the Bible. I love the book of Hebrews—it’s magisterial, inspirational, and poignant. Who isn’t moved by the “Great Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 that begins with: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”? Who can fail to be buoyed by 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”? Who better expresses the paradox of Jesus? He is heavenly, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2), and, for you Christian Platonism lovers, “he is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (1:3)

Lest we tarry in the ether, Hebrews gets real and utters one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (2:14-15).”

Hebrews “gets it”—Jesus is a both/and, not an either/or. We need more BOTH/AND and less EITHER/OR in our world, in our hearts, and in our dealings with one another. Easier said than done, even for the author of Hebrews, maybe especially for the author of Hebrews. Like me, Hebrews loves Jesus and the church and Christianity and presents the brilliance and genius that lies therein. But it does it at the expense of another tradition, in this case, Judaism. In today’s passage, it’s not just that Jesus is a great high priest; it’s that he’s better than the Jewish high priests. The Jewish sanctuary is inferior, “made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one [more Platonism]” (9:24). Citing (incorrectly?) Jeremiah 31:31-32, the author claims that not only are Christians in covenant with God, but the Christian covenant is new and better than the Jewish one. Then the chilling conclusion: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (8:13). Here we have a blueprint for supersessionism, inter-religious hatred, and, yes, even genocide. I think we can do better. I think we have to.

Hebrews has many shining moments: this isn’t one of them. Thus, we are called to read the text resistantly, using the very strategy that the author provides when doing his or her best thinking about the Incarnation—namely, the fact that BOTH/AND is a gift, that paradox is not a problem, and that it is built into the very nature of reality as God has designed it.

 

A Way Forward

Where do we start? Some of you may react with a long list of discomforts, protests or genuine questions. Are you saying all religions are basically the same? Are you saying all religions are equally valid or true? Are other religions “true” only insofar as certain tenets in theirs overlap with my own? Is it valid to cherry pick from different religions and make up my own? Is it ignorant to commit fully to a single religious tradition without having explored others?

I’m happy to delve into these important questions with you, but for the moment I want to resource those ready to move forward with engaging other traditions. Where do we start? I have two answers:

  1. Read.
  1. Form relationships with people of other traditions.

In other words, intentionally enter the fray.

In preparation for this commentary, I had lunch with my colleague, Dr. Ruben Habito. Ruben is a Jesuit priest and a Zen master (his technical title is Roshi) in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. Here’s an assignment he gives his students—I suggest we all complete it.

Interview a person from a different religious tradition using the following questions:

  1. How does your tradition define the human condition?
  2. What is the view of ultimate reality that would resolve the human condition?
  3. Can you share some of the prescriptions and concrete steps in arriving at or realizing one’s ultimate destiny?
  4. What are the social expressions of that path to ultimate reality?

As I finished this commentary, I received an email from a person from a fundamentalist background who is questioning some of his former assumptions. In it, he wrote:

We spend so much time as Christians playing the "Us against Them" game, and do not see the beauty of God's creation through other cultures or even other faiths. My across the street neighbor is Muslim. He loves Jesus, but really had no clue who or what he did. I thought his religion was all about hate and destruction. God allowed us to love one another, and learn from one another. We made impressions upon one another. That's Grace.

I agree. Do you?

 

Bible Study Questions

  1. Do you have friends from other faiths with whom you can speak about spiritual matters in a mutually accepting and respectful way while still being frank and candid? If not, why not? If not, do you consider it a shortcoming?
  1. Have you ever visited a worship service of another religious tradition (not just denomination)? Why or why not?
  1. Do you believe that one religion contains all of the truth that God has revealed to humans or do you think that the different traditions contribute something significant?
  1. Does your faith tradition focus on converting people to your faith? Why or why not?

 

For Additional Reading

David Brockman and Ruben Habito, eds. The Gospel Among Religions: Christian Ministry, Theology, and Spirituality in a Multifaith World. Orbis, 2010. Especially the Preface and Introduction.

Brad Hirschfield, You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Harmony, 2009.

Rebecca Kratz Mays, Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots. Ecumenical Press, 2009.

Online Resource: Harvard’s “The Pluralism Project”  http://www.pluralism.org/.

 

Statistics

  1. According to a 2010 religious census by the Association of Religious Data Archives, the Muslim population estimate in Dallas County totaled 25 congregations and more than 84,000 adherents.
  2. About two-thirds of the Muslims in the U.S. today (64.5%) are foreign-born, first-generation immigrants, while slightly more than a third (35.5%) were born in the United By 2030, however, more than four-in-ten of the Muslims in the U.S. (44.9%) are expected to be native- born.
  3. The Muslim population is 4,000 in Fort Worth and 3,000 in Arlington.

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