Some believe in more than single religion
When we talk about comparative religions and religious dialogue, we most often focus on beliefs. This habit is largely shaped by Western Christianity where the presumption is that all religions have a list, a creed, a set of propositions that each believer is expected to hold. And we largely focus on the differences.
But most other religious traditions don't function quite the same way. Oh, they have beliefs. There are things that most of them think are so. It's just that they generally don't use technically correct statements of doctrine and creeds as a gate-keeping function to include or exclude. Christians often find this difficult to understand. They assume that's what a religion is: Jews believe this, Hindus believe that, Muslims believe something else. Because that's what's familiar ... to Christians.
My brother-in-law's father was a medical missionary to India. His converts believed what he preached to them, and still they identified as Hindu. Several of my Benedictine friends are practicing Buddhists and still identify as Catholics. And many Westerners wonder how Japanese can be Shinto and Buddhist at the same time.
It is useful to look at our different religious traditions in another way.
Each of our traditions has distinctive cultural identity markers. These are the things we do, the words and images we use, the foods and clothing and rites and rituals that identify us -- that set us apart -- as this particular religious group. These identity markers often even differ from group to group within a religious tradition. For example, the cultural overlay of various sects of Buddhism varies greatly. American Protestants vary in this way more than they realize. As any religion adapts to a particular culture, it picks up aspects of that culture that come to be identified with the religious group.
As one of my teachers, Shinryu Suzuki Roshi, said, "You don't have to try to become Japanese in order to be Zen."
Similarly, in our worship and devotional activities, we do a great many characteristically different things that often have a related function. We chant, we recite, we sing, we count breaths -- inhaling and exhaling regularly and together -- which calms, centers and focuses us. How similar, in effect, is the Oma Rama Sambahde that I was originally taught to chant in meditation, from "Our Father, who art in heaven" or "Hail Mary, full of grace" or "Allahu akbar"? Yes, each has the distinctive cultural identity marker. And yet, I suggest that each produces a quite similar emotional and spiritual state in the worshipper.
The cultural identity markers are not insignificant. Often they are a part of keeping our attention focused our particular spiritual discipline. Those habitual markers help keep us focused on our own personal and particular spiritual growth.
With that in mind, let us look at the righteous activities enjoined upon us by our differing religious traditions. Some of those behaviors are wrapped in more cultural overlay than others. Some are little more than in-group, out-group markers. Sexual mores, gender roles, parenting styles, some business practices and attitudes toward violence, for example, might be far more cultural overlay than core religious teaching.
Others are variations, or contain variations, of behaviors that are quite similar from tradition to tradition. Many of these are the hard-won wisdom of the ages, violated at one's peril. Like the law of gravity -- do this and you will fall down; fail to do it, and unwanted consequences will ensue.
Others are rooted in the awareness of the expanding circle that comes with growing spiritual maturity of who has a call upon our care and concern. What was originally taught as "Thou shalt not ..." becomes "Of course ..." as the believer comes to understand more deeply "Tat tuam asi," each is a child of God, each has Buddha nature, each is connected to me, and I to them.
What are the behaviors that lie in common at the heart of our differing religious traditions? If the function of our differing spiritual practices are so similar, maybe we're missing something important. When it comes to what we actually do, how different are we?
If this makes you curious, come to the All Believers Network's second annual symposium, where we explore moving from exclusion to inclusion in faith and the commonalities and complementarities across religions. It will be on Labor Day, Sept. 4. For details see www.allbelievers.net or call me at 347-3249.
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.