Years ago when I was an assistant pastor of a church, an elderly couple asked me what would be the eternal fate of some dear friends of theirs who were Jewish. I struggled to answer their question. What I was supposed to say as pastor of their church conflicted with what I felt to be true in my body. This inner conflict was but one instance in an ongoing series of experiences that led me to question, and eventually to leave, that church.
What I eventually realized was that the particulars of my religion had come to violate the essence of my religion. Claims of exclusivity and doctrinal purity created a sense of “Us vs. Them” and a worldview in which we were right and virtually everyone else was on the highway to hell.
Why would a God who is defined as love create a spiritual system in which most of the world’s humans are destined for eternal damnation? Theologians have vomited volumes trying to get God off the hook, but I think we are actually the ones on the hook for promulgating a theology which says, “My God is bigger than your God”. We have largely created a God in our image, and the image is ugly.
Violence in the name of religion thrives…ISIS and Boko Haram…Buddhist violence agains Muslims in Myanmar…verbal violence against LGBT folks spewed from Christian churches in the U.S. and Africa that inspires physical violence…misogyny justified by patriarchal interpretations of scriptures…economic and racial oppression…desolation of our planet in the name of “subduing” the earth.
What would it look like if peace, justice, and compassion thrived in the name of religion? Much progress as a species has been informed by the world’s religions (the work of Gandhi and MLK, for example), but such progress came from a deeper understanding of religious tradition that appropriated, interpreted, and refashioned ancient texts for modern reality, rather than use religion as an excuse for immature, ego-centric, privilege-protecting, fear-based, oppositional, self-aggrandizing, oppositional behavior that betrays the original spirit of the religion. Such religion transforms neither an individual nor a society.
We can fall in love again with the Sacred Mystery of Life to which religious traditions originally pointed and become more compassionate, understanding, just, kind, engaged, humble, open, curious, joyful, accepting, and peaceful. Then it will no longer matter whose God is bigger or better because. In the name of God, we will have become bigger and better.
From the Sufi poet Rumi:
Something big is coming.
It’s still a secret, but arriving everywhere.
The atmosphere is charged with longing and searching.
The pilgrims and the mystery-lovers know.
They are gathering now
The sound of prayer drifts across the dawn.
It’s Muslim, Jew, Christian
All this singing
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
The sunlight looks a little different on this wall
Than it does on that.
And a lot different on this other one.
But it’s still one light.
We have borrowed these clothes
These time and place personalities
From a Light.
And when we praise,
We’re pouring them back in.