Friday, August 19, 2011

Making Comparisons

But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.    -- 2 Corinthians 10:12b

This is good advice for me.  I have been studying much about Islam lately.  Our Tuesday morning women's Bible Study is beginning a study of world religions.  Because this religion is so much in the news, and because I am around more Muslims than people of other faiths in my daily life, I am particularly fascinated by Islam and would like to understand it better.  But, I am discovering that it is hard, if not impossible, not to make weighty comparisons.

At the moment, the differences are taking center stage.   And so is the judgment.  When I see a difference, I either think,  "Yes, my  religion is better in this regard," or "Hmmm, that religion is better in this regard."  Neither response promotes a good feeling, or a sense of fellowship.  I am reminded of the words in The Desiderata of Happiness, by Max Ehrmann:  "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself."

Not only that but, when I compare my religion to another, I also lose the following truths:  that even within my own religion, people think differently about God than I do; that all religions attempt to teach essentially the same thing:  the path to finding God; and that people of all faiths succeed in finding God along these different paths -- they must, or these religions would not last so long.

Let me give an example to illustrate my point.  One central difference that I see between Christianity and Islam is the understanding of forgiveness.  Jesus taught people, directly and through parables such as that of the Prodigal Son, that God forgives.  God's forgiveness is freely given; nothing we do or don't do will make God love and forgive us any more than God already does.  Knowing this, believing it to be true, makes me repent of my sinfulness, correct my mistakes, and try to live as God wants me to live.  Mohammed taught, via The Koran, that God may forgive you, but only if you are truly repentant.  If you do not repent, you will be punished in the greatest fire ever imagined.  Knowing this, believing it to be true, a Muslim repents of his sinfulness, corrects his mistakes, and tries to live as God wants him to live.  This is a difference between me and my fellow Muslim.

Now I could say that my way, the Christian way, is better.  But I know that not all Christians think about God the same way I do.  Some Christians would perhaps rather echo the sentiments of this other understanding of God.  Both ways of thinking about God certainly find support in the Bible.  But notice what happens.  Whichever way you approach it, the result is the same:  both lead to repentance, a turning to God, and both create a desire in us to live as God wants us to live.

So, why these different understandings?  God is one.  God cannot be one thing, and its opposite, as well.  Can he?  Can God be both conditionally and unconditionally loving?  Well, perhaps the difference points more to us than to God.  I experience God's steadfast love and guidance even in the midst of making mistakes.  So, to me, God's love is steadfast, and his forgiveness totally undeserved by anything I do or don't do.  Other people must be led to experience God's forgiveness and love by the fear of punishment.  God is one, but he is also the God of all.  Perhaps the differences just show that God is greater than any one understanding.  Both theologies, after all,  lead one to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."  Perhaps that is what truly matters to God. 

Will the result of studying other religions always result in comparative judgments?  I don't think so.  I can understand other people who think differently than I do when I get to know their histories.  It must be possible to learn about other religions in the same way.  Perhaps the key to understanding everyone who is different from me is to understand them on their own terms, and not try to understand them on mine.

Dear God, thank you for guiding me as I ponder the ways other people worship you.  Please help me understand the other without making comparisons to myself, and please help me understand what is truly important to you.  Love always, Pam

1 comment:

Pamela Keane said...

Hi Pam,
I don't know where to start with my response because it is extensive, so I will try to articulate my thinking as clearly as possible. You know me, since we are in Bible study together, and know that I have been experiencing a lot of questions in my own faith much less any other faith. I don't know where God is leading me, so I am in that uncomfortable "in between" place of not knowing. What I do know is that God is working with me and will not leave me unresolved in my beliefs.
I am not experiencing the same comparisons that you are, at least not in the same way. I was very moved by Huston Smith’s comments in, The World’s Religions, where he talks about the "wider company of God seekers"...and then "what a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus". He goes on to say "We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine." Then at another point he talks about us as "Cosmic Dancers". He says, "As World Citizen, the Cosmic Dancer will be an authentic child of its parent culture, while closely related to all. The dancer's roots in family and community will be deep, but in those depths they will strike the water table of a common humanity….. If only she might see what has interested other, might it not interest her as well? It is an exciting prospect".
These comments are all examples of what is exciting me. I find the concept of all of us and all religions as “God seekers” and “Cosmic Dancers” intriguing. When he talks about the “authentic child of its parent culture”, I think of our Christian faith and feel connected to the roots of my faith. At this point, that allows me to stand firm where I am while exploring other faiths, without trying to compare. I want to know, and I am truly looking for, "how are we the same" in our spirits and our searching for the divine. At the same time, being human, I experience some of that old "Baptist fear" of anything different is to be viewed as evil. It is a hard contrast to maneuver at times. However, I am taking it step by step and remembering that God does not give us a spirit of fear.
I think to summarize, we are coming at this from different perspectives. When Smith talks about “religion alive”, I want to know how it is alive for other “God seekers”, not necessarily what theological differences are evident. He goes on to say, “Religion alive confronts the individual with the most momentous option life can present. It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a proposed journey across the jungles, peaks and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality, to master the self.” These are big words and thoughts but they speak to me. I long to understand other “God seekers” from a position of the soul, not from a position of theology. You might ask me then; why am I interested in this study and my answer is that I am truly interested in how this soul aspect (as I call it) of faith is manifested in someone of another culture, another faith, another life, completely different from mine. I am not sure how I will know or what I will learn if anything. I might, in the end, find myself asking the same questions you are asking. All I know is I love being on this journey with you and our other sisters in Christ.
Love, Elizabeth
August 19, 2011 8:38 PM