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