Many religious followers understand themselves to be very different from the God or gods they worship. The functionality of religion often centers around the dichotomy between the human and the divine. The world view develops around this notion of a big divide between humanity and divinity. While the divine is often thought to be amazing, supreme and in most cases the ultimate source of good; humans are thought to be broken, sinful and often rather ordinary. In such a dichotomy, it is a long way between heaven and earth. Followers come to understand the world they live in through its differences with divinity. Often illustrating the earthly as the antithesis of the divine.
As world view is dictated through the differences between human and godly things, how we function is similarly affected by how we expect humans and the divine to regard each other in relationship. Does the divine provide daily intervention in human affairs or does it only provide an overarching order and framework for humans to operate within? Are humans to worship the divine, emulate the divine, or fear the divine? Humans’ role in this relationship dictates how we live our lives. From our actions, to what we eat, to what we wear, how we conduct relationships with each other, and the creation and policing of social taboos; all these things are driven by our understanding of the divine’s role in our lives. Religion exists not only as a means to glorify the divine, but help humans navigate earthly life in a way that falls in line with their concept of the divine.
There are instances where this overarching dichotomy seems to break down, namely spiritual matters that are exposed to a high level of scrutiny. If a human has a vision, they are either dubbed a prophet or an occultist. A person exhibiting divine qualities can be labeled a saint or a heretic. Which way the judgement swings has a profound effect, historically being the difference between life and death (calling to mind the Great Inquisition and the witch trial epidemic). Instances where the mundane and divine seem to exist together are often deemed alternative or even evil. Bring to mind traditions that are looked at with skepticism and a lack of respect commonly given to other ‘world religions’. I think of New Age and various pantheistic nature traditions often categorized under the umbrella of ‘indigenous religions’. These are traditions that ultimately don’t operate under that mundane / divine dichotomy. Instead they find the divine in the natural world, or even believe humans to be partly divine.
Is this divide (or lack thereof) an absolute truth? Or is it dependent on the follower’s tradition and beliefs? Are we a world apart from the divine? Or closer than we think?
Those involved in the interfaith movement will spout the benefits of sharing and experiencing faith across religious boundaries. Such benefits include creating a more peaceful world, as well as deepening the experience of one’s own faith. For example, “You don’t know your own religion if you don’t know another, you can’t understand your own religion. You get a much better perspective on what religion is about, on who God is, by understanding how others see God…” (Kirkwood, 168). And yet many religions operate in a world of mutual exclusivity. Respecting another’s tradition is one thing, but participating in another’s traditions often crosses the line. This can be seen as a betrayal to one’s faith, and even a sin against God. How do we foster genuine respect through understanding if we keep other religious groups at arm’s length?
We can get some inspiration from the evolution of methodology in the social sciences, namely anthropology. The field started with ‘armchair’ anthropologists analyzing distant cultures with only the reports of others, namely merchants and missionaries. Their results were largely inaccurate and biased. Later anthropologists started traveling to study their subjects in person, though their analysis were often rather anglocentric. Finally, with thick description and participant observation we approach the anthropology of today. Today’s researchers often walk a very thin line between an insider than can be trusted with information and an objective outsider. Working to find balance in these circumstances encourages holistic and in-depth results.
Similarly, people of faith can move past tolerance to understanding with a bit of participant observation. This is essential for people of faith in this global world. We can no longer remain enclosed behind religious walls and cloak the diversity outside under a blanket of ignorant tolerance. Like anthropologists we must participate in other faiths to understand them. We must read their sacred texts, go out and see how others pray, worship with them, feast and celebrate with them. This will give us a more holistic view of the world we live in, and give us a new lens to view our own faith with. Seeing the commonalities and points of differentiation between spiritual systems, we can appreciate our traditions in new ways and worship and pray with new fervor.
To insiders the reason for mutual exclusivity is often wrapped up in the concept of sin. Functionally I believe the reason is no more complex than survival. By keeping other faiths at a distance you ‘preserve’ and ‘protect’ the faith. But this is attempted in vain. Religions do not reside in a vacuum, but in the world. They aim to keep out what might taint the faith. But they might simultaneously keep out that which will revitalize and strengthen their respective faith. Discernment is a must in this endeavor. But this endeavor is a must.
Kirkwood, Peter. The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness. (Interview with Sister Joan Kirby in September 2006.) 2007. Sydney, NSW: ABC Books.
We look back at the witch trials as a dark piece of history. A dark piece of history fueled by superstition, ignorance, brutality, and hysteria. We think of ourselves as logical, thoughtful, and a world away from our dark age counterparts. But perhaps these archaic characteristics have simply taken on modern flavors. In America we find Islamophobia, unprecedented gun violence, and law-enforcement using a questionable amount of force on citizens. All one has to do is turn on the ‘news’ to witness the perpetuation of hysteria.
Any idea, right or wrong, truth or lie can take on a life of its own and become twisted. In the case of the witch trials, the wrong and the lies are quite obvious. Even operating under the precedent that witchcraft is real, the false accusations, lack of evidence, and horrific treatment of the accused make the trials a farce and a disgrace. A less clear example is this presidential election. The accusations flying between our candidates are far more real than the accusations during the witch trials to be sure. But these accusations (for our purposes here the validity is your call) are juicy and sensational. These accusations sell papers, get viewers, get people talking. When people are talking about the sensational, other topics go by the wayside. While stuck to the latest soundbite or viral video, questions of corruption, morality, and lack of experience are quietly forgotten. While retelling the most gruesome witch attacks and boisterous court hearings, no one notices the witch-finders and magistrates stuffing their pockets with the values from executed witches’ estates.
Though the witch trials are hundreds of years behind us, we shouldn’t get too comfortable that those days of ignorance and hysteria are behind us. Especially in this age where information and accusations travel at the speed of light, we need to use vigilance to keep hysteria from rising. It doesn’t take much to get people talking, or silent about the things that matter. We need to make the extra effort to spread light, so that the darkness of past days doesn’t take root.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” – Luke 17:5-6
Here Jesus claims that even the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things. But the apostles think they need more. They ask Jesus to give them more faith. In much the same way, Christians find their way to church each week hoping to feed and increase their faith. Believers from a multitude of religions spend time in prayer developing their spirituality. But is all of this internal effort necessary? While the apostles are worried about increasing their faith, Jesus is much more concerned about the apostles using their faith, no matter how little they possess.
While there is nothing bad about increasing faith, maybe that’s not where the emphasis should be. Rather than spending so much time bolstering ourselves up to go out into the world to do good, perhaps we ought to venture into the world with the whatever faith we have and see what can be accomplished. Then we can see how even a little faith transforms the people and the world around us. In seeing these affects our faith grows. Seeing becomes believing. Here action leads to spiritual growth. We are called to live out our faith, bringing light to those shadowed parts of our world. When we act on faith we show others our trust in the divine and create opportunities for our faith to reseed, expand and grow. Rather than isolated in churches or alone in prayer, this is done in public for all to see; helping plant the seeds of faith in others.
I’m not saying we do away with worship, prayer, ritual or liturgy. But by exerting the same amount of effort toward faith-filled action, we can span the religious / secular divide and learn how to live our lives entirely steeped in faith. And by which inspire faith and a spiritual life in others.