Perhaps it is easier for me than most to accept, respect and even joyfully participate in the worship of a religion not my own. After all, I was for a number of years the choir director of a First United Methodist choir while all the while remaining, in my own offbeat way, a practicing Jew. Some may see my actions as hypocritical, but I do not.
I learned a lot by becoming involved in the music and ritual of another religion. And when the minister of the church that shared our facilities told me how much he appreciated my spiritual leadership of the combined choirs it pleased me greatly. I have always deeply respected and appreciated the words of Jesus. If I could successfully exhort those who believed in his divinity to inhale more deeply the spirit of the music that extolled him, then I was indeed doing my job.
Walk A Mile In My Shoes... or My Religion
We often hear that one should walk a mile in another's shoes to even begin to understand how that person feels. This is another of those wonderful expressions we so often speak yet so rarely embrace. It will not harm us to walk a mile in another's religion. It will not hurt us to pray, to sing and, for a few hours, be open to beliefs that may be foreign to us. Indeed, it can enrich our spirit beyond measure. It can open our hearts: not in theory, not on paper, but in truth.
A lesson I learned, to my naive amazement years ago as a Jewish choir director in a Methodist church, is that there is so much we agree on. Ninety percent of what I heard preached in church I could easily have heard in synagogue — as example, that love and compassion are the foundation stones of our faiths.
Celebrating Our Common Points
So what are we to do? Do we embrace each other over the ninety percent we agree on, or bicker and allow ourselves to be divided by the ten percent over which we do not? This sounds like such a simple question. Yet, as we have all too often found, the answer is difficult to come by. It is difficult even for those who recognize that things must change.
In truth, many profound and deeply moving books recognize that we must move on. But much of the energy in them seems to focus either on reforming a particular religion or developing a new one that leaves behind most of what has come before.
Experiencing Other Spiritual Paths
I believe that what we need to leave behind is intolerance, disrespect and the sense of exclusivity. When I preach about Interfaith and welcome newcomers, I stress that no one is asked to leave his or her faith at the door before entering. Our faith is who we are. Of course we bring it with us. What we are asked to remember is that the person seated next to us wasn't asked to leave her or his faith at the door either.
We all deserve respect. And a part of learning to ground that respect comes with experiencing spiritual paths other than our own.
Why not hear the Torah, and the Mass, and the words of Wesley, Muhammad, Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha and others? Are we so arrogant that we cannot learn from other faiths? Are we so fearful, is who we are so fragile, that we cannot, even for a moment, walk a mile or spend a service in another's shoes?
All Spiritual Paths Lead Us Home
Religions do have differences. But that should engage us, not frighten us. What point is there in denying that there are a variety of paths to our common goal — that there is more than one road to the top of Mount Fuji? These paths are different. There's no harm in that. Why not celebrate those paths? Why not celebrate the differences?
I believe a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to religious beliefs is as bankrupt a concept in a spiritual community as it is in our armed services. So too,"separate but equal" is as bankrupt a spiritual answer as it is a racial one. We need to talk to each other. We need to respect and honor each other. We need to nourish each other's spiritual needs.
Religions Are Tools: Shall We Build Walls or Bridges?
Let us neither deny nor ignore diversity. Instead, let us embrace it. Let us build bridges for understanding. Let us build shelter so that all creatures, great and small, may live. Let us build respect that permits us not simply to "tolerate" our differences but to embrace and indeed be ennobled by them.
Whether we believe in God, or a divine spirit, or a universal life force, or in "nothing" beyond our own determination that the universe deserves our respect and that life is entitled to justice, let us come together. Let us enrich each other's lives. And then, let us build.
Our religions are indeed tools. They are amazing and wonderful tools. And with them we can indeed build. But whether we build walls or bridges...that remains up to us.
©2011 by Steven Greenebaum. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New Society Publishers. http://newsociety.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Interfaith Alternative: Embracing Spiritual Diversity
by Steven Greenebaum.
Whatever your spiritual path, chances are that the primary tenets of your faith include universal love, acceptance, and compassion. The Interfaith Alternative illuminates the path to creating a nurturing spiritual community that honors and includes all religious languages. In doing so, it demonstrates that through coming together in a mutually supportive environment we can concentrate on our shared desire to remake the world into a compassionate, loving place.
About the Author
Reverend Steven Greenebaum is an Interfaith Minister with Masters Degrees in Mythology, Music and Pastoral Studies. His experiences directing Jewish, Methodist, Presbyterian and Interfaith choirs have helped him to understand the profound wisdom of many spiritual traditions. Steven has dedicated his life to working for social and environmental justice through a multitude of forums. He is the founder of the Living Interfaith Church in Lynnwood, Washington.