Learning to Appreciate Our Differences

Teaching religious studies for four decades was a great joy and a great responsibility.  One of my responsibilities was to help students negotiate a religiously diverse world and an increasingly religiously diverse America.  I predicted that my students would likely have colleagues in their future careers from a variety of religious traditions.  

Some workplaces treat religion as a topic that is off-limits.  That is sad because such a taboo keeps us from sharing a part of our lives that means a great deal to many of us.   

If a workplace has no taboo against talking about religion, there is still the concern that such conversations could be awkward.  How can we talk about religion so that exploration rather than judgment is encouraged?  For example, these conversation openers could put a person on the defensive or destroy any chance of a meaningful exchange: “I don’t understand why people of your faith do x,y, or z” and “Why don’t people of your faith believe what I believe?”    

A more promising beginning is to accept that every religion can answer three basic questions.  These questions are similar to questions we might ask a doctor.  They are “Why am I sick?” “What will my life be like when I’m healthy?” and “What is the treatment plan that will make me well?” 

Every religion can answer three similar questions.  Question number one: “What is the sickness or brokenness that all humans have?”  

The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic answer to that question is that humans disobey God; that is, they sin.  The Hindu and Buddhist answer is that the human mind is disordered.  The answer of many Indigenous religions is that human beings are out of harmony with the natural world.  

The important point is that every religion knows that something is wrong, broken, or unhealthy in our lives as humans.  

Question number two: “What would our lives be like if the problem were fixed?”  Every religion can answer that, too.  

Judaism’s answer is that the ideal is found in the Torah, the guidelines, the map of life, given by God.  The Christian answer is that the ideal is found in Jesus.  The Islamic answer is that the ideal is found in the Qur’an and in the lives of the prophets, especially Muhammad.  Hinduism and Buddhism believe that to be fixed, humanity needs to experience enlightenment, to move from a disordered mind to a liberated mind.  Buddhism points to the Buddha as the clearest example of an enlightened person.  In fact, the title “Buddha” means the enlightened or awakened one.  Indigenous religions believe that health is found in living in harmony with the natural world.  

Again, the important truth is that every religion believes humans need to be fixed, to be healed. 

Question number three: “What is the treatment plan offered that will move human beings from being broken to being healed?”  Religions answer this question differently.  

The Jewish answer is that people will find healing by being part of a community centered on the Torah guidelines given by a gracious God.  The Christian answer is that people will find healing by being part of a community that believes that Jesus offers not just a new way of life, but new life itself.  The Islamic answer is that people will find healing by being part of a community that accepts and follows the Qur’an as God’s great gift for humanity.  Hinduism and Buddhism offer mediational techniques to liberate the mind, while Indigenous religions have numerous rituals and practices that bring human beings back into harmony with nature. 

Do these three basic questions mean that all religions are the same?  Far from it. These questions reveal the great differences between religions.  In addition, these questions offer an antidote to the widespread ignorance that many people have of other religions, an ignorance that promotes judging rather than understanding.               

And our current world, where religious intolerance, hatred, and violence are growing, desperately needs that antidote.