My social world looks like it went through a theological blender. When I survey those closest to me, I find several hard-core atheists, many sincere Christians (particularly Episcopalians, Catholics, and Evangelicals), several confused folks, a handful of seasoned Neopagans, and a few Jews.
I even dare throw parties where these folks mix and mingle. Some of these parties have even been religious in nature. I’ve had Hanukkah parties where Christians, Pagans, nonbelievers, and Jews lite the Menorah. I’ve lit Advent wreaths with the same mixed crowd. I’ve had Christians saying Kiddush, Jews reading from the Gospel, and atheists challenging God’s existence – all at the same Passover Seder.
How do we get along? How do we engage in meaningful theological discussion? Can such a motley crew actually be considered a community of friends?
Mutual respect, love, proper manners, and open mindedness go a long way to helping people get along. But so too, does honesty.
The sincere Christian cannot be a real friend who cares about my welfare in a holistic sense until they offer Jesus into the equation, question my salvation, and have to the courage to risk hard questions. The atheist, in the same vein, will hopefully challenge my theistic worldview out of love. And the Neopagan will raise questions about patriarchy, excessive dogmatism, attitudes toward nature, and so on.
Love requires some relationship with truth to be genuine. And I expect those who affirm certain truths and find them life-affirming and valuable, to offer them to me for my consideration out of friendship, concern, and yes, love.
From my perspective, Judaism doesn’t insist that it is the only valid path to a meaningful, holy life – it accepts the legitimacy of other faith traditions and understands that other, although not all, paths can lead to God. There is no compunction as a Jew to convert others to Judaism. However, Judaism’s commitment to truth, to love, and to intellectual and spiritual growth means that I am committed to asking those I love hard questions about how their chosen spiritual paths live up to their stated promises, work for them, and so on. My ultimate goal is that my loved ones fully and truly understand their worldviews and spiritual commitments.
When I present such views and ideas, I often encounter challenges such as “But Jesus is the only way to Salvation” or “Worshipping Allah is the epitome of spiritual truth” or “Only a traditional and literal reading of Torah can give life” or, finally “You’re wasting your time and your mind on this religious nonsense.” (Most Neopagans operate from a similar non-exclusionist view as does Judaism, so I rarely get spiritual “ultimatums” from them.)
How do I respond? How do I answer?
First, I have no objection if Jesus is the way for you and provides your spiritual fulfillment and connection to God. Good for you. I’m happy that you’ve found what works for you. And I have no reason to tear it down or attack it. The same goes if your happiness and satisfaction resides in Buddhism, or Taoism, or Islam, or Druidism. I may, however, challenge your tradition in terms of its affirmation of human dignity, or offering a cogent moral view, or how it proposes to treat “outsiders”.Second, I understand that there are basic truths in life that make sense to most of us – freedom is better than slavery, human beings possess an inherent, natural dignity, the world is imperfect, love is better than hate, compassion is a more humane response than indifference, happiness is found in giving of ourselves to others, and so on. Further, these core truths find expression in many of the central teachings of our religious traditions. To some degree, there is a legitimate spiritual and theological subjectivism – the specific myths, rituals, symbols, narratives, doctrines, and styles that “work” for one person, may not “work” for another person in conveying these core truths.
I know such assertions drive the “Jesus is the only way” or “Literal readings of Torah are the only valid readings of Torah” folks nuts, but hey, it’s not my fault they’ve gone over to the dark side of fundamentalism.
Third, I value love, mutual respect, and friendship more than I value spiritual or theological “correctness” at the margins. Yes, theological and philosophical views matter – I cannot be friends with someone who holds that racism, or sexism, or violence against innocents is valid and true. (Yes, this raises sincere questions as to how I, with strong pro-life views, can be genuine friends with those who favor abortion as a legitimate moral option, but that’s an issue for another day.)
Fourth, and finally, I understand that part of the essential nature of theology is speculation, trust, and illative reasoning. No one can “prove” that Jesus is the Messiah. (I find the term Messiah fairly meaningless and distorted anyway.) Nor can I prove that Jesus isn’t the Messiah. All I can say is that Jesus isn’t my Messiah and that if he serves such a role for you, all the more power to you – said with sincerity and love and respect. Really.
And no, I am not a Universalist – I agree that one of these propositions is likely true – either Jesus really is the Messiah or he’s not – but good luck sorting through it all. Let me know when we all reach consensus based on the overwhelming evidence or strength of the arguments.
But … but … there are always “buts”. But what about the Resurrection, or the Creed, or the Eternal Covenant made with the Jews, or Muhammad being God’s final prophet, or Joseph Smith’s Revelation, or … fill in the blank.
Such “buts” are important in a personal sense, but not provable. Such assertions cannot be resolved with deductive arguments, or infallibly argued, or offered as self-evident.
At the heart of any religious tradition worthy of the name is a worldview rooted in love. And love will compel us to share our insights with one another, and attempt to gently persuade one another, but ultimately to live in mutual respect and peace with one another – valuing genuine friendship and difference as a positive good and not an obstacle in the impossible quest to pure theological correctness.