I remember hearing a lecture from a mainline Protestant liberal scholar who said that his seminary students were hard pressed to engage people of other religions well. It wasn’t because they weren’t deeply interested in other faiths (as is the case with many conservative Christians), but because they didn’t know enough about their own faith tradition, including Christology. While conservative Christians need to be inquisitive rather than inquisitional (further to what was stated in the last post on this subject), this mainline Protestant liberal seminary professor maintained that liberal Christians need to be better informed about their faith tradition.
If I wish to take someone else’s tradition seriously, I had better take my own tradition seriously, too. How can I understand the religious other in all her or his distinctiveness if I don’t understand well and take seriously my own particular tradition?
At the Buddhist temple yesterday morning, my world religions class got into this conversation with the Buddhist priest. The priest in question, Abbot Kyogen Carlson, added that regardless of our faith tradition we should all think ours is the best. If we don’t, he feels sorry for us. Those who are lukewarm about their own traditions usually end up simply sampling various trailheads without doing serious exploration of a given trail wherever it might lead. Instead of simply taking a few steps forward at various trailheads, we need to commit ourselves to explore fully one of the religious paths. Of course, it is not enough to say that our trail is best, but to express why it is best from our vantage point. Those who explore paths all the way to their end will experience challenges, struggles, risks, and dangers. They alone can really claim how costly the journeys are. They alone can claim that making the journeys were worth the cost. They alone have stories worth the telling, marked by battle scars and long-lost treasures now discovered.
Abbot Carlson and I agreed that this emphasis on considering our respective traditions best and providing the rationale for our claims is counter-intuitive to many Portlanders, who think that in the spirit of equality we should sample all paths rather than immerse ourselves in journeying up and down one trail all the way to the end. As a result, no trail will be fully explored and taken seriously. It is good for them that Lewis and Clark did not follow their approach in exploring trails. If they had only sampled trailheads and never risked the arduous, costly journey, those of us who call precious Portland and the great Pacific Northwest home would likely have never gotten here.
Those of us who are Christians need to love and consider our tradition best and be well-informed holistically and experientially about why this is so if we are to engage other traditions well. Moreover, being inquisitive of other paths by interacting seriously with serious adherents of those traditions may help us see and appreciate our tradition better, as was stated in the previous post on this subject: “Inquisitiveness rather than an inquisitional posture is key. One can be inquisitive in a way that does not leave one’s own faith behind, and which is informed by one’s faith. In fact, the answers people of other faith traditions provide can shed light on parallels and also distinctive and unique features of the respective faith traditions that further inform one’s own faith.”
Whether we are Christians or representatives of other faith traditions, we need to understand that taking seriously adherents of other traditions does not necessarily entail discounting one’s own tradition, especially if we consider our particular tradition best. Further to what was stated above, the religious other sheds light on one’s tradition’s uniqueness.
Just as taking seriously the adherents of other faiths’ views can enhance appreciation of one’s own tradition, so too, taking most seriously one’s tradition can entail taking the religious other seriously. How can we take seriously and appreciate other religions’ adherents’ convictions based on costly experience that their respective paths are best if we don’t consider our own paths worthy of being taken so seriously that we are willing to pay any price to reach our own trails’ end? Furthermore, if we practice the great commandments of loving “God” (however our various faith traditions define God) with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, we should take one another seriously enough to enter into serious, honest and open conversations that will really cost us time, energy, and relational vulnerability. We need to share with one another the good news from our distinctive vantage points, showing why we all believe our respective faiths’ great commissions are really great and alone worthy of our ultimate allegiance. This requires understanding and experiencing the cost of pursuing our paths and finding our respective paths worth the cost no matter where they lead. Why would you and I take the time and find worthwhile what one another believes and practices if we don’t believe our distinctive paths are worth the risk of being explored, experienced and expressed to the full as the very best?
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.