The Great Reversal (Program and Recap)

Program

Good conversation last Sunday.  Bonus points to Sarah for saying that transformation starts with hope.  I’m always blessed by the wisdom of the gathering.  I did want to comment on one part of the conversation.

In talking about a larger, cosmic battleground in Luke, we stumbled upon questions of interreligious dialogue.  It’s a question that bedevils those who are interested in building bridges across faiths.  Some, like Karen Armstrong, suggest that all religions are ultimately pointing at the same thing, that all paths lead up the same mountain.  For her, compassion is the common value and insight for all religions.  All other values and practices are particular instantiations of those values at best and distractions at worst.  Others, like Stephen Prothero, argue that there are actually many mountains.  More importantly, it is chauvinistic to explain to a person of another faith “what it is really about.”

I must admit that I am torn on this.  I just took World Religions last semester.  Although my professor kept things somewhat close to the vest, I suspect he agreed, in principle, with the Karen Armstrongs of the world.  At the least, he saw enough common ground to create opportunities for fruitful dialogue.  This contrasted with a course I took in undergrad from a professor and mentor who had a tremendous influence on my thinking.  He seemed to agree more with Stephen Prothero.  His argument is that the way we think is so inescapably structured by culture that it is hard to even know what the other is talking about, much less shift our thinking to find common ground.  For him, the child of Baptist missionaries in China whose first language was Chinese, language itself constrains our thinking too much to even know if we are talking about the same things.  He was able to negotiate between cultures because he was fluent in multiple languages from an early age, but that is a rare gift.

I’ll continue to wrestle with this, but I have a tentative standing.  Perhaps it is not appropriate to think that all religions have a common root value or that we even mean the same thing when we use words like “love” and “compassion.”  However, maybe Armstrong is right that there should be, that compassion is ultimately the value that can unite us, whether it currently does or not.  And maybe the task of the person of faith is to steadfastly and earnestly seek that value by engaging others of all faiths or no faith to discover the meaning and the possibility of compassion.  Maybe compassion as I understand it is not where we have all ultimately been directed, but maybe our conversation can and should reorient us to that.  Maybe in that process of inclusive dialogue, we find God.

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