By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
01 October 2016
Religion Gone Astray—What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith
Authors: Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon & Imam Jamal Rahman
Publisher: Skylight Paths, Woodstock, Vermont (USA)
You might think it is completely far-fetched, but it is true: A Christian pastor, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam, all based in America, are intimate friends, and together they travel around the country sharing with others about what some might think is their impossible friendship, which goes back more than a decade. They also talk to their audiences about how it is not just possible, but actually very urgent, for people of different faiths to befriend each other and to grow together in harmony.
In this jointly-authored book, this trio—Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman—dwell on some of the major challenges facing their faith communities, and humankind as a whole, today, challenges that stem from widely-held interpretations of their faiths that reflect what they call ‘religion gone astray’.
The religions that the authors identify with—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—belong to the ‘Abrahamic family’. They contain rich spiritual treasures. Yet, much evil has also been, and continues to be, fomented in their name (as is the case with many other religions, too), including war, hate, terror and oppression. As the authors tell us:
Religions come into being to call us back to the spiritual paths from which we have strayed, the paths that lead to healing. But religions themselves, as institutions, go astray, too. Losing sight of their greater purpose, they serve themselves. We might recognize the pain when we lose sight of our personal purpose, yet our religious institutions seem less able to acknowledge when they have strayed from their purpose. Like us, religious institutions need to be called back.
While it is primarily for those who claim to follow a particular religious tradition to act when its religious institutions go ‘astray’ so that they can truly function as a means for promoting wholeness and healing, the authors believe—and this conviction possibly grows out of their longstanding friendship—that in this task they can benefit immensely from close interaction with people of other faiths. Others can serve as a mirror to us, showing us our true face, warts and all. They may be able to spot inconsistencies in our religious traditions or our understandings thereof that we may not see or want to see as problematic and as in need of reform.
Close interaction with people who believe differently from us can also help us discern goodness in their traditions, and this inspiration can help us become more self-reflective and critical of our own understandings of religion. It can lead us to introspect and recognize where our traditions may have gone ‘astray’ and interpret them in a more spiritually-enriching manner. Close friendships with people of other faiths can also help us grow out of a stifling, narrow communalism and become less egocentric and more universal in our thinking and behaviour.
In all these ways, then, interfaith dialogue can play an immensely wholesome role in helping us in our own spiritual journey while also healing some of the terrible wounds that unhealthy interpretations of religion have inflicted through most of human history.
The authors focus on four particular issues that, they feel, are at the core of religion gone ‘astray’—exclusivism (the belief that one’s own religion alone is true and the only way to God and Heaven), violence (including against people who think, believe and behave differently from oneself and the religious community one identifies with), patriarchy and marginalization of women, and the stigmatization of homosexuals, all in the name of religion. The authors believe that these are ‘inconsistencies’ that violate the ‘core teachings’ of their faiths. “The exclusivity, violence, inequality of men and women and homophobia that have been attributed to our texts and have caused deep personal, communal and interreligious pain throughout the world comprise the focus of this book”, the authors say in their joint Preface.
In many cases, these ‘inconsistencies’ are located in what are regarded as sacred scriptures or widely-held interpretations thereof. The authors reflect on each of these four ‘inconsistencies’ from the perspective of their own respective religious traditions, highlighting scriptural texts or some of their interpretations that have been used to promote and reinforce them. Along with this, they highlight other portions of their scriptures that challenge these ‘inconsistencies’ (for instance, passages that speak of universal love and mercy or the equality of men and women) as well as alternate interpretations of what some might regard as problematic aspects of their scriptures that have been used to reinforce oppression and violence.
In the case of some portions of scripture that may not appear to be amenable to alternate, more wholesome interpretations (such as passages that appear to prescribe intolerance of others or the subordination of women), the book suggests that these could be seen as related to the particular context in which the scripture appeared and thus not normative for all times. Another strategy the book uses is to suggest that some portions of what are regarded as sacred texts that might be seen as problematic by many today may actually be the later product of human hands or a reflection of human projection, and, hence, should not be regarded as normative.
Using such strategies, the book seeks to address the issue of religious traditions ‘gone astray’ and articulate alternate understandings that may be spiritually more helpful.
Perhaps reflecting the course their own friendship has taken, the authors outline a five-stage process of meaningful interfaith dialogue, part of whose purpose is to respond to the widespread condition of religion having ‘gone astray’:
Stage 1: Sharing stories to move beyond separation and fear
Stage 2: Appreciating the core teachings of our religions (eg. justice, oneness, compassion, love)
Stage 3: Sharing possible inconsistencies between aspects of our texts and traditions and the core teachings of our faiths
Stage 4: Engaging in more difficult conversations (eg. talking about issues in other faith traditions that we may find problematic)
Stage 5: Experiencing spiritual practices from other faith traditions.
In interfaith dialogue, the authors tell us, partners can come to the point when they can admit the existence of awkward and even unacceptable aspects of their own traditions and recognize the ways in which these have strayed from the spiritual path. Far from being a threat or weakness, this is indispensable for one’s spiritual growth. After all, how can we grow spiritually if we are unwilling to recognize aspects of ourselves or what we believe in that might be debilitating? This point is crucial, even as it is often ignored in interfaith discussions. The authors insist that dialogue without such introspection and self-critique is meaningless. “During the years we have worked together”, they tell us, “we have learned that true interfaith dialogue cannot focus solely on sharing the sweetness of each tradition. We must also become more honest with each other as we share those aspects of our traditions with which we are less comfortable.”
Putting their heads and hearts together, the pastor, the rabbi and the imam thus highlight the immense usefulness of interfaith dialogue—including in helping us critique debilitating and dehumanizing interpretations of our own religious traditions and discovering alternate, more wholesome interpretations, discerning and being inspired by goodness in other religions, learning to live together in peace and harmony with people who think differently from us, and enabling us to become more open, accepting and universal. Interfaith dialogue, we learn, is thus a valuable key in our own spiritual evolution.
One may not agree with everything that the book says (for instance, one of the authors’ endorsement of same-sex marriage and another author’s claim that ‘children can be raised very effectively by two people of the same gender’). But on the general message that they seek to send out—the urgent need and immense value of interfaith dialogue—there can be no disagreement.
Given who and what the authors of this book are, this is perhaps a one-of-its-sort book. The insights it presents for interfaith harmony grow out of a possibly unique relationship between a rabbi, a pastor and an imam, whose intimacy, transcending narrow and hotly-politicized boundaries, has taught them how crucial friendship between people belonging to different faith communities is in our world of today.
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