What I learned from a Rabbi

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week in a class learning from a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim scholar, and a Christian theologian.

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One aspect that I found most interesting (I was  slightly aware of before) came from the Rabbi.

While Judaism and Christianity have much in common (much of our sacred texts), we have been shaped very differently.

The Rabbi talked in story and narrative as he described Judaism and I realized I am really drawn to this way of teaching (I was reminded that Jesus was a first century Jew and spoke mostly in parables). Afterwards I spoke briefly with him about why Judaism takes such a different approach than Christianity and he talked mostly of the different ways the Hebrew tradition, language, and culture engaged the world and the way Greek tradition, language and culture engaged the world.

I increasingly see how Christianity (most of it at least) has been largely shaped by a Greek, rationalistic and either/or way of thinking. While I’m sure this can be played out in many ways, what most intrigues me is the way it plays out in reading and interpreting our sacred texts.

The Rabbi spoke about the midrash way of reading the Hebrew Bible. In a recent meditation, Richarh Rohr wrote:

“The best Jewish approach to scripture study was called midrash; they struggled with the text, unraveled it, looked at its various possible meanings, and offered a number of interpretations that often balanced and complemented one another. There was never just one meaning, or one certain meaning that eliminated all others.”

I find this so refreshing and insightful!

Much of Christianity has been shaped by Greek thinking and we have approached our sacred texts in such a way as to uncover the “one and only truth” behind it. So we argue and debate, but not in the same way as the Jewish tradition does. While midrash  is flexible and invites exploration and questions that is open to different ways of interpreting the text, much of the Christian tradition is closed, rigid, and invites only certainty, uniformity, and one way of interpretation.

I have bumped up against very conservative/fundamentalist Christians from time to time who do not seem to be able to understand that Scripture must be interpreted. For some, their motto seems to be, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” (I was actually in a church service where the pastor made this exact quote…wow!).  Some are not aware of their personal lenses and since they cannot separate their lenses from the text it leaves little room for disagreement or different views.

I think there is much we can learn from our Jewish friends as we learn to wrestle with our own sacred texts. I hope and pray that we can find the grace and insight to disagree without labeling others as “heretics” or “outside the faith”. As I have engaged people of different views, both within and outside of my tradition, it has shed light on different ways of seeing that I never would have thought about before. This has been hugely beneficial and I think Judaism has much to teach Christianity concerning this.

Inter-religious dialogue

What do you get when a Muslim scholar, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Christian theologian enter a classroom together?

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I week long of great dialogue, learning, and at some points tension.

I just got back from a week long intensive with more than 50 students from various backgrounds including Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other. Personally, this was such a great experience and a total privilege to be able to learn from the other students and the professor’s who were all wonderful!

I decided to write a reflection. This is not at all meant to be an exhaustive list of what, why and how to do inter-religious dialogue as there are already so many great resources out there, but is meant to highlight the most important take-a-ways for me personally.

Why

It almost goes without saying, but we must first ask why. Why is inter-religious dialogue important and why are we doing it?

There can be multiple answers to this question, but I realized that the aim of inter-religious dialogue is to better understand others.

There are so many false assumptions (e.g. Muslims are violent, all Buddhist are peaceful) that are torn down and stripped away as one listens to others exactly what and why they hold their beliefs – let’s face it, though we live in a very pluralistic culture most of us are still fairly ignorant of most other beliefs…myself included.

It is my personal conviction that violence would be greatly diminished if we better understood others. The fact that there are people from various religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, other) all working for peace, human flourishing and dignity, and environmental issues has been so encouraging for me!

Not about conversion

Proselytizing has absolutely no place in inter-religious dialogue. If one party is there to try to convert the other, this will make inter-religious dialogue impossible because we will debate instead of dialogue.

  • Debate – where one tries to win an argument or convince the other(s) they are wrong – often emotional and heated.
  • Dialogue – where one tries to better understand the other, their beliefs and why they hold them. They listen and ask questions without the need to say they are wrong.

Be true to who you are

While inter-religious dialogue cannot happen when one is there to “convert” the other, it is also not productive when the goal is consensus. This was one area that I really grew in. The goal is not to unpack all the areas we agree on alone.

If you think about it this makes sense. If you’re comparing two or more books, yet only compare all the areas they are similar, no one will really see how they are different and unique. In order to better understand others, we must be able to see the areas we disagree or where we see things differently – this is essential and we should not shy away from it. We can still get along and learn from others without agreeing on everything as long as their is mutual respect.

 We all have our own lenses

Even when in dialogue, we must realize that we have certain lenses which we see the world through. Some of us have very negative experiences of other religions. Some of us have only positive experiences. Some of us have no experience of other religions or have only read about other religions.

We should be upfront in admitting our own biases and lenses the best we are able (I’m certain we do not see them all) and be open to having those lenses shaped or formed differently.

There is diversity within each religion

The more I have interacted with people of other faiths, the more this has become apparent – it’s true within my religion as well.

Just because one Muslim states their beliefs does not mean that all Muslims think that way. Now, there are some places of crossover, but we must be slow to assume just because we talked to a few Muslims we understand the Islamic tradition in its entirety.

One of my professor’s shared that it’s not enough to know which religions are at the table (i.e. Christians, Jews, Muslims etc), but to know which Christians, which Muslims, and which Jews – there is wide diversity within each…I think this was another major growth for me.

No one person can speak for an entire religion, the best we can do is to speak about our own religious tradition through the lenses we have.

We become better followers of our own religious tradition

As we better understand others, we better understand ourselves. Also, I have often found places of blindness, false assumptions, or areas where a completely different perspective has enhanced my faith journey – if we just talk to those who agree with us we greatly limit ourselves.

Every time we engage in inter-religious dialogue, in formal or informal ways, we gain experience and wisdom. This is both true of dialogue with other religions, but even of those who see differently within one’s own tradition.

Inter-religious dialogue enhances intra-religious dialogue.

By talking with people of other faiths who believe differently than I and who see things from a different perspective, it has helped me talk with people within my own tradition – Christianity.

The majority of my dialogue is within Christianity – I think it’s unfortunate that we polarize so many issues all while trying to kick the other out (I recently had someone tell me I was not a Christian because I did not believe all the things they did in the way they did…they wanted to debate and not dialogue and it also shows how easy it is to become insulated within a small religious sub culture).

I was raised believing a small stream within the Christian river was Christianity – the older I get the more I see that there is vast differences (historical and present) within my own tradition.

These differences include: evolution, whether the Bible is perfect, whether someday God will suck a small select few of people away from the earth, who is saved and what that even means, what heaven and hell actually are, is there truth in other religions and if so to what extent – the list could go on and on.

My interaction with other traditions is still very limited and I am still very ignorant about a great many things, but the more I talk with others, the more open and full of grace I become. It also makes it easier to work with others for what really matters – the healing and peace of the world!

I end with a quote from Richar Rohr,

“The ecumenical character and future of religion is becoming rather obvious. Either religion moves beyond its tribal past or it has no chance of ‘saving the world’!”

 

 

drawn to the ancient

So I attended a few different church settings these last few weeks and I noticed a few things about myself.

When I was able to pick, my choice would surprise most.

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Yes, this is a picture of the church I attended. What comes to mind?

Likely traditional, rote, archaic, boring, ancient…maybe even Catholic?

Though it was not a Catholic church, it was an Episcopal Church which is the closest you can get. (I have come to admire many Catholics, esp those of the contemplative or mystical tradition – funny thing is I grew up believing they were not Christians)

For some time I have been torn…conflicted I think because I am drawn to both ancient and yet modern at the same time. I enjoy reading or watching Rob Bell or Fr. Richard Rohr both equally as much.

I could say much more about this, but I think the most intriguing aspect is that I have come to believe that our future lies in our past. I am slowly discovering the power of the liturgy, Eucharist, liturgical calender, past saints, and ancient practices that lure.

No, it’s not an instant gratification or Damascus experience, but more closely resemble water flowing over a rock – slowly carving away all the rough edges. (and if I’m honest sometimes it is uncomfortable or awkward, I think because I am so unfamiliar with it?)

What I find interesting is that many of the past Mystics seem to have been far more open, progressive, and ecumenical than many religious people today. They tapped into something (or better Someone) that was truly beyond comprehension – true Mystery.

My conclusion?

The current and future religious and cultural landscape is shaky – like a small boat amidst a massive storm.

We are moving from modernity to post-modernity. The rational ways of interpreting everything seem to be coming up short. The Enlightenment has taught most religious people to have predetermined answers to all the questions and to have all beliefs and doctrines organized and filed away neatly so they can be brought out at a moments notice.

The problem is we are moving (or have moved?) to a post-Enlightenment world.

Now, I do not think that means that we throw out our intellect, but rather it suggests that we must stretch our thinking further and deeper while at the same time realize that our rational mind cannot comprehend everything – there is more going on here.

As I  journey, I am wonder if some of the things needed to navigate these tumultuous waves lie in a pre-modern world.  I suspect that there are treasures that have been found by people who have journeyed before us (maybe even a long time before us?) that are important, even necessary, for us as we step into the future.

Most of this is not my own original thoughts, but a compilation from others as a part of my journey. Recently I have been reading one of the best books  you have never read by an Author named Ian Morgan Cron. Here are two mall excerpts as the author compares the times of St Francis of Assisi to our current times:

“Francis (St Francis of Assisi) lived in the gab between two historical periods – the middle ages and the pre-Renaissance – the opening days of modernity. We are living in the synapse between two moments in history as well – modernity and post modernity. People in Francis’ time felt the same anxiety that comes from living in a rapidly changing society that we do today.”

“Another similarity between the Middle Ages and today has to do with the state of Christendom. In Francis’ day the church was hemorrhaging credibility, it was seen as hypocritical, untrustworthy and irrelevant. Some people even wondered if it would survive. Clergy were at the center of all kinds of sexual scandals. It had commercialized Jesus, selling pardons, ecclesiastical offices and relics. Sermons were either so academic that either people couldn’t understand them, or they were canned. Popular songs ridiculing the church and clergy could be heard all over Europe, the laity felt used by the professional clergy, as if they were there to serve the institution, not the other way around. The church had also become dangerously entangled in the world of power politics, and war. Some fringe groups were beginning to say that you couldn’t be a Catholic and a Christian at the same time. Disillusionment with the church inspired many people to turn to astrologers and other alternative spirituality’s…To top it all off Christians were at war with Muslims.”

The future will no doubt involve a humble, open, compassion spirit that see’s opportunities and not dead ends.

The future will demand people to enter into ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue like never before, while being open to those who are not religious at all. (how can we work for peace together? end hunger and poverty together? etc)

The future will involve new ways of seeing and being…it will involve large amounts of creativity.

But most of all the future will involve an anchor that keeps one grounded and I think we will find this from the past.

I don’t think most churches or religious institutions need better coffee, a slicker website, a bigger band or a more hip/trendy pastor.

I think we need authentic spiritual guides who have done the hard work of uncovering the past and yet are creative enough to bring it into the future in a fresh way.

Well..at least that seems to be my take on it.