Those of us raised in the three “Religions of the Book” – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – will remember reading stories in the Torah (The first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament are recognized as Scripture by all three religions) will recall that, after wandering around in the Sinai peninsula for forty years or so, our shared ancestors finally found their way to the promised land of Cana. One of the things that these early Hebrew encountered as they went about committing what they understood was the God-ordained genocide of the Canan people were little statues known as “household gods.” As they raped and pillaged what we today call Palestine (some things never change) they were directed to destroy these household Gods, which they were told were not really gods at all. As they encountered other nations throughout their biblical history, most often these nations had their national Gods. These were Gods writ larger than household gods, and were supposedly more powerful than household Gods (no doubt they had done well for themselves and received promotions). “You fools,” they said to these other Peoples, “Our God is the God, yours are just pretend gods, and because we worship the real God, we are going to kick your collective butts, because our God is the REAL God.”
Needless to say, a fair amount of rationalization had to kick in from time to time, as throughout its history Israel was conquered now and again. In fact, by seventy of the Common Era, Israel was wiped from the map until it was recreated by the peace treaty that settled the Second World War in 1948. During all this, Christians blithely forged on, believing that God had pretty much shifted allegiance from the Hebrew people to the Christian people. Christianity took on the mantle of having the only real God, the rest of the world presumably chugging along to namby-pamby land looking for some self-esteem with their little, inferior gods and goddesses. You can actually find members of all three religions of the book who still believe that they are the sole possessors of the REAL God, even over and above the other religions of the book – somehow ignoring our shared heritage.
So, WE have the REAL God. The Big Guy, the God of the Universe. Apparently, God hasn’t had time to drop in on the rest of the world yet, but we can just write that off to the will of God. After all, if God had made it over there, they would no doubt call God by the same name that we do, and their bad religious art would no doubt attribute to God all of the same things our bad religious art does, and they would worship the same way we do (despite that fact that between and among the three faiths of the book there is tremendous diversity in worship and prayer practices). After all, WE have the transcendent God who is omni-present. It’s just that God (despite operating outside the confines of time) has been a little busy and hasn’t quite gotten over to those heathen in the East, except perhaps within Orthodox Christianity, though some of us have our doubts about that. Or, when the all-powerful, all-knowing, infinitely vast God of the universe of whom we have sole possession did manage to wander over to the East, they just missed the point and preferred their household Gods and little Asian looking statues – and THOSE certainly could be God because God is a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (who may or may not like you Catholics, too).
That all sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what religious exclusivism says – that my God is God and yours isn’t, and that settles it. If someone said this about anything or anybody other than God, we would laugh them off of the world stage, but our passions and our insecurities are so bound up in our understanding of God that we seemingly lack the ability to take a step back and look around. unless…
Some of us looked around because we have been betrayed by our tradition, or because our received faith tradition didn’t answer all of our questions. Others looked around because they have moved to a different neighborhood or part of the world and have met people who are members of a religious tradition other than their own who were pretty fine people. Others of us went to one of those no-good liberal arts colleges and found ourselves in a comparative religions class. Still others saw something on Facebook, or YouTube, or elsewhere on the Internet that intrigued them. Whatever the case, we looked and – very often much to our surprise, we found God there!
When we told our friends and family, the odds are nearly all of them were sure we were bound for hell and tried to talk us out of “all this nonsense.” That strategy rarely works, particularly when you have truly experienced God – and more and more of us are experiencing God outside the religious confines of our family of origin. In fact, I believe the religion of the future is religious pluralism.
In 1999 I became the pastor of a small church called Community of the Living Spirit. Each year, during Lent, they did a book study. As a good pastor, I wanted to know what sort of thing they had been doing under my predecessor. The year before my arrival, they read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. I read it and was instantly hooked. I saw the truth that what separates the religious and spiritual traditions of the world was cultural differences. I saw the commonality of the shared teachings and knew that what I called God was the same Spirit that was behind the teachings of the Buddha – the essential teachings of love and compassion. Others have found the same commonality within other traditions, and once you find them you simply cannot ignore them. Your friends and family can come to you and quote chapter and verse of scripture and recite dogma and doctrine until they are blue in the face, but when you have experienced God somewhere, none of the humanly created rules about religion can possibly matter to you.