The Highest Common Denominator

First, a disclaimer: What follows is NOT a Bible study, so even if you are averse to Bible studies, please keep reading!

How many times have we seen, even from supposedly progressive religious organizations and their clergy, claims of our view being the only true view or – in what is really the same claim slightly toned down – that our view is the best view for the whole world? Consider this introduction and passage from The Message paraphrase of the Bible that I saw posted online yesterday:

Thanks [name deleted] for sharing this! Today’s Epistle from Philippians From the Message, so pertinent especially with all the groups out there…

Paul wrote: (17) “Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal. (18) There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I’ve warned you of them many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s Cross. (19) But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites.”

I have often said that no translation of any scripture is perfect, but paraphrases are so imperfect and so filled with the biases of the authors that they would best be relegated to the trash can, with The Message leading the way. In fact, in a final attempt to give The Message a chance I decided to use it for my podcast scripture commentaries during Lent – until I got to the above passage in my show for yesterday. I have now banished it to the bookshelves to collect dust, perhaps to be occasionally removed for curiosity’s sake. Consider how an accurate translation renders the same passage:

17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.

Clearly, what happens here is the author’s biases are reflected in his paraphrase. What starts as an admonition to imitate someone (St. Paul in this case) and then uses the example of people who are self-centered and materialistic all of a sudden becomes primarily a critique of “those who are taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them.” In the process, an encouragement to walk the spiritual path and not be concerned with selfishness ends up sounding very much like an attack against other religions and their adherents. Then when clergy post that nonsense on Facebook, it appears to be a representation of their personal view – that, indeed, other spiritual or religious paths are problematic. This kind of nonsense does nothing to heal the wounds that divide us, rather it pours salt on them and goes as far as to use a distortion to do so!

What is required is a nuanced approach to spirituality. There will, of course, always be practices and beliefs in every tradition that are ill-advised and actually hurt and/or people. We must speak out against these, and we must speak out against them where they exist in our own tradition as well. Many corners of Christianity have a long way to go toward the full inclusion of women and ethnic minorities, LGBT persons, the economically disadvantaged and a host of others in the full life of the Church. Christians and non-Christians have a responsibility to speak out against these practices. What’s more, other traditions struggle with those same issues and we all have a responsibility to speak up when we encounter practices that are destructive there as well. We all must work to end the so-called “circumcision” of women in some cultures. Every person, regardless of creed, needs to be involved in ending racial and tribal violence and the genocide that often follows. In short, there are times when we must speak out, regardless of our tradition and the religious or spiritual affiliation of those involved.

Most of the time, however, in our spiritual lives our primary focus needs to be on our own practice and our own beliefs without feeling obligated to make critical comparisons with the practices of adherents of other traditions. We need to keep our (quite often uninformed) opinions to ourselves because sharing them both reveals our own ignorance of other traditions and creates needless distress and distrust between the different traditions.

Some of you may be thinking, “how dare he say ‘uninformed?'” The truth is that unless we are professors of religious studies the vast majority of us know much more about our own tradition that the traditions of others. I have never met anybody with an anti-Roman Catholic bias who had an accurate understanding of the teachings of that Church – and I say that as a non-Roman Catholic! In fact, though I don’t claim to be an expert in every tradition, the truth is I have never met anyone who was vehemently opposed to a particular tradition who wasn’t coming from a place of misinformation and prejudice! That’s even true of atheists (who claim to not be religious but actually are very religious), who seem to believe that the entirety of Christian practice consists of fundamentalist Evangelicalism.

Imagine the possibilities if we should choose – and it is a choice – to look for the commonalities between traditions and to celebrate those shared beliefs rather than decry our differences and cast one another into hell! Imagine what might happen if when we encountered a tradition or practice we didn’t understand we respectfully asked the practitioner to explain it to us rather than just dismissing it out of hand. Institutional religion has often created a culture of fear around other traditions to keep its own adherents in line, but for our own health we need to dismiss that fear for the manipulative nonsense it is. If we are to understand, if we are to get along, we need to move beyond fear into love.

So this day I call on all Christian clergy to drop the nonsense, drop the criticism of other traditions and encourage your followers to be the best Christians they can be – and leave the clergy and adherents of other traditions to be the best practitioners of their tradition they can be. Step into spiritual maturity, pastor, and encourage your followers to do the same. Get your own house in order before looking to straighten up others’. We both know there is more than enough to do in your own house for several lifetimes.



One thought on “The Highest Common Denominator

  1. I especially like the bit about belches….

    mark+ “Pay attention to those who want to change so badly that they cry and dissolve into lovingkindness and freedom.” ~Rumi

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