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Seminary Student Reflects on Religious Pluralism Class

The following article is a final synthesis paper written by Lora Burge, a seminarian at McCormick Theological Seminary. The course, Religious Pluralism and the Ministry, has been taught by Prof. Robert Cathey and CPWR Trustee Janaan Hashim since 2006.  The course developed as an off-shoot from the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona.  Over the course of the semester, students actively study five faith traditions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism.  Students’ final reading includes Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.  Equipped with a semester of observation, research, and writing, students leave the class working on a philosophical and/or theological framework for thinking about religious pluralism in Chicago and beyond.  With Ms. Burge’s permission, Prof. Cathey and Prof. Hashim are pleased to share with you this young interfaither’s thoughts.  Enjoy.

Finding a Universal

by Lora Burge

Humility is my table, respect is my garment, empathy is my food and curiosity is my drink.  As for love, it has a thousand names and is by my side at every window.  –Tariq Ramadan  [1]

Approaching the sacred, finding the holy, listening to the divine, worshiping God within and among us.  As I reflect on the journey and experiences of this semester, I can’t help but marvel at everything I saw and observed.  On one hand, it’s hard to make comparisons between the different religions.  Friday afternoon prayers, puja, and a Shabbat service are organized different ways for different purposes.  Yet, on the other hand all these involved searching.  Looking out and watching for something bigger, something outside of themselves, something beyond human reason and quantifiable experience.  They were seeking Brahman, Allah, YHWH, God, enlightenment.

Growing up in a pluralistic, postmodernist world, I have always been taught to be suspicious of overarching truths and meta-narratives.  I’m well-steeped in the practice of criticism and always asking “Whose truth?  Whose narrative?  Who’s speaking?  And with what authority?”  I wonder if those questions don’t put more distance between myself and my neighbors.  Are these questions I was taught to ask other-izing the “other”?  It’s a lot easier to ignore, overlook, and mistreat people when central parts of their identity and belief have been objectified away.

I am such a product of my own education that I have a hard time conceptualizing what a universal truth would look like.  I was taught to be so suspicious of any universals as to make them seem an impossibility.  I will always be a child of postmodernism, understanding life in terms of social constructs, contextual truths, and lived experience.  It seems unlikely (at least now) that I will completely break out of this mold of thought that has been the result of two decades of education.  Yet now I criticize the critical mode of thought itself.  If we objectify all truth, and conceptualize of each human being as living in her or her own uniquely-constructed world, then we’ve erased the possibility of common ground and shared experience.  Anybody outside of myself will always be “other” to my reality.  Not just somewhat “other,” or different, but completely so, which will make relating and understanding each other difficult.

Here’s the crux of it: by asking so many questions and stripping things bare as social constructs and humanity-made realities, we’ve removed the common ground out from under our own feet.  Precisely by focusing on each individual’s uniqueness, we’ve lost sight of or lost altogether the universal nature of our own humanity.  We are making “other” out of our own flesh and blood.  Until we learn a new way of thinking, we will continue to push people away as irreconcilably different.

The Universal

Something then must be done to reclaim our common ground.  It is not hard to see the ways in which our world is tearing itself apart: wars, violence, poverty, economic injustice, and more.  Yet how will we put it back together with such differences?  It is imperative that we relearn how to understand our common humanity rather than focusing on differences.

If nothing else, we all share in the same humanity.  We all breathe, eat, sleep, learn, and to some extent live in community with other human beings.  Some faith traditions understand the condition of being human as the nature of being created in the image of God.  Some understand the human condition as rooted in suffering.  To others, being human is something to be mastered through rigorous spiritual disciplines.  Regardless of our personal understandings of what it means to be human, we all are, and that is one universal characteristic that we share.  Across religious, political, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic and any other constructed categories that divide us, we are all human.  So what are we to do with our universal human nature?

It is time to recognize that shared humanity in itself is enough of a foundation for shared common ground.  We must move forward understanding that we share at least one thing with the rest of the world: our being.  This shared existence is something to be honored and respected.  Tariq Ramadan notes that, “We must love human beings, with their qualities, their beauties and their difference, but also with their weaknesses, their doubts and their fears.  This means acknowledging that they, like us, are capable of the best and the worst.[…]  Our love must be resolutely universal, and eager to share.”[2]  If human nature is the universal condition, then love must become the universal action.  Each of us from personal experience knows of the human potential for good or for evil, and everything in between.  Love cannot be measured out on the basis of works and worthiness: this will only lead to constructed divisions, categories, and the naming of people as foreign “others.”

Instead, this universal love needs to be something that we have in common and something that brings us together.  The free, unconditional giving of love is not something that comes easy.  Survival instincts and greed lead to the selfish management of resources, even love.  A few millennia of stingy, particular love have left us a world full of divisions, hatred, and violence.  There must be another way.

Namaste

There is a practice within Hinduism of bowing to other people and saying “Namaste,” or “I bow to the God in you.”[3]  Hindus will bow to other Hindus and non-Hindus alike; to them, there is God in everyone.  For Hindus, this practice is based on their universal conceptualization of a sacred nature present within each human being.  It would be presumptuous to think all human beings would want to engage in the practice of Namaste bowing.  With many theological, spiritual, and anthropological understandings of what it means to be human, finding the sacred in our fellow humanity will not be a practical approach to the universal.  Yet there is something in the practice that could be a helpful model.

There is no rationale or emotion tied to the bowing.  I am not bowing to thank someone for a gift or a professor for help with an assignment.  I recognize there may be circumstances where this bowing is easier and other situations where it is really hard to see God present in others.  But regardless, the bowing happens simply to unconditionally honor the God-nature in others.  This is precisely what we must learn to do.  Regardless of any words or actions we may use, we must learn to love and respect the humanity—the human nature—of the people around us, both in the local but also the global sense.  We need to recognize that within every other there is a shared human nature, a shared life force, and in fact, he or she is not such an “other.”

This is precisely what I had a taste of this semester.  Going to a synagogue, a mosque, a gurdwara, a Buddhist center, and a Hindu temple—I was an outsider and an observer but I never felt like an “other.”  All of our speakers and hosts were eager to have us there and as equally enthusiastic to help us learn about their faith tradition.  In some instances, there were shared elements of religious heritage between us, and in other instances, none.  Yet we are all human beings, living from the same human condition, and searching for similar things.  Instead of seeing a young white liberal Christian woman from the West coast, each of them chose to see and affirm a fellow human being also searching for a life of meaning and happiness.

Moving Forward

This is what I need to take with me: there is one possible universal truth, and that is love for my fellow humanity.  Not a love that requires uniformity in belief or political systems, not a love that dissolves diversity for a false sense of unity, not love that has any conditions or requirements at all.  This universal love then is a deep, unconditional positive regard not because of how people are in the world but because they are in the world.  This love honors people simply and wholly because they have a human nature and being, which means they are like us.

This universal love is something that needs to be cultivated and practiced.  In an economic system based on achievement and merit, giving anything unconditionally is uncommon.  Universal, unconditional love for the human nature of all people is not something that will happen overnight; it will happen in many specific moments and encounters.  Tariq Ramadan explains that, “Love too is a journey.  We have to set out, get away from ourselves.  We have to take the first step, and keep our balance.  And, ultimately, it is all a question of balance.”[4]  We need to step away from our specific selves, step into our common humanity, and live from a universal love and a shared reality that we are, in fact, all human and we share in this thing called life.

Bibliography

[1] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), xii.

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Pandit, Dr. Bansi, “Hindu Tradition.”  Lecture, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2 December 2011.

[4] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 195.

Dr. Robert Cathey reports on the 2009 Parliament

by Robert A. Cathey, Professor of Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary

The presence and witness of indigenous religious leaders from Australia (the so-called ‘Aboriginals’), New Zealand (the Moira), Pacific Island nations, Africa, Asia, the Artic, North and South America was one of the most distinctive dimensions of the fifth Parliament of the World’s Religions that occurred in the Melbourne, Australia Convention and Exhibition Centre, December3 – 9, 2009. With strong financial support from the Australian government, the regional government of Victoria and the city of Melbourne, every plenary session and program session of this Parliament began with recognition of the indigenous ancestors and elders who cared for the region of Victoria and Melbourne before the arrival of European colonizers in the 1700s.

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