BERKELEY, Calif. -- One of the crucial lessons about interfaith relations is to speak accurately about a faith tradition that is not your own.
This, of course, requires knowledge on the one hand and caution on the other. You must truthfully represent what you say about another's faith or, if you don't know, you must acknowledge your ignorance and be silent.
The other evening I attended a meditation group's gathering here. The group was reading together a book called Realizing God, by Swami Prabhavananda. It's quite an interesting book that looks at various ways of understanding and connecting such religious leaders or gods as Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.
However, as we read the book aloud together, I found three statements I wanted to challenge.
The first was a description of what Christians believe about salvation. The wording could well have come from a branch of the Christian church that would identify itself as conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical. Prabhavananda's book indicated that Christianity emphasizes "personal" salvation. It's certainly possible in Christianity to find such an emphasis, but the whole of Christianity does not employ that emphasis. Rather, other branches of the faith emphasize the role of the covenant community, not just the individual, and other branches also emphasize transformation in this life. In other words, the concern is not so much getting us into heaven as it is getting heaven into us. None of that, however, was to be found in Prabhavananda's description.
In another place, Prabhavananda talked about the Pharisees in a dismissive way. To him they represented sticklers for the rules. That often is the picture painted of them in the New Testament. As Amy-Jill Levine notes in her book, The Misunderstood Jew, "Christian readers usually presume Pharisaic evil, and the Gospel is complicit in setting up this conclusion."
When we try to understand a group of people, it helps to read or hear what they have to say about themselves. But the only writing we have by a Pharisee is by the Apostle Paul, not a disinterested party. So it's easy to think of the Pharisees as joyless rule followers and, as history shows, it's even easier for those Pharisees to become a stand-in for all Jews and for Judaism itself. That results in serious misrepresentation that, at its worst, degenerates into vile anti-Judaism.
Finally, Prabhavananda wrote that churches (or maybe all religions) do not encourage mysticism. This is sort of a half-truth. There are, after all, honored mystical paths in many faiths, including especially Catholicism in Christianity. In Islam, the mystic path is Sufism and in Judaism it's Kabbalah. It is true that mysticism doesn't have much place in Mainline Protestant churches, but to suggest that it's frowned upon by all churches is simply inaccurate.
All of that said, what did I do about this as we were reading the other evening? Nothing except to keep it to myself. The session was not set up for discussion or debate. And when one is a guest in the spiritual home of another, one should abide by that home's traditions.
But I feel free to tell you that this experience reinforced for me the need we all have to speak with care and accuracy about another's faith tradition -- or, if we're not educated enough about it to say anything intelligent, to keep silent and then go learn.
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DESTROY ALL RELIGION?
Speaking of representing other religions accurately, the far end of the spectrum finds people who continue to advocate the elimination of all religion. One such person is the famous sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson. It's such a foolish project that I wonder why anyone would waste breath proposing it. Might as well advocate the elimination of air or water.