When I was in college, being Christian was decidedly uncool. My generation saw Christianity as materialistic (in bed with capitalism), imperialistic (arrogantly and poisonously proselytizing), and anathema to human freedom (70’s dictators wrapped themselves in the flag and church.)
Back then, the cool religion was Buddhism. I could see the attraction as peace and non-violence (the principle of ahimsa, “no harm”) have been at the heart of Buddhism for centuries. Also, by minimizing our attachment to material things, Buddhism seeks to neutralize covetousness, and cut the ground underneath resentment, anger, and violence among people spoiling for a fight.
When I was in college, I roomed with four Jews as the sole goy or non-Jew. We often talked about religion in depth, mostly because we were friends and able to trust one another. Trust is important because when we’re ignorant about other faiths, we easily ask stupid questions. And if everyone gets all up in a huff as soon as someone lets one of those fly, little room remains to explore and learn. Safe space is important to grasp the mysterious intricacies of faith. Howard, Ed, Bob, Elliot, Stuart and I chose to laugh at our ignorance rather than shame each other for it.
Since then I have come to a conclusion. Do you know how we might have some rough idea of another couple’s marriage in the sparsest way, but don’t know what is in their heart of hearts? Guess what, the same is also true of those practicing faiths other than our own. And rather than fill the void in our knowledge by speculating with easy stereotypes, we best listen closely and respectfully, if we truly want to learn. Each faith has a logic and language all its own. I find more stereotypes from those who embrace no faith and fewer from those who practice a religion. Why is that? If someone lives their faith they can more easily sense deep mystery in all of them.
So many who thought I was crazy to go to a Christian divinity school after college now profess interest and curiosity in what I do and who I am. (People become more religious with age, as the dilemmas of life multiply and the days that we are allotted diminish.) Those who perceived me as unenlightened and retrograde for embracing my Christian faith by becoming a church leader are not so cynical toward me now. They even ask me questions about what it all means.
And look what has happened to Buddhism since then. The Christian Century reported a survey on materialism among various faiths of the world. What faith most approved of conspicuous consumption and put the fewest caps how many things we might acquire without feeling guilt? Surprisingly, Buddhism won that dubious sweepstakes. And then we look around the world at militant Buddhist groups in Myanmar (where the Pope was in recent days) creating the world’s largest group of refugees out of the Rowhingya people fleeing to Bangladesh and elsewhere. It’s not our standard view of the Dalai Lama and saffron robed monks in monasteries now, is it?
The Rowhingya people fleeing the Buddhists are themselves Muslims. But wait, aren’t Muslims supposedly violent and Buddhists the peaceniks? Down with our facile and profane religious stereotypes, and up with respecting faith in general and listening closely to religion’s adherents.