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Religious diversity

Crossing religious barriers

An invitation to conversation

by Doug King, your WebWeaver


A lot of our lives are shaped by lines – the lines we draw (“in the sand,” for instance), the lines we follow (party lines, maybe?), the lines we cross, the lines we use to connect us with others. We draw lines, delineating and defending boundaries, to protect ourselves – as individuals, as nations, as religious communities – from being attacked or diluted or weakened by those who are different from us.

So lines may protect us, may guide us, but they may also exclude us, limit our own freedom of thinking and acting and associating with others.

Jesus drew lines, too. I’m impressed though, that he seemed more interested in drawing lines that included, rather than those that excluded. (“You are my friends if you do what I command you,” he said according to John’s Gospel, 15:14, in drawing one very wide circle of invitation rather than exclusion.) In his living and his teaching, he seemed interested in crossing lines and breaking barriers, more than in defining and defending them. So he associated often and warmly with people whom most good Jews of his time wanted to exclude – the poor, the prostitutes, the servants of the Roman occupation power.

And when Jesus did draw lines, they tended to be to protect people from the moralists, the pious, and the rich. For instance, consider Matthew’s reports of his harsh warnings to the Pharisees, as in Matthew 23.23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Or of course there’s Jesus’ sharp contrast between the widow giving her two pennies at the temple, and the wealthy donors showing off their generosity as they made their gifts. (Mark 12.36-13.2)

So Jesus did cross some very important lines, and drew some others – and was put to death for his willingness to do that.

And he invites us to follow him, I believe, in crossing lines – loving and serving and simply being friends with the outcasts, the unclean, the “sinners.”

One vital line Jesus calls us to cross is the line that we draw so often, to divide one religion from another, one faith from another. The line Jesus himself struggled with was the one between Jews and gentiles, or within the Jewish religious community – the line between those who observed the Law and those who were, for whatever reasons, lax in their observance. The crossing of those religious lines gave Jesus’ early followers, most of them Jews, a lot of trouble, as they struggled to redefine the meaning of law for themselves, and to shape new ways to deal with people who were not observing it.

Another major call by Jesus to cross lines was his “missionary imperative” – sending his disciples out two by two into the communities around them, to tell people of God’s coming reign that would transcend all the pious line-drawing, and would establish a new social order which would scramble the lines between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, well-born and commoners. His sending out of his disciples, both during his life and after his resurrection (according to Matthew 28.19 ), was aimed not so much at bringing people into his own group (“bringing in the sheaves”?), as it was at reaching out to serve, to meet with people who were “outsiders” in one way or another – to care for and connect with them, more than to “convert” them.

I first heard that call to reaching out across lines when I was a college senior, in the national conference in 1955 of the Student Volunteer Movement, a strong ecumenical organization that grew out of the missionary movement of the late 19th Century. I went to the conference, at Ohio University, with a group from my college. As we prepared for the conference, and again afterwards, we spent some time with the Rev. M. A. Thomas, a priest of the Mar Thoma Church in South India. As we talked through our various understandings of mission, and as many of us began to feel that we ourselves we called to engage in mission, we came to a conviction that “mission” was for us a distinctive calling to cross boundaries – to going beyond the lines that divide nations and race, cultures and religions.

But why should we bother crossing all those lines? Our sense (somewhat lacking in modesty, perhaps) was that that is Jesus’ call to us: to show love, to help people (including Christians and others) see and live out the meaning of the Gospel, that is, of Christ’s reconciling, all-embracing love.

But if you cross lines into cultures and nations and religion traditions that are foreign to you, you have to learn about them if you’re going to be at all effective, whether you see yourself as a witness or an educator, a communicator or an agent of change. So those of us who followed the call that we heard through that great SVM conference soon found ourselves drawn into learning – languages, customs, different cultures with their different ways of looking at the world, political ideas very different from our own. And above all, we began trying to learn about different faiths.

In response to all this, I ended up by going to Indonesia, first for a six-month visit to the Christian youth and student movements there, and about five years later, as a “fraternal worker” sent by the Presbyterian Church. I was sent to a university in Central Java, to teach college courses in Christian religion. Islam was the dominant faith there, but many people were still profoundly shaped by the Hindu and Buddhist faiths that had been dominant for centuries before the coming of Islam, and later of Christianity. So I needed some understanding of the Islamic beliefs and customs that shaped the lives of many of my students, and even more of my neighbors. And the spirituality of Hinduism and Buddhism were so much a part of the culture and way of life, that I found myself trying to understand those traditions too. (Not to mention trying to gain some understanding of Communism, which was gaining great strength for a while.)

Why am I going on about all this? I want to share a little of how I’ve gotten to where I am today: long retired, but still shaped by my own past, and by all that I gained from crossing those lines so long ago. For now I find myself drawn to crossing religious lines again, but in a deeper, more personal way, to explore, to learn, to grow. My line-crossing all those years ago was purposeful, a way of trying to learn and understand things that would help me be more effective as a teacher, friend and colleague. Now I’m simply seeking to gain some wisdom and comfort and strength for myself, and to expand the horizons of my spiritual world.

Specifically, I’m drawn to various voices speaking out of contemporary Buddhist thought and practice, especially in what is often called “mindfulness.” On this little quest, I’ve been drawn to sages and writers including Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and many others.

As I wander down these deeply enriching spiritual paths, I want to find others who are on the same journey – crossing lines, especially religious lines, whether to enrich their own lives, or to gain understanding of others outside the Christian circle.

So – what are your experiences in line-crossing? How have those ventures enriched you? What kinds of concerns and problems have you encountered? What would you like to share with other seekers? And what would you like to hear from them?


So – what are your experiences in line-crossing?

bulletHow have those ventures enriched you?
bulletWhat kinds of concerns and problems have you encountered?
bulletWhat would you like to share with other seekers?
bulletAnd what would you like to hear from them?

Are you interested in joining the conversation?

Please just send a note – and let me know whether you’d like the conversation to be private (in an email list I’ll set up) or public (by posting your note here).  NOTE:  If the email link just above doesn't work, just send your note to

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Religion – dividing or healing?

Here’s another essay I posted a little over a year ago, trying to articulate what I find a helpful way of understanding religion itself.

The Case for Religious Pluralism in a Secular State

The separation of church and state takes on new dimensions - and new importance - as our society becomes more pluralistic religiously, and as fundamentalisms gain strength in many faith communities. Gene TeSelle summarizes a variety of studies that help us understand the new religious situation in which we live.  [10-9-02]

One nation under God - or under many gods?  [8-22-02]

The Rev. John Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Billings, MT, recently published an opinion piece in the Billings Gazette. With the title "Respond with hospitality to growing diversity," Shuck simply highlights from his own experience the fact that our "Christian nation" is becoming much more diverse than that -- and suggests hospitality as our best response.

Religious diversity in America - facing the realities and finding new ways forward

A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's MostReligiously Diverse Nation. By Diana L. Eck. 404 pp. $27 hardcover.






The publicity for this book points out that the U.S. Navy has now commissioned its first Muslim chaplain and opened its first mosque; that there are more than three hundred temples in Los Angeles and the greatest variety of Buddhism in the world; and that there are more Muslims in the U.S. than there are Episcopalians, Jews, or Presbyterians.

Beyond startling facts like these, the book offers chapters on American Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, in which Eck both surveys the growing awareness of these traditions among the American public over the past two hundred years and notes the presence of their adherents in surprising places all across the country. She has tracked much of this through the Pluralism Project, which enlists local scholars to find out more about what is going on in our own localities.

There are the predictable accounts of hate crimes directed against people and property. But also of community responses to offer aid and protection. Or of the initiative taken by Muslims in DuPage County, who joined the Interfaith Network "in order to dispel their misunderstandings of Islam." Or of the decision of a Muslim group to be the first to speak out against arson attacks against three Jewish synagogues in Sacramento. Or of the movement in Billings to display menorahs in the windows of homes during each holiday season after an anti-Jewish incident.

The centuries-old reaction to immigrants has been to tell them to go home," with the implication that "wherever home may be, it's not here." The proper answer, given by one of her informants, is, "I am at home." But the answer is not always self-evident to those most closely affected, and the host country may not be encouraging. Eck recalls an interview in which Bill Moyers asked about the difference between an "expatriate" and an "immigrant." Bharati Mukherjee, a much-read woman writer from India, suggested that an expatriate is still attached to the old world while an immigrant is being changed by the new setting.

The heritage of the U.S. is a mixed one. Eck draws attention to the radical experiments in religious toleration in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania; to the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, welcoming Quakers on grounds of hospitality; and the Williamsburg Charter of 1988, which reaffirms religious pluralism and expresses the confidence that "diversity is not a point of weakness but a source of strength."

But she also reminds us of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Rabindranath Tagore's vow never to return to the U.S. after what he had experienced at first hand. Long before that (and I'll bet that you never learned this in civics class), a 1790 statute had limited naturalization to the "white" races, and this was upheld in the courts against Asians of all nationalities. African Americans were ahead of them, being given honorary citizenship (and often merely that) after the Civil War.

The general trend has been from exclusion to assimilation (on white European terms) to pluralism. In discussing the last, Eck uses Horace Kallen's prescient model of the symphony orchestra, correcting it, however, to the more accurate image of jazz improvisation. And the improvisation does not happen easily.

Often, she points out, new neighbors are encountered "not over a cup of tea but in a city council or zoning board hearing" when people suddenly learn that a new and perhaps strange-looking building is planned. School systems must now learn to deal with a multitude of languages and religions; some classrooms or whole schools now have a non-Christian majority. Eventually the courts are the place where vexing conflicts -- in the local community, in the workplace, and in the realm of public legislation -- get discussed and resolved. (Unfortunately the discussion of church-state decisions, especially the Smith decision of 1990 and the overturning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1997, is incomplete and therefore misleading. Most legal scholars seem to agree with the Supreme Court minority in the RFRA decision, which urged that the court re-visit Smith, allowing more consideration of religious beliefs without the impossible demand of "least restrictive means.")

The current situation, Eck says, is one that will require "moving beyond laissez-faire inattention to religion to a vigorous attempt to understand the religions of our neighbors" -- and one that will also require "the engagement of our religious traditions in the common tasks of our civil society."

Her final chapter suggests that religious encounter reveals "both fault lines and bridges" -- or, to continue the metaphor, that we may be building "a new infrastructure for a society in which religious difference is just part of the traffic of a creative democracy." As localities learn to acknowledge their own religious pluralism, the ways they deal with them in their official actions can become "the stretching exercises of a new multireligious nation."

The book was published well before September 11, and its basic optimism does not really address the brusque postures often adopted by Jews defending Israel, Muslims defending the Palestinians and Arabs and the Islamic world in general, and Christians defending "the West." The difficulty of dialogue has been brought home to us in a new way.

In this new atmosphere, however, it is all the more important to note the quotable quote from the Koran, "Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other." Or the edifying solution offered by Muhammad when there was a dispute about who would get the honor of carrying a sacred stone: he had them put it on a sheet so that all of them could carry it together. We are invited to look for more opportunities to do just exactly that.

If this topic interests you, check out Aurelia Fule's thoughtful essay on interfaith dialogue.


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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© 2012 by Presbyterian Voices for Justice.  All material on this site is the responsibility of the WebWeaver unless other sources are acknowledged.  Unless otherwise noted, material on this site may be copied for personal use and sharing in small groups.  For permission to reproduce material for wider publication, please contact the WebWeaver, Doug King.  Any material reached by links on this site is outside the control and responsibility of the WebWeaver and Presbyterian Voices for Justice.  Questions or comments?  Please send a note!