by Kenneth G. Palmer
Often times we become entrenched in our own distinct, doctrinal philosophies that we end up becoming fixated on how that is translated into a dialogue, peripherally fomenting an ecumenical understanding of specific convictions and how it relates to our neighboring communities. For monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are three particular doctrines of “work” which enables its adherents to not only grow in their spirituality, but likewise, those very tenets will unequivocally benefit the community around them. When we strive to become better people, the results are clear, we change, and our relationships do as well. Friendships strengthen and our community’s needs are met with tangible solutions that develop into deeper relationships, encouraging others to do the same.
Religion has a spotty track record. I’ll be the first to admit that. It has been, and in many cases still is, used as an excuse to brainwash, exclude, shame or condemn people—sometimes all at once—and there is no denying that atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.
But… religion has also shown itself to be exceptionally valuable, both personally and culturally. It has produced a number of outstanding people, been a guiding light for peace and unity, created beautiful communities all around the globe, given purpose and meaning to millions, and encouraged people to tend to their spiritual side, to name a few.
Music Appreciation and Religion
Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, once said that religion was like music. He said that despite the fact that the world had, on average, produced more bad music than good music, music appreciation classes spent very little time on listening to bad music, that most music appreciation was about listening to, or, in some cases, learning to appreciate, good music.
In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote: “We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. In fact, I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I created.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
Ergo: Experience is the starting point, theology is the outcome.
Why is that important? Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
Hunger for Direct Experiences
Today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more. With this in mind, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer. According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
Does religion equal division? It is a seemingly easy question to answer. From observing the news on any given day, most people would answer yes, religion does divide. Any number of conflicts around the world can be attributed to religious differences and modern political rhetoric is using religion to pit people against each other.
The same can be said when we look back at history. Religious differences seem to be at the root of many conflicts. The dividing aspects are easy to amplify. “I believe this, you believe that and that is why we are different. In fact, your beliefs so offend me that I am willing to take up arms against you.”
Those who place religion at the center of most conflicts use this rhetoric.
Religion Itself May Not Be the Cause
Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, maintained the position that most wars have been fought over lands and resources, been mired in tribal history (as in, “your tribe did this to my tribe many years ago, that is why we fight”), or been instigated by power hungry individuals who used religion to fan the flames of war. In short, divisive people cause division with divisive rhetoric and actions, sometimes under the guise of religion.
Can religious division be explained away like that? It’s probably too simplistic, even if there is truth to it. Religion can’t be exempt when it comes to divisiveness.
Faith Reflected in Behavior
However, when we look at the other side of the ledger, we see that religion has the potential to extract the very finest from within people and be the cause for harmony. There are religious people of all faiths who place tremendous emphasis on kindness and compassion.
Isn’t that the hallmark of true religion, practicing your faith until it shows in your behavior? In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James notes that:
Ideas that promote social harmony and bridge-building across divides.
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