I'll always remember that very first day of freshman religion at Gonzaga Prep. Fr. Goebel wasted no time in introducing us to the Jesuit way of teaching by asking us if we could prove that God existed. I was sure this was a trick question, as were all my classmates, so we sat on our hands, averting our eyes from his wandering gaze, hoping against hope that he would not call on us. Of course the point is that you can't prove the existence of God; that's why they call it faith. But it was a terrifying moment that has remained with me ever since, I suppose, because that was when I learned that having faith was not going to be as easy as I had been led to believe in Sunday school. Understanding what God is and what that means to me is a lifelong journey.
As I look at all the religions of the world, I take some comfort that the spiritual journey I'm on parallels the one the people of this planet are on, and have been on since they first looked up and wondered how they fit into that vast expanse. We may have countless, wildly divergent ways of answering that question, but we are clearly united in asking it. Regardless of our place of birth, college degrees or skin color, we want to know how we came to be here and what comes next.
I like to think that I've always been open-minded enough to believe that other traditions are valid -- as is even the idea that there are no answers. Of all the preaching on faith that I've heard over the years, one offering of proof of God stands above the rest. Strangely enough, it came not from a priest but from a chemistry teacher. Kurt Kromholtz ran the most feared class at G-Prep, and you had to run his rapids to hope for a career in anything science-related. I don't know how it came up, but one day he said that with everything he knew about the world -- from the cosmos up in the sky to the universes seen under the microscope -- he could only find one explanation for all these profound mysteries. A higher power -- God, if you like -- caused it to come into being, he believed. His insight fit with my beliefs, since beyond that initial spark of life -- that one bit of proof -- who's to say who or what God really is.
Naturally that hasn't stopped people from trying to say what God is, from giving Him gender and human form to believing He will intercede on our behalf. Every religion sets out to give its followers an explanation, and the fact that so many think they are so right has become a central tension in our world. With such specific belief systems, the question of who is right is inevitable -- and it's kept evangelists of all religions in business probably since humans first stood up and walked.
With all the strife over religion since 9/11, I set out to gain some insight on the question of who's right. It seems to me that you can go two ways: you can be open-minded and tolerant or you can stick by your guns and denounce the rest of the world as having gotten it all wrong. The latter, to me, seems a recipe for pain and suffering, and human history appears to prove it. Still, in some corners of Christianity, we hear such voices, much as they can be heard within Islam.
In my search for an answer to my "Who's right?" question, I found Rob Kugler, a professor of religious studies who has focused on the Old Testament for the past nine years at Gonzaga University. "Oh yes, absolute truth against absolute truth," Kugler said. Clearly the subject isn't new.
Kugler says that in the early years of Christianity, there were a lot of different religious traditions bumping into one other in the Holy Land, from the Greco-Roman to Judaism to the fledgling faith inspired by Jesus.
"People of faith have, for a long time, engaged in dispute," says Kugler. "We believe now, for example, that the Gospel of Matthew arose out of a conversation among Jews about what it meant to be Jewish. The ideas that survive become part of history; the others dry up and blow away."
Kugler sees the current tensions as proof that this long, evolutionary conversation between competing ideologies is still lively -- even raging.
"The question is, how can we carry on sane conversations with one another," he asks. "Our task these days is to keep our voices calm as we continue to speak to each other."
I got just about the same answer from Raja S. Tanas, a professor at Whitworth who studies sociology and religion.
"We, as God's creation, are destined to listen to each other," says Tanas. "With all our technology, the global village is shrinking. Interaction with other faiths has become the norm -- you can't avoid it. I cannot escape you, and you cannot escape me. So we are destined to listen to each other -- we don't have to agree, but we must listen."
Tanas, who has been at Whitworth for 19 years, has a special perspective on the current situation in the Middle East: He spent his first 26 years in Bethlehem. While Palestinian at birth, Tanas (now a U.S. citizen and a Lutheran) was born Christian to Greek Orthodox parents. Many Americans don't realize it, Tanas says, but there is a Christian-Palestinian minority of around 15 percent in the areas currently being fought over. He was born in what is now Tel Aviv, and when he was four months old, he says, his family was told by the Jewish newcomers "to leave in peace or leave in pieces." That was 1949, when Israel had just been created, and his family ended up in Bethlehem, where his schoolmates were largely Muslim. "There was never any problem," he recalls of his school days as a member of a Christian minority.
It seemed that my conversation with Tanas was ranging far from my initial question, getting into European imperialism and other political issues, but I saw how it is all fit together when he contradicted the premise of so much media coverage on the Palestinian issue. "This conflict is not a religious one," he concluded. "It is political. The heart of the matter is three words: occupation, occupation, occupation."
The reason this mistaking of political for religious motives worries me is because it creates a false foundation for this ongoing "conversation" the world is having about God. If we equate Judaism with the tanks overrunning Palestinian towns, we aren't understanding that faith properly. If we equate suicide bombers with Islam, we are making a similarly false connection. Even Osama bin Laden's goals appear to be more political than religious (although his interpretation of Islam is a big part of his mission).
The trouble is, it can be easy for political issues to blur into religious ones. It's a simple way to tell a story; in some cases, keeping it blurry serves the agendas of some involved. I think that doing so debases religion -- and it's happening in America, too.
Rhetoric of the "this is the greatest nation God ever created" variety has increased markedly since 9/11, and even innocuous songs like "God Bless America" take on added significance. It kind of reminds me of the times we used to pray before our high school soccer matches. As my teammates and I recited the Lord's Prayer before taking the field, I used to wonder, why would God bless us more than the other team? People should be free to express their faith, but it should never get to the point that the United States is considered some kind of Christian entity. And there's a very good reason for this.
While many will tell you that America's big innovation is democracy and that we should export it to the rest of the world, they're getting it wrong. With mediocre voter turnout and special interests exerting disproportionate influence, history may not even judge the current United States as a democracy. But the United States' innovation -- and the reason it can rightly be held up as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world -- is the separation of church and state. This is the revolutionary notion that we should export, especially to places like Israel, despotic Muslim nations and any other place that fails to grasp the importance of making the distinction. The more we beat our chests as Christian soldiers, the more we water down the message that drawing a line between religion and politics is a blueprint for peace.
And beyond that, formalizing religion into politics seems to me to be another way of saying, "We're right, and the rest of you are wrong." And to me, believing that one concept of the universe is absolutely right while all the other competing traditions are wrong is pure hubris.
And so I arrive at my own personal article of faith. After 36 years, I can sum it up in one word. It might not seem like much progress for a pilgrim, but I think it's a decent start. It's a word that describes how I feel when I look up at those innumerable stars, when I consider the faces, minds and souls of Earth's billions of inhabitants and when I come into contact with the thousands of religions, with their many sub-sects and countless individualized belief systems. That word is humility.
And if being humble about one's religious convictions doesn't seem so important now, it is getting more significant by the day. Some, like Brother Wayne Teasdale, a Catholic monk and author of The Mystic Heart, believe the evolution of the world's religions will continue, and that if humility allows us to build on the common elements, even seemingly opposed views like Christianity and Buddhism can be reconciled into more inclusive beliefs. "When religions and cultures meet in openness and willingness to learn, they change each other," writes Teasdale. "They are living organisms that grow."
What I find more likely than such unification, however, is the notion that the number of religions and sub-sects will continue to grow as people mix and match what works for them. This is the thesis of a recent Atlantic Monthly article ("Oh Gods!," Feb. 2002) by Toby Lester. As he points out, there is no way to predict which religions will thrive and which will wither away. Consider the following:
* Islam was once nothing more than the belief system of a few rootless desert Arabs.
* Mormonism, now among the world's fastest-growing religions, was almost stamped out before it even got started.
* Methodists were nowhere to be seen during the American Revolution; the movement was enormous 100 years later; and now, 100 years after its high point, Methodism is on the wane.
* There were fewer than 10 million Christians in Africa in 1900; by 2000, there were more than 360 million.
* Umbanda, a fusion of Catholicism, African religion and native South American beliefs, was created only in the 1920s but is already referred to as the national religion of Brazil.
* According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are nearly 1,000 distinct, separate religions worldwide; every day, between about two new ones (or sub-sects of existing religions) spring up.
Lester emphasizes that there is no shortage of potential next big religions, as the world seems to be filling up with new religious movements, or NRMs. The challenge, as he sees it, is whether those in more traditional churches will be open-minded toward them or, in the clash of ideas, become less than tolerant. Already, Scientology has been labeled a cult by governments in Russia, Germany and France.
For me, it's like stars in the sky: So many different belief systems are somehow exhilarating. The clash of all these ideas -- all in the name of God -- is a conversation I want to be enlightened by. Sure, I'll probably come to view many of them as nutty -- like the Raelians of Quebec who believe prophets like Jesus and Mohammed were instructed by visitors from outer space -- but I hope I continue to be humble enough to realize that who's right and who's wrong isn't necessarily the point. If they are a part of humanity's great spiritual journey in search of answers, comfort and peace, then they, too, truly are my brothers and my sisters.
Ted S. McGregor, Jr., is editor and publisher of The Inlander.