Experiencing Religious Diversity

While I was growing up my family were not regular church-goers, but I have clear memories of the Religious Instruction (RI) classes in school. In elementary school we had a blue book containing Bible stories with age-appropriate illustrations.  We learned about Noah’s ark, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and Jesus being born in a manger with shepherds and wise men bringing gifts. A solid religious education! The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the state religion and, without a letter from one’s parents citing a different religious affiliation, those classes were mandatory. That is how I learned there were three Jewish children in my class!

Also, I knew there were Catholics around, although I don’t recall meeting them. There was a big Catholic Church made of red stone that we used to walk past, but the doors were shut and we never went inside. We knew they believed that we Protestants were going to Hell, and so we believed they were going to Hell, just on account of believing something different. Of course, we had no idea what that something actually was.

There was a Catholic High School in the town. We played against them in various sports, debates and the like, but I don’t remember any interaction beyond that. Also, there was a Catholic boarding school for girls a few miles from our town and I recall playing tennis there. There was some free time between matches and we were able to talk to some of the girls who attended the school. We asked them about the nuns and what it was like there. They told us there were a lot of nuns who were strict in class, and they had to learn the “Catechism.” If they made a mistake the nun rapped them on the knuckles with a ruler! We thought that was a bit scary.

In fact, though, our teachers used a leather belt on us for misbehavior, which in some cases meant only making mistakes on a spelling test. So, on reflection, I can see it probably wasn’t much different from going to a Catholic school.

In high school we moved past the blue book of Bible stories and had a year or two of studying world religions. That was fascinating. There was a lot to learn about other cultures through their religious practices. We were shown movies of people practicing Hinduism, Buddhism, and other seemingly exotic religions in far off lands. While a bit strange, it was noticeable that they didn’t seem antagonistic or dangerous to us. In fact, I learned that “Namaste,” the Hindu greeting, means “I bow to the divine in you.” Later, when I had the chance to exchange this greeting with someone, I found it quite moving, an experience of sacred recognition.

Then we had a year where we studied the Bible. I recall there were a lot of “begats” at the beginning of Genesis, and that the account of creation seemed a bit unrealistic if taken literally. While it might have been a bit lacking in contemporary advice for us young people, it didn’t seem to preach attacking those of different faiths, unless God Himself condemned them.

My favorite recollection of my early years in the Christian culture was Christmas. The carols were much more cheerful, both in words and tune, than the hymns sung at other times. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” and the overall theme of peace on earth, goodwill to all was my kind of message.

One historical Christmas event that impressed me was during the First World War, when the various Europeans were stuck in trenches opposite each other across a field or two, on Christmas Eve some British soldiers started singing Christmas carols. After a while, the German soldiers joined in, singing the same song in their language: “Still the Night, Holy the Night” harmonized with “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” And the next day, Christmas Day, the soldiers came out of their trenches and exchanged what little they had – cigarettes, food, and fellowship – with their enemy counterparts. A beautiful moment. Of course, they were back to shooting at each other a day later. But that was religion, or at least religious songs, bringing people together, even if their cultures and religious traditions were not identical.

As a teenager, I became more aware of the Protestant-Catholic divide through our study of European history. It seemed that most of the wars were due to clashes between Protestants and Catholics. I found that very unfortunate, since by then I knew at least they both believed in Jesus Christ. There was also a contemporary issue of division between Catholics and Protestants that affected us directly – the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had studied in history how, after years of conflict, Ireland had finally been divided into the Protestant North, Northern Ireland, which was part of the UK and the Catholic South, or Eire, which was independent. However, of course, there were a lot of Catholics left behind in the North, especially Belfast, and they were having a hard time. Fighting broke out and the army was sent in to deal with it. The television news carried images of people throwing bricks and homemade bombs across barricades, with clouds of tear gas and rubber bullets being fired back by the soldiers. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

It made me very sad, and somewhat angry, that people could carry Bibles in one hand and weapons of war in the other. Maybe there were some differences in the Bibles, but there was only one Jesus Christ. What would he have thought of such behavior? Did he not teach “love thy neighbor”? Why could Catholics and Protestants not at least get along, especially when they were neighbors.

When I went to university in Edinburgh one of my friends was Irish, a Catholic from Belfast. Through him I understood better how it was their home too and they didn’t want to leave, but they wanted fair representation. He was a nice, normal kind of person, and he didn’t say I was going to hell for not being Catholic! But that was probably because he wasn’t religious and neither was I.

It took years before two women, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, could make a foundation for reconciliation between the warring factions, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. They brought together thousands of Irish Protestant and Catholic women to sign a petition for peace and march to the graves of children who had died in the conflict. Women, mothers from both sides of the religious and cultural divide, emphasized their common humanity and forced the politicians and activists to recognize that hatred and violent methods that led to loss of the lives of their children would not achieve a better society.

Still, re-education of the children was necessary. They had been taught to hate based on religious and cultural differences, and would not give up the fight easily. A number of projects emerged, including one that brought Protestant and Catholic children to the United States to spend their summer together in an environment that was not toxic with war. These children, although initially antagonistic towards each other, soon realized that they were not so different; in fact, their similarities were far greater than their differences.

For me, passing on any aspect of a religious tradition that judges those of a different faith as evil, as the enemy, as condemned to hell, is a problem. If a religious tradition has value, that value should surely be that it brings its adherents into a closer relationship with God, and not into a divisive relationship towards people of different faith traditions. I am all for diversity; it is what makes the world interesting. Religious diversity allows all kinds of people to relate to God in a way that is meaningful to them. That is surely good.

The goal of a religious tradition is the creation of a better world, a peaceful world of harmony and prosperity for all people. It is my hope that passing on our religious traditions to the next generation will advance that goal, not prevent it. To be successful in this quest, it is important that the focus be on universal values, commonalities among faiths, all finding their expression in culturally relevant ways. These are what make us all part of one human family, the family of God our Heavenly Parent.

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