Have you ever considered how utterly ridiculous faith traditions are? Faith is an irrational experience and no believer is immune, we just think we are because It’s easy for us to see the silliness of other religions while holding fast to the objective truth of our own. To us, our faith is normal while others appear strange, but the truth is that ours is no less weird.
Religious practice is a profoundly complex phenomenon and will always appear bizarre outside of its immediate context. Whether it is a monotheism or pantheism, most cultures have developed intricate ideas about a higher power because people are simply trying to make sense of existence with incomplete information. It’s not surprising that we develop unusual ceremonies in an effort to worship God better.
If we’re not careful we can develop a tendency to look upon other religious traditions with apathy, pity, or even contempt because it doesn’t fit nicely within our theology. We don’t understand the significance that the specific practice holds or the meaning that these rituals have for their adherents. We are too caught up in our own weird beliefs to be concerned with understanding the beauty and truth that other faith traditions may offer.
At this point, I would like to offer a caveat: embracing the potential goodness of other religions also includes accepting that sometimes they may be wrong as well. Finding the beauty in faith traditions does not mean we need to be blind to evil. As always, please use discernment when evaluating faith claims.
Religion is Complicated
On an excursion in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico my wife and I endured a time-share presentation to get tickets to a city tour. We visited downtown Vallarta and saw the arches on the Malecon, we toured a local Tequila distillery and had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and a beautiful creek with large rock bluffs. It was a very serene environment, but there was more to it than meets the eye.
Exiting the bus, we were first greeted by some sales kiosks selling obsidian knives and dream-catchers (because even remote Mexican villages aren’t immune to capitalism). As we walked past, our guide informed us that the shaman would “cleanse our spirit” so that we could enter what I assume is a sacred spot. We walked past as the shaman chanted, shook some beads and engulfed us with incense.
We were then instructed to pick up a stick adorned with strings and feathers that would “give us a dream”, then we were to walk along the creek and stick it into the mud where the shaman was spreading the incense and chanting again. From what I understood, putting the stick into the mud was supposed to take away the dream that we had been given. At this point, we were free to enter.
I determined that the whole ordeal was absurd. Was there anything about this ritual that actually affected the physical world? Did this experience change anything for non-Huichol people? Maybe it’s just my skepticism but I don’t see how it would.
It wasn’t long before I remembered that we aren’t immune from the absurdity of ritual either. Most Christians practice the sacrament of Holy Communion (Eucharist, Lord’s Suppers, Mass, etc) but, when viewed from the outside, it is just as ludicrous as any Huichol dreamcatcher ritual. The body and blood of Christ, are you serious? I’m not even going to mention belief in the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, or baptism and miracles; Non-Christians don’t have a monopoly on peculiar religious belief and practice.
The true meaning of the Eucharist has been fought over for many years without ever achieving a consensus. Massive groups of Christians still can’t agree on the objective meaning of it and it is one of the sacraments of the Christian Church! Regardless of orthodoxy, it still holds a profound significance for those that practice it and has the power to be internally transformative. Outsiders may not even be aware that different interpretations of our rituals exist and that we think the others way of practicing it is strange, too. But, strange as it is, it is still meaningful to us.
Just as ancient Jews misunderstood the significance of the Lord’s Supper to Christians, maybe we misunderstand the significance of a Native American sweat lodge or a Sikh Kurpan. We aren’t even aware of that which we don’t know; it is possible that we misunderstand more than we actually know about other traditions. As western Christians we generally don’t even take the time to comprehend religious events of other types of Christians—like Meskel which is performed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians—nevermind understanding liturgies performed by adherents to other religions. We disregard them because they seem peculiar and unnecessary, but we haven’t taken the time to try to understand their beauty and significance. Maybe we should take the time.
Religion is Beautiful
It is my suggestion that religious rituals are meant to produce something within us, rather than affecting the world around us. In that way, the presence of God can be found even in the practice of non-Christian rituals (yes, evil can be found within other faiths, just as it can within ours). I’m sure that makes many Christians uncomfortable as I can’t say that I am entirely comfortable with the statement either but please bear with me. God is everywhere, if non-Christian rituals produce fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control then they are doing God’s work. It is my view that requiring an exclusive reference to Jesus (as the literal man that walked this planet), could limit the work of God if He is truly omnipresent. Maybe understanding Jesus in a more cosmic way would be healthier and maybe it will let us truly see the God that works everything out for good.
Don’t panic! These words are controversial enough to require more clarification: I am not attempting to speak about salvation here, only praxis. But, since we are on the subject it is my belief that attributing the saving power of Christ to an acknowledgement of a very limited understanding of an omnipresent God is a weak presentation of the gospel. If Jesus is the best representation of God and God is good then Jesus, and His Kingdom can be found anywhere there is good.
So, religious practice doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Religious practice becomes something that is meaningful to the practitioner and no one else. It becomes a way to commune with God in a way that isn’t defined by the world. It’s meaning is only derived from the change affected in the heart of the worshipper. It becomes a way for communities to bond over common beliefs. So, maybe I’m wrong, religious practice does accomplish something, it changes us so that we change the world. Maybe it isn’t absurd after all.