Last month, a pastor in Florida made international headlines by announcing his plans to burn copies of the Qur'an. That he relented in the 11th hour was good news, but the entire incident raised a persistent and thorny question. Is it possible for me to be faithful to my own religious tradition while at the same time honoring the legitimacy of another? The question is so thorny that there has been a rise in those calling for an end to all religions.
At least part of the problem has to do with our sacred writings. Most were written in a time when the vast majority of people never ventured more than 25 miles from the place of their birth. That our sacred writings began somewhat tribal should then come as no surprise.
But we are no longer unaware of the tribe living on the other side of the mountain. We are no longer unaware of those living on the other side of the planet although we often do not understand them. And by the nature of the world today, unless we lead highly insulated lives, we have come into contact with those who are very different.
So how do we remain committed to our faith tradition without writing off the rest of the world? I was being evangelized by telephone a while back and finally asked the caller, "What does it say about your understanding of the nature of God that three quarters of the world's population is doomed to torment?" I thought I had her on that one, but she explained that it only made it more imperative that we convert everyone to Christianity.
In his book, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World's Religions Can Come Together, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, explores the options. Exclusivism - the acceptance that mine is the only true religion is at the core of religious violence. Inclusivism - the acceptance of any and all religions as equal tends to grind against much of our sacred writings and invalidates the commitment made by believers. The third option he advocates is Pluralism - granting that there is validity to all faith traditions while at the same time making a commitment to one's own as the best and right fit.
"For me," he writes, "Buddhism is the best, but this does not mean that Buddhism is the best for all. Certainly not. For millions of my fellow human beings, theistic forms of teaching represent the best path."
Religion is essentially the language of faith. For most of us, our religious tradition is passed on to us from our parents in the same way that we acquire language. Over the course of our lives, some never learn a new language, others study about other languages, and still others adopt a new language as their first language. Sometimes, a language other than the one we acquired is the best path.
Can I continue to see my faith within the context of "one truth, one religion," while accepting that a compassionate world recognizes "many truths, many religions?" Perhaps that is the nature of the divine mystery of God.
Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.