A few weeks ago I saw a post on Facebook which read, “All religious traditions are equally beautiful and valid.” People were tripping over themselves to like the post, and commenting on how great a sentiment it was.
I was confused.
Why? Because I knew the folks commenting on that post didn’t actually believe it. Nor, I might add, should they believe it. Would a progressive Christian say that the patriarchal and racist fundamentalism of Bob Jones University is as equally beautiful and valid as LBGTQ affirming mainline Protestantism? Would they say the conservative version of Islam that’s practiced in Saudi Arabia, which has forbidden women from doing something as simple as driving, is as equally beautiful and valid as a muslim tradition which affirms women as fully qualified moral agents? No, and nor should they!
What that statement really means is, “Every religious tradition which has ethical ideals with which I already agree is equally beautiful and valid.” The problem is you can’t actually say that because then it would admit that the sentiments express about religious toleration have limits. To admit this would mean admitting that the myth that “right thinking people” are able to be tolerant of everyone really is a fantasy. It would mean we we are somehow less than the absolutely welcoming and open people, we want to believe we are.
I’d rather us be honest. Not cruel, honest.
The truth is, I’m fine with both individuals and religious traditions saying, “You know, what? We’re not cool with this.” I’m fine when Evangelicals say they aren’t cool with Christians who don’t believe in inerrancy 1. I’m fine when Progressive Christians say they aren’t cool with churches who won’t identify as welcoming and affirming. I’m fine when Muslims say that Muhammad is the true prophet of God, even though I don’t think that’s correct. And I’m fine when my Jewish cousins roll their eyes at the way Christians interpret the Prophets, even though I think we’re correct and they’re mistaken 2. Because we really do have disagreements, and they aren’t simply things which can be swept away.
My personal religious tolerance has limits. I wouldn’t allow someone to preach that Genesis 1-3 debunks evolution at Central, as I think that entire concept is just messed up. I wouldn’t allow someone to come to central and preach that women should never be allowed to speak in worship, because I think that’s stupid and wrong. I wouldn’t let someone come into our worship service and preach from a religious text other than the Bible, because we’re a Christian church 3. I also wouldn’t be OK with someone teaching that Jesus isn’t the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity – fully human and fully divine. Why? Because that’s our tradition, it’s who we are. Now, if the local mosque burned down would I be willing to set aside space outside our sanctuary for our neighbors to have a place to pray and worship? Yup, cause showing genuine hospitality doesn’t mean our religious traditions are really the same thing 4.
What I have very few limits on, because of the Christian tradition from which I come, is the idea of religious freedom. I might have limits on my personal tolerance within the community I am a part, but that doesn’t mean I think the beliefs with which I disagree should be forcibly silenced or outlawed by society. About the only limits I have on religious freedom are if a religious tradition advocates violence against people of other backgrounds 5. I’m sure people could wiggle some other limitations from me, but that’s really the baseline.
I do not have to agree with someone’s position, I can even find their position to be personally repugnant, in order to affirm that they have a right to worship God 6 without fear of government interference or societal violence. I can fight for the right of my neighbors from other faiths to live and worship without molestation, and defend them from those who would try to limit their religious freedom, while also affirming that I believe Jesus Christ is Lord. To do one does not mean we have to deny the other. Even Roger Williams 7, founder of Rhode Island and early champion of religious freedom, believed that certain religious traditions repugnant. He would canoe through New England in order to engage in debates with Quakers about the dangers he saw in that faith, but even as he condemned the Quaker tradition he defended their right to live at peace in the colony and worship without restriction.
Williams’ understanding of religious freedom is what I’d like to see us strive toward. We don’t have to homogenize religion, denying the distinctives of each faith in the process, in order to promote freedom and hospitality. We don’t have to sweep differences under the rug in order to be good neighbors and promote respect where it can be given. Because when we do sweep stuff under the rug it has a tendency to accumulate, and eventually all the junk is going to spill out.
- To be frank, I’m not cool with Christians who insist on inerrancy. I find the entire concept to be theologically flawed. ↩
- Na-nah, na-nah, na, nah! ↩
- I did actually have someone want to have a funeral at Central one time which would exclude Christian texts in favor of another religion, but still have me preside over the service. I told them no. ↩
- I know people try to make that claim in order to show how open-minded they are. I just think it insults every religious tradition as irrelevant, because it infers if we were really smart we’d just give up and be open to everything. ↩
- And human sacrifice, but do I really need to say that? ↩
- Or whatever other divinity in which they believe. ↩
- Not a Baptist. This might seem random, but it’s a pet peeve of mine. Williams was a Baptist for like a blip on the radar of his life, but folks in my tradition act as if he’s the pinnacle of Baptist life and thought. If that were the case we’d all have to do like him and reject all religious institutions as hopelessly corrupt. Come to think of it, this is kinda of how American Baptists are treating all religious institutions. ↩