When I was in seminary, I remember one conversation I had with a friend who had enrolled in the PhD program. I asked what he was pursuing, and he replied that he was going to explore the field of comparative religions. To be honest, at that time, I thought it was a trendy discipline more than an academic one, but I wished him well in his endeavor.
Comparative religions though isn’t really all that trendy, I came to learn, as I began my internship experience. Sure I had heard that ministry wasn’t a lone wolf task and that we are living in an increasingly pluralistic world, but I knew where most of my opinions were and why, so what did I have to worry about? I had made my own little echo chamber inside myself. I created a delusion that as long as they kept their beliefs and I kept mine, we could just be nice and ignore the differences. As I was opened to more personal experiences, stories, and value systems, spiritual beliefs were inevitable. I learned very quickly that in order to affect one another, we have no choice but to have an encounter with others’ spiritual underpinnings.
This is all getting dredged up in me because, recently, I was asked if I would be willing to put together a comparison chart of some local denominations and religions. It’s been a request that I have sat on for a while, now, as I diverted more of my interests to the realms of Greek translation and systematic theology. This request brought it back to my mind- “Oh yeah, I was going to do that, wasn’t I?”
By the grace of God and this request, I dove into the subject matter. First, which denominations/religions? How about the more local ones? I need some additional books. I should probably say something about Judaism and Islam. And where do I place the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on this (Spoiler alert: I ended up placing this as a separate religion-happy to get further into this anytime! Tigeju01@gmail.com)?
I was amazed, first, at how much I learned about other traditions in and beyond Christianity. I was amazed at the commonalities, uniquenesses and several slightly different angles. I was amazed at how many times I found myself thinking “I believe that!” I was amazed at how many times I also thought “I wish my tradition practiced that sort of thing (imagine how much we might commend to God if we tried praying ritually five times a day…).” I certainly had many moments where I thought the other direction too: “That’s ridiculous!” “How’d they get that?” “I’m happy I didn’t grow up hearing that.” But, on the whole, I probably said more positives than negatives, if not in equal amounts. It surprised me.
And it made me wonder…
What if comparative religious study isn’t about our opinions about the legitimacy of a religious or denominational stance. What if comparative religious study is a heady way to try and respond to a question we may hear often: “Where do you come from?”
When we hear a question like this, first responses tend to be geographical. I’m from this town, city, state, country, planet, etc. I’m from the mountains, forests, hills, etc. Perhaps there’s more to where we are from than what is geographical. I’m from a family who is descended from the American Revolution and the Ottoman Empire. I’m from a culture with great food. I’m from a private school system. I’m from a religion and a denomination whose first response to the world is God’s free grace through Jesus Christ.
If we are truly going to engage in the world of reconciliation and building trust, we will need to venture into the question of where we are from, and this can get to the deepest levels of our souls. This can get to places where denominations, religions, relationships with Jesus/God/Allah/Flying Spaghetti Monsters will affect things. When Jesus says to his disciples to love one another as he loved them, he also says that this is how others will know that they are his disciples (John 13:34-35). What we believe affects what we do and what we do affects others.
We may do well to ask “Where do you come from?” in a broad way as a starting point. We may benefit from learning more about where we come from in our faith journey to get a better idea of where we are and how we can relate with those around us. Comparative religious study isn’t trendy-it’s ongoing and happening every time we encounter difference. It’s life.
Where do you come from? Geographically? Familially? Culturally? Spiritually?
How does what you believe affect what you do?
What happens when you think of other religions? Notice your feelings. What feels comfortable or challenging about it?
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Thank you, Justin, for this piece & your thoughtful questions. I am curious about many of these things myself. I appreciate your insights.