By Patrick Neitzey
In a world of absolutes, where our beliefs, thoughts, and statements are distilled down to 280 characters it can be a daunting task to wade into the murky waters of dialogue and conversation. It can be tempting to form groups around shared thoughts, beliefs, and convictions as a means of grace, and then begin to hold people at arm’s length that do not fit neatly into our group. This belief-based exclusion is prevalent throughout society, but is pervasive along the lines of Religious Belief. So how do we form community that is inclusive of all people, regardless of belief, that respects everyone’s unique beliefs without simplifying, synthesizing, or manipulating closely held aspects of each?
A good place to begin is a posture of curiosity and openness. A mentor of mine, Dr. Blake Burleson, teaches World Religions at Baylor University. Dr. Burleson often takes students to other religious settings, invites many of his friends who are leaders in other Faith Traditions to his classes, and tries to create an immersive class environment. He describes the characteristics that make the best students, “I have observed that those of my students who exhibit love, wonder, empathy, concern, and consideration for people of other traditions are the ones who are most capable of understanding others.” This openness invites people into a dialogue, where ideas can be shared, and common respect can be paid to one another.
The next is through gentleness in action and communication. In 1964 a book was published called The Message of Jesus Christ and the author was Mahatma Gandhi. In this slim volume, Gandhi describes the beauty that he sees in the life and teaching of Jesus. In this book Gandhi states “if we have spiritual truth, it will transmit itself,” and he illustrates this point by comparing how a rose transmits its scent. This act alone communicates the rose’s beauty. It does not have to be thrust into the hands of others, “likewise let God work [God’s] way”. The gentleness of our action’s and communications should be like the fragrance of a rose, the Truth of love and beauty should be evident in all of our speaking and actions, not to change or manipulate people of other faiths, but to live out our own in such a way that invites community.
Finally, we must live with the radical inclusivity that our belief requires of us. Many people think Christianity is a religion of exclusivity, and forget Jesus's love for all people—of all faiths—evidenced by his story of the good Samaritan, a religious outsider who does more for a stranger than any one of the religious "in crowd" Jesus belonged to. The great theologian Paul Tillich illustrates this inclusivity through his exegesis of the passage: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your father is perfect.”(Matt.5:48 NRSV) Tillich asserts that a better reading of this passage is “you must be all-inclusive as your heavenly Father is all-inclusive.” That is my prayer, that the communities you form will be all-inclusive, that ideas and beliefs would be shared with gentleness and compassion, and that all hearts and minds would be open and willing to smell the wafting fragrance of truth that arises.
1 Burleson, Blake W. A. Contemplative Approach to Understanding World Religions: C.G. Jung as Phenomenologist of the Soul. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, 2014. 214.
2 Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. The Message of Jesus Christ. Bombay: Bhavan, 1964. 30.
3 Tillich, Paul. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. 35-36.