We Know Less than We Think about the Faith of Others

"One of the most amazing parts of theological education for me was learning that the simplistic caricatures of Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism that I had learned in Sunday school and confirmation class were not just untrue, but wildly misleading.

"In the decades since seminary I have continued to find remarkable the depth and profundity of those traditions. I have admired the variety of schools of thought within them. It is almost always wrong, I have discovered, to assume that all members of any group think one way, without nuance or variety.

"Beyond that, I have blushed when communicators representing certain evangelical strands of Christian believing have crudely summarized some aspect of another religion's perspective in order to knock it down. I have quietly cheered when my fellow Christian leaders have been taken to task for unthinking remarks that show no awareness that, for instance, Jewish thought is as complex and varied as that of our own tradition.

"I do not permit the churches under my jurisdiction to celebrate ersatz Passover Seders during Holy Week. Besides the insult to another tradition, such events assume that the Christians participating in them know things that they simply do not know about the rite they are aping.

"Because I've inhabited that mindset for decades, it came as something of a shock to hear from Dr. Laura Schlessinger and again, during the recent holiday, from local religious writers who were trying to make an entirely valid point about their understanding of 'forgiveness,' just the kind of simplistic and dismissive caricature of Christianity that I had heard about other faiths in my own childhood. This is not the place to explain their errors — it is much more important to point out the universal problem: we all think we know more about other people than we actually do.

"As distasteful as the experience of hearing Dr. Laura and reading the newspaper piece was, it was still helpful for me. My resolve never to try to speak with authority about a tradition in which I do not live has been strengthened.

"It also left me with the wish that those who emphasize the importance of interfaith understanding would come to believe that such understanding must always go in both directions. Those who are part of what is wrongly thought to be a homogenous majority are the most likely to be stereotyped and misrepresented.

"It seems to me that in the 1960s and 1970s both ecumenical and interfaith dialogue came from an honest desire to understand each other better, to find how our common humanity is expressed in and built up by our spiritual traditions. Recently, however, we find ourselves taking increasingly defensive positions.

"A recent teaching entitled Liturgiam Authenticam instructed Catholics that their translations of liturgical texts should no longer give the impression of commonality with those of other Christians, a sharp reversal of policy. Gone in a pen stroke were the decades of efforts in precisely the other direction. I'm sure there were strong reasons for such a change in position, but it leaves me just as stunned as did Dr. Laura.

"Is there any way back to the virtuous curiosity and respectful dialogue we once knew? Is there any way back to a time when all groups had the humility to know that every other group was as complex as their own? That every other group operated with as much integrity as theirs did? A time when people sought commonality rather than divergence?

"The third largest religious group in a recent survey (after Catholics and Baptists) is those with no religion (16 percent). Can the increasingly perceived irrelevance of religious faith motivate those who share faith to look for language that commends rather than belittles the faith that is in others? The question we are left with requires a courageous look within each of us: What keeps that from happening?"