This column was originally published in the Gazette-Times Interfaith Voices section on June 11, 2016.
As part of my commitment to fostering more peace in the world, I teach a course in world religions at Oregon State University.
Studying the major classical religious traditions of the world — Indigenous traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — we emphasize the incredible diversity within each tradition, and focus on the highest values each encompasses (even though all of them have shortcomings). We pay more attention to the human phenomena of being religious, and how humans are similar in their religiosity, than we do to innumerable differences in belief and practice.
This framework comes from my deep conviction that religion is an innately human process, which gives rise to many, many beliefs — all of which are simply evidence of the intrinsic nature of religion among humans.
I am committed to this teaching because every term I see minds open and lives change and I know without doubt that more peace is truly possible. If I were in charge of the world, every person would be required to take a course in world religions. Teaching is part of my commitment to help religion become less a source of division and segregation in our communities and much more a source of collaboration and cooperation, in service to the values we hold in common.
I ask students to go out and visit the religious services of some tradition other than their own; to study that tradition ahead of time and then get firsthand experience of a different faith community. About this assignment one student recently wrote: “The entire experience … and the process of analyzing my experience from an objective point of view taught me an important lesson. My experience taught me that I am ignorant about the world I live in. I didn’t know that my neighbor, whom I have known as long as I can remember” is a member of a different faith.
Another student wrote: “Over the past couple weeks I have really worked to try and understand the beliefs of others. And, for the first time ever I have been able to talk to my friends about what religion means to them, giving me a new perspective on who they are at the core of their being. … I feel like I have gained a very crucial life skill from this class …”
A crucial life skill, indeed. The willingness, and the ability to discover what we have in common, amidst our differences. Would that more adults had similar abilities!
In these days, we are presented with stark choices between building more and bigger walls of separation, which serve to maintain our ignorance of the world around us, or dismantling the existing walls which already keep us from knowing each other. In sharing, and learning more about and from each other, our faiths can become sources of connection, cooperation and collaboration, especially for the very real challenges which confront us all. To face and address racism, homelessness, illness, addiction, violence, climate change and more already demands all of the strengths our separate faiths can provide us. Imagine the possibilities if we would join our strengths together.