Religion and Spirituality

When I was in South Asia a few months ago, I heard that someone had made a map of where the Muslim and Hindu neighborhoods were in the city that I was visiting based on a single criterion: were there more dogs or cats there? You see, Hindus like dogs, and Muslims like cats.

Not only do they have opposite perspectives about which pets are clean, they eat differently, too. Most Muslims will eat most meats, but consider pork abominably disgusting. Some Hindus eat meat, but beef is absolutely sacred and forbidden.

After visiting a Hindu temple yesterday, and having gone to a mosque a few weeks ago, I am struck by how very opposite the two faiths are. It goes way beyond dogs and cats, beef and pork.

Islam is about solidarity. Five times a day the call to prayer summons everyone to remember, “God is one.” The prayers are constant and reliable. Inside the mosque, the entire community bows and gets up at once. There are very clear moral expectations set. The world revolves around a single point: the Ka’aba in Mecca, which represents the triumph of the one God over the idols of sixth-century Arabia. The Qur’an, given to Mohammed, is the fixed and final way that people are to know who God is.

The Hindu faith is more amorphous. The priest yesterday told us, “Hinduism is like the people who say, ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious.'” There are certain prayers for people to adopt, but the gods are multiple. God can always manifest in a new way. Families and individuals choose certain deities to meditate on and appease more than others, but these claims are not exclusive. People can go to the temple whenever they want. The only fixed gathering times are for festivals.

Religion without spirituality, or spirituality without religion? God the One, or God the Many? No wonder the two faiths have rubbed each other in such, at times, violent ways in South Asia.

It would be easy for me, as an American of European ancestry, to look upon the religious conflict of South Asia with a distant eye. The reality is, the two faith-patterns of South Asia are well and alive in the U.S., and not just among immigrant communities.

Among all Americans we see a polarization between two opposing modi operandi–including in the Christian church. We see increasing fundamentalist fervor among religious conservatives who clench ever more tightly to a vision of America as a “Christian nation” and bemoan the country’s “decaying moral standards.” Meanwhile, other Americans–including many from the church–long for greater spiritual openness, pluralism, and “authentic,” personal spiritual practice.

The problem is, Islam and Hinduism, religious conservatism and less-organized spirituality, don’t coexist easily. It’s hard to love someone when you don’t want to talk to them because your core belief systems run completely opposite to each other.

What we find in authentic Christianity is spirituality and religion hand in hand, and a God who is One in three.

Jesus operated completely within the context of Judaism. He learned the Torah. He celebrated Passover. The community marked by faith in one God was his own. Yet he repeatedly told the Jewish leaders of his day that they had gotten the point all wrong. It wasn’t about religion. He said, “Woe to you . . . You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice a child of hell as you are.” Justice, mercy, and faithfulness, he told them, were more important than counting the number of steps they took on Saturday or how many spices they gave to the temple.

When Jesus left the earth, he left behind with the community that had gathered around him the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God, for them. This life-giving Spirit would teach the people what is true and bring the very heart of the one who created the universe into their own bodies.

Those who follow Jesus do not gather because they are forced to by a human trumpet. They do not look a hundred directions for something spiritual to do. They go to the well of salvation that is Jesus himself, and there they find friends.

They find that in Christ Jesus, there is no longer Muslim nor Hindu, pork-eater nor beef-eater, dog-lover nor cat-lover, religious fanatic nor spiritual wanderer. There is a beautiful mosaic of people who have been broken and glued back together so that the light of God can shine through them in all their many colors.

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