Lesson 13: Religious People, Not World Religions

coexistI began this series wanting to share Barbara Brown Taylor’s experience about how the study of other world religions enhances the way we practice Christianity. Her findings were similar to my own, and I felt that she responded honestly to the situation most of us confront in this pluralistic global society.

I end it realizing that Taylor’s experience also seriously challenges our traditional practice of Christianity. She espouses each individual person developing her own religious mosaic and acknowledges that means we no longer have religions, but only religious people. Along those lines, she maintains when we meet one Buddhist, we know something about how one Buddhist lives out her religion but cannot say we now understand Buddhism. You see how far this goes in her own religious life when she says that the only clear line that she draws these days is “when my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor.”

That is quite different from traditional Christianity in which joining the Church meant being baptized and confirmed into a community in which you found your identity by following Jesus of Nazareth. Believers spoke of losing your self in order to find your soul and being willing to sacrifice your life to bring salvation to this world.

Taylor’s experiences convince her this kind of community belongs to the past. Today, many of our neighbors do not share our religious tradition and even those who worship with us might aggressively oppose our values. Her personal response characterizes religion as an ongoing search for a fulfilling lifestyle. Her ideas about developing your own religious mosaic certainly sound like a kind of self-centered customized religion in which you pick and choose what works for you.

That raises all sorts of questions for the institutional church, not the least being how it will sustain itself if most people come and go in a never- ending personal search. However, if Taylor’s experience accurately reflects our present situation, and I think it does, then we have to address those questions.

Let me end with a personal experience that supports Taylor’s observations. Many years ago, my wife and I were invited to a college board of directors’ formal ceremony honoring our daughter. When I asked the president if I had to rent a tuxedo, he indicated wearing clerical garb filled the bill. Although I was happy not to incur the expense, I was very uneasy about sticking out as a religious person in an academic setting.

It was evident that some did avoid me like the plague. However, I was pleasantly surprised that some people went out of their way to engage me in conversation the entire evening. A great deal of the surprise was that everyone who spoke to me with the exception of the college officials were practicing Jews.

Years later, I am still trying to process all the implications that has meant for my ministry. I suspect Taylor would suggest that I simply accept it as a gift that has enriched my life. If I allow it to make me more compassionate relating to my neighbors, God will take care of the questions.

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