Rather than reducing their conversations to the lowest common politically-correct denominator, “the three say they became close not by avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them.” I find this to be rather important. But they do not charge headlong into the others’ religions; rather, they balance self-criticism with honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others. I have found this mixture to be useful in discussing politics with people from other countries–my self-criticism often times being surprising to my interlocators. But whereas in politics criticizing one’s own country or leaders can almost be a pasttime, at least in the US, it is generally taboo for a religionist to criticize anything in his or her own faith.
There seems to be, moreover, an assumption that for a religion to be viable, it must be accepted without erasure or amendment. Eviscerating a passage in a scripture is particularly verboten, and even traditions can reach the status of being a given. In my opinion, this rigidity is not justified by the process by which scripture (and tradition) are begun or formed because human beings are involved in it. I suspect that with time a given scripture or tradition come to be treated as “a given” whereas it was not so treated when it was formed. The distance of time, in other words, is transformative–and not necessarily for the good. Lincoln, for example, is today a mythic figure who freed the slaves. But the truth is, he exempted the five slave states that remained in the Union (MI, KY, WV, MD, and DE), and he considered exiling the freed slaves. What Lincoln has become–and without justification we presume this was how he was then–is far different than what he was. In Christianity, this same dynamic might be involved in the “From Jesus to Christ” idea (as well as that of the historical Jesus as distinct from what he is taken to be today). In any case, a certain “hardening of the arteries” seems to be part of the aging process of a religion. As a given religion becomes increasingly artificial, it becomes more of a dead letter rather than a living spirit…and thus eventually dies.
From this perspective, I am particularly impressed with our three amigos. First, they declare what they most value as the core teachings of their tradition. At one gathering, minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.” They also give honest feedback on what they don’t like about the others’ religions, but then, they do something almost unheard of. The NYT suggests as much in reporting, “the room then grew quiet.” Each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.” The instinct in line with how we tend to understand religion is to immediately hedge. For example, the sheik immediately added, “It is a verse taken out of context,” and he pointed out that the previous verse says that God has no love for aggressors. “But we have to acknowledge that ‘kill the unbelievers’ is an awkward verse,’ ” the sheik said as the crowd laughed. “Some verses are literal, some are metaphorical, but the Koran doesn’t say which is which.” Well,the verse isn’t just awkward. One could argue it ought to be expunged from the Islamic scripture. The problem is, we tend to assume this would render the entire scripture somehow null and void. It either hangs together or falls together.
Well, I beg your pardon to differ. At the very least, because human beings are involved in at least the copying, it is possible, even likely, that errors are made, which do not render an entire work null and void. The problem is, given that interpretation involves the subjective assessment of whether a given passage is literal, symbolic, figurative or metaphorical, deciding on whether a given passage should be extracted does not have the certainty as in “2+2=5 is incorrect and thus should be erased.” There is a “what if we are wrong?” element in “messing” with a scripture. We tend to focus on the human element that would be involved in editing a scripture while ignoring the fact that human beings were involved in the writing of it. This asymetry points to a basic flaw in religion as it is typically understood and practiced by mankind. That is to say, we could improve religion itself. It can be advanced, as can technology or political systems.
To be alive, of spirit, a religious text (and tradition) must be able to breath. Of course, removing mistakes or cultural artifacts that are no longer fitting (e.g., slavery) does involve the risk of making a mistake, but the chance of making one is mitigated, or worth the risk, where it is pretty clear that a given passage is problematic or wrong. If nothing else, the practice of a religion, which typically involves compassion or love, involves removing the source of pain to another. This alone justifies removing passages deemed offensive by others. However, even here, one must discern a legimate beef from over-sensitivity. In any case, self-criticism (without caveat) and compassion ought to override the current view of what being a scripture means. Ironically, by admitting the human element in religion, we can make our religions more closely approximate the divine, and the more we treat our own handiwork as divine the further we fall from our ideal. It is our choice–not a given.