I recently participated in an iftar, the meal at the end of the fast each day during the month of Ramadan. It was organized by a person who read my article about Imad Tarhoni and Ramadan.
She called Imad and asked if he and his family would be willing to do an iftar with some of us non-Muslims.
It was an international event. The hosts were born in Argentina and Great Britain. They had two students living with them, one from France and one from Columbia. Imad was born in Libya and his wife Sarah grew up in Egypt.
When it was officially sundown, we broke the fast by eating dates, which is customary among Muslims. Then came the meal, but before that a prayer was appropriate. To my surprise, they asked me to say “grace.”
So there I was, in this multi-cultural and interfaith context, thinking, “How should I do this? Should I pray in Jesus’ name and be authentic to how I believe, but risk coming off as a neo-colonial exclusivist who doesn’t respect other religions, or should I pray something generic like “Oh, Creator of the Universe” or something like that?”
I decided to pray in Jesus’ name. A little later Imad and Sarah spread prayer rugs on the floor and, speaking in Arabic, they prayed the prayer appropriate for evenings in Ramadan. They didn’t translate the prayers into English and certainly didn’t change any of the language to make it acceptable to us non-Muslims.
I felt relieved, for one thing. If Imad and Sarah didn’t bother to even translate their prayers into English, then they probably weren’t offended at me praying in Jesus’ name. But beyond relief, it was to my joy that everyone at the table voiced in one way or another their pleasure at the group being OK with people be different.
There was no attempt to pretend that “all religions are at their core the same.” No trying to find a least common denominator in religious language that would “do no harm,” but in so doing would be both “least” and “common.”
I was further relieved that during the meal, everyone agreed that they felt good about the Tarhonis being authentic and the Christians present doing it their way. Maybe the context framed the behavior as not trying to disrespect or convert the ones who were different. After all the reason for the get together was to share and learn in times fraught with religious divisions and strife.
I know all of the arguments for using generic language at interfaith gatherings, and perhaps that was an important thing to do at one point in history as a way of signaling that the days of religious colonialism were over. But in these times, the danger, it seems to me, is that in liberal life style enclaves like the one I live in, in the sincere effort to be non-offensive, we lose the particularity inherent in every religion.
Muslims call Jesus a prophet, because Muhammad back in the seventh century consciously rejected the Christian claim that Jesus is Lord. That for me is the core of my religion. That is the particular “stumbling block” which prohibits me from sharing religious expression at its most personal, intimate level with people who believe otherwise.
To be honest, in my eleven trips to Thailand I have often worshiped in a Christian church in the morning and visited a Buddhist temple in the afternoon, and I have to confess I felt more connection on a “spiritual” level with the monks I hung out with than I did with the Christian pastor.
But that was a connection of temperament on an interpersonal, emotional level, for which I was grateful. The monks and I met at what you might call a religious crossroads where we were able to share some stories of our journeys, but at the end of the day, we had to acknowledge that we were headed in different directions when it came to ultimate truth. We could learn from each other, certainly, but to pretend that we shared the same religious path would be an exercise in denial.
Stephen Jackson once quipped, “Religion is like the mafia. You’re either all the way in or all the way out.” To say all religions are the same, is to stand outside all of them. That may be the goal of a liberal education, but that’s not the goal of each particular religion. It’s like the mafia or marriage. You can try to love all humankind in the abstract or you can choose one person to be your lifelong partner and one religious community to be committed to. Standing outside of the particularity inherent in each religious is to be either religiously promiscuous or unable to make commitments.
If I am married, I can of course have other women as friends, but there is always a level of intimacy past which I cannot go with them. To do some in the name of loving everyone would be to deceive myself.
The question we face these days is how to make a unum out of a pluribus. The answer, I think, is not to pretend that we’re all the same, but to find the parts in each of our particular religious traditions which call on its followers to love the neighbor, even when the neighbor is radically different at the deepest level. Jesus told a story in which a Samaritan “got it” better than a priest and a Levite. In telling that story, he was making a point about “who is my neighbor” and not about the ultimate truth of the way Samaritans practiced the Abrahamic tradition.