The encounter between religions is not quite the same as a meeting between two people. Although we talk about religious traditions as if they were distinct individuals, the reality is far more conplex. We find ourselves saying “Christianity believes that…” or “Buddhism teaches that…” as if there were attitudes, teachings, and traditions that an entire group of people agree on.
We do a little better when we talk about “Christians” or “Buddhists,” “Muslims” or “Jains,” but here, still, we have to acknowledge that the individuals within a tradition may not agree either on what the fundamentals of the faith are, how they should be interpreted and understood, and how they should be manifested in daily life.
Who gets to decide? One way of looking at religious tradition is to describe a body of beliefs, customs, or practices that a person must adhere to in order to “truly” be part of that tradition. Whether because they are seeking to assert their particular definition, to claim special authority, or perhaps to dissociate themselves from others with whom they disagree, people who start with definitions create a theoretical standard by which to measure the faith and actions of others. (See the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy).
Another way to approach religious traditions is phenomenologically, asserting that religion is not so much a matter of dogma and tradition as it is an experience, a way of being in the world. Each individual’s experience will be different, regardless of how much they may have in common due to their religious self-identification, their family context, or their social world. In a very real sense, each person is a religious tradition of one, a mix of their religious inheritance, their local community’s interpretation of that tradition, their family’s sensibilities, their own personality, and their life-experiences.
Writing in the Toronto Star, Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, observes how a phenomenological understanding of religion can help smooth the way for interfaith appreciation. From an article by James Page, an Australian professor, on “The interaction between phenomenology and religion,” Rabbi Marmur derives six ways such an approach opens the way:
- Tolerance. Because this way of seeing recognizes the inherent diversity of experiences, it enables people to accept others’ experience as authentic. “It behooves us,” writes Marmur, “to accept others as equals whether or not they’re part of our community.”
- Sacred texts. We acknowledge that sacred texts are about religious experience. They did not fall from heaven fully formed. We may derive teachings from the texts, but do so recognizing that the texts are written because of human experience.
- Social action. Because human experience is at the core, compassion for suffering humanity will lead to seeking justice and wholeness for all.
- The individual. By focusing on human experience, this approach values individuals over theoretical constructs, abstract faith-claims, or universalizing conformity.
- Religious experience. Marmur says, “Contemporary religion is about how people experience God much more than how they observe rituals and conform to norms. Affirming life in all its manifestations comes before mouthing well-worn formulas that reflect orthodoxy as interpreted by clerics and allegedly hallowed by tradition.”
- Affirmation of life. An experiential religion enables us to reclaim aspects of human life and experience that have been downplayed or forgotten. The place of human beings in the interconnectedness of all creation. In Page’s words, “a phenomenological approach opens the door to understanding a more life-affirming role of religion.”