Why Religion Goes Astray
by Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 29.
This exuberant and courageous book is an inspiration and example for all of us in these sadly polarized times. It is a reminder that it is possible to reach across the divisions and find not only common cause but hope and affection. Karen Armstrong
We began to explore deeper aspects of interfaith dialogue when the events of 9/11 found us surprisingly uneducated and unequipped to meet the negative image of Islam dramatically portrayed by our media. Many years of interfaith programming had not prepared us adequately, so following the shock and the pain, anger from too many people turned religion against religion.
The three of us personally have come a long way over the past ten years that we have worked together. We have become a team with an interfaith message of hope and possibility. We have shared many issues in our work together, and perhaps the most basic are these two questions: What keeps us from an authentic interfaith dialogue that can help us meet our shared economic, social, and environmental issues together? Why is it so hard to work together?
Our second book, Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith, published in October 2011 by Skylight Paths Press, focuses on these questions. It is clear to us that our religious institutions have strayed from their own core teachings of Oneness, Love, and Compassion. Straying from purpose seems to be part of being human. We believe it can be a way we grow.
Rabbi Ted Falcon: We go astray personally and religiously when we go unconscious to what really matters in our lives. We do this automatically when we slip into the compelling needs of our ego, our separate self, and lose sight of our connection to others and to our world.
Our ego is the institution of our individual being, and is the personality with which we most often operate in the world. But we are more than our personality. Spirituality reminds us of our greater identity, with which we experience ourselves interconnected to all life.
Just as our ego is the institution of our individual being, religion is the institution of our spiritual being. Our ego provides support for an individual identity, and the religious institution provides support for a spiritual teaching, yet at the same time each limits that which it supports. The separateness we experience through our ego institution and through our religious institutions often has us competing with others, forgetting all that we share.
The core teachings of our traditions call us back to the essential spiritual values too often eclipsed by the institutions of ego and religion. Like so many prophets who reminded us of the essentials of the spiritual path, the 8th century BCE prophet Amos proclaimed the larger purpose we all need to remember: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Pastor Don Mackenzie: Exclusivity heads the list of problems that keep us apart.
I believe that the claim that Christianity is the only way to healing, to salvation, is not only incorrect, it is the cause of much of the suffering in the world and certainly lies behind the problems with the other three categories we identify: violence, the inequality of men and women and homophobia.
The verse most often cited to support the exclusive claims of Christianity is John 14:6: “Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God except by me.” Since “I AM” is the name of God announced to Moses at the Burning Bush, it makes sense to me that what Jesus might have said was, “I am is the way the truth and the life.” In Hebrew and Aramaic, the present tense of the verb “to be” is frequently understood but not spoken or written. No spiritual teacher would be likely to speak from that narrow place of ego. I think Jesus was talking about God and not about himself. It seems likely to me that the second sentence in that verse would have been added by the writer of the Gospel of John who may not have understood this grammatical construction common to Hebrew and Aramaic, and supported the exclusive sensibility he heard in the first sentence.
Christianity is my way but not the only way.
Imam Jamal Rahman:
Perhaps the greatest wound in Islam is the unequal status of women. Islamic traditions have been mired in deep patriarchal bias, causing women to be treated as second-class citizens in many Muslim societies. The result has been a kind of psychic paralysis for both women and men in Islam. The tragic irony is that the Qur’an actually revolutionized the rights of women by granting them property, inheritance and divorce rights. The Prophet invited women to pray alongside men in the mosque and women sometimes sang the call to prayer and even led the prayers. Today, women are not allowed to pray in the main sanctuary of most mosques and their Qur’anic rights are obstructed by male-dominated rulings and customs.
How did this happen? Simply, the radical Qur’anic privileges granted to women were unacceptable to 7th century tribal men who were used to treating women as chattel. Once the Prophet died and Islam spread to feudal societies, male jurists reclaimed their dominance over women.
But now there is good news of exciting ferment and changes. Unprecedented numbers of Muslim women are obtaining higher education and entering professional fields. Female scholars are challenging the stranglehold of male interpretations of the Qur’an. They are debunking fabricated misogynistic sayings of the Prophet that have given birth to harmful traditions. At the same time, Muslim men are awakening to their conditioning and learning to appreciate the truth of a bumper sticker I saw recently: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people”.
A Word of Conclusion
We need to be called back to our core teachings of oneness, unconditional love and compassion. And each time we awaken to such a calling back, we find ourselves at a new, more expansive and more inclusive place. Our straying provides precious opportunities for us to call ourselves back to greater meaning. It is part of the path of our spiritual evolution.
About the authors: Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman are now known as the Interfaith Amigos and started working together after 9/11. Since then, they have brought their unique blend of spiritual wisdom and humour to audiences in the US, Canada, Israel-Palestine and Japan. Their first book, Getting to the Heart of Interfaith (Skylight Paths, 2009), brought the Interfaith Amigos international attention with coverage from the New York Times, CBS News, the BBC and various NPR programs.
Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Imam Jamal Rahman
Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith
Available from Watkins Books
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