God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, including being and non-being. It’s so simple!
– Joseph Campbell
Such a definition may have been simple to the brilliant mind of a genius like Joseph Campbell, professor of comparative religions, but to average folks like me, concepts of “God” are anything but simple.
For many of us, religious education ended when we left Sunday school. Our concepts of the divine have been shaped by culture and family tradition as much as anything. In general, North Americans know very little about other religions and, frankly, very little about our own.
According to USA Today (July 24, 2009), 60 percent of Americans can’t name more than five of the Ten Commandments, and 82 percent think the verse “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. It is not!
Scholars estimate that there are at least 40,000 distinct Christian denominations, sects and movements. Under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, 2.2 billion people in the world confess Christianity as their religion. That translates to one Holy Book, one Jesus and a huge diversity of expression and understanding of just what it means to be a Christian.
Islam’s 1.6 billion adherents have as many denominations and sects as Protestantism. Judaism’s Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox communities celebrate diversity in understanding and expression among their 13 million believers.
The three great monotheisms – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – come from the same story. We each claim to be “children of Abraham,” the ancient patriarch who, responding to God’s calls, moved his family from the security of wealth and home to a new land. God made a covenant with Abraham that his family would be as prolific as the stars and a blessing to all the nations forever (Gen. 12:1-9, 15:1-6, 17:1-8, 18-21).
Yet how those three traditions understand that legacy and seek to honor it has at times throughout history lead to horrific consequences.
There is nothing simple about God and religion; there can’t be, there shouldn’t be. If we are talking about the Source of life that binds all living things and time together, if we are talking about a Reality experienced in myriad ways by all human cultures since the dawn of history, if we are talking about the Voice within us all that lures us to do what is right – there is nothing simple about that. “God things” should be diverse, different and unique.
Not all religions are the same. The Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic don’t have the same religion that I know. The Muslims killing Muslims in Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan don’t represent all billion-plus members of Islam.
In a pluralistic age such as ours, I seek to learn from and appreciate any religion without apologizing for my own. The only simple thing about such an approach is discovering that regardless of one’s creed, it is how one lives one’s life that describes what one really believes.
The Rev. Mark S. Bollwinkel is senior pastor of Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, visit laumc.org.