A couple of weeks ago, Ward Ewing, Dean and President of General Theological Seminary in New York, spoke at Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, FL. During the education hour, a parishioner asked him if the seminary requires students to study other religions as part of their preparation for ordination. Dr. Ewing said that at this time comparative religion is not a required part of the curriculum. However, he did suggest that the seminary is moving towards offering more opportunity to learn about other religious traditions.
While his answer did not surprise me, I find it troubling that leaders of the Episcopal Church do not receive more comparative religion training. We live in a global world where the barriers of geography that once might have separated people of different faiths no longer exist. Islam is growing at a torrid pace in Europe and in the United States. Hindus and Buddhists continue to build temples across the country. International politics are rife with conflict dominated by religious rhetoric. In particular, people of the three primary Abrahamic religions often seem more in conflict than at peace.
Religious leaders of all faiths need a greater awareness and appreciation of each other if this is to change. I would suggest that an increased emphasis on the study of comparative religion would lead us in the direction of peace. Prejudice and misinformation often lead to a disregard of the beliefs and values of others. Xenophobia is the direct result of ignorance. On the other hand, understanding often is a first step towards tolerance, and tolerance towards peace.
Of course, nothing is ever simple. All three of the Abrahamic religions contain threads of violence. For instance, one can hardly ignore the divine warrior motif of the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian imperialism that engendered colonialism and its attendant oppression of indigenous peoples. However, while recognizing and exploring this tradition of violence, it is also possible to see more peaceful, loving themes throughout the history of these great faith traditions. In Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence, Zachary Karabell notes that each contains a core of peace. He points out on page 5 that Christian worshipers worldwide turn and say, "Peace be upon you" (or something similar). Muslim's greet each other with the words salaam alaykum - "Peace be upon you." Jews use the word shalom - "peace.” Might this emphasis on peace be the grounds for greater harmony between these three great religious traditions?
All of us need a greater understanding and appreciation of these traditions. The negative impact of religious fundamentalism has made religious and nonreligious people alike fearful of others. It is easy, for instance, for Christians in this country to define Islam by what we experienced on September 11, 2001 or by the almost daily news of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. News of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel leaves many feeling that contemporary Jews are nothing but land grabbing opportunists. In many parts of the world, Christians are associated with the greed of capitalism and a blatant disregard for economic justice. All of these are stereotypes that belie the undercurrent of peace that forms the basis of our religious traditions.
If you are a religious person, insist that your religious leaders learn more about other faiths. Ask that they offer courses in the history of Judaism and Islam. If you are a religious leader, invite leaders of other traditions to speak at your place of worship. Begin a conversation that will lead to greater understanding and appreciation. Our world will be a more peaceful place for it.