I stand in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, dazed by the overwhelming number of choices. I like the pecans in one, the wheat flakes in another, the dried strawberries in that one—and oh, let’s not forget about raisins and nut clusters! There are so many different kinds of cereal, all with something good to offer… how can I choose just one?
Growing up, I was taught that all religions are different manifestations of a singular Truth. My religious upbringing included stories of Krishna and dancing gopi girls, Native American trickster tales, Prince Siddartha’s search for truth, and a little baby born in a manger. In some ways, it was like standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, surrounded by good and nourishing choices—and a little overwhelmed by the variety.
In the case of cereal choices, of course I don’t have to choose just one; I can buy many boxes. I can mix them all together, if I choose (though I’m not sure that cocoa crisps would complement shredded wheat, but I could be wrong!). For a time, I tried this with religion, too—celebrating Yule with a tree and gifts, Holi with bright colors, and El Dia de los Muertos with an ofrenda. This made the year full of religious stories and traditions from around the world, and quite festive. After a while, though, I needed more: more learning, more depth, more guidance and structure.
There’s that metaphor of God as a mountain, and different religious traditions are just different paths up the mountain. For most of my life, I stood at the foot of this mountain, telling passersby (and myself) how great it was that there are so many paths to God: “Isn’t is amazing? The light of God shines in all religious paths!” Yes. But the thing is, to get anywhere on God’s mountain, you have to start walking one of the paths.
Choosing one religion doesn’t mean having to declare all others wrong. Nor does it mean I can’t appreciate teachings and prophets from other religious traditions. For me, walking a Jewish path means celebrating Jewish holidays (and not others); adopting Jewish prayer and practice (and not others); studying Jewish sources and texts; and joining a community of people who share these traditions and practices.
I have come to think of religious traditions as language systems that facilitate communication between humans and God. Each one was developed over time, in a certain place (or places), among a certain people (or peoples), and is still evolving—much like a language system changes and adapts over time. Usually people grow up speaking one language, but it is possible to be multi-lingual.
In order to communicate effectively, though, you can only speak only one language at a time. When you mix and match language systems—throwing in vocabulary from other languages, re-arranging the grammar, tossing in foreign idioms—then communication becomes difficult. Likewise, each religious system is a coherent whole, with all its parts—stories, history, prophets, teachings, and practices—working together to facilitate communication. This is the beauty of speaking one religious language, of walking one religious path—doing so can bring our lives into a clearer relationship with God.
I speak English, and communicate best in that language. But I recognize that other languages also enable communication for those who speak them. Walking a Jewish path helps me grow and deepen in my relationship with the Divine Life—in much the same way that walking a Christian path or a Muslim path helps my Christian and Muslim friends grow and deepen in their relationships with God.
It was a blessing to be raised with the beauty, the joy, and the light of God in a variety of religious traditions. It is a gift to easily appreciate the cadence of other religious languages, and to like a lot of different kinds of “cereal.” But I am so grateful now to have found one way to be, religiously, in the world—one clear path to follow, and a community with which to share the journey.
Photo by Rex Roof (Attribution via Flickr Creative Commons)