Choosing My Religion

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Posted on November 15th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Theology
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cereal aisle

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.

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Photo by Rex Roof (Attribution via Flickr Creative Commons)

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8 Responses to “Choosing My Religion”

  1. [...] Theological student Yaira Robinson concurs, using the metaphor of language to understand the importance of exclusive religious affiliation: 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. [...]

  2. Rebecca Levi says:

    Speaking as someone who grew up between religious traditions, and who spent a lot of her adolescence trying to make syncretism work where it just…didn’t, I appreciate this post a great deal.
    The language metaphor makes a lot of sense to me– but what about languages that fall into the category of Creoles, that is, full fledged languages in their own right that are developed from the combination of two or more other languages? Obviously, by the time they are identifiable as Creoles, they’ve developed vocabularies, idioms, and structures uniquely theirs, but they would seem to arise from the same sort of linguistic chaos you describe. Do you suppose a parallel sort of development might be possible among religions?

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks so much for your comments. And yes, I’ve been thinking about how blending happens, too–especially since the blog that quotes this essay (see the comment above yours) has me as concurring with Steven Prothero, who argues for a kind of strict distinction of religions that I just don’t think can (or should) actually exist. Religion isn’t as neatly packaged, separated, and sorted as Prothero proposes, and I stand firmly in the “one God (mountain), many paths” rather than the “different mountains entirely” camp.

    To go back to the language metaphor… Languages (and religions) evolve, and share, and borrow–and sometimes the boundaries are fuzzy, as in your Creole example (a great example, btw!). That said, I do think that operating in one general system facilitates clearer religious identity and a stronger possibility of community, and better helps we humans face life’s challenges.

    Of course I know there are people who have coherent Buddhist meditation practices that complement their regular Christian or Jewish practice, and there are more examples out there of blended but integrated religious mixing. My main critique is of a mixing and matching, consumer-style, where we as individuals hand-pick stories or practices of holidays from a range of traditions. It’s confusing. And also, it puts the individual “in charge” rather than encouraging us to get over ourselves and follow the-Mystery-that-some-people-call-God.

    Shabbat shalom, Rebecca!
    -Yaira

  4. Rebecca Levi says:

    “My main critique is of a mixing and matching, consumer-style, where we as individuals hand-pick stories or practices of holidays from a range of traditions. It’s confusing. And also, it puts the individual “in charge” rather than encouraging us to get over ourselves and follow the-Mystery-that-some-people-call-God.”

    I think this is a really useful distinction. To continue with the language metaphor, it’s worth noting that Creoles always arise in the context of a community–otherwise they wouldn’t develop into distinct languages!

    Shabbat Shalom,
    RL

  5. Jeff Courter says:

    I am working hard to find an underlying “truth” behind the various religious traditions we can all understand, speak and share, perhaps in different religious idioms, but with the same idea behind it. Something like a “translation,” if you will.
    I grew up a “mailine Protestant” (Presbyterian) and in our faith tradition, we understand Jesus as a very real representation of God’s love for humanity. But I am sure such a concept exists in other religious traditions, but expressed in different ways.
    In the Christian Bible, we have the verse from John that “God is love.” This verse is critical to our understanding as Christians about the nature of God, and humanity’s relationship to its Creator. (Unfortunately, too many Christians seem to have forgotten this verse throughout the history of the Christian church!)
    My point is this – we are often divided religiously over our separate languages describing and defining God to the point we have wars over those definitions (which has included more than a few wars between Christians and Christians in the “name” of God). We need to find, affirm and declare together, from our different faith perspectives, this “God of love” instead of the gods which separate us in the name of ideologies.
    This is what I seek when I study other religions – their names for the “God of love,” so that I may share that Name with them, from my own Christian understanding and language perhaps, but still declaring, with the prophet Jeremiah, “The Lord’s lovingkindness indeed never ceases.” This to me is key to helping us learn as human beings to live in peace with one another.

    Shalom, Peace –

    Jeff

    • Thanks, Jeff, for doing this important work! I find myself doing a LOT of translation… engaging in interfaith work and being a Jewish student at a Christian seminary sort of demands it. :)

      Peace to you & blessings,
      Yaira

      • Jeff Courter says:

        Yaira –

        I give YOU credit for going to a Christian seminary, being Jewish! You may be interested to know that at the seminary I attend (McCormick, in Chicago – PCUSA) we have a Jewish instructor who teachs (wait for it…) NEW TESTAMENT! yes, that’s right, and she’s our only one. I haven’t had a class with her yet, but I’m signed up for her class on the Gospels next spring.

        Let me know how it goes for you!

        Blessings –

        Jeff

  6. [...] though they were 7 and 9 before we found our permanent religious home. (Read my previous essay, “Choosing My Religion,” for more on the importance of having a religious [...]

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Yaira is Jewish, married, and mother to two boys who make her laugh every day. As Associate Director of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, she works with Texas religious communities to promote social and environmental justice. She recently completed her Master's of Theological Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Yaira is fueled by gratitude, laughter, and sometimes unhealthy amounts of coffee.


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