“Everyday Religion” class delves into religious diversity

Author: Josh Stowe

Notre Dame Lake Dawn

Working to understand different faith traditions can promote tolerance, interreligious dialogue, and peace in a world that has a rich diversity of religions. 

That was the idea students explored during the second session of Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths. The class, offered by the Ansari Institute, meets online Thursday evenings and is free and open to the public.

“It would befit every educated person to have at least a basic understanding of the major religions. Ignorance can lead to suspicion, bigotry, and violence, whereas understanding can lead to respect, empathy, and trust.”

Building on the opening discussion from the previous week, Professor Adnan Aslan led students through a discussion of diversity, citing the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that interreligious harmony can be achieved by developing understanding of other traditions and appreciating the value inherent within each of them.

“In fact,” Aslan said, “it would be befit every educated person to have at least a basic understanding of the major religions, for ignorance in this domain tends to lead to suspicion, bigotry, and sometimes even violence, whereas understanding can lead to respect, empathy, and perhaps even trust.”

Students discussed the need to learn about different traditions through conversation, travel, study, and interfaith encounters. For instance, the Rev. Tina Velthuizen, board president of the United Religious Community of St. Joseph County, described how her own religious practice had been enriched by incorporating the practice of prostrating the body during prayer—something she learned from watching Muslims pray. Timileyin Olajuwon, a student from Nigeria, remarked that talking with believers from other traditions does not belittle one's own faith, but rather provides a deeper understanding of religion and a sense of awe.

Religious diversity

Understanding religious diversity means grasping how the soteriological (salvation) goal is typically understood in various traditions, Aslan said. For instance:

In Hinduism the soteriological goal is moksha, release from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), and absorption into Brahman, and this can be achieved by following the three paths: knowledge, devotion, and action.

In Buddhism the goal is nirvana, liberation from the wheel of samsara and extinction of all desires, cravings, and suffering. This is accomplished by understanding the four noble truths and practicing the final one: 1) all existence is suffering, 2) all suffering is caused by craving, 3) the way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment, and 4) to accomplish this, one must follow the eightfold path (right views, right resolution or aspiration, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right thoughts, and right concentration).

In Judaism the goal is blessedness with God—here and perhaps in the hereafter. This may be accomplished by fulfilling the divine commandments, which include observance of the Sabbath, regular attendance at synagogue, celebration of annual festivals, and strict obedience to Jewish Law.

In Christianity the goal is spiritual transformation and spending eternity with God in the kingdom of heaven. This is accomplished by God’s grace manifested through Christ’s atonement for sin, receiving divine grace through faith in Christ and sacraments, and following the law of God out of appreciation for the gift of grace.

In Islam the soteriological goal is blessedness in paradise through submission to the laws of Allah and by his mercy. This may be accomplished through the five pillars: 1) faith in Allah and his prophet Muhammad, 2) five daily prayers, 3) almsgiving, 4) fasting, and 5) the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Some of the claims offered by the various religions are similar, if not identical,” Aslan said. “Others, however, directly contradict one another. And it is generally the contradictions which cause the most difficulty and lead to conflict.”

Inclusivism and exclusivism

How could the God of Christianity deny salvation to the countless people who have never even heard about the Christian faith? While this isn’t something all Christians believe—as students noted—the question, which Aslan posed during class, points to different ways people of faith might navigate a world with multiple religious traditions.

Although people of faith generally believe there is an objective reality and that one religion is in some sense closer to the truth than others, Aslan said, they often fall into different camps. Exclusivists believe that fundamental truth is found in only one religion, and salvation is also exclusive to that one true religion. Inclusivists disagree. While they maintain that only one religion is privileged, they affirm that other religions also contain important truths. And they typically hold that true religious seekers will at the end find salvation.

The myth of neutrality—the idea that there are no religiously neutral or objective criteria by which to determine whether one religion or worldview is true and another false—is one way of dealing with religions’ different truth claims, Aslan said. The justice objection is the idea that exclusivists hold an unjust position: People who do not know about religions beyond their own are said to be morally responsible for affirming truths of which they are not aware.

As the discussion progressed, Aslan noted that some believers might identify with both camps to some extent, and it was important to consider nuances. In addition, one could argue that a serious commitment to one’s own religion might require a certain kind of exclusivism.

Students also discussed the idea that exclusivism could be seen as arrogant and oppressive, and that someone who argues exclusivism is false is doing what the exclusivist does (holding another view false) and is therefore being hypocritical.

Living ethically

Finally, the class broadened its discussion of different faith traditions by examining how each one understands salvation not simply in terms of abstract doctrine, but also through living a moral life. Aslan pointed out that when Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest, he replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The idea of living ethically in everyday life resonated with students.

“We can say a lot of things, but are we practicing them?” Rev. Velthuizen said. “For example, we say ‘God is love,’ but how do we put that love into practice? Do we take care of the poor in our communities?”