11/08/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Tolerance As a Religious Virtue

If you are an atheist hovering around the HuffPo religion pages, it sometimes seems you're hitting the comment button before I'm even done typing. If I say something positive about religion, you scream: the religions of the world are awful, violent, and full of bigots and crooks who want nothing more than to fool you into believing nonsense and giving them your money! Oh, and they are intolerant as hell.

Fair enough. That's part of our collective past. But religious traditions are also full of beauty and wisdom. If you've been hurt by one, I am sorry; so have I. But there is too much light in the texts, traditions, and practices of our religions to leave them behind, which is why so many of us don't.

But I'll grant you, tolerance is a relatively new virtue in the religious panoply. Wars, pogroms, inquisitions, and other terrible things have - and still happen - in the name of God. This is why many progressives often promote tolerance as the supreme virtue of religion today.

It was that way fifteen years ago when I was starting SkyLight Paths Publishing with friends in Vermont. I remember attending dozens of interfaith gatherings in the late 1990s where the keynote speakers were Baha'i or Unitarian Universalists. They would often stand and say something like, "You should be like us. We are the ones who are truly tolerant because we embrace all of the religious traditions at once." The message was that if you remained committed to a single tradition your religious life was by definition intolerant.

I was reminded of this experience recently when reading Susan Katz Miller's book, Being Both, about how more and more families are embracing two religions equally at home. I admire what they are trying to do and applaud their commitment to religious life and community. But I am troubled by the claim made by some of the teens interviewed in her book who have been raised in dual-faith households, that they are somehow by definition more tolerant than everyone else. Being multifaith does not, in itself, make you tolerant.

I hope, too, that raising kids in two religions simultaneously doesn't mean stopping at tolerance and literacy as the end all be all of good that religious traditions can offer. There is more.

I think the best way to get the most out of a religious tradition is to enter deeply into it - to allow its texts, traditions, prayer, and practices to form and inform who you are. There are good reasons why Jewish parents speak of wanting their kids to "make good Jewish decisions," and good reasons why you'll hear a Catholic say that being Catholic means something distinctive in the world. We need both, and others, and I can't imagine how that could happen as fully if a person was limited by interfaith education (who believes what, and why), and marking certain holidays equally at home.

This is why, in my own interfaith marriage and household, we chose to raise our daughter in only one tradition. We want her to be immersed in it.

The issue of tolerance impacts my religious life, too. I go to mass, but most often I pray with my wife in the Jewish congregation where our family are members. I remain a Catholic despite praying most regularly with Jews. I am not Jewish, and I am not "both." In fact, there is a sense in which I will always remain something of an outsider in synagogue and that's okay. I actually believe that's the way it should be.

I don't carry the Torah. I will never read from the Torah. I don't wear a tallit. These are some of the marks of adult Jews in synagogue. When I go up to the bima with others for a blessing, as often happens, a nearby friend will usually share his or her tallit, draping it across my shoulder too.

Of course there is plenty of opportunity for me to change that. I could become Jewish by conversion. I choose not to do that for a whole bunch of reasons that are not unusual. The point is: no one is discriminating against me. On the contrary, they usually welcome me in ways that I find surprising and beautiful. And I don't think that a 5,000 year-old religious tradition should simply accept whatever I desire to give to it and then make me fully one of its own. It is enough - more than enough - that they be welcoming.

I hope that every religious tradition will teach tolerance and spiritual literacy of other traditions. That's a given. But I also think that there is more. Tolerance may be our supreme civic virtue, but it is not the most important virtue for using religion to its fullest. We need robust religious traditions that are welcoming in their congregations and also a little bit jealous of their most precious texts, traditions, and virtues. As a rabbi friend, an old member of the SkyLight Paths advisory board, once said to me, "You wouldn't want me to drop by your church and take a nibble of the eucharist, would you?" No, probably not.

-Jon M. Sweeney is a Catholic writer married to a rabbi. Together they are the authors of Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century (Jericho Books, 2013).