01/18/2015 06:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Challenge of Exclusivity

Reflections from The Interfaith Amigos


With apparently religiously motivated murders spilling innocent blood across our news screens this past week come serious concerns about the role of religion in our world. Many fear violence from radical Islam; moderate Muslims fear retribution from those who fear those radicals; and the European Jewish community reels from substantial increases in anti-Jewish violence. And when fear rules the day, increased violence is never far behind.

We believe that it is time for renewed and deepening interfaith dialogue to honestly and openly confront these issues. We need to find better ways to talk with each other, to refuse demonization, and to learn about the authentic truths in each others' faiths.

Not everyone is delighted with the prospect of interfaith dialogue. Here's part of an email from a faculty member in response to the invitation to attend an upcoming program with the three of us. We are a rabbi, a minister, and an imam who have been working together for more than 13 years to promote effective interfaith encounter. Because of the deep friendship that has developed through our work, we have come to be known as the Interfaith Amigos. This is from the email in question:

"For me to enter into an organized activity with those who deny the deity and redemptive sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ under the guise of 'interfaith' would violate my conscience."

It is likely that he will not attend our presentation at his college, but we are grateful for his sharing, because he is letting us know two important things. First, we have a long way to go in our quest for authentic interfaith dialogue that can support more effective shared efforts to address the environmental and social issues that we face as a human community. And second, his writing reminds us that exclusivity is perhaps the greatest impediment to interfaith cooperation. And exclusivity exists within each of our Abrahamic traditions. Only by meeting this part of our religions honestly can we learn to transcend the ways such exclusivity limits, and even imprisons, us all.

Rabbi Ted: Jewish Exclusivity

"For you are a holy people to the Eternal One your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2)

The belief that Jews are the Chosen People has created great difficulties for both Jews and non-Jews. For Jews, a big question is, "If we're chosen, why are things so difficult for us in the world?" And for non-Jews, "Don't they know God came over to our side when the Jews rejected Jesus? Those people shouldn't even still be here."

But Deuteronomy 14:2 says it quite clearly. No matter how we look at it, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament to Christians) declares the Jews to be the Chosen People, special to God. There are no other Chosen People named. We Jews are special, and we have a closer relationship with God than anyone else. Sorry, folks, but that's just how it is!

Or not. There are significant problems with this belief. It conflicts with the core teaching of Judaism, which is the teaching of Oneness: There is One God Who embraces the whole of creation, the entirety of humankind.

Yes, Jews are chosen -- for the Jewish Way, the Way of Torah. Prior to reading the Torah we say, "Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Who has chosen us from among all people and given us the Torah." Likewise, in the Sabbath Kiddush, recited on Shabbat eve before sharing wine or grape juice: "For You have chosen us, and sanctified us, from all peoples, and have given us Your holy Sabbath... as an inheritance."

This does not preclude other people from being chosen for their Way with equal vigor. Christians, for example, are chosen for the Way of Jesus; Muslims for the Way of the Quran; Buddhists for the Way of the Buddha. Each group is equally chosen for their own path. Even as individuals, we are chosen to be ourselves, to celebrate and express our particular gifts.

Spirituality is always inclusive, and every authentic spiritual path is an avenue to a shared Universal. Our uniqueness is meant be shared to support all of us.

Yet there is something within us that wants to be "right," that wants to possess the "final answer." In this yearning, exclusivity rears its problematic head, dashing possibilities for peaceful coexistence. But if we realize that we are each chosen for our uniqueness to support ourselves and bring greater kindness, justice, and love into our world, we shall sacrifice our ego's desire to own the final truth, and, instead, together find a Way to Peace.

Pastor Don: Christian Exclusivity

The idea that Christianity is the only way to salvation, to healing, has been fundamental to the thinking, historically, of almost all Christians. But why would the Creator play favorites with any group? Such an idea is inconsistent with the spiritual wisdom of Jesus. When Jesus taught that we must learn to love one another, he was not saying that God loved any of us more than others. Indeed, Jesus taught that God's love extends to all of us.

The verse that has been used most often to justify the idea of the superiority of Christianity is from the Gospel of John chapter 14, verse 6: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God except by me."

It makes no sense to me that a person with Jesus's spiritual awareness would speak from such a narrow place of ego and focus so much attention on his own being. If he did say anything like this, I think there is another way to understand it. I AM is the name of God revealed to Moses in the famous burning bush episode in Exodus where Moses actually asks for the name of God. And in both Hebrew, the language Jesus read and prayed in, and Aramaic, the language he spoke, the "to be" verb in the present tense is understood but never spoken or written. So, I believe this verse needs to be translated: "I AM is the way the truth and the life." In other words, "God is the way, the truth and the life." It makes sense that Jesus would say something like that. It points to a broader more inclusive place of understanding.

But as the Bible was being written down, the early Christian church was still developing, and saw a deep need to defend itself against its perceived enemies: Jews, Pagans and Gnostics. While all the gospels have "I am" statements, the Gospel of John, because it contains a more blatant attempt to proclaim the superiority of Christianity, has a particularly strong agenda to convince the world of its exclusive claims.

The consequence of this sense of superiority has been untold suffering for millions of people since the end of the first century of our common era. It is imperative that Christian people understand the difference between ordinary human concerns on the one hand and spiritual wisdom on the other, and understand the difference between speaking from a narrow place of ego, and from an open heart. Then, finally, religion will no longer support violence and suffering, and will lead us toward healing.

Imam Jamal: Muslim Exclusivity

In a time honored parable, God reveals sublime truths to Prophets over the ages. Then the devil comes along and says, "Let me organize that for you!" This becomes institutional religion. Satan sows discord by making each community feel that their organized religion is uniquely superior.

"Beware of pride," warned the Prophet Muhammad, "It is the major cause of wrongdoing."

To the proud ego, the Quran is the true and unadulterated version of divine revelations that had been sent earlier but were corrupted by Jews and Christians. But it cannot be denied that Muslims have also corrupted Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad through misinterpretation and fabrication, in order to serve the interests of empire building or misogynistic clerics.

The Quran says that the Prophet Muhammad is the last of the Prophets of revelation until the Day of Judgment. Some religious leaders claim to be Prophets after the time of Muhammad, which arouses the ire and inflames the ego of many Muslims. But, if this is a grave error, this wrongdoing goes into their ledger of accounts, not in ours. Why do we get so agitated?

When we proclaim superiority, this is not religion speaking but our ego clamoring for attention. Our arrogance has consequences:

  • In our pride we cannot imagine other faiths to be as unique as ours. We feel no need to have an appreciative understanding of other religions or connect with devotees of other faiths. This kind of thinking, however, is disrespectful of God's plan for us. The Quran says that God could easily have made us one single community but chose to create diversity so that we might come to know one another (5:48; 49:13). The 13th century sage Rumi exclaimed: "O God, You have created this I, you, we, they... to play the game of adoration with Yourself!"
  • We avoid the essential work mandated in the Quran: transform your ego, open the heart and be of authentic service to God's creation. Our ego enmeshes us in endless theological disputations to assert the superiority of our beliefs. In so doing, says Rumi, we are like a bird that creates more and more complex snares around its legs and cleverly unfastens them to show off its strange skill, forgetting that the point is to escape!
  • We aspire to convert others to our religion. Our little self assures us that we gain merit in heaven for our efforts. Enlightened teachers ask us to pause and reflect on the story of a zealous monkey who made it his mission to go to neighborhood ponds and pluck fish out of water to save them from a watery grave! If we insist on the right to proselytize, it will be critical to develop what a Christian theologian describes as "ethics of evangelism."

In conclusion, we speak in one voice

We are only human, so none of us is free from some of the lures of holding to a belief that our tradition is actually better than others. Some of us, as we have seen, can utilize aspects of our sacred texts and traditions to define and defend that exclusivist position. But we have also seen that such a position is simply not necessary in order to honor and celebrate the religious identities that help define us as individuals and as communities.

Awareness of the exclusivism we adhere to is required if we are to successfully move beyond it and share with each other as a human family welcoming everyone. Certainly, this does not mean watering down our own belief systems and our own communities. In fact, we have seen, time and time again, that when one steps beyond the notion that their way is "the only way," an even more profound appreciation of one's own faith becomes available. We are all chosen, we are all loved, and we are all embraced compassionately. The challenge is to to honor the call of each of our traditions, to treat each other more compassionately, and to care for our planet more lovingly.

Seek greater awareness of the treasures in each tradition, and watch your commitment to your own way deepen!