For many people, religious preference is treated almost like an ice cream flavor. You don’t have to eat ice cream and, if you do, it doesn’t matter all that much what flavor you choose. No matter the flavor, it’s all ice cream.
There are reasons for this attitude. Throughout history, the group, be it a clan or a kingdom, followed the same beliefs about how the world and people came to be and a moral code about how to treat one another. A classic case came when the ruler of Russia sent some advisors to help him choose between Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity or Islam as the religion for his domain. He chose Orthodox Christianity.
In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation brought a series of clashes over religion. These had political overtones as local rulers were able to establish their freedom from Rome’s influence in their actions by choosing one of the Protestant faiths.
The desire for freedom of religious belief and practice was a major driver in the colonization of English-speaking America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the federal government’s establishment of religion. The major reason for this was that several states had their own state religion and didn’t want their choice overridden at the federal level.
With the development of religious freedom, there is a need to be courteous toward those whose beliefs differ from ours. In many ways, the “ice cream” model is reasonable. After all, we are taught that it is simply not a good idea to discuss religion or politics. They are a matter of personal belief.
But, it is important to understand the need for religious freedom. Religion isn’t too trivial for the government to decide, it is too important. We don’t let the government, or other people, control our religious quest, or lack of one, because it is a very important matter. It is too important to be left to others.
If, in the interest of courtesy, we say that all religions are the same, we cheat both ourselves and the other person. I think the current lack of religious participation is a result of this confusion. It is pointless, to me, to treat all religions the same. If that is true, I’ll just sleep late on the “Sabbath” of all religions and get some rest.
Many “mainline” denominations are working to accept all views and are, as a consequence, seeing their numbers decline. Others just mutter something like “be nice to people.” They are also in decline.
Religions grow when they have something to say and something to offer. When we appreciate the value and importance of our own quest and extend to others the courtesy of their quest, or lack of one, we are fully practicing and granting freedom of religion.
You can reasonably ask, and I will willingly grant, that your religious quest is as valid as mine. That is the essence of religious tolerance. The limit is reached when you ask me to treat all religions as equal or, more specifically, ask me to say the religion I follow is of no unique value.
To be specific, Christianity is not a religion of ambivalence or indifference. A person’s understanding of Christianity is the answer to the question asked by Jesus in Matthew 16:15 (RSV), “But who do you say that I am?”
C. S. Lewis has written that Jesus is a liar, a fool, or the Son of God. Jesus was crucified largely because he made himself the equal of God. If He believed himself to be the son of God and He wasn’t, He was a fool and His execution as a blasphemer was justified. If He didn’t believe it but said it anyhow, He lied Himself into an early death.
The most challenging possibility, for us, is that He really was the Son of God. If we are to believe that, we have to believe something even more incredible. Was He really resurrected from the dead? The apostle Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter (epistle) to the Corinthians discusses this in some detail. Paul makes it clear: if Christ is not risen from the dead, our “faith is futile” (v. 17-RSV). Likewise, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (v. 19 – RSV).
In the older, liturgical, churches, there is a Creed, or statement of belief, repeated in every liturgy. The “Apostles” Creed, the Nicene Creed or something very similar is used. We get the word “creed” from the first Latin word of the creeds, “Credo” means “I believe” and, in saying the creed we are supposedly saying what we believe about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If, after saying the creed in church I, out of courtesy, say to you that all religions are equal, I have made myself a hypocrite.
Your quest is yours. Your answer is yours. You are absolutely free to live your life and make your quest, or not. Even more, you are free to ignore my opinion. But, if you ask my opinion of various religions, do not expect me to utter some bland “religion is like ice cream” response.
I have come to a definite conclusion about religion. If you ask what I think, I will say, in the words of the liturgy of my church, that Jesus of Nazareth is “truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”