My first memories, at least about others, are of wondering about what people believed, religiously speaking. I’m not certain of the foundation of that curiosity. I have no memory of religion in my life until my brother and sister and I began attending Sunday school later in childhood. And even then, it was an opportunity presented to us, not forced upon us.
My parents did not really attend church. Eventually, my brother and sister stopped attending as well. But I kept going. Walking down into the valley at 10 years old every Sunday morning and getting a ride home from someone after coffee hour. Free-range days long gone.
So I’m not exactly sure where the early question mark came from about the nature of other people’s beliefs. But I remember the wondering distinctly.
My first formed thoughts about religion, once I had started to discover traditions outside my own, were that they all felt very similar in some ways and extremely different in others. But it was the similarities that attracted my attention. I recognized the differences as being somewhat more of the clothing one wears rather than the person inside.
As much as I loved the church in which I grew up, and in which my parents and grandparents were married, I wouldn’t say it was an education in world religions. But it did open the door for the safe exploration of them in my own life and search.
In my preteens, I asked the minister what we (meaning our congregationalist denomination) believed. The question was a little too simply made, but was meant to ask for the distinctions between our tradition and the traditions of others. I wanted to know what made us different, mostly so that I could understand how we were the same.
The answer I got, however, was that we all come with our own individual perspectives in order to share them with one another so that we may all be transformed. I appreciated that sentiment at the time, but nowhere near as much as I do now.
That was probably the most important thing a religious professional has ever said to me in my life. At the first opportunity to ask a minister what we are supposed to believe, I was humbly told that we are the ones who decide that for ourselves.
Every day, I value that thought more.
In all likelihood, I would have been just as curious about other people’s beliefs had I not been directly given permission to wonder. But at what cost would that curiosity exist? I have known people whose curiosities about other faith ideas have led them to feel unwelcome in their own. Questions like that were, and still are, not allowed in many places.
But I was given a freedom from that burden — a freedom I recommend we all make it a priority to claim for ourselves. We should demand the freedom of our curiosities. And no priest or pastor should limit that search in any way.
To limit questioning is to declare the uncertainty of your own position. To prevent others from wondering about and respecting the ideas of other people is to admit that one’s faith does not have all the answers.
But there should be nothing wrong with admitting that none of us has all the answers. Certainly no one religion. Religious professionals should be more comfortable with the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Any good truth worth its salt should have no fear of competition.
As I’ve gotten older, my curiosity no less enthusiastic, I’ve begun to realize what three things most major faiths have in common: Advice on how to get along with one another; the impact of the seasons on our emotional health; and the nature and/or existence of our eternal selves.
These three things are the recurring themes in virtually all forms of organized religion. The wheel of the year, our relationships, and the dispensation of our souls. They are almost like an intertwining helix of realities and bridges, reaching toward one another to form the cultural and philosophical building blocks of our species and its future.
The most tenuously discussed of the three is the soul, sometimes thought of as the higher self or higher mind. If real, it is a consistent aspect of our human existence. Yet organized religion seldom deals with this higher self except to reference the danger in which it exists without the careful adherence to the faith. Beware for your immortal soul. Do as you’re told.
Of course, not all faith systems dispense fear as a method of controlling the outcome of our eternal souls, but it exists more often than not.
I think that’s an abuse of our relationship with our higher selves. And it’s gotten us into trouble, this tradition of accomplishing obedience through fear. It can’t be the intention of Spirit to shame us or make us afraid in order to love one another more. That just does not possess any spiritual logic. Punishment does not teach love. And, ultimately, the teachings are only about love.
The wheel of the year is often the sometimes quiet or unnoticed component, except for those who still honor the old earth traditions. But even in the most high-church forms of Christianity, the wheel of the year is omnipresent. It is the liturgical calendar: the schedule of holidays, festivals, feasts, and observances. These directly correspond to how we feel at different points in the year relative to the amount of sunlight or nourishment we receive through our cyclical movement through the seasons.
For instance, in February we often light candles in the northern hemisphere as part of our religious traditions. In the fall, we all have traditions that revolve around the harvest. And in the spring, we honor rebirth. The indigenous traditions of the southern hemisphere have their own versions of these as well, although their seasons are reversed. But the Christian traditions, largely begun in the northern hemisphere, maintain these same liturgical calendars in the south, which are out of sync with the seasons. They potentially miss the mark for the intrinsic human needs they are meant to fulfill.
My ultimate question, when it comes to religion, is a search for that which is intrinsically human: noticing what all faiths have in common, and then using those to ask a question about what it is we all have in common. What existential questions do we all have? How do we address them? What influences our concerns?
We find that all religions deal with the four great relationships: that with others, with the self, with the Earth and with God. What might we make of these recognitions?
Of course, I’m not listing all of the various commonalities here. There are far too many in number to observe in a single essay. But they each reveal that which is intrinsically human in us: The more we explore and ask, the less we are fearful or apprehensive in our approach of the religious or cultural other, and thus, the more we understand how beautiful our own individual traditions truly can be.
I constantly learn surprising nuances of my own faith tradition in the process of discovering how others answer their own questions about the nature of the Ultimate Reality. We all co-inform one another, intentionally or otherwise. We are all in this one great big soup together, and each of us brings our flavor to the broth.
Be fearless in your curiosity of other people. Asking sincere questions is the highest form of respect. Be comfortable with allowing those around you to have their own search and affirm it.The farther we go, the more we explore, the more we witness our great commonality. How can anything but peace on Earth be the ultimate result of that?
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.