The Fall Quarter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute began this week at the Raymond Walters Branch of the University of Cincinnati.
That information hardly makes a banner headline, but it does explain why I was part of a panel of representatives of four major religions: Islam, Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism. The course is called "Religion Beyond Dogma." It is one of many offered for senior citizens.
I was asked to explain in seven minutes "the core beliefs of your faith." Needless to say, I couldn't do it in seven minutes; the question-and-answer period allowed me to say more.
It was a challenge to listen, speak, compare, and try to be a worthy representative of my Church.
To listen is hard to do. I suspect that's why the daily prayer of the Jew begins with the admonition, Shema, Israel! "Listen, O Israel, Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone!" To really listen one must be quiet, be open, be attentive. Faith comes through hearing.
To speak is easy. But there is a huge difference between having to say something and having something to say. I wanted to be orthodox but practical.
If, as poet John Donne says, "Comparisons are odious," I have to think that contrasts are odiouser (is there such a word?). And yet it is in comparing and contrasting one religion with another that we sort out the truth.
Hardest of all is being a worthy representative of my Church. I know that there are certain beliefs (dogmas) that every Catholic must hold or risk being judged non-Catholic. For example, Catholics are monotheists, but believe in a trinity of persons. They believe that God created the world, that all human beings are made in God's image, that there is life after death. On these we all agree.
But when it comes to representing practices, spiritualities, and theologies, Catholics differ among themselves. For example, most priests in the Roman Catholic rite are not married; in the Eastern rites most are. Catholics pursue a variety of spiritualities: Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, or a hybrid of eclectic devotions. Catholic theologians interpret doctrines in different ways. The Catholic umbrella is large.
As I listened to my colleagues explain their core beliefs, I recognized that they too have personal takes on what their religion holds. I heard myself say things to the audience that some Catholics would quickly disavow.
I do not think one religion is as good as another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something that I think applies: "If you board the wrong train, it's no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction." Nonetheless I concluded that each of us must apply our religious tradition in a way that translates it into our individual and personal faith.
I think the confrontation between Peter and Paul over Jewish law or the controversy over faith and good works serve as examples that this individuation and personalization occurred even in New Testament times.
Some disagreements allow only one answer, but some permit a variety of solutions. That the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ is dogma --you have to believe it to be a Catholic. Whether communion should be distributed only on the tongue is open to discussion and differing practices.
I am not proposing that Catholics should pick and choose beliefs and practices simply as they please. Cafeteria Catholicism is not my focus.
Rather, what came to me as I participated on the ecumenical panel was the need for all believers to personalize their religion if it is to be more than an academic exercise or a practice of culture.
Religion should be an interiorized, personalized expression of one's relationship with God. Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Catholics all share a common family bond --we are children of Abraham. But we deny that relationship if we do not make it personal.
I may not always agree with my brothers and sisters but they remain my family. If the ecumenical movement is to be successful, if Jesus' prayer that they all may be one is ever to be answered, it will require each family member to do his or her best to translate that truth into real life.
To be faithful to one's religious tradition and yet make it one's own is the lifelong learning challenge of every authentic believer.