As a cultural anthropology student I was immediately drawn to believe in the thesis stated in Professor Eck’s book that submersing ourselves in the traditions of others is the best way to gain a full understanding of our neighbors. This semester’s honors religion class tested Eck’s thesis by visiting local religious sites. From these encounters, I realized that what really holds us back from full understanding is our individual definition of religion. The problem in America is not that we can’t understand each other, it’s that we won’t. As Winnifred Sullivan states in The Impossibilty of Religious Freedom, “The word [religion] is defined differently for different purposes…” Everyone has a biased view of what religion is, distracting us from the reality that each individual’s beliefs are shaped by their personal experiences; however, through experiencing the traditions of others, we can better identify our own beliefs, leading us to an acceptance rather than a fear of the traditions around us.
Before being challenged to discover my own definition of religion, I had never given it much thought. I suppose that I defined religion as a group’s belief in something, usually culturally defined, but again, nothing more than a belief among individuals defining themselves under the same religion. In my mind, this was a communal activity which encompassed all under a single tradition.
During a visit to the local Hindu temple I observed as several individuals prayed before a deity of their choice, as one gentleman stopped to stand before each deity, and finally as all came together to watch the priest perform a ritual for the planetary deities. In class we had delved into the Hindu belief that there is no “right” path, that the “right” path is whichever path leads the individual to truth. I had assumed that these paths were pretty general, you have Islam, Judaism, Chritianity, Hinduism, etc. What I observed at the temple opened my eyes to the idea that individuals within the tradition may also have their own path to truth.
As open minded as I strive to be, I still find myself fighting my own ignorance. It is something that we all have to face because we are so caught up in our own beliefs. But how else can it be? These steadfast beliefs are what make us unique, drive our actions, and define our lives. It is for this reason that we must make the extra effort. If we are striving for understanding it is necessary that we be aware of where we stand. I believe that experiencing other traditions redefines our own definition of religion, so that we can coexist based on a greater understanding of our neighbors.
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