The Importance of Religious Diversity
I believe it is no accident that there are so many cultures and religions on earth. From the time I was a child, I was always interested the varieties of human customs and beliefs. From the 4th to the 6th grade I read every single book of folklore and mythology of every culture that was available in my local library. I was always interested in the multiplicity of human societies. Ultimately, I abandoned my chosen undergraduate studies in the history of art, for a Master’s program in field of anthropology.
Back then, in the 1970’s, there was a growing urgency in the study of living world cultures as western technology and communication caused the decline of many languages, folkways, rituals and practices. Of course, every human society has its special religious tradition or system of beliefs. Deference for each culture we researched was central to our anthropological studies. But it was not until several years later that it hit me: it is essential that human societies strive to retain this variety of customs, culture and, especially, beliefs.
Some years ago, as a parent with a young child, I did my stint as a Sunday School teacher. I was reading the book of Exodus, preparing a lesson on the call of Moses. In Chapter 3, Moses is trying to evade the call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. In verse 13, Moses said, I will tell the people of Israel that the God their ancestors worshiped has sent me to them. But what should I say if they ask me your name? God said to Moses: I am the eternal God. So tell the people that the Lord, whose name is “I AM,” has sent you. This is my name forever, and it is the name that people must use from now on. Well, how could ancient, unlettered people be expected to swallow this? So abstract, so baffling, so unearthly, so unknowable. I guess the word is “faith.”
And to drive the point home even more forcefully, in Chapter 20, when Moses receives the 10 Commandments, the very first commandment not only declares the singularity of this God, it goes on to say “Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth.” Of course! Moses is giving his people the message that there is a God, and that this God cannot be defined by human beings.
Through mythology, scriptures and sacred writings, every culture has tried to explain the source, the cause, the transcendent, the divine, if you will. Every society strives to grasp this divinity through the lens of its own cultural values, history and traditions. The more we learn about human societies, whether ancient or modern, primitive or developed, the more we realize that each holds a unique insight into the nature of the divine. No one group can ever grasp it all. If we are to expand our understanding, it is by connecting with, and learning from our fellow human beings of other traditions. Any religious authority claiming to have the whole truth is deluding itself and its followers. These institutions are trying to define the great “I AM” in their own terms. This is nothing more than trying to create an idol. As wise as we Westerners think we are, we still comprehend only an infinitesimal fraction of the transcendent reality of the infinite mystery of why we are here.