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Birds of a Feather

I vividly remember my first visit to a place – Tokyo – where Christianity comprises a tiny minority of the population, less than 2%.  I missed the steeples.  I’m used to cities, towns, and villages where steeples dominate the skyline.  But not Tokyo.  “OK,” I said to myself, “this is different.”  It wasn’t so much an intellectual surprise –  I do know something about religious demographics around the world – as a feeling of “strangeness.”  A friend of mine who taught several semesters as a visiting scholar at Doshisha University in Kyoto discovered the challenge of teaching American studies, including American religious life, to students who had never been in a church and had never heard the word baptism.  Where to start? 

A recent study of “the Global Religious Landscape” by the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project* reveals one of the challenges to religious tolerance and peace in the world:  Three quarters of the world’s religious people practice a religion that is the majority religion in their country.  The numbers may not be surprising, but they are startling:

  • 97% of all Hindus live in a majority Hindu context
  • 87% of all Christians live in a majority Christian context
  • 73% of all Muslims live in a majority Muslim context
  • 71% of all religiously unaffiliated people live in a context that is predominantly “non-religious”

Only Jews, Buddhists, and Folk Religionists find themselves, for the most part, in contexts where their tradition typically is the minority.  And even in the case of these religions, there are countries where a particular group is overwhelmingly dominant – Jews in Israel, for example, or Buddhists in Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand. 

What this means, among other things, is that most people in the world don’t have to navigate relationships with people of other faiths very often, or at all, and have little to no first hand understanding of what it is like to live as a religious minority. This may not be a problem when the cozy cocoon of religious homogeneity can be maintained, but in an increasingly globalized world where media breaks down many barriers and mobility is increasing, interreligious engagement is inevitable even where it may not be actively promoted.  Absent active spiritual, institutional, and civic practices that nurture positive relationships, the potential for religious differences to be manipulated in potentially violent ways, particularly against religious minorities, is dangerously real.

But this isn’t always the case.  In their book, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell explore why the United States, with relatively high levels of religious devotion and growing religious diversity, experiences relatively low levels of religious tension.  They attribute this to “religious bridging,” the fact that “most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” 

“This, we argue, is the most important reason that Americans can combine religious devotion and diversity.  We call it the ‘Aunt Susan Principle.’  We all have an Aunt Susan in our lives, the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own. . . .  Whatever her religious background (or lack thereof), you know that Aunt Susan is destined for heaven.  And if she is going to heaven, what does that say about other people who share her religion or lack of religion?”  (American Grace, p. 526)

This theory is supported by surveys which show that 80% of Americans believe “there are basic truths in many religions,” while only a little over 10% believe that “one religion” – their own – “is true and others are not.”  Even more striking is recent research showing that over 90% of Mormons, Mainline and Black Protestants, Jews, and Catholics believe a “good person not of your faith can go to heaven.”  Even among Evangelical Protestants, the percentage agreeing with this statement is a whopping 84%.  This won’t make their pastors happy!  As one Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor put it, “as teachers of the Word, we have failed.”  But the wisdom of the laity may be key to providing the communal glue holding us together.  Putnam and Campbell offer this formula:  “Devotion plus diversity, minus damnation, equals comity,” (p. 540).

To be sure, there are ugly events to the contrary.  Vandalism at mosques, shootings at temples, anti-Semitic words and acts, the rants of various supremacist groups are not to be ignored.  But the overall picture is one of a nation that is devout, diverse, and tolerant.  It’s what Putnam and Campbell call “America’s grace.”  “Interreligious mixing, mingling, and marrying have kept America’s religious melting pot from boiling over,” (p. 548).  This is quite a contrast to the world described above where, in most places, birds of a feather flock together, religiously speaking.  It’s a gift worth protecting and nurturing.  Theologians of various stripes may wrestle with the meaning of religious diversity and its implications for our ultimate destiny, and the 10% of Americans who are “true believers” may bewail our readiness to respect the truths inherent in other religious traditions.  But most congregational leaders and members know something else simply by virtue of the way they live their lives:  “Having a religiously diverse group of friends seems to lead to widening the circle of ‘we.’  E pluribus unam,” (p. 542).

John H. Thomas
January 10, 2012       

*See http://www.pewforum.org/global-religious-landscape-exec.aspx          

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