All in the Family

For many people, religious tolerance sounds an oxymoron. It is quite easy to understand why. God knows there have been more than enough examples of religionists who have spent their lives preaching hatred for those outside their own tradition.

But, enjoying some holidays with my wife’s family at the moment, it is clear to me that what those who live and preach a religion of hatred need is to spend some time here in Trinidad and Tobago. What I have in mind isn’t Carnival (as outrageously fascinating as it is), or the incredible beaches and food (as awesome as both of these are), but exposure to the way the social fabric of this country so tightly weaves together the major religious groups of the two islands.

My wife’s family is quite typical of Trinidadian culture in terms of religious tolerance and interfaith composition. Good Christians regularly marry good Hindus and good Muslims and show not just tolerance but deep respect for each other’s traditions. Children are raised to remember the common roots they share as Trinidadians – roots that go much deeper into the soil of humanity than the shallower roots associated with their particular religious tradition. My Presbyterian in-laws happily go to Muslim or Hindu prayers with their husbands and wives and send their children to religious education in both traditions as a way of deepening their spiritual formation. Add in boyfriends, girlfriends, and other relations and the result is family dinners or days at the beach that are extraordinarily rich ecumenical and interfaith encounters.

I recognize that this sort of inter-religious openness is deeply threatening to many Christians. I know the tired old Scripture verses people trot out to support the sort of exclusivism they live and which they feel honours God. But rather than attempt to justify religious tolerance on the basis of Scriptures, let me say something about it as a psychologist.

The psychology of exclusion always reflects fear and breeds hostility. It arises from the binary nature of the egoic mind that attempts to simplify the world by means of comparison and categorization. But once things are categorized, it is almost impossible not to judge them good or bad. We then identify the good with “me” and “us” (those I count as my tribe) and the bad we project out onto “them” (everyone else). This is the way the egoic mind defends itself from perceived threat. Those outside our clan and comfort zone represent a potential challenge to our way of being in the world. But engaging them with respect and openness offers incredible opportunities for expanding the self and its horizons.

Religious tolerance does not mean abandoning your beliefs. It simply means holding them with humility. The only thing it requires is openness to the possibility that you and your tribe do not have exclusive ownership of truth. Decades of dialogue with those of any faith or none with this modest degree of openness have made me more, not less, deeply Christian. But they constantly serve as a reminder that even more fundamental than being Christian is being human. And we all belong to that family!

Dare to step beyond the exclusivism of the egoic mind. I guarantee it will enrich your life. And if you happen to be a Christian, it will also make you a better witness to the Truth and Love you claim to be at the core of your life.

photo by Poras Chaudhary/Getty Images

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