“All religions are the same,” he said. This was our first in person date after meeting online. I immediately recognized the pattern of the conversation. I start by asking all the questions. When I go silent, and he realizes I’m not going to do all the work, he fumbles around looking for a question to ask. When he asks what I do for a living, I tell him I’m a pastor, I get a look of stunned surprise and he says, “I grew up insert religious tradition, sort of. We weren’t that religious. I mean my insert mother/father/grandparent was, but I drifted away once I finally insert teenage life stage ritual. But, you know, all religions are the same.”
(The only date that did not start this way was the guy who sat back in his chair, and after moment of silence, looked me in the eye and said, “That’s hot.” We dated for five months.)
I’m not sure what is the most irritating. The mansplaining about an area where I am the resident expert? I’ve been a pastor for 25 years. I am paid to be religious. And he hasn’t thought about religion except for the occasional attendance at a service to make his mother happy. Or is it being lumped in with a conservative Christian Trump supporter and a Wiccan priestess? (And, I’m fairly certain, they wouldn’t like being lumped in with me either.)
When I walk back to my car, I come up with a response that I promise myself I’ll use next time someone tells me that, “really, uh, all religions are the same”:
Would you tell a cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the lead singer in a rock band or a fifth-grade music teacher that all music is the same? Of course not. Because you like jazz and can’t stand country western. You hate that Adelle has a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” John Denver reminds you of your first girlfriend. You could listen to Yo-Yo Ma for hours, but you want to crack your upstairs neighbor’s child’s violin over your knee every time they practice. And when your cousin Barb, the recovering alcoholic, sang “Amazing Grace” at your uncle’s funeral you teared up, not because she sang so well, but because she meant it. And the other day, as you walked from the train station to your office in the loop, an old guy holding out a Styrofoam cup asking for coins and singing “It’s a Wonderful World,” stopped you in your tracks. You thought it was probably a scam, but still, you gave him all the cash you had because his song pierced your heart.
So no, all religion is not the same. Which isn’t to say that I think everyone who isn’t like me is doomed (though I am suspicious of non-coffee drinkers and people who don’t like dogs). I’m not a Christian who thinks Christianity is the “only way.” But Christianity is my way. My life has been shaped by delving deep into its stories and wrestling with its teachings. I admit to days when I want to turn my back on the whole enterprise, but then I return, lured again by the promise that following Jesus brings purpose, peace, and joy.
In my experience, my commitment to my own faith has helped me be open to the truth found in other faiths. Our ethics often almost identical, loving neighbor, generosity, and forgiveness, but seeing how people of other faiths live them out holds me accountable to my own standards. When I’ve been able to participate in life stage rituals or holiday celebrations with people from other traditions, I’m pushed ask of my own faith the questions I have of theirs — What’s the significance of this? What do these symbols mean?
But religion does more than teach us how to be good people and carry us through our life’s transitions. Religion asks the big questions – Who are we? What is our purpose in the world? What happens when we die? What is wrong with the world and how do we solve it?* Religions share a quest for spiritual truth, but many of the questions they ask and the answers they find are different.
When I walk in Busse woods near my house, I can only see the beauty of the red maple, black ash, and swamp white oak if I’m willing to notice the differences. Or I can choose to not be bothered with really looking and just see a bunch of trees.
*This last question is from Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One.