It seems fitting, on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, to talk about sameness and difference, given that council’s reconciliatory aims. It’s a subject that comes up in my mind and heart constantly as I progress through my studies.
This dialectic between similarity and difference is central to interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is a central academic interest of mine, one key component in what I’m trying to do here at the GTU. And one thing required of me as a scholar, a Christian, and a good human being, is to listen well. Listening well helps navigate between these two poles, helps us understand: how are we the same, and how are we different?
The challenge for me, as I explained to some friends recently, is being ready to hear not what I want to hear but what is actually there. How often does someone speak to you, or do you read something, and then someone must correct you later on because you’ve heard them saying something they did not say? You’ve morphed their words and ideas to fit your scheme, your expectations, your worldview, your grid. Or, you've gone the other direction: you’ve identified them as completely “other” and assumed no compatibility between what you and they are saying.
This happens to me occasionally. I once told an acquaintance that I thought universal salvation (reconciliation) was a compelling perspective—the possibility that all will by persuasion or by choice—be reconciled to God. She responded by saying that she totally agreed with me...that Jesus made salvation universally available, so that all could receive it, not just some. She thought we were talking about the same thing, no real difference. I would strongly disagree with that conclusion.
But I’ll admit my tendency is to emphasize similarity. And here’s why: I’m pained by any hints of exclusion and condemnation of the other. When I see walls, boundaries, lines in the sand, I can become uncomfortable. That’s not to say I don’t value definition; being able to name what something is or is not is important. But often those outside of our walls are then seen as lost, foolish, maybe even on the path to hell.
So emphasizing what we have in common seems like the solution to hate and wars. To show people how we really all worship the same God and have the same needs and same dreams and same common humanity seems the loving, noble, godly thing to do. And in some ways—we are the same.
But doing this—emphasizing our similarity—can mean dishonoring what someone else is saying. It can mean not truly listening. And it’s not even just about a Muslim and a Christian comparing their Gods. What do we Christians even mean when we say God? I would argue that even among some of my Christian friends, we have different conceptions of what God is like, how God works, what God wants from us and for us. Often when we talk about God with our religious peers, we nod our head in agreement because we’re talking about the same God, so we think.
And I think we are, to an extent. But I think there’s a richness to be uncovered in taking the time to actually explore and try to really hear what people are talking about when they say God. Because we’ve all had different experiences, some traumatic. Our images of God vary. We use common language at times, but even our language is loaded and assumptions are made about what people mean when they use a given religious word or descriptor.
So when Christians and Muslims talk about God, they are likely conceiving of something quite different in their minds. But when an Episcopalian and an Evangelical and a Catholic and a Charismatic talk about God, they have differing conceptions too.
Yet…the problem for me comes when we then make greater judgments than are appropriate given this difference: when, for example, we belittle the belief and lived practice of faith of a Muslim, when we write it off as simply wrong or destructive. Or, when we do this same thing to our Christian neighbors of other denominations.
Emphasizing sameness can be dishonest and can close us off to being challenged and stretched (though discovering our common humanity can be profoundly challenging too). We might think that our beliefs and practices are just fine, thank you, and need no adjustment. We can fail to take someone else seriously and see his or her uniqueness. We can fail to understand ourselves and what we really believe. And we can miss out on the beauty of our diverse stories that all add something to our shared human picture of the divine.
But emphasizing difference can lead to hate, disrespect, exclusion, arrogance, can close us off, and can be harmful to those outside of religious communities who may not care much about religion and spirituality and faith but still suffer the consequences of warring religions (and denominations) who don’t know how to be at peace with one another.
So it’s a tension, a dialectic, a two-way street in which similarity and difference must both be held up as important. There’s also not always an easy answer, I’d say. But it doesn’t make me anxious. Why? Because the cornucopia of spiritualities in our world can be seen, if you want it to be seen, as something that is not evil and in need of fixing, but something beautiful that invites us to explore, to discover…to learn.