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Paul Andersen: Discovering religious tolerance

Paul Andersen

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column stating that religions cannot coexist without the divisiveness that causes distrust, persecution and war. I was wrong.

At Ed Bastian’s “Spiritual Paths” program in Aspen last week, six religious beliefs united in the common goals of devotion and faith. Rather than hostility, there emerged a sense of enlightened tolerance.

During the program, exemplars of Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Christianity, Sufi-Islam and Native American spirituality proved that religious differences need not create barriers to human understanding.

Just as in nature, where diversity is essential to the health of ecosystems, so is religious diversity vital to a healthy human society. Rabi Brad Hirschfield said as much at a panel discussion a month ago at the Aspen Institute where my previous column was formed.

I asked Hirschfield if he could envision the day when religious differences would be dissolved in favor of the unifying spirit of humanism. He explained that religious and cultural diversity is important because it identifies us as individuals. Tolerance of those differences, and an appreciation for individuality, he said, is the greatest human need.

In my column, I maintained that tolerance is merely a band aid applied to the unhealing wound of divisiveness. I erred in my limited definition of tolerance.

Rather than “enduring” something unpleasant, tolerance is best defined as “acceptance and respect for the differences of others.” Instead of criticizing the panel discussion, I should have celebrated the diversity represented there through an exchange of ideas.

Part of my motivation in decrying religious differences comes from genuine frustration fueled by ongoing religious wars and a jaded historical perspective of religious intolerance. Honestly, the track record has not been good in ameliorating religious differences.

My appreciation for religious diversity was awakened when the “Spiritual Paths” program displayed the unity of religious exemplars capable of enlarging their embrace of other beliefs.

“Live at the highest of your ideals. Connect with the best of who you are. This is the way of the spiritual path,” urged Sister Jose Hobday, a Native American Catholic nun. Sister Jose is a rare individual who shows that faiths can intermingle, not only among cultures, but within one individual.

Instead of embracing one world, Sister Jose embraces two. She lives in a duality that describes spirituality as a deep resonance with life. She proves it by simply being, not as a Catholic or a Native American, but as a human being.

“Contribute by the quality of your presence,” she advised. “One day, that is all you will have.”

In many of my columns, I have belabored the triad of the original “Aspen Idea,” defined as a balance of body, mind, and spirit. Many of us are attuned to the body and the mind, but are confounded by spirit because it is intangible and ethereal.

The panel discussion at the Institute and the “Spiritual Paths” program concluded that spirituality is not about divisions, but rather about discovering a unifying force. In that context, religion is a cultural ritual that should ultimately enable unity, not division.

If we can learn religious tolerance, whether on the top of Aspen Mountain during last Sunday’s “Inter-Spiritual Service,” or in Paepcke Auditorium during a frank and open discussion with religious scholars, we are moving in the right direction.

If we can embrace all beliefs and faiths that contribute to a deeper communion among people and an enhanced respect for all life and all existence, then we will have built a foundation for lasting peace and equality.

Paul Andersen hopes readers can show tolerance for his shifting viewpoints. His column appears on Mondays.


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