On the weekend of April 11th, 2008, Scott and I attended a workshop offered by the Encounter World Religions Centre hosted by the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa and the Ottawa congregation of the Community of Christ. The presenter, JW Windland, is the founder of the centre. If you ever get a chance to attend a workshop by JW, I highly recommend attending. I am envious of the University students who find themselves in his classroom for an entire semester. He is a dynamic speaker and an extraordinary story teller. I found myself captivated throughout the lecture portion of the workshop – even on Friday night!
The workshop began with a 2-hour presentation outlining the symbols and quotations from 28 world religions. What I didn’t know about the Christian faiths really surprised me. I was more familiar with the religions that originated in India (India Religions) than the variety of Christian faiths that are common within the communities in which I have lived.
It was particularly interesting to hear the presentation of my own faith, Unitarian Universalism. I realized that the information presented was more of a historical perspective of the faith – that is, where it originated from – rather than a current perspective. The presented history of the origins of Unitarian Universalism was accurate from a global perspective, but the history seems to be missing some key influences.
Unitarianism is based on the belief in one God, in contrast to the trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Universalism is based on the belief of universal salvation, that is, everyone goes to heaven. The two faith communities joined together to form Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalism in Canada (and the United States) is heavily influenced by a variety of other faiths including Humanism and Pagan faiths. Some Unitarian Universalists consider themselves Christians, but many do not. A presentation of Unitarian Universalism that implies that it is a Christian faith does not feel authentic to me.
Seeing the presentation of my own faith allowed me to put the presentation of other faiths into perspective. The information was historically accurate, but I kept in mind that it did not necessary provide an accurate view of the faith communities today.
Saturday morning began with a 3-hour presentation. The religions of the world were classified into three categories based upon their origins:
- Middle-Eastern religions: these include Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
- India religions: these include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
- Balanced religions: these include native and aboriginal beliefs, paganism, and Wicca.
Within each classification, certain questions were answered that outline typically how followers of the different faiths think. The classifications are generalizations; therefore, they make broad assumptions that do not necessarily apply within specific instances.
The presentation began with the faiths that we were most familiar with – those of the Middle-Eastern religions. Middle-Eastern religions have the concept of god as a single all-powerful being (God, Allah, and Yahweh). To be a follower, you must be accepted into the faith community through some form of ritual or rituals. For example, Christians have baptism and Muslims make a declaration of their faith. You are not considered to be part of the religion until you have been accepted by an authority of that faith (clergy or congregation). Middle-Eastern faiths also have spiritual practices that involve the community. For example, for Muslims; praying together is considered more beneficial than praying alone.
India religions do not have the same concept of God; rather they have a concept of god within each person. To be a follower, you simply declare yourself to be of that faith. The focus is on the individual and the spiritual practice is individually focused. There are still group spiritual practices; however, the path to “enlightenment” is an individual journey, so there is no requirement or preference for group practice.
I was generally familiar with a few Middle-Eastern and India religions, but did not have any familiarity with the balanced faiths. As a result, I do not feel that I was able to grasp the general concepts well. From my limited understanding, balanced faiths look to the universe as a whole as god. Spiritual practices are about re-balancing things that for one reason or another have become out of balance. I think there is a paradigm shift between the Middle-Eastern or India religions and the balanced religions that I do not quite understand yet.
The presentations brought up the idea of being “culturally” influenced by a specific faith. For example, in North America, we are “culturally Christian”. The laws and morals in our society are highly influenced by Christian faiths. In Ontario, they still read the Lords Prayer at the opening of provincial parliament! In Arab nations and the most of the Middle East the societies are “culturally Muslim”. I am intrigued to discover what this really means, and I hope that our travels through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Malaysia will help me discover that.
Perhaps the biggest learning for me was the awareness that I was interpreting things through a Christian (and more specifically Catholic) lens. This perspective was preventing me from being truly open to other faiths. In Catholicism, you cannot participate in certain rituals until you have been accepted by an authority of the church and participated in the associated initiation ritual. For example, you cannot participate in communion until you have attended the appropriate catechism (church school) and participated in the First Communion ceremony. This means that aspects of the faith are only available to those that have been indoctrinated. I used this lens when entering any place of worship. I felt like an interloper – an outsider – and was very uncomfortable with the idea of participating in rituals. The Saturday session made me realize that I was viewing the world faiths through the Catholic lens, and once I removed that lens, I felt like a fog was lifted. I was suddenly able to see and “encounter” the other faiths without the barriers that I didn’t realize I had.
Saturday afternoon involved four “encounters” with world religions:
- A talk by a Cree woman (Canadian aboriginal).
- A visit to a Taiwanese Buddhist temple.
- A visit to an Islamic Mosque.
- A visit to a Sikh Gurdwara.
I’ll share my reflections on the various encounters in separate posts.