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Called Back to the Essentials

The Abrahamic faiths began when prophets called people back to the essentials: compassionate, caring community and the universal principles of love and service.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

Rabbi Ted Falcon concluded his blog last week with this sentence: “We seek to deepen a spiritual dialogue in order to collaborate more effectively and more lovingly in the work that is before us.” It's the same work that is before every human being. It is the same work for which the great world religions arose: to deal with the violence too often used to solve problems or to accumulate wealth for the wealthy, to promote full access to all human and civil rights for everyone, and to take compassionate care of the Earth.

Considering the way things currently stand, it seems our religious traditions have accomplished little in dealing with these crucial issues. If we don't attend to these important issues now, we may well conclude our time on Earth.

A Long History of Being Called Back

We who study and celebrate our religious affiliations might feel that our own spiritual path has been around forever and needs to be around forever. But the truth is that Abrahamic religion has been around for only about 2,500 years. Prophetic Judaism was the evolution of Hebrew religion around the time of the return of the residents of Judah (Jews) from their exile in Babylonia. The prophets called us back to the essential principles of faith: compassionate, caring community and the universal principles of love and service.

This calling back represents a theme common to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. Each time we rise to a new level of spiritual awareness, we incorporate our new insights into our texts and practices. Over time, though, we forget ourselves and drift away from those central principles, leaving a religion empty of the substance of spirituality—until we are again "called back."

Christianity began during another calling back, this one by Jesus of Nazareth, a rabbi; Islam, likewise, began with a calling back by the prophet Mohammed, who believed that the revelations he received when he was alone were meant to help Christians and Jews in pre-Islamic Arabia recover the substance of their faith. The religions we practice today are actually a tiny dot at the end of a very long story of the human quest for greater meaning in life—for the source of creation, for redemption and forgiveness, and for new life.

Exclusivity and Ego

We who are religious leaders were taught to defend our faith. In some ways, this is less crucial for Christians and Muslims, since there are nearly two billion of each. But for Jews, who comprise significantly less than 1 percent of the world population, there is a real possibility of extinction. So it may be that Jewish defenses of their faith need to be taken more seriously.

Perhaps this is why Rabbi Rami Shapiro reacted so strongly to the statements that Ted Falcon made in our interview with Tom Ashbrooke on the NPR show On Point. In response to the exclusivity that follows from the belief that Jews are the only chosen people, Rabbi Ted said he believed that Jews are chosen for the way of Torah, but are not God’s only favorite people. Rabbi Rami responded in his blog:

And if God chooses everyone, then God chooses no one, which undermines the entirety of classical Judaism, to say nothing of contemporary Jewish claims to Israel as the Promised Land.

Rabbi Rami is certainly entitled to that opinion. But defense of the exclusivity of one’s faith can lead to stalemates where nothing of value happens. The problem becomes even more difficult for me when he asserts, "If Christian claims are only true for Christians, then they aren’t really true."

As a Christian, I resent his assessment. I do not believe that Christian claims are true for everyone. I believe they are true for Christians. As a rabbi, he has overstepped the boundaries of his authority about my understanding of my faith. He could say, instead, that he wonders about my understanding. Then we could keep talking. For interfaith work to be successful, there must be openness to dialogue.

On the other hand, his concerns have caused us to think more clearly about what we are trying to do, and that is always helpful. We want to bring all the particulars of each of traditions to bear on the difficult issues we face. We want to name the difficult parts so that we can see them as invitations to understand what needs healing in ourselves. We believe that the exclusivities are reflections of our own ego issues, and are not truly reflecting the essential core teachings of our respective faiths. In the end, the question is not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather about what we say to keep the conversation moving forward.


Don MackenziePastor Don Mackenzie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Don retired in June of 2008 as Minister and Head of Staff of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle. Previously, he served congregations in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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