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I’m a writer by passion and profession. I write a lot about religion, even though it tops the list of things one supposedly shouldn’t discuss in “polite company.” If you do talk about religion with others—if you study it, read about it, write about it, care about it, or simply wish to understand the elements of some religious dialogue—then I’d like to provide some food for thought.
I deal with religion, magic, faith, or some sort of spiritual belief system in most of my fiction and a great deal of my non-fiction. I write essays, give presentations, and blog about comparative religion on a fairly regular basis, and I’ve also ghost- or shadow-written memoirs for people of different faiths. If not the main thread, religion, faith, spirituality and magic and/or science form at least a subtle part of the world in which my all of my fictional characters operate.
These are not simple things to write or talk about, and there are a number of pitfalls inherent in dealing with matters of faith and spirituality in fictional and real life contexts. Many people avoid discussing religion or reading about it for a variety of reasons. They may find the subject confusing, or they may be afraid that reading about the beliefs of others will challenge their own strongly held beliefs, or that they will cause offense by expressing those beliefs. They may fear drawing censure for expressing themselves, or for displaying their ignorance in some way. They may, in fact, have very deep and sophisticated thoughts about any number of subjects relating to faith and reason and simply feel incapable of expressing them.
On top of all that, the terminology of religion can seem dauntingly alien. Someone from a Buddhist background might wonder what a Christian meant when they talked about “the Rapture,” or “the Trinity.” As a young Christian, I didn’t know what to make of terms like “avatar,” “karma,” or “Nirvana,” either.
This can even happen within a single religious community. A Methodist may hear “transubstantiation” from the lips of a Catholic and draw a complete blank. A Baha’i of Buddhist background might confuse one from a Christian or Wiccan background by referring to Abdu’l-Baha as a bodhisattva. Moreover, a key doctrine to one religionist may be completely meaningless to another.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a difference of opinion about the subject, but merely that we use different terms. Ask a Baha’i of Christian background what Abdu’l-Baha is, and they might use the word “saint” or “angel.” Their Buddhist counterpart would say he’s a bodhisattva, while a lifelong Baha’i may have no other word but “Exemplar” to apply.
Someone looking at the situation from the outside might conclude that these people were in disagreement about the station of Abdu’l-Baha, but they’re not. They’re simply using different terms to apply to the same set of qualities that caused Baha’u’llah to give his eldest son the title of Exemplar.
In a further wrinkle, two people can use the same word in a discussion and mean two completely different things. Take the word “religion” itself. The Latin word means “to bind together,” which I think eloquently self-references its purpose. So, when I use the word “religion,” I refer to the collective act of worshipping God, and the body of teachings a community holds in common. When some of my Evangelical or atheist friends use it, they mean something quite different. The Evangelical may define a religion as a false man-made belief system, and insist that Christianity is NOT a religion at all. The atheist may define it as a body of dogmatic and irrational beliefs held together by blind and rigid faith.
Just to be clear: when I mean what the Evangelical means, I’ll use the term “man-made belief system.” When I mean what the atheist means, I might refer to “blind faith” or a “dogmatic belief system.” I find precision is helpful if the real goal is communication.
I think the most critical element in the study or discussion of any subject is an ability to see past the words being used to the underlying ideas. One must attempt to understand the subtle shades of meaning in terms such as “salvation” or “sacrifice,” to be sensitive to the way the speaker’s or writer’s choice of words shape a dialogue. Without a willingness to understand, communication will not occur.
I spend a fair amount of time in dialogues with people from a wide array of religious backgrounds—including none. I discuss religion frequently with people who despise it and/or have very little idea what it is and what it means to believers. In most cases, I find the biggest impediments to understanding are the words we use to communicate about religion. The Baha’i teachings put it this way:
Diversity of languages has been a fruitful cause of discord. The function of language is to convey the thought and purpose of one to another. Therefore, it matters not what language man speaks or employs. …Baha’u’llah advocated one language as the greatest means of unity and the basis of international conference. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 232.
Here, Abdu’l-Baha talks about literal differences in language, but in my experience, even when we think we’re speaking the same language, we may not be communicating. Here’s what I mean: when a person of faith talks to an atheist (or a Christian to a Hindu, etc.) chances are they’re not speaking the same language at all. The false impression that we all share a common understanding of the words we use can cause misunderstanding, frustration and discord.
In this series of essays, I hope to offer some ideas and suggestions about how we can avoid verbal pitfalls and achieve communication when we talk about religion.
Next: Faith, Magic & Miracle