Most of you probably know what I’m talking about when I mention the “coexist” bumper stickers, but in case you don’t, I included a picture on the right. As you can see, the gimmick is that the word coexist has been formed using symbols from major religions or philosophies — with a call for harmony between the sexes thrown in for good measure. The underlying message is that we shouldn’t be fighting over issues of religion (and again sexual equality tossed in, I guess because no religion has embrace the letter “E” sufficiently), but rather should strive to live with each other despite these issues and differences.
AND YOU “PROBABLY” DISAGREE WITH THIS SENTIMENT???
On the one hand, I am all for not fighting or killing people over issues of religion. We are completely on the same page there! What concerns me is not the cry for coexistence, but the potential rationale behind it. If you say to me, “We should tolerate people with different religious views and strive to live alongside them because …” — well, you and I are still in complete agreement at that point. The potential disagreement comes from what folks who display this bumper sticker put after the “because.” I think the rationale for coexistence is usually one of two things, which I’ll discuss below. Since I am generalizing and certainly cannot know what each individual means by the bumper sticker, I included the “probably.”
I DISAGREE IF … YOU MEAN THAT QUESTIONS OF RELIGION AREN’T IMPORTANT
One of the arguments I encounter all the time is that questions of religion just aren’t important enough for us to allow them to divide us (you may have noticed I’ve just given up on trying to include the “E” at all at this point). While I don’t think that questions of religion have to divide us, I don’t think it’s because they are somehow frivolous or maybe just so peripheral to the human experience as to not be worth the time and effort it would take to thoroughly explore them. Let everyone believe whatever they want when it comes to religion, and let’s focus on what really matters.
Look, you’re saying that “time” is just a big loop of infinitely repeating events, and you’re saying that we have ten seconds before the bombs explodes, killing all of us. Are these really the sorts of disagreements that we’re going to allow to come between us?
However, in my opinion, the questions that religion raises are of the utmost importance. In fact, there may not be any questions more important. The ramifications for the existence of the Divine are astronomical. If indeed there is a creator deity, then human existence is suddenly defined by such questions as: Why did he/she/it create? What does he/she/it expect of us? What does it mean to be human? If we decide there is no Divine, then that decision also makes us answer some very important questions: Where does human value come? What is the good and how do we best pursue it, since there is no deity answering these questions for us? Of course these are only the tip of the iceberg type questions.
Don’t dismiss religious concerns. How you conceive of God and how you understand what it means to be human are probably the things that define you more than anything else. They are questions well worth considering and considering thoughtfully.
I ALSO DISAGREE IF … YOU MEAN THAT ALL RELIGIONS ARE BASICALLY THE SAME, SO WHY WOULD THEY FIGHT EACH OTHER
I once had a friend define religion as an attempt to approach the Divine. For the sake of a blog entry (and not a philosophical or theological treatise), I think that will do. Certainly if you view religion this way, there are many broad generalizations you can make about how religions are similar. I get that. However, the differences between religious systems become quite clear when we start moving away from generalizations such as “religions are just ways of approaching the Divine” and start defining terms.
For example, let’s say we all claim to be friends with a guy named “Bob.” We start talking about all the great times we’ve had with Bob, when suddenly a stranger who doesn’t know Bob pops into the room and asks what Bob looks like. See, he’s about to go pick up Bob from the airport, but he’s never met him. One person says, “Oh Bob, is this tall African-American basketball player. You’ll recognize him right away.” You say, “Um, no, Bob is actually a short Hispanic woman. Here real name is Roberta, and we call her Bob for fun.” Then I say, “What are you talking about? Bob is that magical gnome who lives behind my fridge and tells me that I really am special!” The stranger isn’t going to say, “Okay, got it. You’re all basically describing the same person. I can figure it out from here.
“Bob is dead.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
When we actually stop to define who or what we are trying to approach, we find that the differences become apparent very quickly. For example, the Christian God
*intentionally created the world
*is actively involved in bringing human history toward a certain end
*chose to reveal Himself specifically through the Scriptures and ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ, who Himself is both fully human and fully divine
*exists eternally as the Triune God
Of course, there are other ways of describing the Christian God, but these four are all essential, non-negotiable aspects of the Christian understanding of the Divine. And even at the end of this short list, Christianity is already distinct from every other religions system in history in how it conceives of the Divine
Now the stranger asks for directions to the airport. You tell him to take a certain highway, then a certain exit, etc. I tell him to take a rocket straight to the moon then spin around in circles until the airport appears. Our means of approaching the airport are not going to lead the stranger to the same place. Similarly, various religions make very different claims about how the Divine wants to be approached. For Christianity, God has made it clear that He only desires to be approached through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Um, we may have missed our exit …
So, yes, I do agree that we should learn to coexist, but “probably” not for the same reasons that many of the people who have these bumper stickers do. For me, I believe we should coexist because my religion teaches me that every single human being has infinite value as someone who bears the image of God. I believe that God loves my fellow human beings and expects me to display that same love when I interact with them … regardless of their intentions toward me.
So, what does this all mean? It means that the cry for coexistence is a great start, but it’s only a start. It’s not a sufficient statement regarding our differences.
It means there’s still a lot of dialog to be had.
And that’s one of the reasons why this website exists.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)