PORTLAND – It’s Lent for Christians, the season of reflection in preparation for the Easter celebration. It’s also time for the 19-day fast leading to Naw-Ruz for members of the Baha’i faith; Ostara for those who follow Pagan spiritual practice; Pesach for the Jewish community; Magha Puja for Buddhists; and Holi for Hindus.
Each of these observances and many more are windows into the deep wisdom contained in the array of religious and spiritual traditions that have arisen from our universal human experience of spirituality.
Three learning goals guide the programs offered and led by the University of Southern Maine’s 13 chaplains and advisers, sponsored by their respective faith communities, whose work I oversee. They articulate our commitment to provide opportunities that will help students learn:
• To clarify what they believe and value.
• To connect their beliefs and values to their choices and behaviors.
• To understand and relate respectfully to those whose beliefs and values are different from their own.
Throughout our lives, all of us should continue to clarify, learn, grow and develop in the context of our own deeply held beliefs and values, whether religious or otherwise. When we do, we are able to draw from deep wells of comfort, strength, inspiration and guidance.
We should constantly examine our choices and behaviors in the light of our beliefs and values. When we do, we are able to live with integrity, making choices that serve the vision of personal and global peace and justice shared by virtually all belief systems.
And we should be open to learning about and from those whose beliefs and practices are different from ours. When we do, we gain insight into the themes and dynamics at work in them all and the shared wisdom that can be ours together.
Just a generation ago, religious diversity in Maine included precious little other than Catholic and Congregationalist Christians. As the rest of the U.S. has already changed, so Maine is changing. Our state is now home to numerous mosques, various traditions of Buddhist communities and temples, a new Hindu temple, close to 6,000 Pagans and a strong community of Baha’is, including one of just three Baha’i Centers in the country, located in Eliot.
All of these and more have joined the array of Christian expressions present in New England since the Mayflower landed and brought here by subsequent waves of European immigration, as well as the spiritual communities and practices of the indigenous people who had long lived and practiced here, including Maine’s Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet peoples.
This semester, a USM religious studies class is dispatching students to a dozen different worship communities of diverse religious and spiritual traditions in Greater Portland. They are observing a principal ceremony or ritual and interviewing worshippers about their beliefs and the moral and ethical imperatives that flow from them. Using questions they wrote, the students will interview members from each community.
These interviews will enable our students to identify and reflect upon the common themes, dynamics and principles embodied in each strand of Maine’s rich tapestry of belief and practice of religious life.
Each of these spiritual traditions is a carrier of deep truth — expressed, cherished and sought from ancient days to these by the ones who practice the rituals and keep the disciplines they teach.
Applying the principle of epistemological modesty — acknowledging that what any of us claims to know as truth is partial and limited — we can begin to build respectful relationships that will enable us to learn from each other and together to make the world a better place.
Misinterpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and misguided “political correctness” have led us to remove acknowledgment or appreciation of any religious observance in our common life, and deny the religious significance of those we retain. (The phrase “holiday trees” comes to mind.) In doing so, we impoverish ourselves and future generations who know next to nothing about any religion.
What if, instead, we could hear the resonance of different religions as so many languages, each speaking about a distinct and culturally shaped experience of something greater than the ability of any to know or to articulate fully? Maybe then, we could celebrate the beauty, integrity and value of each and the richness of all faiths.
And, maybe then, we could find in the harmony of our shared wisdom a path to realizing the vision of peace, shalom, salaam, nirvana and namaste that humans of every culture, religion, tradition and time have shared.
Andrea Thompson McCall is interfaith chaplain and director of community service learning at the University of Southern Maine and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.