When I attended my first ministerial association meeting in Hattiesburg, Miss., there was an interesting kind of divide in the room. On the one side sat the Baptists, and on the other side sat everybody else: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and, of course, me, the only Jew. It was not a conflict situation; there was no hostility. Rather, the spacing was symptomatic of the overwhelmingly Baptist ambience of the Bible Belt.
Though we non-Baptists certainly had our religious differences, we found ourselves banding together, hoping to eke out the possibility that there are ways to be religious other than the Baptist style of Christianity.
Here in State College, things are quite different. Here, rather than a great divide between or among religions, the chasm has all the religions on one side and the atheists on the other. We religious folks may have our differences, but we find ourselves all "under attack" from non-religious or anti-religious people who consider religions to be superstitious or tyrannical or simply irrelevant.
As a result, I find lots of religious folks banding together, hoping to eke out the possibility that religion is valuable and has something important to say. There are those who think that religion is primitive or naïve that science and modernity have replaced it. Science is wonderful, but, in my experience, it cannot answer questions regarding morality or meaningfulness in life. There is a whole spiritual realm that, despite not being amenable to scientific explanation, nonetheless exists and beckons to us. There is also the fact that religion can be much more sophisticated than what we learned when we were children. If God is infinite, then there is a lot more to learn about God as we mature and gain wisdom.
There are those who look at religion and see only the negative. It is certainly there to see.
Far too many religious people have behaved disgracefully and caused great damage, perpetrating what we call in Hebrew Chilul Hashem, a desecration of Gods Name. Yet, for every Crusader or terrorist or oppressor who misuses religion, there are many other good religious people bringing kindness, justice, righteousness, and peace into the world also in Gods name.
There are those among us who sense a goodness at the heart of existence a goodness we call God and who seek ways to approach this goodness and draw it into ourselves. We also see ourselves as vessels of this holy flow vessels which can bring it into the world. We are not perfect, and our personalities and cultures inevitably color the godliness that we perceive. But, the purity of God is there, and, if we pay close attention and if we purge ourselves of intolerance and smallmindedness and hate, we can bring some of the goodness of God into our world. This is good religion, and this is our holy task.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is spiritual leader of Congregation Brit Shalom in State College and a member of Interfaith Initiative Centre County. Readers may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org? . To learn more about IICC, email interfaith email@example.com.