What’s the Difference?

interfaith dialogue
interfaith dialogue (Photo credit: Seeds_of_Peace)

This time of year, sooner or later I will encounter someone who will reassure me that “we’re all really the same, I mean, we all believe in God, right?” It’s a feel-good, no-worries approach to interfaith issues. My issue with it — well, let’s try an analogy.


I bring a beautiful loaf of home baked challah to a potluck supper. The loaf is still warm, crusty on the outside, and the odor fills the whole room with goodness. I set it on the counter.


My friend Bridget brings a traditional Irish cottage pie, savory beef with carrots and onions and mashed potatoes piled on top, gently browned in the oven. It, too, smells and looks wonderful. Bridget sets it on the counter next to the challah.


Another friend brings a vegetable curry, redolent with spice, served on a mound of brown rice. 


And yet another brings a crisp green salad with tomatoes fresh from his garden and a tangy dressing that his grandmother taught him to make.


All are mouth-watering. All are rich not only in nutrition but in cultural values and tradition.


Then the host welcomes us, crams everything into a giant blender, and begins pulverizing it into a liquid. When one of us protests, she says gaily, “It’s all food!” And that’s true – but the distinctive flavors have been lost, the texture is gone, and it’s just a tasteless mush.


Do you want to eat that mush? Is it really “just the same?”


For me, religion is like that. Each tradition has its own beauty, its own distinctive texture and flavor. Certainly we can learn from one another, just as I might try adding a bit of curry to a cottage pie to see if it brings out the flavor in a new way, but I don’t want to just mash them together. For Christians, the person of Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and a personal manifestation of God. That is dramatically different from the fierce monotheism of Judaism, which insists that God is ultimately indescribable and utterly One. And both of those are completely different from the Allah of Islam, who revealed His will to humanity through the Prophet Mohammad, and to whom believers owe perfect submission.


There are elements in each that simply don’t reconcile. Either Jesus is God, or he wasn’t. (The tense difference is deliberate.) Either the Messiah has arrived, or not yet. ¬†Either the Koran is the definitive word of God, or it isn’t.


My point is, THAT IS OK, at least from a Jewish point of view. As a Jew, I don’t think anyone is going to Hell for disagreeing. I don’t think there is such a place as Hell, except for the hells we make here in this life. And yes, this difference is also one of the tensions that can’t be resolved among our various traditions, because I know that Christian and Islamic ideas of salvation and redemption are quite different from Jewish ideas.


I understand why these differences can be scary and why it seems safer to insist that there is no real difference. The problem is, there ARE real differences, and all the insisting and pretending in the world won’t change that. Our task, in a pluralistic society, is to learn how to get along despite the fact that we disagree on so much. It can be done, but only if we’re willing to be honest about the differences. If we are honest in owning differences, then we can learn enough about each other to avoid injuries, and to foster mutual respect.

May the day come when we can respect one another enough to see differences, and to simply let them be.