Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Religious Cultures and their Specialties

Last night I attended a nice interfaith discussion. One reason I enjoy these is that they help me see what my faith's culture does well, and does not do well.

For example, Judaism, including Messianic Judaism, has a culture that does a good job of nurturing our gratefulness towards God. In the Jewish mindset, the commandments are not a burden but an opportunity to express gratefulness to God for the many things he saved us from. The commandments -- collectively called mitzvot -- are a pleasure and joy to do. And the scriptural ones are hardly an inconvenience, let alone a burden.

(Many of the later Rabbinical additions are more burdensome, and it is these that gospels record Yeshua protesting. It is interesting how many Christians do not understand that commandments are about gratitude, and under their own personal dislike of rules mis-interpret Paul's writings to mean "following commandments is a burden". And how ironic it is that so often a Christian group that claims to be against legalism has a very legalistic attitude of "I do not care what God values or enjoys, just let me know the minimum number of rules to follow.")

However, Judaism, including Messianic Judaism, does an okay job (but not so especially notable) of culturally promoting habits of quiet calmness. To pause and focus on God is perhaps the fundamental Jewish action, and is the purpose of the many short Jewish blessings said throughout the day. A constant mindfulness of God is very important to Chasidic and Messianic Judiasm. But is not a trait typical to most American Jews, nor a common goal among most American Jews.

There are some things that the culture of Judaism, including Messianic Judaism, does poorly. One example is considering the oneness of humanity. This is a very scriptural idea, and is seen in how the Hebrew words for son, descendant, and seed apply to a link of one generation or many, just as the word for father is better translated ancestor since it applies to one generation or more. (As examples, the "sons of Israel" are not only Jacob's kids, and the "seed of David" can refer to his son Solomon or to a promised messiah many generations distant.) According to scripture, God sees us not only as individuals but also as part of lineages, and God blesses and judges both individuals and lineages. The concept "sons of Adam" is present in the Tenach, and discussed more in the Apostle's writings. Yet there is a strong "Jew vs. Gentile" mindset in Judaism (and "saved vs. unsaved" mindset in Messianic Judaism) that de-emphasizes considering all of humanity as a unified "sons of Adam" -- even though God clearly sees people, in part, in this way.

So that is an example of how I've found interfaith discussions can be helpful. The benefit comes not from comparing theology, but from comparing religious cultures. Being more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my own religious culture means the culture can be better enjoyed and developed.