The season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday, and many Christians were encouraged to ponder the reality of death, the shortness and fragility of life, and our need to come to ourselves and to God before it is too late. A smudge of ash on the forehead reminded us, each time we looked in the mirror, of big realities that it’s very easy to keep at bay most of the time.
The ash, for those who received it, has long since been washed away, but hopefully the reflection to which it is bound will continue through Lent. If Lent marks an intersection of faith, death, and sin, then it’s a good season to think about what I call in my new book The Pluralism Question, because we’re all keenly aware lately that religion itself can become a force for death and an excuse for some of the most terrible kinds of sin. Whether it’s Islamist suicide bombers in the present or Christianist crusaders in the past, whether it’s millions of Jewish people being exterminated in twentieth-century European history or millions of Native Peoples in the history of the Americas, the name of God has been a convenient excuse for people in all religions to kill people who are religiously “other.”
In hundreds of conversations over recent years of travel, I’ve come to realize that what we face in the Pluralism Question is not a simple problem, but rather a paradox. On the one hand, if our religious identities are strong, then we are prone to distance ourselves from, or be distanced from, others who don’t share our identity. On the other hand, if we develop deep solidarity with the other, our religious identities often seem to be weakened.
In my recent book, I explore a variety of reasons for this paradox, and suggest some ways to transcend it, so that we can have both strong religious identity and strong solidarity with people whose identities are strongly distinct. The key, as I see it, is a conversion in our religious identities, a shift toward a more mature and seasoned way of being Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever. But perhaps thinking back to Ash Wednesday, it’s enough to look in the mirror and remember or envision a smudge of ash, a sign of an inescapable identity we share with all human beings, an identity that runs even deeper than our religious labels.
We are all creations of the same Creator. We are all fragile human beings who are someday going to die. And we are all sinners – we have all fallen short of what we could have been, should have been, might have been. Does it befit fragile, mortal, fallible human beings like us, temporarily tattooed with ash on our foreheads, to play gods in passing heartless judgment on the other? Does it befit people with ash on our own faces to refuse to see in the face of the other – including the religiously other, the stranger, and even the enemy – the indelible mark of the image of God? Can we, for a moment during Lent, see not “us” and “other,” but one another?