One of the biggest changes that has occurred in this country in the last few decades is the increase in religious diversity. When I was growing up you could safely assume that most people went to church, and that the church they attended was a mainstream Christian denomination.
There were a few Jewish people in our neighborhood, who seemed strangely exotic in the South of the 1950s and 60s. To know someone who was Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu was totally unheard of.
If we thought of those faiths at all, it was as far away “world religions” – not something we might actually encounter in our own lives.
How different things are now. Even in relatively small southern towns there are places of worship not just for Christians and Jews, but of many other religions, too.
And it is not just major world religions that are suddenly commonplace in many American towns and cities. An article in The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Oh, Gods!” charts the explosion of all kinds of religions throughout this country and the world.
“It’s tempting to conceive of the religious world as being made up primarily of a few well-delineated and static religious blocs: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. But that’s dangerously simplistic,” the article says.
“It assumes a stability in the religious landscape that is completely at odds with reality. New religions are born all the time. Old ones transform themselves dramatically. Schism, evolution, death, and rebirth are the norm.”
The most recent edition of The World Christian Encyclopedia, which surveys and analyzes the religious makeup of the world, identifies almost 10,000 distinct and separate religions in the world.
In this country alone, one expert claims there are at least 1,700 different religious movements which claim at least 2,000 members.
“New religious movements are not just a curiosity,” the encyclopedia’s editor David Barrett says. “They are a very serious subject.”
Religious pluralist may be a relatively new experience for us, but it was the norm for the earliest Christians.
Today we hear the apostle Paul, one of Christianity’s earliest and most effective evangelists, speaking in Athens.
Athens was a university town filled with intellectuals. It was a place that was open to new ideas, and where a diversity of religious traditions flourished. It must have been an exciting and intimidating spot for the proclaimer of the new religion of Christianity to speak.
Paul begins by praising the people for their religious ways and their city filled with places of worship, none of which were Christian.
He specifically mentions one altar he has seen with a strange inscription – “to an unknown god.” It is about this God that Paul begins to preach.
He suggests that the reference to an “unknown’ god depicts the people’s yearning for God, a vague reaching toward something greater than themselves, a searching and groping for the divine.
Yet Paul knows that the human yearning for the divine cannot finally be fulfilled by an unknown god.
“What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you,” he says. He tells them about the God who created the universe and all that is in it, who cannot be contained in temples or images built by human hands, the God who is lord of all creation.
Although the name of Jesus is not mentioned, it is clear that Paul believes that the way to the God who created heaven and earth is through Jesus, the one who has been raised from the dead.
Like Paul, we, too, know the God who Paul proclaims through Jesus. The life and teachings of Jesus reveal to us the nature of God, and lead us to the divine.
It would be a mistake to say that every religion ultimately says the same thing, or ultimately leads us to the God proclaimed by Paul. We need only watch the news a few times to see how dangerous and misguided religion can be.
But it is also a mistake to arrogantly assume that there is only one path to God. I recently read a quote from a Christian missionary who put it this way:
“How is is possible to hold a firm, deep, vibrant Christian faith, wholehearted and committed, without knowing that God meets people in all kinds of ways?”
As Paul preached in Athens, there is a universal quest for God shared by humanity. God created us to search and grope for the divine, wherever we may be. The unknown god may be made known to us in ways and places that we do not expect.
I certainly was not intentionally looking for God one day 35 years ago on a trip to Burma. I was nothing more than a tourist as I climbed the steps leading to the Schwedagon Pagoda, a great temple in the middle of Rangoon.
Legend says the temple was built in the 11th century to house eight hairs of the Buddha. I had heard it was magnificent, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see and experience as I came to the top of the stairs.
Before me was an enormous, bell-shaped pagoda, its spire reaching more than 300 feet into the sky. Every inch of it is covered with real gold leaf, and its top is inlaid with thousands of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires sparkling in the tropical sun.
Surrounding this massive pagoda are hundreds of smaller ones, interspersed with statues of the Buddha, enormous bells, and other structures. Buddhist monks in their bright orange robes were everywhere, praying and chanting.
This was a time in my life with issues of faith and church were not high on my list of priorities. But I knew as soon as I set foot on the grounds of that temple that I was walking on holy ground.
I spent the entire afternoon walking around this incredible place. As the hour grew late, I slipped behind the buildings to an isolated spot to watch the sun set over the hills.
In that part of the world, the late afternoon sun is an enormous, brilliant orange-red ball of flame in the sky. And because it is so close to the equator, the sun drops quickly through the sky and below the horizon.
The Burmese sunset is a magnificent sight, and I was delighted to have found such a beautiful, isolated spot to watch it in solitude.
I had not been there long when I sensed another presence with me. I turned to look and standing behind me was an old, wizened Burmese man. He wore the traditional garb on a white sarong tied around his waist. Dark brown eyes shone from his face, which was partially covered by a long, thick white beard. He wore a white turban wrapped around his head.
Our eyes met, but neither of us spoke. I turned back to watch the sunset, the Burmese man by my side. For many minutes we stood that way, sided by side, watching the sun drop in the sky, not saying a word.
And then, at the precise moment when the last sliver of fiery red disappeared below the horizon, the Burmese man gently touched my arm. I turned, he looked me in the eye, nodded, smiled, and walked away, back toward the gleaming golden pagoda, never saying a word.
When I make a list of people who have been important in my life, this Burmese man whose name I do not know is there.
We never spoke a word. We did not share a common language, a common culture of religion. And yet we shared a sacred moment.
Although I could not discuss it with him, I know beyond a doubt that standing on that holy temple ground watching the setting sun was for both of us a moment of experiencing God’s presence.
And I also know beyond a doubt that although he was Buddhist and I Christian, we stood in the presence of the same God.
That God is the one who Paul writes “made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
“From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the earth,” Paul says, allotting “the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they live, so that they would search and perhaps grope for God and find him.
“For indeed, God is not far from each one of us.”