Have questions about another religion's customs? Scroll down to ask Arthur Magida, author of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People's Religious Ceremonies."
Q: An instructor at a local community college recently told a Muslim student that her reference to God was "inappropriate and unacceptable in an American classroom." The student had started a presentation in an English-as-a-second language class with the phrase, "in the name of God, most merciful, the gracious." What's wrong with this? It seems fine to me.
A: You're right. There is nothing wrong with that phrase, which comes from the opening verse of the Koran and is part of the prayers that Muslims say five times a day. What was wrong was the instructor's intolerance and ignorance--though, it must be added, that his concern may have been legal, not theological. If the college was a public institution, having a religious invocation before a student's presentation conceivably violated church-state separation.
Our religious landscape is changing, as greater numbers of immigrants from all over the world move here. With the United States now probably the most religiously diverse country on earth, we're moving fairly quickly from a nation whose central faiths are rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition to one with many diverse faiths that have their roots in a theological bazaar.
"Religion," wrote De Toqueville about two centuries ago, "... is simply another form of hope and it is no less natural to the human heart than hope itself...." It's up to us to nurture this hope and to remember that all of us--at one time--were strangers in strange lands. And that America's promise can best be secured by ensuring that none of us is a stranger here today.
Q: I love my best friend, but I often find that she's not very compassionate. She never gives to charities or volunteers at soup kitchens or shelters for the homeless. Or anyplace else. I do all of these. She goes to church every Sunday, but I don't think she's much of a Christian. What's the best way to tell her to practice what she preaches?
A: The one-word answer to your dilemma is in your own question: Love. Not just your friend's love for others, but your own love for your friend. When Jesus was asked what was necessary to receive eternal life, he said we had to go beyond the letter of the 10 Commandments and be completely generous with ourselves and our hearts. He also discouraged judging anyone, partly because it led to arrogance.
So if you really love your friend--and you really think that you're a good Christian--you won't scold her about what you think are her shortcomings. That wouldn't be very Christian. Instead, keep volunteering and contributing. Let her know how it transforms your life. Maybe even invite her to volunteer with you at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. If the seeds of being a good Christian are really in her, she might not only join you--she might eventually volunteer more than you do.
Q: I'm devoted to my church and my pastor, but I cringe whenever the collection plate comes around. Money and God just don't seem to go together. Why do I have to give anything?
A: Money and God don't go together when you confuse one with the other. You don't seem to be doing that. In fact, you might be doing just the opposite, to such an extent that you don't realize your church (like every other institution) has to pay its bills, and your pastor (like everyone else) has to feed his family. Putting a few dollars in the collection plate doesn't mean you're worshiping mammon, the false god of riches. It just means you're putting your money toward sustaining the work of the Divine here on earth.
Not contributing to the collection plate doesn't mean you're serving God any better than you're serving mammon. It just means you're overlooking the material needs of your church and its clergy.
Mail your own questions to Arthur Magida at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make your questions detailed, specific, and under 150 words.