Do you know what it means to be inclusive, and why this innocuous little word is the key to a better future?
If you’re not sure, let’s start with a basic definition. The word “inclusive” simply means “containing something as part of a whole.” In essence, if something is inclusive, it is willing to include things outside of itself.
Faith is a subject we don’t often associate with inclusivity. In fact, the word “exclusive” may be a better descriptor. There is an inherent tension present within the world’s largest religions, a sort of “us vs. them” mentality, and this tension is a major source of the seemingly limitless strife we see today in the news, on the web, and in our lives.
This isn’t new—our contemporary age might seem like the most divided in history, but this is far from the truth. Faith-based turmoil, especially regarding the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, has been going on for thousands of years, resulting in dehumanization, cruelty, exile, and, at times, even death.
Some might suggest that peace will only come when religion is gone and rational, secular thought is all there is. This is the answer many want, but not the answer humanity needs. Religion gives humanity a connection to the mysterious, and hints at answers to the questions we cannot answer. Humanity is engaged in the constant pursuit of meaning, of overarching purpose, and faith connects many people to that purpose in a fulfilling way. When we find a positive, moral framework upon which to shape our lives—such as what we see in the teachings of Christ, Muhammad, or the Buddha, for example—that makes the world a better place.
The world’s largest and most influential religions also have enormous potential to address social problems. The Catholic Church, for example, is the largest charitable organization in the world, with over 1.2 billion members working to heal social ills all over the globe. Think of the good that people, united under the banners of their respective faiths, could do.
So, no—the elimination of faith is not the answer to our cultural ills. This this merely another form of exclusivity, and an invalidation of a valid and useful way of life that is embraced by billions.
What we need—what faith needs—is to embrace inclusivity. It is in that word that we find our answer.
The Perils of Exclusive Faith
Exclusive faith doesn’t always come from a place of hatred, but rather a misguided zeal. Religious groups which hold strict, absolutist views are attractive. The wholehearted commitment to a certain set of beliefs that marks these groups fulfills the very purpose of religion and faith by “explaining the meaning of life in ultimate terms,” in the words of sociologist Dean Kelly, author of “Why Conservative Churches are Growing.” In a sense, exclusivity, fanatical evangelism, and hostility toward those who do not share their beliefs gives members of these groups a greater sense of purpose.
But even as these groups gain a greater sense of purpose, they become less and less able to actually fulfill that purpose. They cut themselves off from the very people they mean to proselytize when they display open hostility toward them, when they excise them from their groups and turn their backs on the rest of humanity.
And what’s more—at least as far as the Abrahamic religions are concerned—hostile exclusivity isn’t supported by holy texts. The Quran, for instance, the prophet Muhammad says “To you be your religion, to me be mine.” In the Bible, it is telling that the only people Christ is hostile to are the judgmental religious leaders of the time. And even when God orders His people to war in the Old Testament, it is only because He is omnipotent, and can see all ends, and knows that these actions will result in the greater good. With the exception of divine intervention, humans are commanded, as Christ said, to love God and love one another.
Exclusivity may feel like religious strength and conviction, but in reality, it’s a stumbling block for any faith that has aspirations to make the world a better place.
Embracing Inclusive Faith
Brian McLaren, in his book, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road,” asks an important question: “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?”
It’s true—for example, Christian groups are divided between what are generally known as “separatist Christians” and “cultural Christians.” Cultural Christians are often considered inclusive, but theologically weak and lukewarm. Separatist Christians are those we’ve already talked about, and are considered theologically strong and “on fire,” but hostile and exclusive. Neither camp is truly able to fulfill the purpose of religion in a positive way.
But there is, in fact, a way to be both strong in faith, and inclusive in practice. We can have both wisdom and fire.
Gabe Lyons, in his book, “The Next Christians,” argues that Christians should approach faith as “restorers,” endeavoring to “infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love.”
This concept, which could be applied to any faith, is the answer to religious strife.
McLaren goes on, writing that “One can conceive of a high-demand religious movement devoted to justice, freedom, beauty, respect for others, and so on, which could effectively explain to [humankind] without fanaticism, absolutism, intolerance, or judgmental moralism. That is what – ideally – Christianity ought to be.”
Ideally, this is what faith should be. This is the attitude that can unlock the potential of religion, while simultaneously removing its harmful attributes.
In the end, we can steadfastly hold to the truths of our faith without mocking, condemning, or excluding others. That is, quite likely, the behavior that each of the major faith’s founders would have displayed.
McLaren’s book concludes with a hopeful call to action, as he writes, “As the twenty-first century unfolds, the need for this ideal-but-as-yet-uncommon Christianity becomes more acute. That’s where people like you and me come in. It remains for us to explore and embody the possibility…the possibility of a Christian faith that combines certain key elements of conservative ‘new-line’ Christianity (strength, commitment, intensity of meaning) with other elements of liberal ‘old-line’ Christianity (ecumenicism, reasonableness, a peaceable attitude).”
This kind of faith may never be the most popular, but it is just the lifeline we need if we are to maintain both the purpose-giving beauty of faith, and the love for our fellow man that rests in every human heart.