To be understood, learn about others' beliefs

By Ken Jarman, Special to the Tri-City HeraldSeptember 8, 2012 

RICHLAND, Wash. -- To varying degrees, we wish that others understood who we are -- our knowledge, experience, beliefs.

Yet, do we extend the gift of understanding to others?

This question applies especially to matters of faith. Are we more inclined to ascribe spiritual beliefs and practices different from ours to ignorance and character flaws, or to genuinely try to understand them?

In faith communities, the former attitude often leads to the unintended consequence of driving people away from the very truth that those communities claim to pursue.

Consider those who, like me, claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth as the divine source of hope for real life. The apostle John's account has Jesus fervently praying for the unity of his disciples.

I don't quite know what he meant by unity, but I'm certain that whatever unity Christians may once have enjoyed, today it is busted beyond belief. I mean that quite literally: the glaring, occasionally vitriolic and violent disunity among Christians is a prime reason -- and a very good one -- for rejecting Christian claims of truth.

How does this reflect the light of the world?

Names of those whom you or I hold responsible for disunity may too easily come to mind. On the other hand, there are many individuals and organizations shining a bright light against this darkness. But perhaps the responsibility for repair falls on all of us who claim that faith.

If we would have others understand us, should we try to understand them? The rule that answers this question almost is universally found across all faith traditions. Thus, faith communities provide perfect opportunities to practice greater understanding of others, first through shared beliefs and practices despite widely varying opinions, attitudes, and temperaments, and then across different beliefs and practices.

Such communities are in fact designed to work for a united purpose -- repair the world, proclaim the good news, serve those in need, bring enlightenment -- and at their best serve as examples to larger communities in which souls cry out for understanding.

Understanding what others believe and practice and why is not the same as embracing their faith, or embracing relativism.

One can affirm what is right and true within other faith traditions while holding fast to one's own. Thus, for example, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in (non-Christian) religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (Nostrae aetate, n.2). More succinctly, "Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam" (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons).

Confident in our own faith, we can learn about the beliefs and practices of others, especially from their own sources. We have a powerful opportunity to understand one another when we lower our guard and listen.

* Ken Jarman is a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Richland.

-- Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email

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