Rivers of Faith

The religious traditions of humankind are shown here as squares, each containing a commonly used symbol of that tradition. But this visual image of separate boundaried squares—graphically convenient as it is—is highly misleading, for every religious tradition has grown through the ages in dialogue and historical interaction with others. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been part of one another’s histories, have shared not only villages and cities, but ideas of God and divine revelation. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, and Sikhs have shared a common cultural milieu in India, while in East Asia the Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian traditions are not only part of common cultures, but are also part of the complex religious inheritance of families and individuals whose lives are shaped by all three religions.

And there is a second caution: each tradition represented so neatly by a circle and a symbol has its own internal complexity which you will discover as you click one of those circles and begin to explore the tradition. The Native Peoples of America are not one, but many, each with its distinctive life-ways. The Hindu tradition is a rich tapestry of many streams of thought and devotion, many gods, and many regional cultures. The Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions have spanned the world and speak in hundreds of languages and cultural contexts. Many traditions have their own complex internal disagreements and sectarian movements: Sunni and Shi’i Muslims; Orthodox and Reform Jews; Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians. And each tradition has many voices—women and men, traditionalists and reformers, clergy and laity.

And there is a third caution here as well: religious traditions are dynamic. Though they carry continuities through the centuries, they also have changed through the centuries and continue to change today. Religions are far more like rivers than like boundaried circles or even complex structures. Nourished by mountain springs, they gather tributaries, flow in full flood through the plains, divide into multiple branches, merge in confluence with other streams, and spread into vast deltas. Some eventually spend themselves and dry up, leaving behind the traces of an ancient riverbed. Others become so extensive and complex they constitute an entire river system. It is important to remember, then, that living religious traditions are in motion as each new generation makes that tradition its own—in its own time, and in its own ways. Religions are not simply sets of ideas or practices passed in a box from generation to generation, but living traditions of faith that must be appropriated anew.

Today all these rivers of faith are flowing through the landscape of America. Some have been here for centuries, and some are finding their way through a landscape that is relatively new for them. All of these religious traditions will continue to change in the new context of multireligious America. The history of religions is not over, but is an ongoing history, taking place today before our very eyes as new religious traditions begin to grow and flourish in the context of the United States. As a Vietnamese Buddhist monk told a Pluralism Project researcher in Phoenix, “We must take the plant of Buddhism out of the pot and plant it now in the soil of Arizona.” What is Buddhism becoming as it grows in the soil of Arizona? What is India’s Sikh tradition becoming as American Sikhs double the size of their gurdwara, sing out their devotions, and celebrate their holidays in Oklahoma City? How are American Muslims passing on their most cherished values in Houston or Seattle? How are American Hindus reshaping the complex religious and regional traditions of India in Nashville? And how are America’s Christians and Jews changing as they encounter new neighbors of other faiths and learn to work together on school boards and interfaith councils?

In “America’s Many Religions” you are invited to explore the religious traditions of America. There are brief introductory essays and world timelines. The history of each tradition in the U.S. is also traced, through essays, photos, and timelines. Under the menu item “Experience” you are invited to learn something of the lived religious experience of each tradition: their places of worship, their songs and devotions, their festivals and forms of social action. Under the menu item “Issues” you can get a sense of the things people of each religious tradition care—and even argue—about in America today.

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