The Benefits of Religious Literacy

This week I started teaching religious education at our local parish. I was asked why I do it, and there are many answers to that question. One that jumped out at me, however, is that I think people benefit from having a language with which to come together and share thoughts about the Divine. We all have our own experiences of spirituality, but how do we talk about them — how do we grow along the journey of life, if we don’t have a vocabulary with which to communicate these ideas to one another?


Religions offer us many languages, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more. And within each language there can be numerous “dialects.” For example, in Christianity there is Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal, to name just a few. My primary spiritual language is Christian, and more specifically Roman Catholic. From early on I was taught this view of the world, with it’s terminology and culture of rituals. This is the expression I know best, and so this is from where I start when communicating about matters of faith. I am not a practicing Catholic because I think it is exclusively right or the only way to access the Holy Spirit. I’m Catholic because I was born to a Catholic mother who, with my Protestant father’s agreement, raised me Catholic. Had I been born to a Jewish mother, I am fairly certain I’d be a practicing Jew.


With my primary spiritual language of Catholic Christianity I can contemplate, discuss, and embrace the mysteries of God. It is similar to my being born and raised in America, where the primary language is English. It is with English that I have moved through academia, that I understand most fully, and that I can best relay my thoughts. In the same way, it is with Catholic Christianity that I have been able to draw from a rich tradition of philosophers, theologians, and mystics to grow in comprehending my relationship to the Source of All Creation. It is also within the Catholic Christian tradition that I have been taught practical applications of religion, practices that reinforce the value of living an ethical life. Without a primary language, be it secular or religious, how do we deepen our comprehension of a subject? How do we convey what really matters to us? How do we connect with others around the many aspects of our lives? 


What’s more, from a primary language we have a structure that can assist us in learning other languages. And as we do this, we build bridges into other ways of life that can deeply impact our own for the better. Learning another religion’s lexicon, customs, and beliefs can serve to expand our thinking and insights about the Sacred. After all, if we're going to be talking about the Limitless God of the Universe, let's not limit ourselves. 


So, how might you enhance your spiritual journey by improving your religious literacy — whether by becoming more fluent in your own language or by learning a new one? May you be inspired!

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