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Harmony in Religion

Marilynn Robinson highlights how remembering our religious roots can lead to greater peace.

Human beings have an incredible skill for separating ourselves on the basis of minor differences. Segregation results from both common traits (skin color, gender, religious affiliation), and unique traits (place of origin, favorite music, or even preferred condiment). Minor differences play to our ego as we strive to justify our segregation of others. This was the topic discussed by Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynn Robinson on February 3rd during BYU’s 5th Annual World Interfaith Harmony Week Lecture.

Despite the many ways in which we could divide ourselves, and the tempting reasons for such division, Robinson argued there are underlying reasons for us to be united. She said: “There is such a thing as the sacred, and it is the source and essence of reality. Where this is granted, differences should surely seem manageable.”

Robinson emphasized that religion of any kind should bring us closer to one another. She put it simply: “Most religions have their profound beliefs in common and are universally deserving of respect. The world in its variety is rich with the essential human intuition of an all-pervading sacredness.”

In her opinion, forgetfulness has changed this. If we look to the good teachings of the past, we find that “much that is lost or occluded is very good thought that could help us now to have a vastly more open and generous embrace of humanity.” Robinson argued that forgetfulness erases learning and causes us to repeat the mistakes of the past. Those who willfully forget the past destroy the work of their ancestors, and that those who sit by and do nothing are just as guilty, “We impoverish their and our descendants as we participate—however passively—in the erasure of good thought.”

She continued by stating that many good thoughts that would help us to embrace each other have been lost to history. Without this knowledge to guide us, we enact anger toward groups different from us over and over again. This cycle has filled our language with remnants of prejudice and our heads with preemptive fear towards others. “It is normal and also disastrous for anyone to fear those they have treated as adversaries; each side quite reasonably fears the other because both know the other side is prepared to act on fear of them, and the fear is therefore justified.” This creates conflict between two groups and the mere existence of the other side causes each to direct negative thoughts toward the opposing group.

As she concluded, Robinson’s message turned hopeful. She affirmed that no matter what factor we have used to segregate ourselves, the differences will hold no lasting weight. Further, if we look to our own past failings and the mistakes of our ancestors, we can approach groups different from our own with more grace, allowing them to be fallible in the same way that we are. She reminded us that it is not only our responsibility to act with kindness towards those around us, but to remember what has been done in the past so that we may move into a more tolerant future.