Ask The Religion Experts


1947-2014 (Archived)
Ask the Religion Experts

Ask the Religion Experts

The Christian faith accommodates different ethnicities by affirming, correcting and transcending them. I realize this sounds a bit paradoxical, so here’s a brief explanation of how it’s possible.

First, the Christian faith affirms ethnic diversity. Jesus loves people from all backgrounds. When He instructed his followers to bring the gospel to all “nations,” Jesus used a word that meant all “ethnic groups” (Matthew 28:19). Even in heaven, ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged; heaven will be populated with people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

Affirming ethnicity happens as churches welcome people from all ethnic backgrounds, celebrating the richness of cultural diversity. Affirming ethnicity also happens as we translate the Bible into more languages and dialects. This communicates to people that God speaks their language and values their culture.

Second, Christianity corrects culture. The Bible says all of us have wandered from God, breaking His laws and His heart. As a result, every culture is tainted by human fallenness. The Christian faith provides a needed corrective for all cultures, revealing God’s universal standard of righteousness.

This correcting of culture happens through the faithful preaching and teaching of the Bible. As God’s Word is taught, Christians from all cultures can make necessary adjustments in their beliefs and behaviours.
Finally, the Christian faith transcends ethnicity. Galatians 3:28 affirms, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” A Christian’s identity is not ultimately defined by his or her ethnic background. It is found in being united to God through faith in Christ Jesus. Our connection to Christ gives us a basis for a unity that transcends ethnic diversity.

Transcending ethnic barriers happens whenever Christians from various backgrounds gather together to worship Christ and serve one another in love.

Rev. Rick Reed is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.
Mainly, by not looking upon them as different.

Within a faith group, there are always differences. There are differences of gender, of political persuasion, of vocation, of behaviours and habits. The only place where you might find everyone exactly the same is an island of clones, or the movie Avatar.

Otherwise, difference is with us at every turn. So why do we not notice? Because we focus on the commonalities, and thereby the differences recede into insignificance.

Does it really matter in an Ottawa congregation, for example, that some families come from Hungary, some from Russia, some from South Africa, some from Argentina, some from the United States?

Who really cares about this in anything but a positive manner? The different geographic roots make for a welcome mosaic. And the interaction between the diverse groups is a learning opportunity, wherein the unique customs of the country of origin make for fascinating conversation. Faith always transcends ethnicity.

Admittedly, there is a greater comfort level when people with a shared background get together. Recently, the growing population from Russia in the National Capital area has led to the development of a Russian Jewish congregation with its own Rabbi. But that Rabbi interacts with the rest of the community, as do the members of that community.

In a larger sense, there are many cities in Canada that boast a diversity of ethnic communities. As different as they are ethnically, nevertheless they share in common a love for Canada and a commitment to enhancing the country they live in.

Often, in doing so, the diverse communities work together. That is as it should be. And it holds true in faith communities. We do not see it as accommodation, we see it as the natural way to embrace each other.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka is head of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday Night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.

The Islamic view is that human diversity is not only Divine, it also has a purpose. God Almighty says in the Holy Koran: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is one who is the most righteous of you” (49:13).

Besides emphasizing the equality of all human beings through a common biological origin, the Divine command advises human beings to recognize and respect their differences for mutual benefit and not for harm. And the Holy Prophet of Islam further elaborated: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve; an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Our Scripture also tells us that: “If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people but (His Plan is) to test in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues” (5:51).

And at the same time, we are told that God Almighty has “indeed conferred dignity on the children of Adam” (17:70). Any violation of this dignity by virtue of religion, ethnicity, culture, etc., is a renunciation of the Divine declaration.

The primary source of labelling and denigration of a faith or an ethnic group is suspicion and ignorance, which usually stem from feelings and expressions of pride, superiority, prejudice and hatred. And the only remedy for this lies in mutual dialogue and discussion and the realization that distinction belongs to those who are righteous.

Abdul Rashid is a member of the Ottawa Muslim community, the Christian-Muslim Dialogue and the Capital Region Interfaith Council.

Like every faith tradition, Buddhism had its origins in a specific human setting — in its case, a North Indian princely caste, the Shakyas. In fact, one can today visit the area and meet Siddartha Gautama Shakyamuni’s (the historical Buddha’s) very distant relatives. Fortunately, the Buddha’s message spoke to and reached out to a much wider audience, embracing suffering beings across all time, over all geographic, linguistic and cultural boundaries.

In the 2,500 years Buddhadharma has travelled around the world, it has, perhaps more than any other faith tradition, used the local religio-cultural environment as its own launching point. In those passing millennia, this produced many extraordinary “flavours” of Buddhist practice, each, at the same time, a universal and a uniquely local form. The most recent of these is North American Buddhism, a style that has evolved out of this continent’s concerns and values and built a form that continues that long tradition.

This “native soil” growth, while it has fostered multiple styles grounded in a host country, has, at the same time, left Buddhists a built-in challenge, namely, being so much an expression of one’s Japanese-ness, Tibetan-ness and so on, can a practice outside of a host country avoid being restrained by the host’s language, esthetic and cultural values? Can a non-Japanese practise Japanese Buddhism?

As a Canadian Buddhist, presenting the Buddhadharma in a Canadian context, one has to notice the modern Canada mosaic is also a Buddhist mosaic, composed of many home-styles — Thai, Japanese, Tibetan and so on. There is an ongoing exploration, within North American Buddhist communities, to find ways where first-generation Tibetan, Japanese and others can practise together with Canadian-born Buddhists with European-American roots.

Within most schools, as with my own Japanese Tendai, we play a juggling act to preserve forms that are both useful to practitioners and respectful of the teachers and values that have taught us. Rather than being an accommodation, we would see it more as a negotiation between various forms of Buddhism, which come together in this moment. We would hold that no religious teaching marks the end of divine truth, and that truth must find such unique expressions in world communities.

Ray Innen Parchelo is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario, and now the centre for Tendai Buddhism in Canada. He is a community social worker and lives near Renfrew.

I wish I could say well in every circumstance. I can’t, but in the United Church of Canada, I believe we are moving in the right direction, and at a better pace than ever before.

This is not to say that we do not have a longstanding history of expressed willingness to accommodate a wide variety of ethnicities.

The tragedy of residential schools aside, we have a long history of faithful and often creative engagement with First Nations peoples all across Canada, as did our forebears in the Presbyterian and Methodist traditions.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, an increasing Hungarian United Church presence emerged. Italian and Chinese churches and Montreal’s Church of All Nations have played significant roles in the denomination’s life for decades.

Union United Church, again in Montreal, has been a significant witness to the vibrancy of Afro-Canadian gospel faith for several generations.

One of the most intriguing ministries was launched in Winnipeg at Knox United Church at the height of the Second World War. Despite rampant xenophobia, a Japanese congregation and learning community was offered a home there.

And yet all these were exceptions that proved the rule. Until the late 1960s, Canada and the United Church were largely WASP. That was the national reality, and ethnic diversity was often but an expression of condescension.

“But the times they are a changin’”, as Dylan twanged.

In 2006, the General Council of the United Church, meeting in Thunder Bay, declared the intention to become a Multi-Cultural Church. In November 2008, a national gathering in Toronto, Behold One Another, took the first concrete step to becoming that new reality. In November 2009, a follow-up regional event, River Running, continued the adventure.

Embracing ethnic diversity is breathing new life into weary work and worship.

Rev. James Christie is a minister of the United Church of Canada. He is dean of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Winnipeg.

By giving them their own church. I mean this ironically, because that has been a very mixed blessing in North America. The public at large mainly knows the Orthodox Churches by their ethnic designation as Russian, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian and so on. We are famous for our Greek, Lebanese and Egyptian festivals. Of the dozen or so Orthodox Christian communities in Ottawa, all but two cater predominantly to one specific ethnic group. The other two (Christ the Saviour and Annunciation) are made up of people from a wide variety of traditional Orthodox ethnic backgrounds as well as many Canadian converts, and services are in English (with some French). Across North America, especially in the U.S., such parishes are becoming the norm, and ethnic customs, while appreciated, fall into the background as their shared Orthodox Christian faith, worship and spiritual life are rightly given most emphasis.

Indeed, excessive nationalism is the Achilles heel of the Orthodox churches, so, while accommodation may be needed for new immigrants, all too often cultural ties and language keep ethnic churches from thriving in the second and third generation and from opening their spiritual treasures to others. Tribalism in any form is a threat to the universal Christian message, and was resisted from the beginning. As Saint Paul said, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Gradually, the Orthodox churches here are becoming more and more at home in North American culture, which will contribute its own gifts — pluralism, democracy and human rights, for example — to the ancient Orthodox faith in the same way that other cultures have helped shape it over the centuries. My hope is that we will put ethnicity in its proper place and, as we say at every service, “commit ourselves, and each other, and all our life, to Christ our God.”

Father John Jillions is a professor in the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University and a vice-president of the Canadian Council of Churches.

The six million members of the world-wide Bahá’í community are drawn from a great variety of races, religions and ethnicities. Cultural diversity is not only tolerated in the Bahá’í Faith, it is actually encouraged. Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote: “It (the Bahá’í Faith) does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnic origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity" (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 41).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921) has further explained this concept of unity in diversity as it applies to the various races and ethnicities: “The world of existence is like unto an orchard and humanity is like unto the trees. All these trees are planted in the same orchard, reared through the heat of one sun, watered with one rain. We must be the cause of the adornment of this orchard. The world of humanity is like unto a rose garden and the various races, tongues and people are like unto contrasting flowers. The diversity of colours in a rose-garden adds to the charm and beauty of the scene as variety enhances unity. Why should we not look upon the human world with rose-coloured vision?” (Divine Philosophy, p. 183)

Bahá’ís seem to have found the way to solve the controversial question of “reasonable accommodation.” Believers who feel so inclined are welcome to wear their national costume to Bahá’í Feasts and Holy Days, to say a prayer in their native tongue, etc. Within homes, families, or ethnic communities, Bahá’ís are free to follow any local or national customs that derive from their indigenous backgrounds. The one proviso is that these customs do not contravene Bahá’í law or teachings.

Jack McLean is a Baha'i scholar, teacher, essayist and poet published in the fields of spirituality, Baha'i theology and poetry.

Ethnicities different than what?

It’s true that the churches of the Anglican Communion share a common heritage arising out of the experience of the Church of England. That may give rise to an expectation that the typical Anglican is a fair-haired choirboy with a ruff around his neck. In fact, the typical Anglican today is more likely an African mother who has to walk several kilometres a day to find potable water. In other words, far from being a single ethnicity, the members of global Anglicanism come from all manner of different ethnicities. Anglicans today worship in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Tamil, Urdu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese, to name just a few.

That said, it is still true that the majority of Anglicans in Canada trace their heritage to immigrants from the British Isles. Like other Canadians, we too have known the enrichment that immigration brings as “world Anglicanism” comes home to us here.

The Christian faith always takes root in particular times, places and cultures. At the same time, its inner logic refuses to allow it to remain captive for long to any single historical reality. Rather, we are reminded by the Apostle Paul that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). The heavenly vision of St. John gives thanks to Christ who “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). There is always an invitation then to everyone to receive the gift of God’s own life, which we celebrate together now, even while longing for the final unity of all humanity in God’s own future.

Rev. Kevin Flynn is an Anglican priest and director of the Anglican Studies Program at Saint Paul University.

Within the Catholic Church we are blessed with a variety of cultures, languages and liturgical traditions. During a stay in Rome this year, I was fortunate to study with Catholics from Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. It was truly an experience for me of the universality of the Catholic faith.

But even within the local church of the archdiocese of Ottawa, we have 21 different Catholic ethnic and language communities and the Sunday eucharist is celebrated in 13 different languages across the city.

Our neighbourhood parish churches reflect the multicultural nature of our capital city as well. In many of our neighbourhood parishes, especially in the city and suburbs, we have parishioners of many cultures and ethnicities daily celebrating the eucharist together. Looking at the gathered assemblies, we see a true cross-section of Canadian culture. A great blessing is the fact that Catholics have the opportunity to celebrate our faith both within our native language as well as within the neighbourhood parish that offers us choice in how we practise our faith and maintain our cultural heritage.

Although there are different rites within the Catholic Church with variations in how we celebrate our liturgies, together we maintain a sense of shared identity despite differing backgrounds. Many Catholics have celebrated the eucharist in a foreign language or different culture when travelling, for example, yet because the liturgy is fundamentally the same throughout the world, we still have a sense of being “at home.” We are blessed that although there is a great deal of diversity in language and culture, we have a universal sense of our Catholic Christian identity.

Rev. Geoffrey Kerslake is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.

The Sikh faith is universal and welcomes all of humanity, regardless of caste, class, race, colour, gender or nationality, etc. The Sikh religion teaches, “Recognize the human race as One.” Despite superficial differences such as ethnicity, we are all essentially the same.

Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, travelled across not only the Indian subcontinent but adjoining regions, spreading his message and the word of God. The first Sikhs were of very diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, the language used in the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is a mixture of various dialects and languages from across Central and South Asia including Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Sanskrit and others.

In recent times, although the majority of Sikhs find their roots in the Punjab, there are an increasing number of Sikhs from other ethnic groups who have adopted the Sikh faith. Most Sikh congregations take place in Punjabi, however where the Sikhs are of a non-Punjabi background, the congregations and sermons can take place in whichever language is understood.

Translations of Sri Guru Granth Sahib exist in various different languages including English, French, Spanish, German and Hindi. In many Gurdwaras around the globe, simultaneous translations in English are provided on the screens during the congregations. Although the hymns in Sri Guru Granth Sahib are set to classical raags (musical measures) accompanied by South Asian instruments, some Western congregations have adapted them to include Western tunes and instruments as well.

The values and teachings of the Sikh faith transcend ethnicity. They are not the values of any one place, people or culture but encompass all of humanity. For this reason, the Sikh faith is certainly open to and accommodating of peoples of all backgrounds and ethnicity. It is the practice of teachings and values that qualify one to be a Sikh. Oneness of God, and to be one with the Supreme Lord is the sole purpose of a Sikh life or an individual regardless of the ethnicity. When a person see only One Lord in all human beings, then all differences disappear.

Ajit Singh Sahota is a retired biologist from Agriculture Canada and a founding member of the Sikh National Archives of Canada.

Ask the Religion Experts is compiled by Stephanie Murphy. Write to Ask the Religion

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