“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Study Other Religions for the Sake of Unity?”

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Q: I am a yoga teacher and a practicing Catholic. I enjoying studying other spiritual philosophies to broaden my capacity for understanding — to teach others and myself. I also really want to be a pillar for interfaith movements — that we do not need to be separated but can have different understandings of the belief in God. Can you provide some prompts or guidance on how I can stay rooted in my Catholic faith while studying other religions? Is it bad to study other religions? I do not consider yoga a religion in itself. – M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Your intentions certainly sound noble. The world can use a little more unity, in the right ways.

To get involved in interfaith issues actually takes a lot of know-how. Unless a Catholic knows her faith really well, it can be risky to act as some kind of mediator with other religions. Even the Vatican is careful to send well-trained theologians into ecumenical or interfaith gatherings. Serious interfaith dialogue requires solid formation.

It is admirable that you want to be a unifier of sorts. But the truth is, a lot of other religions have elements that simply aren’t compatible with the Catholic faith. There is no middle ground on many issues.

In the case of Islam, for instance, some prominent voices in the Church speak more in terms of intercultural dialogue rather than interreligious dialogue. There are many areas where neither we nor the Muslims could reach common ground without jettisoning our respective bedrock beliefs.

As for yoga: while some of its body postures and breathing exercises are morally neutral, the heart of yoga is very much rooted in a non-Christian belief system (see Michelle Arnold’s “The Trouble With Yoga“).

So teaching yoga to others who aren’t firm in their Christian faith could inadvertently prepare them to start absorbing the non-Christian ideas behind the exercises.

If you want to learn about other faiths (not a bad thing in itself), you might want to do it with the aid of solid Catholic teachers. This can help you understand your own faith better. Peter Kreeft has written from a Catholic perspective on Buddhism and Hinduism. Another useful resource could be this book by my friend and colleague Father John Bartunek: Spiritual but not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World.

But again, it might be better to leave the work of interfaith (and intercultural) movements to specialists.

One last consideration: You mention that “we don’t need to be separated but can have different understandings of the belief in God.”

It is good to recall that Jesus’ great commission to his followers was, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Jesus doesn’t ask us to simply live side-by-side with people who have radically distinct beliefs about God. Rather, Jesus wants us to help draw all people to him — the way and the truth and the life.

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