I knew a priest who was born and raised in an American Baptist family and through his faith and intense study had decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. He eventually went deeper into his faith and study and became a Roman Catholic priest. Years later he would decide that he was called to be a Melkite priest, a priest of the so-called Greek Catholic Church.
The Melkite Church is a very ancient Christian Church that traces its origins back to the origins of Christianity itself. I would learn years later that my friend left the Melkite Church to be ordained a Greek Orthodox priest, after which he went off the radar.
The path he followed from an American Baptist Church, through the Roman Catholic to the Orthodox Church, is a path informed by his faith, study and personal conviction.
From the simplest believer to the theologian, a struggle between study and belief can potentially dominate the believer’s life. But, more to the point, the current study of a faith by the faithful necessarily opens up the controversies from which their religion was born.
Almost every existing expression of Christianity is a manifestation of one of the original forms of the fledgling religion that had already existed in the first and second centuries, when Christianity was being forged in the cauldron of religious controversy.
The very existence of the myriad branches of Christianity living today betrays the perpetual nature of a struggle between devotion and study. All of the diverse expressions of Christianity up until the fourth century, and all widespread major early branches, such as Arianism or Coptic Orthodoxy (along with all major living expressions of Christianity today) were founded and populated by devout believers who penetrated deep into their own faith.
The believer who conducts research into their own religion will invariably encounter severe resistance from their community and, in many cases, the authorities of their group. The only real and lasting improvement to this dilemma has been the colossal experiment of ‘universal religion’.
The diversity of religious interpretation is absorbed into the great universal religions of the world. The many assorted and, sometimes, conflicting beliefs become currents of thought, theological schools, movements, or religious orders. The religion does well to make room for a certain amount of study and interpretation.
Bear in mind that, here, I am not speaking of religious universalism – the idea that all religions teach the same truth or are different expressions of the same experience – but of universal religion, which is a religion that insists that it was meant for all people. When a religion is said to be ‘for everyone’ and the adherents of that religion propose that all of humanity should enter into their belief system, the religion is said to be universal.
Islam is a universal religion, as are Christianity and Buddhism. The Bahá’í faith is a modern universal religion. Jainism is not a universal religion, and neither is Judaism, Zoroastrianism, the Samaritans, nor the Mandeans.
Universal religion was born of the ambition of empires or, in modern cases, the modern desire to unify diverse peoples. The student of religion will find here another surprising and endlessly fascinating topic of research.
As the universal religions engulf diverse peoples with diverse practices and beliefs, the religion itself often incorporates this diversity into its sphere of orthodoxy. As an example, one of the few living sources for the study of ancient religious practice is found in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches.