My seminary training included an intensive summer serving as a chaplain in a large urban hospital. One of the unique things about the experience was that it was an intentionally mixed group of students - everything from Baptists to Unitarians. On my final evaluation, my supervisor wrote, "He is Lutheran to the ‘nth' degree." I chose to take it as a compliment, fully aware that it was not so intended.

I am not sure if I have grown, become apostate or just mellowed with age, but today I do not remember the description fondly. Although I still speak theology with a Lutheran accent, I feel neither the desire nor the need to defend or protect any denominational turf.

In fact I have become convinced that if our spirituality is to have any enduring quality it should be able to withstand intense scrutiny and that said scrutiny should be coming from within.

Not long ago, a colleague accused me of "heterodoxy." I wondered out loud how well orthodoxy has served us. There was no orthodoxy in the early Christian church, not even enough to be using the term "Christian."

Born in highly diverse communities, the early church was best understood as a division of Judaism that also came in far more varieties than we have known in the past two millennia; a form of Judaism that spilled into the Gentile world.

With the destruction of all but Rabbinic Judaism in the first century and the legitimization of Christianity in the fourth, orthodoxy - literally "correct belief" - rose to prominence, and it seems like we have been arguing over it ever since.

I wonder if our historic disputes have been so much about orthodoxy - correct belief, or orthopraxy - correct practice. And if they have been more about practice than belief, then is it possible that most of the struggle has been about power?

In her 2010 book, "Twelve Steps Toward a Compassionate Life," church historian Karen Armstrong points to a relatively brief period of time in which great spiritualities emerged in four distinct regions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China, monotheism in the Middle East and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Although they had different beliefs, scriptures, symbols and liturgies, the one thread common to each fabric was compassion. Armstrong points out that compassion is not synonymous with pity, but is instead the ability to "feel with" another.

The capacity to put the interests of another beside or ahead of your own seems deeply planted in the brain's limbic system, where emotions are centered. For a variety of reasons, the central core of compassion has, to some degree, been lost.

We have become spiritually polarized in a way that reflects the political polarization in the world. Suspicion has replaced compassion, and we have retreated to a more ancient part of the brain that places personal survival above all other things.

Armstrong's book flowed out of the "Charter of Compassion," a product of thousands of contributors that was put into final form my notable individuals of six different faith traditions in February of 2009.

The Charter declares, "The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves."

I am a recovering orthodoxaholic, still believing that mutually held principles of compassion and a conviction to above all do no harm will be the way forward in these dangerous and divisive times.

For more on the history and future of the Charter of Compassion, go to www.charterforcompassion.org.

• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.

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