"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Monday, March 25, 2013

Wisemen from the East (Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013)

Hear again the beautiful words from Sandy Eisenberg Sasso we shared earlier with the children:

“At that moment,
the people knew
that all names for God
were good,
and no name
was better than another.

“Then all at once
their voices came together
and they called God

And the words of Professor Diana Eck:

“Religious traditions are more like rivers than mountains. They are not static and they are not over… Where those rivers of faith flow depends upon who we are and who we become.”

And speaking at Harvard in 1995, President Havel said:

“A better alternative for the future of humanity… clearly lies in imbuing our civilization with a spiritual dimension… It is… essential that the Euro-American cultural sphere… now return to its own spiritual roots and become an example to the rest of the world in the search for a new humility.”

So there are others out there who dream of a spiritual renaissance for this world of ours; a future when “Earth might be fair, and all her people one”; a future in which the words of the ancient Hebrew prophets are made true:

For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god…”
“…but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid… 

 But saying it doesn’t make it so, even if it was said a long time ago. And clinging to the vision in our hearts doesn’t make it real, even if we hope against hope. There are other people of goodwill in this world; we are not alone in our hopes. But one would have to be blind, and deaf, and pretty dumb really, not to know that there are other voices, too; other people who seem (indeed) hell-bent on furthering the cause of religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness and a brazen exclusivity which sees their faith as the only road to truth and salvation.

We need to be dreamers, but we need to be realistic enough, too, to comprehend that seeking understanding among different religions isn’t just a nice “feel good” activity which we folk who happen to be interested in religious or spiritual matters engage for our own self-cultivation or self-education or self-enrichment. We need to be dreamers, but we need to be do-ers, too. And maybe we people of faith need to be counter-cultural and even revolutionary doers, at that. Religious dialogue can’t be just the side show any longer, relegated to liberal ghettos like NPR and PBS,  and interfaith discussion groups in drafty church basements. It’s time for it to move to the main tent. Religious dialogue is now a dire necessity if we are to live in something approaching peace in this world of ours. As the Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung has put it:  “There will be no peace in the world until there is peace among the religions [of the world].”

Inter-religious dialogue is not just an option any more. It could well be, in this dangerous world, that religions have to learn to talk together—and live together-- and work together—and cooperate together—if our planet is going to survive.

How, then, do we engage in real, world-changing religious dialogue with other faiths? In his book, One River, Many Wells, Matthew Fox, who was once a Dominican but who has been an Episcopalian for a number of years now, attempts to articulate (and these are his words) “a faith of the common heart and a religious vision that soars beyond the constricting walls of dogma”.  

There is, Matthew Fox believes, a fundamental Oneness to all life, an underlying interdependence to our Being, and that all religious faiths see this. He quotes the great medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, who wrote that God——the Holy-- was a “great underground river” that flowed ceaselessly, that no one could dam, no one could stop. Fox then suggests that while this single great river is at the Ground of Our Being, undergirding us, nourishing us all, that there are also “many wells” that tap into this River: There is an African well, a Buddhist well, a Christian well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, to name just some of them. There are many wells—“many names” for God—all life sustaining and refreshing and nourishing for those who drink from them.

The question we are asked to face at this point in the history of Mother Earth is how do people who drink from different wells relate to one another? That is the fundamental question we need to answer at this point in human history.

Of course, one choice (all too common in this mad world of ours) is to ignore those at the other wells. Or to distrust them. Or seek to undermine them. To accuse them of trying to poison our well! (Or, somehow, to try to poison theirs to wipe them out before they get to us.)  That’s the poison of  religious fundamentalism in all of its sordid array. From the Taliban to Pat Robertson, that’s the word of death that fundamentalism and exclusivity deals.

Another approach to religious pluralism is to think of people of different traditions walking different pathways—parallel roads, perhaps: never intersecting, never touching others, never being touched; exclusively sticking to their own pathways, never venturing forth onto the pathways of others. Parallel wells, but with High Walls in between them, I suppose.

There may be a studied attitude of non-interference here; there may even be some kind of implied mutual respect for one another. But there’s no touching—no dialogue—no deepening—no mutual exchange of insights. Such a perspective may not be threatening—in the way that religion is often thought of as not very threatening, tame, domestic. But often, that which doesn’t threaten us, which doesn’t challenge us, which doesn’t change us, or shake us up, puts us to sleep instead. Or anesthetizes us and numb us and deadens us in the end. Which is also pretty close to the role religion is seen as playing, in some eyes.

And where, then, is that single great river of the Spirit, from which all life-giving waters flow? A tepid, fragmented, parochial view of religion is just too small to save the people of this world from the forces of violence and division.

Yet another approach, Matthew Fox suggests, is to attempt to remove the boundaries separating the different wells. Then, we would either create one common well, or we would pump out all the water and create a common reservoir—a common pond, as it were, from which all could drink.

Now, quite apart from the rather risky theological engineering of such an endeavor—can you imagine constructing a single World Religion—building one single Christian-Jewish-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist-Taoist-What-have-you Church (Or would it be Temple? Or would it be Mosque?)? There is also something in this approach (well meaning as it might be) which would fly in the face of something deep within our common humanity.

Deep religious pluralism is not the same as shallow, superficial eclecticism.

Living a deeply religious life is not the same as going to Old Country Buffet and trying a little of this and a little of that—a bit of pizza and a bit of Chinese and a bit of salad—and calling it a meal. You can’t just sample a little Buddhism and a little Christianity and a little Taoism, and expect to be religiously nourished. That’s interesting and informative and good for a little spiritual snack, perhaps; but it’s not the banquet of the Lord.

Pluralism—religious coexistence-- does not mean sacrificing one’s own individuality and integrity and authenticity to become part of a great undifferentiated monolith. (Moreover, humanity’s experience with monoliths in general, of either the religious or political sort, has not been very positive, to say the least. Indeed, from the Crusades through the Inquisition to the Holocaust and the Gulag, it’s been a pretty bloody and depressing history.)

“Celebrating diversity” doesn’t mean tossing all the aspects of our faiths into some kind of worldwide Waring blender and  turning it on “High” until all that remains is some indistinguishable murky sludge. That’s like trying to make soup by just randomly tossing together everything you happen to have in your refrigerator. You toss in the bacon and the salad dressing and the tomatoes and the orange juice, and mix it all together, and call it soup. But you won’t end up with soup; you’ll just end up with some kind of insipid mess instead. Sounds like a better pathway to a belly ache than to spiritual enlightenment.

The particular religious or cultural traditions which any of us practice come out of particular historical circumstances; they emerge from a particular context.

When we carry on a tradition, we become a living part of a particular human story—our story, and that of our ancestors, our forefathers and foremothers in faith,  joined in a living tradition, where past, present, and future blend in one living body, one living whole.

We need the presence of all those—those at other wells; those on other pathways up the mountain—to keep us humble, as children of the Earth, as children of the Mystery.

In religious faith, as in the rest of life, we need to experience differences and to know diversity in order to be healthy and whole. We have to welcome wisemen (and wise women) from other places to our mangers, bearing their gifts, their insights and their wisdom, if we are to see more clearly the Spirit’s wondrous array.

As Margo Adler has put it:

“The spiritual world is like the natural world—only diversity will save it. Just as the health of a forest or fragrant meadow can be measured by the number of different insects and plants and creatures that successfully make it their home, so only by an extraordinary abundance of disparate spiritual and philosophical paths will human beings navigate a pathway through the dark and swirling storms that mark our current era. ‘Not by one avenue alone,’ wrote Symmachus sixteen centuries ago, ‘can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.’”

Not by one avenue alone will the world be saved. Not by only one road. But by each of us walking our own road, with confidence and humility and love.

Matthew Fox suggests the practice of “Deep Ecumenism” as a way forward for us into the future. “Deep Ecumenism” not as merely a casual conversation among like-minded religious organizations. “Deep Ecumenism” not merely as mouthing a “lowest common denominator” of religious platitudes which challenge no one. “Deep Ecumenism” not as a mindless, consumerist borrowing and appropriation of the religious practices and rituals of others.

But “Deep Ecumenism” as a rigorous sharing of our most profound and soul-stirring religious and spiritual values with one another. “Deep Ecumenism” which keeps focused on the underlying Great River, even while drinking the waters of our particular wells—which remembers, always and fundamentally, that the River sustains us all—that we are all one planet, one people, one family, one body.

“Deep Ecumenism” which reminds us all to stay humble before the Mystery. It reminds us that all of our faiths are true and worthwhile, but that none of them alone is sufficient. “Deep Ecumenism” which reminds us that, even as we walk our own chosen pathway, it is our religious obligation to walk together and work together with all men and women of goodwill, just as far as we can, just as long as we can.

So, we strive to make it to the top of  God’s mountain,
each climbing carefully by our own pathway,
not to be alone after all, but to join with others;
the important thing when up there
is to know not simply our own perspective on the glory
but to feel the warmth, sense the breathing,
and hear the rapturous gasping of all of those
with whom we share this planetary garden.

That is our challenge as a religious people: to be fully at home in our particular time and place and tradition, but to make of this world a garden, a place of abundance, for all the children of Earth. 

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