One World, One Religion?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 3, 2002
Hear again the beautiful words we shared earlier with the children, from Sandy Eisenberg Sasso:
And the words of Rev. James Parks Morton:
And speaking at Harvard University in 1995, President Havel said:
The pages of literature are filled with lovely examples of the hope for a spiritual renaissance—of our hope to bring a spiritual dimension to our common future—a future when “Earth might be fair, and all her people one”—a future in which the words of the ancient prophets are made true:
But as one hears the beautiful vision expressed again and again, so all the more stark and disheartening appears the bitter reality of our own days. Especially in recent weeks, of course, the madness of religious rivalries—of religious intolerance— seems to have reached a fever pitch. We are treated to the continuing tragedy in the Middle East, of course, where attitudes of deeper and deeper intransigence on both sides seems destined to engulf the region in all-out war (I pray that I am wrong). The specter of Islamic fundamentalism, promising jihad—holy war—against any and all who do not subscribe to their narrow religious and cultural precepts—continues to haunt our world.
In more recent days, we have been witnessing a truly awful spectacle in India (great mother of religious civilizations; great land of Gandhi, great man of peace). In India, religious tensions between Muslims and Hindus have boiled over in recent days, and in the past week, Muslim fanatics have firebombed a train full of Hindu pilgrims, while Hindu fanatics have rampaged through Muslim villages—leaving, all together, 500 people dead in a single province in a single week.
Perhaps we are going to learn finally that seeking understanding among different religions isn’t any longer 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. Religious dialogue has rapidly become, I believe, a dire necessity in this dangerous world of ours. Havel’s vision of religion as a unifyingforce in human civilization, rather than as a fractious one, is echoed (all the more urgently) in the words of the radical Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, who said, “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. Religions must learn to talk together—and live together-- and work together—and cooperate together—if our Earth is going to survive.
How, then, do we engage in religious dialogue with other faiths? This is the topic of the most recent book by Matthew Fox, formerly a Catholic, now an Episcopalian priest, and one of the leading advocates of “creation spirituality”. In his book, One River, Many Wells, Fox 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 and received practices to illuminate the divine within and within all people.”
This is the kind of vision of faith our world needs at this dangerous time: a faith that liberates us from the deadly, poisonous littleness of our particular perspectives to embrace a vision as wide as a world which must come together if we are to survive.
Matthew Fox believes that there is a fundamental Oneness, an underlying interdependence to our Being, which all religious faiths apprehend. He quotes the great medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, who wrote that God—Divinity—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, 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, a feminist pagan well, to name just a few. And on and on… there are many wells—“many names”—for God—all valid, 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, how do they “get along”? As I have said, it is a fundamental question—a dangerous question—and much depends on how we answer it.
Of course, one solution (all too common in this world gone mad of ours) is to ignore those at the other wells—or even more, to say that ours is the “one true well”, that the others are drinking poison—or even worse, that they are poisoning our well! This is the perspective of all religious fundamentalists from Osama Bin Laden to Pat Robertson (not that I’m equating the two, but they do share the same narrow, deadening perspective, as far as the way they look at the religions of others is concerned).
Such narrow-mindedness is hardly the pathway to salvation. More likely, it’s that pathway to despair and mayhem and mutually-assure destruction.
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. 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—though very often those human experiences which do not threaten us in some way—which do not challenge us—may very well instead anesthetize and numb us and deaden us in the end. Such a perspective, it would also seem, flies in the face of our fundamental interdependence; it turns its back on that “common spirit of life which unites us all”. It forgets the ultimate truth that there is one single great river of the Spirit, from which we are all drinking life-giving waters. It seems to me an approach too cautious for a world grown too small.
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 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 here in this approach (well meaning as it might be) which would fly in the face of something deep within our common humanity.
Pluralism is not monism, and true unity 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 monolithic social structures—with churches or religions or political movements or governments or parties or principalities or powers or whatevers that have claimed to be the “One True” anything has not been very positive, to say the least. Indeed, from the Crusades through the Inquisition to the Holocaust and the Gulag, it has been quite murderous.
“Celebrating diversity” does not mean tossing everyone into some Great Social 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 youj 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.
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, joined in a living tradition, where past, present, and future blend in one living whole.
But we need the presence of Others—those at other wells, those on other roads—to keep us humble, as children of the Earth, as children of the Mystery. If we didn’t share this reality with those Others, we might well place our story at the center of all Creation, and even forget in time, that there was a Great River under all. We might come to believe somehow, in our shortsightedness, that our little, tiny tributary—our little well—was the River, was all there is of religious truth.
In religion, as in the rest of life, we need to experience differences and to know diversity. As Margo Adler has put it:
Not by one avenue alone. Not by only one road. But by many.
How do we meet and greet and engage those, then, who walk on different pathways?
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 living 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” reminds us that it is not our religious answers which make us human, but our religious questions:
It is through our questioning of why we are here… where we are going… what the purpose of all this is… that we approach closest unto the Divine, the Source, the Spirit of Life who made us all. “Deep Ecumenism” reminds us, as religious people, to take that questioning as far as we can—and always to do it in the presence of those blessed Others (other cultures, other religions, other peoples, other perspectives) which enrich our lives so magnificently.
So, we strive to make it to the top of God’s mountain,
each climbing carefully by our own pathway,
not to be alone, but to join with others;
the important thing when up there
is to know not simply one particular 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 make this Earth a garden.
So may it be. Amen.