Seeking the Sacred
SEEKING THE SACRED IN A MULTI-FAITH WORLD
by Dr. Val Webb
© Copyright belongs to Val Webb. This can only be reproduced/published with the author’s permission.
A few years ago, terrible bush fires swept through Victoria, killing over two hundred people and destroying animals, forests and houses in their wake. The psychological wounds and physical devastation of Black Saturday are still raw. I am sure the same is true for the dreadful Christchurch earthquakes which left so many across this country affected, either directly or through relatives and friends. In tragedies like this, we see people at their best and worst and glimpse into peoples’ souls as they react to disaster. The subject of God inevitably comes up, even for those who have parted company with what they imagine God to be. By the way, I use the term G-O-D as a three letter symbol for the Sacred, with no particular theological or gender baggage.
People need to make sense of events. In the Australian bushfires, one couple wandered into town and found they had been listed as deceased. “But I’m here,” the man said, shaking his head to brush away dreadful images. “I’ve never been to church, but perhaps I might go now.” A member of Parliament, frustrated at human impotence before nature, said, “If you are someone who prays – PRAY!” Most of us feel in control until something like this renders us powerless and, even though we might not believe in God, our natural recourse is to plead to Something for help, if only “just in case.”
Of course, some know exactly why things happen. The pastor of Catch the Fire Ministries in Australia declared the Australian fires were a direct result of laws decriminalizing abortion — God told him in a dream. When a politician friend called his remarks beyond the bounds of decency, the pastor was not concerned — “I must tell people what they need to hear,” he said, “not what they want to hear.” [i] A humorous internet blog circulating after hurricane Irene swept America’s east coast this August was entitled “”God denies hurricane is punishment for anything.” St. Peter, speaking for God, said, “Sometimes a hurricane is just a hurricane. Nor will I answer any questions about how an all-powerful, all-loving God can allow things like hurricanes to exist. You guys have to work that out for yourselves. Oh, and the Creator and Sustainer of All has asked me to specifically tell Pat Robertson, ‘Knock it off.’”
Ever since humans began to take notice of things around them, they have pondered the bigger picture, yearning to encounter Something ticking away beyond our ken or an explanation for everything. Even those scientists who publically decry any search for meaning that has a spiritual spell, spend their lifetime full of wonder, trying to understand their place in a mysterious universe. Philosopher Sam Keen calls “wonder” the source and principle of all philosophy, science, art, and religion — “the fact that something exists rather than nothing.” [ii] Such wonder has two meanings – wonder as sheer awe before the universe and wondering about what and how things might be — which links science and religion today, even though they use different metaphors and methods of arriving at their conclusions. We all struggle with language to describe wonder, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek reminds us, ”We suffocate inside every word. Seeing a blossoming tree, a hero, a woman, the morning star, we cry, Ah! Nothing else is able to accommodate our joy. When, analysing this Ah! we wish to turn it into thought and art in order to impart it to [humankind] … it cheapens into brazen, mascara-ed words full of air and fancy! But alas, there is no other way for us to impart this Ah!” [iii]
For those whose sense of wonder leads them to seek the Sacred, the fundamental question is ”how can we be in touch with the ultimately real, the source from which we derive life and meaning?”‘ This question birthed the world’s religions. Author Richard Elliott once described a vivid childhood experience. He found a cow lying on the ground in a paddock and thought she was sick, then realized she was giving birth. Elliott says, “Until that time I was quite innocent about such things and I was not convinced that calves were born in such a seemingly impossible way, but now all of that doubt vanished away.” He watched the calf emerge, take a breath and begin to move. The mother began to lick her new creation and the calf stood to drink. Elliott writes, “I was absolutely blown away! I was overwhelmed by awe. The mystery of life was as real and powerful in that moment as it has ever been for me. That is to say, I had a real life encounter with God … Then,” he says, “I returned to my normal religious training.” [iv] This last sentence jolts us back into the reality of what we have done with wonder in religion — that great gap between what we experience as mystery and how these experiences have been domesticated; the dualism between sacred and secular.
Interestingly, when we talk with Eastern and indigenous religious traditions, we discover an absence of this dualism for the most part. For indigenous people, the Sacred is encountered everywhere and demonstrated, not through extraneous or supernatural occurrences, but as part of the everyday. So let’s meet those terms, immanent and transcendent. A transcendent Divinity has usually been interpreted within Christianity as external, separate and beyond, while immanent means near or within, yet these terms can be better nuanced. Transcendence means that the Divine must be imagined as big enough for our ever-expanding universe, beyond limited human thought — our little world does not encompass all there is of the Sacred. This unlimited freedom means the Sacred can be anywhere, including near and within us – immanent. In Sikh doctrine, the Divine Presence is without form but visible to enlightened believers as immanent in all creation. [v] The Hindu search for meaning moves from the unreal, our present superficial experiences, to the underlying real where we discover that our selves, atman, are in fact also the Self, the Divine Brahman, one and the same. In Shinto thought, “There is not a single place in all the corners of the world where God is absent.” [vi]
These descriptions from Eastern traditions sound very like Psalm 139 — “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle in the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (7-10). Or from John’s Gospel – “The spirit abides with you and will be in you” (14: 17). These are two of many examples from Christian scripture that describe the Sacred within the world as Eastern and indigenous traditions do, giving us common imagery to share together in our multifaith village.
Christianity”s free Spirit, however, became domesticated in Christianity in the Trinity as messenger between God, Christ and their representatives on earth, Pope and Church who, in turn, mediated contact with the Divine for the masses. The Church became suspicious of mystics who claimed direct encounters with God, and also suspicious of nature as a place to experience the Divine, claiming that depraved human beings could not correctly interpret God without help from the Church, and that God could only be known through one Divine incarnation, Jesus. Sam Keen called this move the great “desacralization of nature” and the “destruction of the presence of the holy at the heart of the everyday.” American naturalist Henry David Thoreau lived alone for two years in a Massachusetts wood and later wrote about his experience of being one with nature. When asked on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, he said, “I didn’t know we had quarrelled.” (SOWS 35).
Human beings have a common need to be “connected,” whether with a family, a community, the universe, or with what they call God. We are born into a dependent relationship with a mother; we bond with a partner and form families in a variety of combinations today. We also don’t evict our offspring after a few days – sometimes it takes thirty years! Our societal rules are all about living in relationship and, as relational beings, we imagine Something that binds everything together, whether the universe or God. Religions developed as this wondering about ourselves and our place in the world was shaped into stories and eventually written down in language and concepts reflecting the worldview of the time. These descriptions, however, rather than the ongoing wondering, have tended to became the reality, such that ancient doctrines now control what we can or can’t wonder or imagine. They are seen as eternal truths, regardless of whether or not they reflect our reality. The Buddha tells of a man whose village was attacked and burned. When he returned home, he saw a burnt body near his house and assumed it was his son. He carried the ashes around his neck from then on. When his son finally escaped his kidnappers and knocked on the door, the father sent him away because he already had his truth about his son in the bag around his neck. When we encounter the Sacred within our world and in human experience, we can also fail to recognize It because of the bag of truth around our necks.
When Progressive thinking challenges these bags of doctrine, we are not changing the Bible as some claim, but are recovering the “human wonder” of the biblical tradition and allowing that wonder to expand in our present culture and scientific worldview. This is very threatening to some. I recently preached at St. Mary’s in Exile in Brisbane, Australia where Father Peter Kennedy now leads his congregation in Brisbane’s Trades and Labour Council building, having been banned from officiating as a Catholic priest in Australia. Despite his overflowing, inclusive church community of over one thousand people and story after story of the abandoned finding hospitality and faith there, this meant nothing to the Church hierarchy when Father Kennedy disobeyed correct procedures. His “sins” included allowing women to preach, blessing same-sex unions and changing the liturgy, most notably the baptismal formula, using the non-gendered “creator, sustainer, redeemer” instead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The hierarchy declared such baptisms invalid and banned him.
We are actually in a better place today, for the most part. At last, we are able to stand up to this type of nonsense within institutional churches of all denominations, where drawing the wagons around truth and tradition simply makes them look silly. We can educate ourselves in new ways of thinking through serious theological books in the public marketplace, giving us permission to do our own theologizing using reason and experience. Theologian Sallie McFague calls “that most pretentious, abstract, and obscure enterprise” — theology — merely the “attempt by human beings to speak of God from their own experience in light of Christian faith.” We all need to do our own theology with the goal that it be functional – that it actually works in our lives. [vii] The new imagining of the Sacred within the world, rather than an external God intervening to change natural laws to reward some and not others, has allowed us to talk with science and affirm contemporary knowledge, rather than forever setting out lemon-aid stand up on the opposite corner.
Most importantly, our new global village has allowed us to talk across faiths, finding that what we thought was superior and unique in our tradition is in many religions, often in forms more attractive and evocative than our own. “All religions have caught visions of a transformed society,” yet call it by different names, theologian Ursula King says. “Hindus call it dharmaraj, the reign of righteousness: Christians the basileia or [Reign] of God; Muslims speak of ummah as the community of all believers and the Quran sees this community encompassing all humans. Spiritual needs are basic to humans,” King says, Everyone has such needs, even when not clearly articulated.” [viii] Our global community today means we are all interconnected, sharing educational methods, political ideas, medical breakthroughs, trade, disasters, wars and also the quest for peace. Immigration has produced multi-faith communities where our doctor may be Muslim and our IT teacher Hindu. This has forced interfaith dialogue upon even those resistant to such things. We have not been good at this in the past because we have met each other carrying our little boxes labelled “our religion” and have insisted that others put their boxes down and take up ours. Today, many of us have more sense, realizing that different religions are humanly-constructed descriptions of the common and universal search for Something More.
All this suggests a starting point for “Seeking the Sacred in our multifaith world.” Rather than beginning with religious doctrines and arguing whose truth is true, we can start with what we have in common, what we know — the search to be the best human being we can be, fully human. In his latest book An inconvenient text: is a green reading of the Bible possible? Australian Prof Norman Habel begs us to “get real” and recognize what we really are. “It is time,” Habel says, “[that]we read [the Bible] as Earth beings in solidarity with Earth, not as God-like beings who happen to be sojourners on Earth,” [ix] We need “to have empathy with Earth because we know ourselves as children of Earth … [not]to view nature as a resource for humans to exploit on our assumption that we are superior to the rest of nature.” [x] To be Earth beings goes further than ecology and care of the planet. We have been hoodwinked for centuries into believing that the whole point of our earthly existence is a trial for entry into heaven. Even though the Hebrew religious story did not include an afterlife until a few centuries before Jesus — and was still being debated at the time of Jesus — Christianity fell into the Greek philosophical idea of the soul travelling separately from the body — another dualism — arriving on earth for a short stay in a foreign land and returning to its true home in the skies. As Fourteenth Century monk Thomas à Kempis said in his classic book, The Imitation of Christ, ”O most happy mansion of the city which is above! O most clear day of eternity … Oh, that that day would shine upon us, and that all these temporal things were at an end! … O merciful JESUS, when shall I stand to behold thee? When shall I contemplate the glory of thy kingdom?” [xi] This image of an elsewhere God reached only by removal from this sinful earth at death, ignores other imagery such as Jesus’ invitation – “I have come that you may have abundant life [here].” It skews reality and forces us to live within a scenario we have painted, rather than in this world with all its richness.
Sallie McFague, whom I mentioned before, describes two ways of looking at our world – as a landscape or a maze. [xii] We can stand on a hill as spectators, looking at the panorama in front of us, capturing the view as painters capture the scene on canvas, separate from us. A maze, on the other hand, puts us in the middle of it all. We are no longer controlling or selecting our view of the world, but are a part of the multidimensional experience and organized by it. Rather than analysing nature as other than us, we are one of its details, scurrying around to find our way. And we are not the centre of this maze. Each tree is the centre of its own universe, its roots drawing nutrient from earth and its leaves absorbing carbon dioxide, regardless of my presence. The bushes around me hide a myriad of small animals I cannot see but know are there, organizing their own world and sharing my oxygen. There are people I will never meet whose activities impact mine, often changing my life while unaware of me. This is the difference between observing nature in an I-it way and realizing that I am irrevocably part of nature, like everyone else on the planet — and whatever we call God. The Divine within us means the Divine within everything. That wonderful Indian greeting “Namaste” with hands together and a slight bow means that the Divine in me greets the Divine in you. In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Divine One says, “By me all this world is pervaded in my unmanifested aspect … As the mighty air everywhere moving is rooted in the ether, so all beings rest rooted in me.” [xiii]
I recently sat through a lecture where the Sacred present in everything and working within the laws of nature was being described. While Jesus was the human face of Divine Love at one moment in history, the Divine was not absent from the world before or after, but present in everything and always mediated through secondary causes within the universe, the speaker said. Because I knew some people present would find the speaker’s words a challenge to exclusive Christian claims, I listened as they might hear it and was struck all over again that encountering GOD only through Jesus is not possible or plausible if we imagine the Divine infusing everything. We cannot say this Sacred Presence within the world is only in us and all other experiences of the Sacred – that of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Muslims — are false. We can’t argue that God only acts for those who “have faith,” pray, or say the right religious words if nothing in the universe is separated from the Sacred. We can also not talk about the dualism of Sacred and secular if the Sacred is in everything. Even talking about our spiritual life plays into old dualisms — life encompasses all of it. God within everything also displaces so many traditional doctrines – the idea that sin first entered the world through two humans created in fairly recent time in the universe’s billions of years’ of existence; that GOD dwells somewhere in the bright blue sky; and that salvation is obtained only through one revelation in Jesus. As Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard and a United Methodist layperson says, “The language of only is the language of faith, not of statistics. [xiv]
There is a phrase tossed around “The One in the many and the many in the One.” These are not either/or, but different ways of observing the same phenomenon. We can focus on diversity – the many in the one — or we can focus on commonalities – the one in the many – different lenses on one reality. When we focus on commonalities across religions, our humanness springs to mind, the common search where differences come from different cultures, histories and experiences. Anyone who has travelled the world knows this common humanness to be true. Every-day people want to be safe and secure; to care for, feed and protect their families; to make sense of their lives and to live in peace if possible. Unfortunately, Christianity has focussed on our difference — the doctrines and “truths” we claim as unique, making other “truths” wrong, inferior or incomplete. Religion scholar Huston Smith says: ”It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the pathways merge. As long as religions remain in the foothills of theology, ritual and church organization, they may be far apart.”’ [xv]
About 18 months ago, Maurice and I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne. Some 7,000 human beings listened to how others sought and engaged the Sacred. People squashed into the hall before the opening session, introducing themselves and abuzz with anticipation. Sikh turbans mingled with Buddhist saffron robes and Muslim women in hijab chatted with Hindu women in magnificent saris. We were wondering about the faith tradition of a man at the front of the queue wearing a tall white hat – until he turned around and it was the catering chef! I introduced myself to Swami Parameshamanda whose order was centred in Calcutta. “How heavy is a polar bear?” he asked after we chatted a while, answering the question himself, “Heavy enough to break the ice. Thank you for breaking the ice and speaking with me.”
Once in the hall, Australian Aboriginal elder Professor Joy Murphy Wandin welcomed the crowd. “We celebrate your belief,” she said, “We celebrate your right to be who you are” — generous words from one whose mob was decimated by those who refused them this right. Various blessings were offered – Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Aboriginal and Shinto. The keynote speaker, His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, having watched the orchestra perform with precision, offered this as a metaphor for the Parliament. Each religion plays its own instrument and we don’t argue about which is the best. The key to harmony is to “play our instrument, don’t fight, and focus on the one conductor – the One some name God.” I marvelled at the clouds of wisdom represented, not just in these people but in their ancient traditions, all seeking human transformation. In seven days of sessions, not once did I hear anyone advocating that their religion was superior or they had the absolute or only truth – except for the Christian protestors outside the building with their sign “Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life” and the atheist protesters beside them with a sign “We will give $10,000 to anyone who can prove there is a God.” It is possible to talk together without such claims and furthermore, it is exciting to see our God appears in different venues.
Interfaith dialogue is not about conversion or creating a generic religious community. It is about sharing our unique stories, about “passing over” from our faith to another and coming back to experience ours in a new light. It is a positive form of globalization where we realize we need a sharing of meanings, experiences, practices and ethics to live together, rather than divided by religious exclusivity. Although cancer cells of different types acts differently at different sites of the body, there are common behaviour patterns by which cells multiply and invade that can provide answers for all cancer specialists. If researchers only discussed the differences between the cancer cells in leukaemia and ovarian cancer and never compared notes, they would not learn from the similarities. Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) said: ”The devotee who has seen God in one aspect only, knows [God] in that particular aspect alone. But he who has seen [God] in manifold aspects is alone in a position to say, “All these forms are of one God and God is multiform … and many are [God's] forms which no one knows.” [xvi] The last phrase grabs my attention – many are the Divine forms which no one knows. Whatever we think we have described as the Divine is never the Ultimate. Stepping out with the Sacred is an evolving journey, not a destination on a single path.
The problem, of course, has been the question in the old hymn “”What will we do with Jesus, neutral we cannot be.” I’m sure each of us has a Bible verse – or quite a number –we wished had never been included in the canon. So many phrases that have come down to us attributed to Jesus have been blown up beyond all proportion, on which truckloads of doctrine have been built. One of my professors always challenged us not to build an edifice on a few words, but consider the whole skopos or thrust of Scripture. If the idea is not constant, it should not become a benchmark for belief — sound advice, but grossly ignored down the centuries.
The passage I wish had never been included is from John’s Gospel, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” Everything in this sentence been capitalized or put in italics to prove the uniqueness of Jesus and Christian salvation, and the sub-line, “no one comes to the Father but by me” has dismissed every other religion on the planet. We have been so caught up in this theology that anything said to the contrary in any religion has been judged true or false against this small sentence. I remember teaching a World Religion class in the American Midwest where “other religions” to my Lutheran students meant Catholic! Anything beyond that was simply off their radar. In order to lead them gently into Eastern religions, I began with the familiar Judaism and Christianity. The day I introduced Hinduism and mentioned many Hindu incarnations of the Divine, a hand shot up. “That can’t be true because Jesus Christ is the only Way, Truth and Life.” “Who says?” I asked the student. With a hurt look, he replied, “The Bible, of course.” “Do you think Hindus have sacred texts that say otherwise?” I asked. He had no idea, but wasn’t perturbed, “The Bible is the only word of God,” he replied. ”What,” I asked, “do you think Hindus would say about that, given what their sacred texts told them long before Jesus?”
Although John’s Gospel gets few votes from Jesus Seminar scholars as original words from Jesus, we need to consider how these words ”I am the way, truth and life” might have been intended if we are to offer an alternate interpretation. Given this gospel’s date, its community was no longer within Judaism and needed to know God was still with them. In Jewish understanding, “way” meant a teaching or way of living. In farewelling his small group of followers, Jesus reminds them that they know the way to live – what he has taught and shown them. Thomas misunderstands, thinking Jesus means a destination. Jesus assures them that, while their access to God was once through the temple, for them now, “I am the new temple,” the new location through which to observe abundant life here and now demonstrated. “None of you here,” Jesus says, “have come to the Father apart from my way.” In the story, this was no eternal claim, but an assurance to frightened followers in a small corner of the world that they had, through his message, all they needed to access God and what was in him would also be in them.
Jesus Seminar scholars tell us Jesus was about God’s alternative reign of justice and peace for Jews under Roman rule. During the early centuries of Christianity however, Jesus was reinterpreted, first as the Messiah, then God in human form. We know this idea evolved since the Fourth Century debates formulating our church creeds were still centred on the question – was Jesus God, that is, of the same substance as God, or merely like God? The Trinity metaphor would cement Jesus as the only Divine incarnation for all time and place, thus this verse from John’s Gospel has been hoisted over battle fields in the name of religion and over mass indigenous conversions, despite the slender scaffolding on which this interpretation stands. This idea of ”only” has cast all other world religions as inferior and, in many cases, the enemy.
Progressive Christianity has challenged traditional understandings of Jesus as God’s sole descent into earth as an efficacious sacrifice for our ticket to heaven, basically removing this major obstacle between us and other religions. This means a very different conversation with Judaism and Islam about Jesus. It means a very different conversation with Hinduism and other Indian traditions if Jesus was a wise sage among other wisdom teachers. It means a very different conversation with atheists and agnostics who reject traditional claims made about Jesus. It means a very different conversation within Christianity as to who the founder of our religious tradition was and did. Most importantly, it opens our eyes to find inspiration and truth for our journey in religious traditions beyond our own, where others have also sought the Sacred. We can become “world believers” — people who, like world citizens who live in more than one country yet retain a sense of “home,” can have deep roots in one faith but relate to and enjoy faiths other than their own — spiritually multi-lingual and multi-focused people, according to theologian Ursula King. [xvii] Gandhi is a good example — he followed the teachings of Jesus more closely than most Christians, yet he saw no need to become Christian and forsake his rich Hindu heritage. Why have we made such a passion of either/or, as if we have studied all the religions in depth and come to this conclusion, erecting fences, conducting heresy trials, murdering unbelievers and pronouncing others delusional.
When we open our eyes to the wisdom of the ages, we find interesting things. Let me give you an example. People talk about Christian ethics, claiming the moral high ground and uniqueness of the teachings of Jesus. In a religious column in our local small-town newspaper, the Presbyterian pastor challenged Richard Dawkins’ claim of the terrible things done in the name of religion, ascribing instead the holocausts of Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin to atheistic thought. “As Christians,” he said, “We believe that all people are made in the image of God, thus we should respect and esteem one another. Remove this Christian principle,” he said, “and all sorts of philosophies emerge which proclaim the supremacy of one group of humans over another.” [xviii] This common assumption that the Golden Rule, the ethics of how to treat each other, is of Christian origin again shows our isolation and ignorance — Christianity was the late-comer. Let me quote from ancient Sumatran wisdom, “Let all your undertakings be pleasing to you, as well as others. If that is not possible, at least do not harm anyone.” [xix] From Zoroastrianism, “That nature alone is good, which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” [xx] From a Hindu Vedic text, “This is the sum of duty. Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” [xxi] From Confucius, “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.” [xxii] From Plato, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me.” [xxiii] From the Jewish Talmud, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow human being: this is the whole Torah: while the rest is the commentary thereof …” [xxiv] From Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” [xxv] When we hear all these – and there are more — the words ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 7: 12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” seem strangely less unique. Matthew’s Jesus acknowledged this by adding, “for this sums up all the Law and the Prophets.”
Reading the wisdom teachers of the ages has given me new language, metaphors, rituals and mentors for my own search. I have found affirmation for experiences my own tradition has downplayed, condemned or ignored. For example, Christianity has not been a great champion of sensual delights in the way that Hindu poet Tagore writes of the Divine, “Thou ever pourest for me the fresh draft of thy wine of various colours and fragrances, filling this earthen vessel to the brim … I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.” (SOWS 162) With Christianity’s pathological negativity to sex through history and its reticence to acknowledge it in sermons even today, it is refreshing to view a Hindu temple positively vibrating with the multi-positioned sexual activities of its Divine incarnations, or discover carved female figures from indigenous traditions that celebrated reproduction and birth as associated with the Sacred. No wonder the Christian story of a God who “birthed” a universe without a female partner and impregnated a woman declared virginal even after childbirth spawned a cult of celibacy and suspicion of sex. Bertrand Russell tells a story of nuns wearing bathrobes when taking a bath. When asked why, they said that God was watching. Russell said, “they apparently conceive of a Deity who is a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls but who is foiled by bathrobes.”
With institutional religion’s loosening hold and today’s multifaith communities, there is new interest in talking with our teachers, doctors, workmates and friends about seeking the Sacred. Awareness of religions other than our own has become important because of religion’s overt or subtle role in political debate and global conflict. Whether we like it or not, politicians make decisions about ethical and moral issues under pressure from religious lobbies, whether about stem cell research, abortion laws, euthanasia, or same sex couples’ legislation. While global tribal aggression today is more about ethnicity, economics and ingrained hatreds than about religion, its roots are in religious ideologies and it is played out with mandates snipped from sacred texts. Just as political leaders are trying to understand nations with different religious perspectives because we need allies, suppliers, or places of refuge, ordinary people are talking across religious divides because we need friends, sympathetic workmates and empathetic professionals. This search is happening spontaneously around kitchen tables, at play-groups as mums and dads watch their children and between office workers at lunch breaks. As we share our human experiences, frustrations and dreams, religious ideas will inevitably surface and, if the natural course of our lives does not involve multifaith situations, we may need to reset our GPSs. If we are not interested in how fellow humans encounter the Sacred, aren’t we subtly holding onto our exclusivity?
There is so much to say on this theme — you’ll have to read my latest book Stepping out with the Sacred: human attempts to engage the Divine. But let me suggest an action plan — “stop, look and listen.”
Stop. Don’t be like the person on a galloping horse who, when asked where she was going, called back, “I don’t know – ask the horse.” This is our journey and we need to stop and consider whether we are simply being carried along by a galloping horse of religious dogmas that do not make sense in our experience or demand we stay on for the ride. On the other hand, we need to be sure that, as Progressive Christians, we are not being forced into yet another set of rules that put us in the ”How to be a proper Progressive” box. The beauty of the Progressive movement has been its ability to provide a safe, stimulating space for people to ask questions they have not been able to ask and find resources that offer fresh answers — and further questions. We need to do our own theology – talking about God – that fits our time, place and experience, not someone else’s.
Look. Life is not just about passing through on the way to heaven, but living fully now; not about longing for heaven where God is, but finding the Sacred here in this moment. This life is what we know, so let’s do it well. “Do not pursue the past,” the Buddha said. “Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.” [xxvi] To look and see ourselves within this magnificent universe with the Sacred a part of this cosmic dance, opens us up to “religious” wonder in the full sense of the word – the Latin religio to “bind together,” binding us to everything in the universe including the Sacred. Such imagery does not ask us to define the Sacred or separate out what is GOD and what is not. When we are absorbed in a beautiful piece of music, we don’t have to see the conductor to know she is central to the harmony, nor identify each instrument to enjoy the music — we participate in the experience as hearers, conductor, trombonists or soloists.
Listen. Listen to all the Voices of the Universe – nature, science, Hinduism, literature, Buddhism, indigenous peoples, women, children, art, music and silence. Bask in the wonder of being in the whole, rather than hung up on separating the little drop that is us from the ocean. What matters is our ability to absorb these experiences so they transform us. We can make this “return” to wonder if we see the world as sacred, not in tired religious meanings past their use-by-date, but as a living, glorious whole of which we are a tiny, interconnected part. We can be filled with this awe through science, walking in the wilderness, hearing another’s story, through the eyes of a child and experiencing a Presence. These are not either/or options, although we have long made them so. We can choose our own language, concepts and imagery for the Sacred, whether the language of the mystics, the imagery of nature, or the experience of a Presence, Ground of Being or Heart of the Universe.
Faith is not about having all the answers. Even if we got them all catalogued, they would change before we filed the last one. My daughter emailed one day to describe her afternoon with two toddlers. “We have spent the last hour on a picnic rug in the garden watching a sign-writer in the sky trying to write ‘Jesus Lives,’ but every time he gets the ‘L’ finished, ‘Jesus’ has blown away and has to be redone.” Sometimes our lives are like that sign-writer, but we can’t wait until we cross all the T’s. Buddha said, “If a [person] were to postpone … searching and practicing for Enlightenment until such questions were solved, [she] would die before [she] found the path.” [xxvii] To be alive is to be constantly challenged with new information, doubting the old, throwing some out, retaining some and restructuring our collection before a new challenge arrives. We don’t “arrive” at faith – we live it in all its splendour, tragedy and messiness. If we insist on defining unchanging truth, we will have to choose between certainty and agnosticism, rather than flowing along the evolving continuum between the two. Certainty cannot accept grey, but the beauty of grey is that it is the only area where movement and change can happen and, if you add a little light to grey, you get silver. ”A lifestyle is an art form,” Matthew Fox said, ”It brings life and wonder, joy and hope to persons otherwise condemned to superficial living. Our times call for the creation of lifestyles of spiritual substance.” [xxviii]
[i] Sydney Morning Herald, February 11, 2009.
[ii] Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969), 22
[iii] Nikos Kazantzakis. Report to Greco (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 481-2
[iv] Richard F. Elliott, Jr., Falling in Love with Mystery: we don’t have to pretend anymore. Electronic publication www.fallinginlovewithmystery.com, 1
[v] John R. Hinnells, ed., Dictionary of Religions (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 15
[vi] Anand Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind: celebration of unity in diversity (Jakata: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2009), 7
[vii] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: rethinking theology and economy for a planet in peril (Minneapolis:Fortress Press 2001), 15, 17
[viii] Ursula King, The Search for Spirituality: our global quest for a spiritual life (New York: BlueBridge, 2008), 41h
[ix] Norman Habel, An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum Press, 2009), 58
[x] Ibid,, xix
[xi] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 292- 3
[xii] Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: how we should love nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 67
[xiii] Bhagavad Gita, quoted in Robert O. Ballou, The Portable World Bible: a comprehensive selection from the eight great sacred scriptures of the world (New York: Viking Press, 1944), 65
[xiv] Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: a spiritual journey from Bozeman to Benares (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 89
[xv] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1965), 6
[xvi] Ibid., 86-7
[xvii] King, The Search for Spirituality, 62.
[xviii] Pastor Simon Chen, “In Defence of Faith,” Mudgee Guardian, Friday March 19, 2010, 13.
[xix] Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 113
[xx] Ibid., 19
[xxi] Ibid., 57
[xxii] Ibid., 99
[xxiii] Ibid., 117
[xxiv] Ibid., 35
[xxv] Ibid., 107
[xxvi] Bhaddekaratta Sutta, Thich Nhat Hanh, trans., quoted in Jack Kornfield ed., Teachings of the Buddha (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998), 11
[xxvii] Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhist Promoting Foundation), The Teachings of Buddha (Tokyo, Japan: Toppan Printing Co., 1987), 296
[xxviii] Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, quoted in Lucinda Vardey, ed., God in all Worlds: an anthology of contemporary spiritual writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), 508