What happens when an eclectic and articulate group of Hasidic Jews, Sufi Muslims, Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, Trappist monks, Vedanta Hindus, Roman Catholic clergy and laity, Native American Shamans, spiritual “free agents,” and a Free Church Evangelical Protestant all get together in the mountains of Western Colorado? Well, Psalm 133 perfectly describes what happened last week when this particular assortment of people came together for an Inter-Spiritual Dialog at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, under the guidance of Fr. Thomas Keating –
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
My participation in this gathering last week was set in motion by something that one of my high school teachers wrote in a yearbook long ago – “Stand firm in your faith, and keep searching for truth,” he counseled me, “I think you’ll find that the two do not finally conflict.” And I have quite literally spent the last 45 years of my life consciously living into this advice.
“Standing firm in your faith” sent me to Christian College and then on to Graduate Seminary that eventually led to my ordination and lifelong ministerial vocation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “Keep searching for truth” sent me to read theology with the President of a Quaker Seminary in Houston, to receive training in Spiritual Direction at a Charismatically renewed Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico and to become an oblate member of that community, to take catechetical instruction in Eastern Orthodox Christianity from a priest of that spiritual tradition and to learn how to pray with and eventually to write icons myself, and to be part of an interreligious conversation for more than 10 years now in which each participant is a fully committed member of his own faith community – Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
In the Preface to The Asian Journal (New Directions 1968) Amiya Chakravarty described Thomas Merton’s own interfaith journey as a matter of his “openness to other peoples’ spiritual horizons” that came from his own deep “rootedness of faith, an inner security that led him to explore, experience, and interpret the affinities and differences between religions in the light of his own religion” (vii). Greeting card wisdom would describe this as “roots and wings,” the depth of being firmly anchored in one’s own spiritual tradition coupled with the breadth of remaining deliberately open to the insights and experiences of those from other spiritual traditions. And whether I am talking to a Baptist or a Buddhist, a Methodist or a Muslim, this is the stance that I have consciously tried to adopt and maintain. As one of my trusted guides, the 16th century Anabaptist churchman Balthasar Hübmaier (1480-1528) put it – “I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.” Last week in Snowmass at the Inter-Spiritual Dialog I was “taught better” by some new friends, and I am truly grateful for the experience.
Over four days of deep conversation, honest sharing and deliberate “crossing over,” again and again I was brought “home” to a couple of foundational spiritual truths – first, that we are all hardwired for God, that we are constitutionally spiritual (“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” – St. Augustine) and second, that God is not a dispassionate spectator of our human search for meaning and purpose, but it’s very “source and goal” as the author of Hebrews put it (12:2).
Living into these two presuppositions this past week with my new friends, when asked to prepare a statement of agreement that arose out of our shared experience, together we arrived at a set of commitments that we called an “Invitation for Contemplatives.”
Now, as a product of group think and group write, while this statement is not exactly how I would say these things if it was left to me alone, this “Invitation for Contemplatives” is nevertheless a pretty good statement of some things that I truly believe and deeply value. And its real power for me are the Inter-Spiritual experiences that we shared together in the mountains last week and the interfaith relationships that we formed as a community out of which this statement arose as an authentic expression.
Each invitation on this list is bathed in a memory of faces, voices, insights and experiences. I can’t read these words or consider these ideas apart from the people who helped to bring them forth in me, with me, people of diverse spiritual perception and religious conviction, who showed themselves to be just as serious as I am about knowing who God is and who are just as eager as I am to live the truth about God that they know. And so, in closing, I am just going to briefly annotate each of these invitations from my own perspective and experience as a free church Evangelical Protestant Christian. This is how they play out in my head and heart and find expression in the work of hands and the direction of my feet –
- To recognize we are united in the human condition.
When I hear a reference to the “human condition,” my initial spiritual instinct points me in the direction of our shared weaknesses and wounds as human beings, the limitations that we experience in ourselves and the suspicions that we harbor about each other. We are all ignorant, guilty of breaking faith with God and God’s ways, and in terrible bondage to self and sin. This is the “human condition.” But then again, so is the incredible potential of our humanity, our very real capacity for discovery, insight and transformation, our innate susceptibility to moral and spiritual renovation that is the very real consequence of having been created in the image of God. To “recognize that we are united in the human condition” is to take a stance of openness to both the grandeur and misery of being human, to aspire to spiritual greatness while at the very same time exercising the incredible patience and understanding of grace. One of the participants at the Retreat last week observed that some religions conceive of humankind as being essentially bad and then follows that suspicion out to its logical conclusion, whereas other religions conceive of humankind as being essentially good and then follows that affirmation out to its logical conclusion. But my religion conceives of humankind as being a jumble of both good and bad, and that therefore invites growth while exercising grace. This is the context for the second invitation –
- To be living examples of love and forgiveness.
The example of love fuels the call to spiritual growth and moral transformation; the conscious exercise of forgiveness deals with the debris that weak and wounded people so easily generate. Let go of either pole of this equation – the invitation to be an example of love or the invitation to consciously exercise forgiveness – and what you will be left with is a religion of half-truth.
- To be open to experiencing others’ traditions.
Apart from the way that I believe God makes His way to us in revelation and redemption in Jesus Christ, I believe that because God made us for Himself that we all seek God to a greater or lesser degree, and that in our “groping” for Him that we all actually make some contact with God because God is not that far away from any one of us (Acts 17:27). And because this is the case, by being present with you and by being open to your spiritual convictions and practices, I can have my own experience of God deepened and challenged. The truth of my experience of God is not lessened in the least by my acknowledgment of the truth of your experience with God. With E. Stanley Jones at the round table conversations between the religions of India, I believe that when you tell me about the God you know and how it is that you came to know Him, my own knowledge of God will be expanded and not diminished.
- Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to have the courage to promote respect of others’ traditions.
“Courage” is the right word to use here. In this present climate where the extremists in all of the great spiritual traditions of the world are pressuring their own adherents to further isolate, distort and condemn the “other,” it takes real courage to actively promote respect for another’s spiritual tradition. As a Christian, for me to speak with appreciation for the spiritual power, beauty and truth that I see in Islam is to put me at real risk, not from some imagined Muslim extremists somewhere, but rather from the impatient and intolerant extremists in my own Christian tradition instead. I am not jettisoning Christ as my Lord and Savior when I say that I find in Hinduism and Buddhism some important ideas that help me better understand the saving message of my own faith as a Christian. And I don’t believe that I am being unfaithful as a Christian to who I am or what I believe when in conversation with a person from another faith family, I discover some points of real correspondence between us and begin to experience a real sense of spiritual kinship as a result.
- Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to highlight the elements of our own traditions which open up to the validity of others’ traditions.
The biggest task of the day, it seems to me, is not making big public statements about mutual respect and understanding between the world’s great religions, although there is certainly a need for this in the world today. No, it is my contention that the most important conversation to be had is the one within our very own communities of faith about how the mandate and the resources for respecting and understanding the religious faith and practice of another person are already there. As I told the leadership team in my application to the Inter-Spiritual Retreat in Snowmass –
It is the Gospel – the “Evangel” – that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian. And it is the God who is behind that Gospel – a God who made us for Himself; a God who sacrificed Himself in love in order that we might be reconciled with Him; and a God who strives with us to bring us back to Himself – who compels me to participate in interfaith dialogue. I can’t know Him, and not be doing this.
A few years ago when Rob Bell upset lots and lots of Christians by writing about his optimism about God’s grace in his book Love Wins, Richard Mouw, then the President of Fuller Seminary, immediately sprung to his defense
In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.
Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic. I find their attitude puzzling. Maybe they think that folks like Rob Bell and me go too far in the direction of leniency, but what about folks who go in the other direction? I just received an angry email from someone who pulled a comment out of something I wrote a few years ago in Christianity Today. A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith! A straightforward question: “Did Mother Theresa go to hell?” My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you.
Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?
In August 2006, Newsweek did an extensive report on an interview with Billy Graham. Graham made it clear that he is still firmly confident that Jesus is the only way to salvation. When asked, though, about the destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy had this to say: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
Billy Graham is no universalist. But he has come to a theology of salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than that!
The resources for “salvific generosity” already exist within the Biblical witness, the church’s tradition and many Christians’ very own experiences, and it is the spiritual responsibility of those of us who have found them, and are already using them to foster a greater openness to the spiritual validity of others’ traditions to explain them to the members of our own “tribes.” The urgency and passion that I feel at this point in my life to be in deliberate relationship and sustained conversation with people of varied faith experiences and convictions is not the result of a loss of confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ, but rather, it is a direct result of my confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ! I can’t know Him, and not be doing this. DBS+