Thursday, August 11, 2011

Other Religions

"At the still point, there the dance is..."
-- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

I became a follower of Jesus Christ in my early twenties. Prior to that, I vacillated between atheism and agnosticism. God was, for me, mostly irrelevant. Then, as the result of a series of experiences, I became a Christian. Christianity is, therefore, the only religion I have ever belonged to.

Despite that, I have for many years had an interest in other religions--not with an eye towards finding something better, but to try to understand how the rest of humanity believes. Only 1/3 of the world's population identifies themselves as Christian. What about the other 4.5 billion? I have sometimes wondered--in terms of religious belief--what if I had been born and raised in Iran or India or Thailand instead of North America? What if I had been born in 1962 B.C. instead of 1962 A.D.? I've never been able to swallow the idea that all of humanity who have lived and died apart from being Christian--due to their position in time or geography--are consigned to eternal Hell.

And so, I have endeavored to learn about Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha'ism and Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism and all of the rest.

I do not believe that all religions are equal; different paths up the same mountain. As Stephen Prothero puts it in his book God Is Not One:

"What the world's religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance...Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden..."

Prothero continues:
"Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Christians see sin as the problem, and salvation from sin as the religious goal. Buddhists see suffering (which, in their tradiition, is not ennobling) as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the religious goal. If practitioners of the world's religions are all mountain climbers, then they are on very different mountains, climbing very different peaks, and using very different tools and techniques in their ascents."

Though I do not believe that all religions lead inevitably to God, I do believe that God leads to God, and that God can use any means to draw people homeward, including religions other than my own.

What I have discovered while studying other religions is that--although the religions themselves differ on the problems they identify, the solutions they offer and the means they provide to achieve those solutions--the followers of these religions seem to fall into consistently recognizable categories.

Among the adherents to every religion one can observe a range going from Fundamentalist to Moderate to Mystic. This range of tendencies seems to be inherent in human nature--regardless of religion or idealogy (the same continuum can be viewed within political parties). Some--particularly the neophyte or chronically immature--rely on the structure and perceived safety of Fundamentalism. Most will eventually take off their training wheels and become more Moderate and flexible. Some venture further, letting go of the handlebars and embracing the wind of Mysticism. Within each religion one finds this same continuum from Fundamentalism to Moderatism to Mysticism. Thinking in terms of this continuum, it is then interesting to see how the various religions interact with one-another. I have come up with a diagram to try to represent it:

Each religion is depicted by a long triangle. For the sake of simplicity I have given each of the major world religions their own triangle, but have lumped the religions that are lesser known or have fewer adherents (Sikhism, Jainism, Dogmatic Atheism, Rastafarianism, the Yoruba-based religions of Africa and Latin America, etc., etc.) into a triangle labeled "Other." Each of these "lesser" religions ought to have its own triangle, but I could not think of a way to render it while keeping the diagram readable.

Within each triangle is contained the above-mentioned continuum: At the outer edges are the Fundamentalists. Throughout the center area (much like a bell-curve) are the Moderates. At the inner point are the Mystics.

It is at the outer, Fundamentalist, edges that the various religions are farthest apart from one another. This is where we find hard edges, sharp corners and a vast gulf of separation. Fundamentalists see the other religions as misguided at best and demonic at worst. At their most extreme, Fundamentalist war against other faiths and against Moderates and Mystics within their own faith.

Those in the Moderate middle can be positioned closer or farther to the Fundamentalist or Mystical ends of the continuum, making them more or less one way or the other. The distance between religions is not as great, but a clear line and gulf of seperation still exists.

It is at the Mystical end (the "still point", to borrow from T.S. Eliot) that the various religions come closest to one another. What I have found in my studies is that every religion seems to have a Mystical contingent who place their emphasis on experiencing the Divine and being saturated in Love. For example, within Islam, these are the Sufis; within Christianity there are (among others) the Quakers and the Medieval Mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; within Buddhism, there is the meditative cultivation of Metta (loving-kindness).

The Mystics emphasize an ongoing, experiential encounter with Divinity. They desire to be transformed by these encounters and, as a result, to be able to live in simplicity, truth, clarity, peace and love.

At this "still point" where the various religions touch one another, Mystics from different faiths and traditions recognize each other as fellow swimmers in the waters of Divine Love. The Quaker Mystic John Woolman described it this way:
"There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression."

Quaker Statesman and Mystic William Penn said it this way:
"The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

It is also out of this Mystical root that a practical concern for the welfare of others--inside and outside of one's own faith--tends to grow. People of other religions are no longer regarded as merely fodder for Hell (or rebirth or annihilation or whatever) or as primarily targets for conversion, but as exceedingly valuable objects of Divine Love--made valuable by that Love, rather then by their acceptance of certain doctrinal propositions. According to William Penn:
"True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it."

Or, as James, the brother of Jesus, put it:
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

Or, from the Jewish prophet Micah:
"He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

If there is a hope and a future for the world and the world's religions, I believe it lies at the Mystical end of the continuum; at the "still point" where hard lines melt in the glorious light of Love and where the "self" and the "other" merge. At that point, we come to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and we come to love our neighbor as ourself. Regardless of their religion.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,
I really like this! What is interesting to me is that if you were to start spinning the wheel that those spokes of the various religions make up, centrifugal force would pull the mystics toward fundamentalism and thus pull that which binds us apart. I wonder What forces are setting the wheel in motion.


8:19 AM  
Blogger Danny Coleman said...

Hi Susan,

That is a really interesting perspective and one which had not occurred to me. Here is what it sparked in my mind:

I'm no Physicist (far from it!), but as I understand it the rotation of our Earth subjects us to centrifugal force. However, a greater force--gravity--keeps us from flying off of the Earth's surface into outer space. The centripetal force of gravity on Earth is so much greater than the centrifugal force of rotation that we have to apply tremendous amounts of energy to overcome it, in the form of jet engines and rockets.

When it comes to human nature, however, things are not so one-sided. There is the "centrifugal force" that would fling us out towards Fundamentalism, but there is also the opposite "centripetal" gravitational pull inwards towards Love. Which direction we are drawn towards is perhaps a product of our free-will, but also perhaps is influenced by experiences, teaching and other environmental factors.

It is harder, I would say, to surrender to the draw of Love than to the draw of Fundamentalism or to rest in the inertia of apathy. However, I also believe that ultimately, Love wins (to borrow from Rob Bell).

This morning I was reading the 22nd and 23rd chapters of the Gospel of Matthew--particularly beginning at 22:37 where Jesus states that the two greatest commendments are to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourself. He then says that everything else--"All the Law and Prophets"--hang on these two commands. If we miss these two, we miss everything. Jesus then goes on in chapter 23 to excoriate the Pharisees and religious authorities of His day for just that: completely missing the point. They are devoutly religious. They are certainly Fundamentalist. They meticulously adhere to "correct" doctrine and keep themselves at a safe distance from those who do not. Jesus calls them blind, fools, hypocrites, sons of Hell, murderers, rebels against God. I believe Jesus would say the same to the Islamic extremists or the nationally known Evangelical Christian preacher who called for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran or the Sinhalese Buddhist monks so intent on war in Sri Lanka or the illegal Jewish settlers who steal land from Palestinians.

All perpetrate their evil in the name of their faith and, in doing so, show themselves to be at the opposite end of the continuum from where Love is.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for taking the time to read my blog!

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is wonderful to think there are balancing forces that work in concert with one another!
I am always taken with the Jesus's twin commandments and find the most difficult one being to love my neighbor as myself. It reminds me that I must love myself, too, and that is not an easy task.
I do check your blog regularly and find it interesting and challenging. I thank you for that.

7:44 PM  

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