By Jacob Trapp
Each of the great religions has a distinctive note, to be likened to the strings of a harp.
In Hinduism it is the note of the spirit: a universe throbbing with divine energy and meaning.
In Buddhism it is the wisdom of self-discipline: quenching the fires of desire in the cool water of meditation.
In Confucianism it is reciprocity: mutual consideration is the basis of society.
In Taoism it is to conquer by inaction: be lowly and serviceable, like a brook; become rich by sharing.
In Judaism it is exodus from bondage: the covenant of responsibility in freedom.
In Islam it is the note of submission: “Our God and your God is one, to whom we are self-surrendered.”
In Christianity it is that all may become one: “This is my body broken for you.” “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these.”
From Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras by Diana Eck
For many people religion is a rigid concept, somewhat like a stone that is passed from generation to generation. We don’t add to it, change it, or challenge it; we just pass it along. But even the most cursory study of the history of religion would undermine such a view. Religious traditions are far more like rivers than stones. Like [rivers everywhere, whether the Ganges which flows through Banaras in India, or the Gallatin which flows through Bozeman, Montana, the rivers] are flowing and changing. Sometimes they dry up in arid land; sometimes they radically change course and move out to water new territory. All of us contribute to the river of our traditions.
We do not know how we will change the river or be changed as we experience its currents. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti has said, “Relationship is the mirror in which we see ourselves as we really are.” This is especially true in our relationships with people of other religious traditions. In the give and take of dialogue, understanding one another leads to mutual self-understanding and finally to mutual transformation.
Religious traditions are more like rivers than monuments. They are not static and they are not over. They are still rolling—with forks and confluences, rapids and waterfalls. Where those rivers of faith flow depends upon who we are and who we become.
Recently I had the opportunity to hear one of my colleagues describe her experiences working with an interfaith clergy association in her city. If I remember correctly, the members of this clergy association consisted of a good number of ministers of mainline Protestant churches, a few Catholic priests, a rabbi, an imam, and a UU minister with strong humanist leanings. Each year, these religious leaders hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving service. After a few years, after she had developed some relational traction among the interfaith clergy group, she explained to the group that she would prefer not to be assigned a Bible passage to read at the interfaith Thanksgiving service. The group accepted her request and asked her to read the President’s Proclamation. So, instead of reading a passage from the Bible she was now to read a letter on White House stationery bearing the signature of President George W. Bush. Not the “scripture” she had in mind, needless to say.
My colleague went on to describe a worship service the interfaith clergy group offered in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian Tsunami. This city has a sizeable population of immigrants from Southeast Asia and the clergy association turned to her to design a ritual for acknowledging grief that would appropriately include the religious diversity of their Asian immigrant neighbors. They turned to her, the Unitarian Universalist.
In hearing this story I felt a deep recognition. One of my competencies as a UU minister is the ability to design and lead prayers and rituals that are inclusive of and would be meaningful to a diverse religious audience. Just as one of your competencies as religious people is the ability to participate in a worship experience that incorporates elements from various religious traditions and not feel threatened but rather present and grateful and even moved by rituals that might be quite foreign to you.
But, in hearing this story I also felt ever so slightly annoyed. As Unitarian Universalists don’t we have a tradition that is our own, something distinct that we bring to the table? My calling is not to be a religious generalist, or a spiritual transient, or a mercenary minister.
The title of my sermon this morning is “A Faith or Interfaith?” My words will be an exploration of our religious identity, especially our relationship with religions of the world. It is a message about who we say we are and who we really are.
In our Unitarian Universalist Principles & Purposes we say that one of the sources of our Living Tradition is, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” One of the religious education classes we offer from time to time to our junior high age children is a program called Neighboring Faiths, in which our youth attend worship services held at the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of other faiths. Thirty years ago, we used to display the symbols of the religions of the world at the entrance to the Barn Chapel. Next Sunday I will be in Beloit, Wisconsin serving on the faculty of the UU Midwest Leadership School. The nearest UU church is down the road in Rockford, Illinois where they prominently display a circular stained-glass artwork with symbols from the world’s religions. The flaming chalice of Unitarian Universalism sits prominently in the center surrounded by symbols representing Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and Hinduism.
The stained glass artwork is beautiful. The message is wonderfully inclusive. And yet I sometimes wonder if there is not something misleading in images like these. I do not know of a single Unitarian Universalist congregation with significant numbers of Muslims, Taoists, or Hindus, much less Sikhs, Jains, Confucians, or Zoroastrians. And, in just about every Unitarian Universalist congregation that I know of, the poetry of Mary Oliver is heard more often than the Tao de Ching; Emerson is quoted more often than the Prophet Mohammed; and there are more references to the theory of evolution than to the Bhagavad Gita.
Our extant theological diversity in this congregation, as with most UU congregations, would inspire an artist to create a very different stained glass window, one where symbols representing humanism, atheism, agnosticism, nature, science, music, and poetry would be far more prominent and where even the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism would be more less conspicuous.
Please join me in the following thought exercise. Suppose you are at home and you look out the window and see that there is a large moving truck outside. You have new neighbors moving in next door. Being the neighborly sort, you walk over to greet them. Now, suppose the subject of religion comes up. They tell you that they are practicing Jews or Muslims or Sikhs or Buddhists. Most of us would probably not say, “Well, you should come to SMUUCh, we accept your religious expression at our church.” That is probably not what you would say, would you? If you said this, it would be completely true, but also not exactly the whole truth. You would probably say something that shows that you value diversity and pluralism, something that tells them that you will not be dropping by their home to proselytize and that you won’t be sticking Bible tracts in their doorway. You might say something to indicate that you do not stand in critical judgment of their faith, that you are open to a relationship of dialogue that might touch your own understanding of faith.
So, who would you invite you to come to SMUUCh? If your neighbor said that they were an atheist but wanted to find a community, you might invite them. If your neighbors said that they were a Christian-Jewish couple and that they didn’t feel entirely comfortable at the Methodist Church or at the Reform Jewish synagogue. If you neighbors said that they had been attending a Christian church in their previous town, but wanted their children to attend a church where the religious education is not exclusively Christian.
A few weeks ago I was in Minneapolis attending the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. One of the familiar parts of each GA is wandering through the exhibition hall where various vendors and exhibitors promote various causes, products, and services. You can buy a set of chalice earrings or a T-shirt with the 7 Principles; you can learn about divinity schools, get professional consulting on your church website, buy books, and learn about UU efforts to oppose the death penalty or promote ethical eating. And so on. Each year, there is a section of the exhibition hall that I have dubbed “the hyphenation highway.” It is where you find the tables of UU groups of a particular theological persuasion. At the UU Buddhists table you can purchase resources on Buddhist meditation practices for UUs. The UUs for Jewish Awareness support UUs who identify with Judaism and offer a Shabbat service on Friday evening. The UU Mystics group doesn’t have a lot of literature. Instead, they offer a circle of lawn chairs where people engage in conversation about their “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.” The second largest table is occupied by the UU Christian Fellowship. They sell back issues of their scholarly journal that includes contributions not only from UU ministers but from world renowned theologians. They sell anthologies of writings by prominent UU Christian ministers. They host an extremely popular communion service at General Assembly, as well as a dinner and hymn sing and a slew of other programmatic offerings.
The largest table is not actually located on “the hyphenation highway.” The HUUmanists booth is located on the opposite side of the exhibition hall and they sell copies of their own scholarly journal, other books, and an extravagant collection of bumper stickers, some more reverent than others.
I’ve inflicted you with this lengthy description to demonstrate the ways in which theological diversity is manifest and not manifest within contemporary Unitarian Universalism. In preparation for this sermon I picked up a book that was written almost twenty years ago. The book is called, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras and it was published by Beacon Press, which is owned by our denomination. It is written by Diana Eck, who grew up as a Methodist in Montana and continues to practice as a Methodist. As a college student she traveled to the holy city of Banaras in India and eventually became a scholarly authority on Hinduism. Eck became a professor at Harvard University, teaching Hinduism and survey courses on world religions. She later became director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard. She credits her experiences in Banaras, her immersion within Hinduism, her understanding of Hinduism, and her engagement with Hindus as having the effect of strengthening her faith as a Christian.
Professor Diana Eck describes three approaches to religious diversity. The first approach is the exclusivist position. This is the position of fundamentalists, a position that says, my religion is the one true religion and therefore yours is false. Fortunately, this point of view is rare among Unitarian Universalists. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the German Enlightenment philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher delivered a lecture series. The lectures were published under the title, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. And, we might do well to ask whether being a “cultured despiser” of religion is to hold such an exclusivist position.
A second approach to religious diversity is known as inclusivism. Inclusivism is sort of like saying that others are partially right. Eck writes of this approach, “Everyone is invited in, [but there isn’t any doubt as to] who put up the tent. Others are gathered in, but on our terms, within our framework, under our canopy, as part of our system… The inclusivist attitude is, of course, much more open than the exclusivist, but the presupposition is that in the end ours is the truth wide enough to include all. Ours are the terms in which truth is stated.”
We proclaim that “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life” is one of the sources of our faith. I wonder if this is a set-up for the “inclusivist” position.
Pluralism is the third approach and the approach that Diana Eck calls for. Pluralism, she insists, begins with a sense of humility, an acknowledgment that the world is larger than your own worldview. She writes, “The Copernican revolution is a good image for dramatizing the revolution in religious understanding that we are now experiencing. It is as dramatic as Copernicus’s discovery that what we thought was at the center of our universe turned out not to be. God always transcends what we humans can apprehend or understand. No tradition can claim the Holy or the Truth as its private property. As Gandhi put it so succinctly, ‘Revelation is the exclusive property of no nation, no tribe.’”
I find what Eck writes to be insightful and liberating. If religions are more like rivers than like stones, then our own tradition is ever changing and evolving and we can put aside the arrogant notion that we are the zenith of faith’s evolution. If we are called to live in dialogue and relationship, then the value expressed in our principles of being informed by the wisdom of other faiths means that we are predisposed to partake of the sweet fruits of pluralism.
I want to end on somewhat of a mystical note. I invite you to open up your hymnals to number 608 in the back. This reading is found in a section of readings that come from Buddhism, the Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confuciansim, Islam, Hinduism, and Native American sacred traditions. Number 608 comes from a Sufi mystic named Kabir. It is an ecstatic reading. I interpret this reading as a poetic and playful response to claims that religious truth can be boiled down into a few essential truths. I invite you to imagine Kabir holding up a piece of utilitarian pottery and saying, “Ha! I have captured God! I have captured absolute religious truth. And, I have it here, inside of this clay jug!” Please read along with me:
Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.
The acid that tests the gold is there, and the one who judges jewels.
And the music from the strings no ones touches, and the source of all water.
If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.