Monday, February 06, 2012

Sermon: "Apples and Oranges are Round and Sweet" (Delivered 2-6-12)

The reading comes from Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter,
There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers assuming that salvation is the goal of all religions and then arguing that only Christians can achieve this goal.  Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption.  [He wrote] “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.”  It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved.  But this statement is confused to its core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek.  Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin.  But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it.  And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim….  
A sports analogy may be in order here.  Which of the following – baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf – is best at scoring runs?  The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term [entirely] foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike.  Different sports have different goals:  basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink puts.  So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start.  To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them.  It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball…  The real question is not which is best at carrying us into the end zone of salvation but which of the many religious goals on offer we should be seeking. […]  
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…  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…  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. 

As I developed this sermon, my mind kept returning to a humorous image from the television show The Simpsons.  In the episode Homer the Heretic, Homer Simpson’s house catches on fire and the flames are put out by Springfield’s religiously diverse volunteer fire department which includes Ned Flanders (a Christian), Krusty the Clown (a Jew), and Apu (a Hindu.)  After the flames are extinguished, Homer grows dejected, thinking the fire must have been a form of divine punishment.  Reverend Lovejoy offers a different way to look at the calamity.  “God,” Reverend Lovejoy tells Homer, “was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbors when they came to your aid, be they Christian, or Jew, or miscellaneous.”  To which Apu responds, “Hindu!  There are 700 million of us.”

This morning’s sermon is on the impossibly large topic of engaging world religions.  While this sermon is going to be complete in and of itself, it is also a test drive in a way.  One of the stories I hear from the longtime members of this church is how much they enjoyed a program that ran here in the 1970s on the religions of the world.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about what sorts of series we might run once we move to our new building and it has occurred to me that it might be interesting to do a series on world religions.  I’d welcome dialogue on whether this would be of interest to you.

Setting all that aside for the time being, as we go forward this morning we remember the humorous scene from The Simpsons, and with it the awareness that even when people’s hearts are in the right place, they often manage to dismiss, devalue, offend, or slight.  I remember as a college student taking an introductory class on comparative religions.  One of our assignments was to go the library, find books that compared the religions of the world, and detect the biases of the authors.  Looking through the stacks, it was clear that there was a lot of arrogance in the ways that religions of the world have been approached.  Scanning the titles, I found that one book might consider the seven great religions and that another might consider the nine great faiths.  (Should we conclude that Shinto is only semi-great?)  I found books with titles and subtitles that spoke of the great religions as compared to the lesser religions, the great religions as compared to the primitive religions.

Browsing through the library shelves I came across a book by one of our own.  In 1871 James Freeman Clarke, a Unitarian minister, published a very large book entitled Ten Great Religions.  It was an expansion of a series of articles he had published in the Atlantic Monthly a few years earlier.  The ten great religions that Clarke explores are Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, the religions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Germanic and Scandinavian folk religion, Judaism, and Islam.  You may notice that one religion is missing: Christianity.  Actually, in each chapter Clarke compares his subject to Christianity.  Clarke also includes an eleventh chapter dealing with Christianity, and not just Christianity but Unitarian Christianity, as superior to the others, calling it the religion of progress and universal unity.  From our perspective today, Clarke’s book contains a lot that is cringe-worthy, dated, and arrogant.  But, in its own day, it would have been considered progressive religious scholarship.  [Click here for an essay on Clarke including a description of this book.  The book is available on the web.]

Over the last century and a half, good people whose hearts have been in the right place, have revised their thinking about how to approach religious diversity.

One approach has been to disregard differences and to focus on similarities.  The thinking goes that if our differences separate us, our commonalities connect us.  There are an abundance of beautiful and exquisite metaphors that play on the idea of our particularities being subsumed into a larger common unity.

Stephen Prothero, in the reading earlier, makes reference to the image of an enormous mountain with the different world religions being different parties of hikers and mountain climbers, each traveling a different route to the top of the same mountain.  Another beautiful image speaks of the world religions as a multitude of streams and rivers seeking after or flowing into the same sea.  And then, of course, there is Forrest Church’s image of the Cathedral of the World.  The late Forrest Church, the most influential Unitarian Universalist minister of the past fifty years, asks us to imagine all seven billion people on the planet standing together under the roof of an immense cathedral.  “Search for a lifetime (which is all you are surely given) and you shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze.”  Church continues,
Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows without number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through. 
 Because the cathedral is so vast, our time so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of darkness and light through a few of its windows. Yet, by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning. 
 A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. That is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only...
 Many paths up the same mountain.  Many rivers flowing to the one sea.  Many windows and one light.  I recognize these metaphors as beautiful and compelling.  But, Stephen Prothero warns us that these metaphors are not that helpful, that in fact they might be harmful and dangerous.  I happen to think that these metaphors are false, but also true, and also false beyond their truth and true beyond their falsehood because they are metaphors and metaphors are both true and false and neither true nor false.  I should probably explain what I mean.

Take the metaphor of the different paths up the same mountain.  We might imagine a mountain the size of Mt. Everest with a group of Muslims climbing the south face while Buddhists climb the north face and Jews ascend the east face.  Prothero points out that if you helicoptered in, interviewed each of the climbing teams, and asked them where they were headed, the teams would all have a different idea of what the summit they are hoping to reach would look like.  And, moreover, if you interview the Buddhists who talk about nirvana as their destination and then go over and tell the Jewish group that they are actually climbing toward nirvana, you will receive some odd looks.  So, the metaphor is false.
But, if you look at the metaphor a bit differently, it also seems true.  Our own beliefs may be subjective, but there is at least some objective reality that we all share.  The mountain or the cathedral might be our Earth, a planet with seven billion human passengers, hurtling through space and orbiting the sun.  Prothero admits such common ground, “All [religious people] are human beings with human bodies and human failings, so each of [the] religions attends to our embodiment and to the human predicament, not least by defining what it is to be fully alive.”  So, in other words, we are all climbing different mountains.  And, we are all climbing the same mountain.  And, none of us is actually climbing a mountain.  But we are.

These questions of religious difference and sameness, particularities and universalities, are not just abstract.  They are practical.  This year is the 50th anniversary of an important Supreme Court case dealing with religious diversity and religious freedom.  The case, Engel v. Vitale, dealt with prayer in public schools.  It is a case that is frequently cited today by religious conservatives who continue to be sore about the decision.  The case involves a public school district in New York that composed an official prayer for recitation at the beginning of the school day.  Jewish and humanist organizations challenged the school district claiming that the prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The thing you may not know about the case is that the prayer that the school district crafted was a lousy prayer.  The school district knew that if the prayer were sectarian it would not be allowed, so they crafted what they thought was a general prayer.  "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.  Amen."

In the Supreme Court case, the school district argued bizarrely that the prayer should be allowed because it was so non-specific and vague and general that it didn’t actually establish anything.  The Court rejected that argument saying in its decision that while some faiths recognize an almighty God, other faiths do not, and that the prayer therefore established those that do over those that do not.

Today, when the religious right advocates for school prayer, you can be sure that they are not advocating for something vague and watered-down.  They have in mind a specific kind of prayer, with a specific theology, with language and meaning that includes some and excludes others.  We know this.  We know this because we know how the religious right would react if a system of school prayer was proposed that was pluralistic.  Imagine it with me.  On the first day students would recite a prayer in Hebrew.  On the second day students would face Mecca and perform salat.  On the third day students would sit in zazen meditation.  On the fourth day students would worship before a shrine to Shiva.  And on and on, 180 school days each with a different religious activity:  chanting, casting circles, Tarot card readings, Yoga, sacred dance.

Of course I’m being facetious here.  But, we know that this sort of solution to the prayer in school question would so infuriate religious conservatives that it is fun to imagine.  It also would be impractical, and hollow, potentially insensitive, and, if nothing else, at very far remove from the purposes of public education.

Imagining this spectrum running from fundamentalism to pluralism can help us to clarify our own thinking regarding religious diversity.  The Kansas City Star has a feature in the Saturday religion section in which a question is posed to two religious leaders who come at things differently.  Back in 2006 they posed this question to a rather liberal Christian and a very conservative Christian:  “How far should Christian tolerance of other faiths go?”  There is very little honor in writing a two hundred word answer to a question that isn’t even that good of a question.  For the liberal side, they had my friend Bob Hill of Community Christian Church on the Plaza.  Bob is a great minister and is exceedingly bright.  Bob wrote, “There are some adherents in every faith who demand that the faith expressions of others be inferior. Such demands are of a human and not a divine origin.”

For the conservative side The Star chose the since-fallen Jerry Johnston.  Johnston wrote that truth is exclusive.  “We know that the God's Word is true… Anything more, anything less, any alternative religious system cannot also be true.”

Of course, I think that Jerry Johnston is absolutely wrong.  The position that I hold, the way that I approach religious diversity, the way that we as a church largely approach religious diversity, stands in sharp, sharp contrast to not only the conservative position, but also to what so often passes as the mainline position which actually continues to resemble James Freeman Clarke’s project from the 1870s.  Here is one well-known, mainline Christian author writing today,
“If I understand religion to be the human response to spiritual yearnings, needs, and experiences, then I also must understand that some of these responses are closer to the truth than others.  In fact, some truth claims are mutually exclusive… I believe that Christianity offers the most complete and authentically human way to live.” 
 It is a line that James Freeman Clarke might have written.  Such a stance tacitly accepts the black-white, yes-no, true-false duality of the conservative position.  It is a limiting and unimaginative world view.

Truth is not exclusive.  I do not accept the argument that truth is exclusive.  Let me explain what I mean.

Here are two fruits.  These fruits are in some ways very different.  One is red.  The other is orange.  One comes from an apple tree and the other from an orange tree.  And so on.  We could spend a long time listing all the ways in which they are different.  If you tried to tell me that all fruits are really the same, it would be a false statement.  But, there are also some similarities.  Apples and oranges are round and sweet.  Apples and oranges are healthy for you.  Apples and oranges are delicious.

The truth of the apple’s existence is not in conflict with the truth of the orange’s existence.  That the apple is sweet does not make the orange any less sweet.  The truth that the orange is good for you does not mean that the apple is any less good for you.

Here are two religions.  Some would say that they are so different that to try to compare them would be like comparing apples and oranges.  (But you can compare apples and oranges; apples and oranges are round and sweet.)  Some would say that the existence of one religion invalidates the other, that both cannot be right and whole and true.  Some would say that different religions are mortal enemies that cannot coexist.  People say a lot of stupid things.