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Friday, February 11, 2011

Walking in faiths

It's a brave new world out there, kids.

A world that is increasingly diverse and multicultural, which holds pluriform truths that find expression in an increasing variety of religions and religious practices.

It's very confusing and threatening for some who have, perhaps, eaten too much of the Bread of Anxiety which the world offers in such abundance.

For others who are deeply affected by the spiritual starvation of the world, it is as exciting as opening up a great banquet table for a hungry person with absolutely no restrictions on the types of foods they might try.

Those in the first group often react by shutting down, guarding and defending and shielding themselves with the old scriptural nugget found in John 14:6: "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'."

The emblem on their spiritual shield - or bumper sticker on their car - reads: "Jesus said it. I believe it. That settles it."

Which would be fine for them, I suppose, but it doesn't. Settle it, I mean.

One can almost predict the hellfire and brimstone that will follow, complete with assertions that, if one doesn't follow Jesus (and this is important) EXACTLY AS THEY UNDERSTAND HIM, well, you will burn in hell. For eternity.

It's almost become a caricature of Christianity which would be funny if the anxiety inherent in such positions didn't make it very, very sad.

On the other hand, many of us have become almost immune to the 'cafeteria-style' religion of some of our friends and neighbors, most of whom assert, gently but firmly, that they are 'spiritual but not religious'.

While such positions often earn the criticism of being superficial, it is more and more common in a pluralistic culture with a wide-open religious marketplace.

"Brand-loyalty" is increasingly less important than community. There's something very deep and radically authentic about that, which I can appreciate when the challenges of that reality don't feel absolutely daunting.

As a priest, I have noted that more and more people who come to church arrive from a diverse background of religious experience. Our evangelism seems to be working, albeit slowly. We certainly have gotten more than our "market share" of publicity, which seems to have had its positives along with its negatives.

Some may have been, as they say, "baptized Roman Catholic" or "brought up Baptist," but before they stepped foot in an Episcopal Church - many of whom for the very first time - they also stopped off for long sojourns at a Yoga or a meditation class inspired by Eastern traditions and may have even enjoyed a few Seders at Passover or shared in the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan.

Nobody blinks an eye at such a resume of diverse religious experiences. It has become what we expect from "seekers".

A quick confession before I move on to my point - and, I do have one: I have trouble with the application of the term "seekers" as limited to those folk who practice a wide variety of spiritual practices but claim no religious preference.

I'm an Episcopal Priest. I love Jesus. I love The Episcopal Church. I love that we are part of the diversity of the World Wide Anglican Communion. And, I would describe myself as a 'seeker'.

What I mean is that while I am faithful to my Baptismal and ordination vows, am deeply fed by the miracle and mystery of Holy Eucharist, and love the rich treasure of the Holy Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, I am continually seeking ways to deepen my relationship with God in Christ through a variety of spiritual practices.

Truth be told, I still employ many of the spiritual practices I learned from my brief, earlier sojourns among the Quakers and Buddhists. I meditate daily - finding 'walking meditation' most satisfying of late - which often results in a spiritual reflection that, more often than not, finds its way onto this blog.

I am deeply moved by the piety of my Muslim sisters and brothers and their commitment to prayer throughout the day. I am also inspired by the deep commitment of my Jewish brothers and sisters to works of justice and kindness and their life-long quest for religious education.

Walking with my sisters and brothers of so many different faiths assists and inspires me to walk more closely with Jesus. In that sense, I am and, perhaps will always be, a 'seeker'. I think when we believe we have "arrived" at The Truth, that may be the precise moment when we are furthest from it.

That's my reality and my truth, which some of my sisters and brothers in Christ would not only dismiss as impossible, they would harshly judge me as placing my soul in peril of eternal damnation.

I appreciate their concern, but really, I can assure you that it is well with my soul. This kid - this eternal and forever child of God - is alright, thank you very much.

The question arises, however, about limits and boundaries. It's a fair question. The word 'religion' most likely comes from the Latin ligare, meaning to "bind, connect". It is, therefore, part of the essence of religion to limit and form boundaries around what it is, exactly, that one believes.

It's not just Christians who can become rigid fundamentalists about what one can believe and still be considered a "member of the faithful". There are orthodox Jewish sects who believe that one can not be a Reformed Jew and still be Jewish. I know many Jews who observe all the High Holy Days with their families and are active members of the Unitarian Universalist Church who are dismissed by their family as not being "really" Jewish.

In the midst of a conversation about the merits of interfaith dialogue and worship some Christians strongly resist such engagement, quickly reminding you of the persecution and murder of Christians by Muslims. And, of course, the consequences of 9/11. Not that two wrongs ever make a right, but they seem to conveniently forget a shameful period in religious history called The Crusades.

The conversation takes a sharp turn when the subject comes round to Christians who claim equal membership in another religious belief system.

Christian Century recently had an article entitled "Double Belonging" about three such people.

Paul Knitter is a former Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood in 1975 because, in his words, "much of what he recited in creeds on Sunday morning stopped making sense" to him.

Buddhism became a "dialogue partner" for him in those years and, to his surprise and delight, he became not only a practicing Catholic, active in his parish, but also a devoted student of Buddhism, actively engaged in Buddhist meditation and practice.

Presently, he has taken vows as a Buddhist, is on the faculty of Union Theological School and his book, "Without Buddha I could Not be a Christian" has had a large impact on theology and interfaith dialogue.

Deborah Risa Mrantz
Deborah Risa Mrantz embraces both Judaism and Christianity. "My religious identity," she says, "is not split or fractured. I inhabit two grounds of belonging concurrently."

An artist, she says that part of her challenge is to "articulate a multi-dimensional religious faith in a linear and dualistic culture". Her art expresses what she calls "the essentially conservative custom and content" of the mystical traditions of both Judaism and Christianity.

I found this statement both fascinating and compelling:
"When I say that I hold to both Judaism and Christianity, I don't mean to imply the standard terminology - that Christianity has been grafted onto my Jewish root. That's only a partially descriptive metaphor. I mean that the modern molecule of my Jewish Christianity cannot be further divided down - the atoms cannot be split in me . . . There are no smaller subatomic parts making the religious and spiritual whole."
Which leads me finally, but certainly nowhere near the last, to Ann Holmes Redding, the Episcopal Priest who, perhaps, has paid a higher price than either Knitter and Mrantz for her unusual religious and spiritual journey.

Her experience is a fascinating echo of the experience of Mrantz.

Redding publicly embraced Islam after serving for 20 years as an Episcopal Priest. This led to her being defrocked by the Bishop of Rhode Island (where she was canonically resident) in 2009 thereby losing her ordination and her livelihood.

She calls what happened to her a 'convergence' instead of a 'conversion. "I didn't leave anything behind," she says.

One church official said to her, "It is as if you have two bedfellows. This comes down to a question of faithfulness."

Redding finds the marriage metaphor inappropriate. Faithfulness has been a central priority for her.
"If you want to use familial or kinship metaphor," she says, "try that of siblings. I feel like the mother of two children. Christianity is the older child who taught me how to be a mother. Islam will always be my baby. I learn about one child from what the other teaches me."
She believes that she can stand at the "fault lines" of both religions and speak about how Christianity and Islam might find common ground. Becoming a Muslim, she says, was just the beginning of a very long journey, and she hopes that she might be of use in a very large, God-inspired work of reconciliation.

Redding has become somewhat of a punching-bag for some in The Episcopal Church, a poster child of everything that is W.R.O.N.G. in their very 'orthodox' (by which they mean 'right') understanding of Christianity in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.

She is certainly not alone in being persecuted for the expansiveness of her beliefs. In these very anxious times, those who need to keep their spiritual coloring within clearly defined religious lines become positively apoplectic about even the suggestion of interfaith dialogue.

Katharine Jeffers Schori recently visited a church in Arizona, where it was reported that she
"asked the members of All Saints if they had reached out to any Muslim groups in their area. When several people shook their heads no, she urged them to change that.

“I would encourage you to start a dialogue with the Muslim faith,” she said. “There are many strands of Muslims that share a great deal in common with the Episcopal Church. God will use us if we are willing to work closely with each other. There are great possibilities.”
Some of the conservative blogs have picked up on the story. That noise you hear in the background are their howls of protest.

Some of the comments have been sadly predictable in the ignorance they display. One wrote: "No doubt all “strands of Muslims” have in common with TEO that they refuse to profess Jesus as Lord and the only way to the Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not only a “son of God” but GOD the Son. For once Herself speaks truth."

Yet another snarked: "Heretics reaching out to heretics. They’re all pretty much Arians anyways."

And, my favorite, precisely because it was so predictable, "What part of “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light” does this woman not understand? Sheesh!"

Which is all to ask the question, what are we to make of all this? How are we to live in a multicultural, wildly diverse, increasingly pluralistic culture? Are we to shut down the borders and lock the gates, or open the doors of our faith to a wide embrace? Both positions come with costs. Are we willing to be held accountable to the consequences - intended or unintended?

Are we surprised, really, that more and more people are viewing religion as divisive when what the world needs more than anything is reconciliation?

I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to hear "I'm spiritual, not religious" less and less as an expression of superficial religion and more and more a statement of anxiety and distance from the worst parts of religion - especially Christianity as defined by those who profess to follow JEEE-SSSSUUUSS.

The challenge for those of us who are in positions of lay and ordained leadership in the church is how to honor and respect the paths many people have taken which have led them to The Episcopal Church and incorporate those spiritual practices which have deepened their relationship with God without losing the unique essence of the nature and character of our Anglican identity.

I'm especially interested in seeing how that works out at the chapel here at EDS. We're in an interim period so the worship is far more traditional than I expected it to be - which, surprisingly enough, has been a bit of a disappointment to me.

I see the seminary chapel as being a "liturgical laboratory" where one can experiment with a variety of rituals and religious expressions while still learning the essentials of liturgical leadership in an Episcopal community of faith.

It's also a place where one might experiment with spiritual practices that come from other religious traditions - meditation, movement, music, images, and rituals - and find ways to incorporate them into the liturgical life of the community.

This honors not only the spiritual journey taken by many seminarians but also prepares them for the realities they will face as they take on the challenges of leadership in Christian community in a post-modern world.

Are seminary chapels microcosms of the wider church? Might this be a vocational calling for the wider church? Might our communities of faith find a more satisfying spiritual life if the church - in addition to "traditional Sunday worship" that is "straight up BCP" - also provided avenues for other practices at other times during the week?

I suspect many more churches than we know or suspect are already engaged in this enterprise to greater or lesser extent.

The church I attend here in Boston on Sunday mornings features a full three minutes of silence after the homily so that all might reflect on the gospel and the preacher's response to it. When that time of silence ends, we are summoned back to corporate worship with the sound of a bell. It's an interesting - and, I must say, satisfying - fusion of spiritual practice.

It's a brave new world and the journey into religious pluralism offers us what is, perhaps, the greatest spiritual adventure of our time.

There are many pioneers and explorers on the frontlines of faith and belief and at the crossroads of religion and spirituality. Knitter, Mrantz and Redding are but three.

I have a vague memory of a phrase by a French philosopher who talked about religious pioneers as those who "plow the vast oceans of our faith". Sometimes, some of them can get swallowed up in the very waves they create.

I keep hearing one of the offertory sentences of our Eucharistic prayer - the invitation to gather all of our brokenness to be healed and made whole so all may be fed - as the beckoning of Jesus to a deeper, more authentic spiritual reality.

I'm quite certain it was not meant to call people to the vocation of interfaith experience, much less "double belonging," but more and more, I'm hearing it in the way Paul may have meant it to the ancient church in Rome, which also knew similar multi-cultural and pluralistic realities.
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to prepare yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (Romans 12:1)
The question is, how much of our lives are we willing to sacrifice so that our spiritual worship we may be 'holy and acceptable' to God?

Living into that question may require more courage than this brave new world is ready or able to return.


Bob Rea said...

Two thoughts

All of those practices you mention as coming from other traditions can actually be found in Christianity. The question we Churchers should be asking is, "Why don't they know about them?" We should be proclaiming our roots of them. This is not to say that study and pracice of other religions is at all wrong; it is to be encouraged. But then we should invite them to find what they need in their own tradition as well.

This is what I experienced in my teens. I read up on the other traditions in a wonderful book by Lin Yutang, "The Scriptures of India and China," a Modern Library Giant. Having so immersed myself, I then wondered ifany of what I found, I called it spirituality, could be found in Christianity. It could be, it was, and I returned to the Church when I went away to college and there was a convenient Episcopal church. Yes, I decided that the Episcopal Church was the best vehicle, at least for me.

Second, I think that for authentic religious practice, I and we and they need to be rooted in a single tradition. Once that is more secure, we can borrow from other traditions of practice. Skipping down all the paths, gathering spiritual rosebuds while we may, should not be a lifelong trip. Settle down somewhere, get rooted somewhere, and then you can make the best use of the spiritual bouquet you have gathered.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I agree with you, Bob. I think you underscore my point quite well. As for "being rooted in a single tradition" - well, that works for you and for me, but I'm not sure it works for others. I'm convinced by the stories of the three people in CC that some people are called to be rooted in two places at the same time. Lots of things are hard to imagine, and are also true.

JCF said...

I think that what looks like "convergence" or "spiritual enrichment" to one's self, can look like "sloppy syncretism" to someone else: that's just human nature.

When I've heard Sister Holmes Redding, it didn't sound---to me---as if she'd squared the "Jesus IS/ISN'T God" circle (nevermind the Holy Spirit!).

"Your God is Too Small" said J.B. Phillips so many years ago. Karen Armstrong frequently speaks of "The God Beyond God"...

...and they're both right. Our MOST sophisticated (or simple, if you prefer) theology, from our holiest theologians, can NEVER really get God [least of all, Yours Truly!]

I believe that Heaven is the (only) place Big Enough, to get us to "X = Not X".

Ergo, in Heaven, Jesus can BOTH be "God" and "Not God", because "God" will replaced by DIRECT comprehension of "The Divine" (another inadequate term), beyond where our words and concepts can go.

...but in THIS life, it seems to be you have to choose (at least as far as the ordained go!). Do you profess/represent a faith where Jesus IS God, or where Jesus (no matter how exalted a creature) is Not God?

As much as I can respect the latter view---it ain't mine. And you can't be priest TO me!


JCF said...

Brief addendum:

I decided to attend seminary, in significant degree, because of Paul Knitter's No Other Name?: it was THAT important (mind-blowing!) to me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Being a priest involves a choice. One can't be both/and, which is why Redding's being defrocked was a tragic necessity. However, I'm not so sure about being a lay person and sharing two faiths. I think that's different, JCF.

MarkBrunson said...

I confess, I'm not comfortable with ordained clerics claiming two separate religions - it is a bit like a citizen of one nation serving as legislator in another. We are not yet, as the human race, prepared to put down all the dividers - indeed, it wouldn't be healthy to, in our current state of emotional and mental development.

But . . . the practices of the various religions, regardless of the vigorous claims of those who derive power from their separation, all point to the same thing beyond semantics. To that end, most are found in every major religion, or were adopted by other religions, at some point.

I think the reason we don't hear about our own heritage of Christian practice and development of spiritual insight is the resisitence summed up in the response of a fairly typical parishioner in my own parish who once told me, when I spoke of the Jesus Prayer:

"Mysticism begins in 'mist' and ends in 'schism!'"

Perhaps it's the worship of mediocrity - we're afraid we may find ourselves "not as good as" another practitioner. Perhaps it's merely fear that we'll discover we've been going the wrong way; I think that's behind a lot of the "Authority-of-Scripture-and-Tradition" talk.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Great insight about the 'authority of scripture, Mark. I'll have to spend a bit more time considering that idea.

Bex said...

Mark, thanks for sharing the "bumper sticker" line about mysticism. It tallies with the attitude about Christian practice where I am. It's kinda lonely out here.

Hutch said...

I often tell people I am Episcopagan and leave it to them to decide whether I have mispronounced it. I was a follower of Wicca for a while, and have blended the Mother Goddess in her different faces to the Episcopal pathway. Jesus is very much part of that practice.

The Deacon of Dibley said...

I was so glad to see this this morning (although I am a day late)! Just wanted you to see what we are about here in Omaha... The TriFaith Initiative is based here (and we are on the brink of moving forward with some really special "stuff" that is beyond the scope of this comment, but it might be worth popping over to! I oversee the 5-10 year-olds in this group - we are called InterPlay. ( It has been a really wild ride creating curriculum that allows and encourages us to learn about God together as Christians, Muslims and Jews while authentically preserving and supporting our individual faiths - but totally "do-able" (and unbelievably rewarding)!!! Just had to get my two cents in...

Matthew said...

There are also people who find that one faith works for part of their life and then they embrace another faith. I must say that I have been very disappointed in the anger and vitriol coming from the faith community one is leaving. Its not helpful in my view. A good friend of mine was raised an Episcopalian and as an adult converted to Judaism. You would have thought she had committed murder or something by the way she was treated by her Episcopal parish. I have another friend who converted to Judaism as an adult and happily sojourned in Judaism for ten years, and then became a Christian and joined the Episcopal Church. Her Jewish friends were not happy. I even make some people unhappy in the Episcopal Church because I attend both an Episcopal Church and a Lutheran Church with some regularity (and that is a tiny gap compared to others). I was even told when I went to become a confirmed Episcopalian that I really needed to stop also attending a Lutheran church because part of the commitment one makes at confirmation is dedication to one branch of the body of Christ. I said, Really? Even though we recognize their holy orders? My confirmation teacher simply stated that she personally did not agree with the agreement we had struck with the ELCA.

And, of course, there is the old joke that most unitarians are also Jewish.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow! That's exciting news. From Omaha. So much for my assumptions and stereotypes. Mazel Tov. I look forward to reading more about this.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hutch, I'm sure you confuse the hell out of people who like their Jesus "straight up, no chaser." Keep it up. Confusing the hell out of people is a high calling. God bless you!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I would like to suggest that you read The Dali Lama's book, "Toward a True Kinship of Faiths" - about his own expansive journey to embrace the goodness inherent in all religions.

MarkBrunson said...

Looking at the triptych that begins your post, Elizabeth, made me think of a Buddhist concept in which a reincarnation may involve three people - the body, mind, and speech of the one reincarnated. We might think of it as the aggregate of body/mind/spirit understood in the West.

While I would not care to limit Islam, Christianity and Buddhism as the three "True" faiths - the particular image might help in understanding the complimentarity of different religions.

Buddhism - tends to concentrate (ha,ha) on mind development, the development of altruism as logical act of will, on factual reality as opposed to spiritual rumination and speculation.

Islam - tends to concentrate on the submission of the individual's mind and will to an exterior code of practice and behavior, ceding tangible secular authority to pietistic practice.

Christianity - tends to concentrate on the Spiritual and Transcendental, even when focussing on the incarnate. Soul-development is the main thrust of practice, and physical and mental realities are secondary to the pneuma.

Three aspects, but not divided, simply the different focus of one part of a whole Body.

wv: "bejug" - Tudor English for "put it in a jug."

MarkBrunson said...

My own book recommendation:

The Zen Teachings of Jesus by Kenneth Leong. It began with the statement (paraphrasing, here) that leaving Christianity for his Taoist and Buddhist roots brought Leong back to Christ, realizing that the teachings of Lao-tzu and Buddha where there, as well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Mark, for this marvelous insight - I never thought of it that way before - and the book suggestion.