My Way into an Interfaith Future – John S. Spong

My Way into an Interfaith Future

June 27, 2012

Last week I introduced you, my readers, to an interfaith “think tank” in which I shared recently at a conference center known as the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  Some fifty leaders from among all the major religious systems of the world gathered there to explore the common ground that might lead to deeper interfaith cooperation and appreciation.  The goal seemed desirable and all of the participants came with hope and excitement.  The need for interfaith cooperation is apparent all over the world.  Where divergent religious systems confront each other, violence almost always ensues.  One has only to look for documentation at the Jewish-Moslem conflict in the Middle East, the Hindu-Moslem conflict between Pakistan and India, the Christian-Islamic violence that cuts across Africa, the Catholic-Protestant tensions in Ireland or the Sunni-Shia conflict that keeps Islam divided in the Middle East.  One could also look at Christian history to see the anti-Semitism of the ages, the violence of the Crusades directed against Islam, or the Thirty Years’ War in Europe that followed the Reformation as both Protestant Europe and Catholic Europe sought to impose its faith on the other.

This reality forces us to ask what there is about religion in most of its forms that makes violence all but inevitable as it appears to be in religious history.  At the Chautauqua conference it did not take long for this flaw to be revealed.  Indeed, it became present and visible in the first presentation.

This presentation was given by Dr. John Cavadini, a Roman Catholic Professor of Theology from Notre Dame.  The Roman Catholic Church articulates its claim to supremacy quite overtly. The current pope has reiterated a position taken by his predecessor that there is but one true religion and that is Christianity and that there is only one true version of Christianity and that is the Roman Catholic Church! He went on to warn those Catholics engaged in ecumenical relations that they should never refer to other Christian traditions as “sister churches,” since that implies some legitimacy. When that point of view is publicly articulated there is a genuine embarrassment in the listening audience.  Such an attitude makes any significant conversation aimed at unity a rather worthless activity. Professor Cavalini tried at our gathering, unsuccessfully I believe, to navigate these troubled waters by making a distinction between revealed truth and our understanding of this truth. The central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was not subject to debate, he said, but the way we understand that doctrine is always unfolding.

Lest the blame for interfaith failure be placed too heavily on Roman Catholic shoulders, let me hasten to say that almost every religious tradition makes similar claims to be the exclusive possessor of revealed and “saving” truth. Protestant fundamentalists assert that the Bible is the literal “word of God” and those denying that claim are either to be condemned or subjected to conversion pressure.  Protestant evangelicals believe that the prerequisite for salvation is that one must be “born again” or “accept Jesus as their personal savior.”  Muslims make the Islamic claim that in the Koran the Word of God was dictated directly to the prophet Muhammad. Within Islam itself both the Sunnis and the Shia claim that theirs is the only true expression of that faith tradition. Other sacred writings from the religions of the East are similarly invested with claims of being vessels through which the absolute truth of God has come into human possession. These claims that ultimate truth is the possession of a particular religious system are what make interfaith conversation all but impossible. The attempt to be open, to understand or to appreciate another faith perspective is thus deeply threatening to every religious system.

One of the things that every religious system seeks to do is to offer religious certainty and for that to be possible that religion must escape the quicksand of relativity. Relativity, at the same time, is almost always impossible to escape without falling into religious triumphalism. At the Chautauqua “think tank” these problems were quickly identified and named. We could not start without finding a new way into the interfaith issue. As I thought about this over the next few days I tried to discover that illusive new path. Let me try to outline it briefly.

The first step in any interfaith process is to be conscious of the fact that these exclusive claims exist and that we must begin where people are, not with where we wish they were.  No one speaks in a vacuum and no one listens in a vacuum. We need to listen to each other closely, the same way we want others to listen to us. Let me then begin this process autobiographically.

I am a Christian.  Any interfaith activity in which I am engaged must start with that fact. I am not apologetic about this self-identification, nor am I willing to jettison this definition of myself for the sake of interfaith unity.  The deepest commitment of my life is my commitment to walk the Christ path as my doorway into the mystery of God.  Christianity is of absolute importance to me.  I want to explore its wonders as deeply as I possibly can. Yet, I do not think that God is a Christian, certainly not in any creedal way, and that insight opens me up to all kinds of new possibilities.  Christianity, like every other religious system in history is clearly a human creation that has evolved over the centuries. The virgin birth, for example, did not enter the Christian tradition until the ninth decade of the Christian era.  It was certainly not a part of primitive Christianity. Neither Paul nor Mark appears ever to have heard about such an idea. The ascension was a tenth decade addition. Surely a quick reading of Paul would reveal that Paul was not a Trinitarian. The doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity were not worked out until the third and fourth centuries.  Doctrines are always attempts to put rational forms onto a transformative experience. Doctrines, therefore, can never be ultimate, but the experience that made the development of the doctrine seem proper might well be.  Can we then separate the God experience that we Christians believe we have met in Jesus from the explanations of that experience which form the content of our faith tradition? That is a crucial distinction. The Jesus experience might well offer me a doorway into that which is ultimate, but Christianity itself cannot be ultimate and it thus cannot be the final revelation of God.  God can never be contained inside any human form or bound by any human words.  This means that neither my understanding of God nor my Church’s understanding of God can ever be ultimate. This realization does not, however, invalidate the truth of my experience.

As a Christian, I walk the Christ path.  My deepest hope is that if I walk the Christ path long enough and faithfully enough, I will discover that I inevitably will transcend the boundaries of my own religion. That reality thus becomes a religious inevitability.  When I articulate the fact that this is true for me I discover that it also seems to be true for people in all other religious systems.  The Muslim must walk the Islamic path; the Jews must walk the Jewish path; the Hindus and Buddhists must walk the Hindu or Buddhist path. All walk with the realization, however, that God is not a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu or a Buddhist.  All religious systems are designed by human beings to help its adherents walk into the mystery of an unbounded God.  If any of us walks our own faith path long enough and faithfully enough, we will discover that our walk carries us beyond the boundaries of our own religious systems, since God can never be limited by or exhausted in any thing that is a human creation, whether it be scripture, creeds, doctrines or dogmas.  To say it boldly the God experience may well be ultimate, but the religious system through which we walk into the God experience can never be.

The next realization comes when we discover that while we are walking our separate paths, we are also taking into ourselves the values and the treasures found in our own tradition.   We hold these treasures close to our hearts; we do not want to lose them. I grasp joyfully the pearl of great price that Christianity gives me.  Then I realize that my brothers and sisters in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are doing exactly the same.  They must embrace the treasures of their religion and cling to the pearl of great price that they have received from their religious system. So perhaps the deepest and the common religious call to each of us is not to affirm our unique creeds so much as it is to explore our faith so deeply that we each transcend its boundaries and escape fear-laden limits. Then beyond the boundaries and the limits of the faith system that has nurtured each of us, but without sacrificing the pearl of great price that our own tradition has given us, we can turn and face in a new way our brothers and sisters who have walked a path different from our own.  In that setting I can speak to them and say: “This is the essence of my faith.  This is the treasure that I have received as I walked the Christ path and now I want to share this treasure with you.”  Each of my interfaith pilgrims will in turn do the same.  They will say to me: “This is the essence of Judaism, of Islam, of Hinduism, of Buddhism.  This is the treasure, the pearl of great price that I have received by walking faithfully and deeply the path of my religion and I want to share it with you.”  We each receive the treasure of the other.  No one has to sacrifice the treasure of the system which has nurtured him or her.  We all become enriched.  We no longer have to protect our truth or play the familiar religious games of supremacy that we have so often played in the past.  No one loses, everyone gains.

The alternative to genuine interfaith cooperation may well be genocide. While we can assert that there is no relativity in the God experience, there can also be no triumphalism in the various explanations of that experience. No religion is therefore ultimate, but God is and God is met on many paths and our call is to walk our path faithfully.  In that realization, the beauty of an interfaith future is born.

~John Shelby Spong

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