By Molly T. Marshall
This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke! Variations of the rabbi, priest and pastor combinations usually serve to show perspectival bias and good humor about discrete traditions, especially in the way they are caricatured.
Last week I participated in an interfaith panel along with a rabbi and Buddhist lama. Our task was to hold an extended conversation about contrast and complement in our spiritual pathways, and then create hospitable space for others to join in. I was amazed by the attendance and the eagerness for exchange.
The people who gathered for the presentations and dialogue serve as a prism through which to see the refractions of spiritual longing in our culture. Longtime Christians sat next to Buddhist seekers; those without any tradition sat next to those who have skittered from one religious pathway to another. Some Baptists who came were relieved that I could talk about particularity of confession without anathema of others. A more inclusive perspective disturbed others. One fellow brandished his Bible at the panel.
Princeton scholar Robert Wuthnow has analyzed patterns of spirituality in American since 1950 in his acclaimed book, After Heaven. He sketches three movements in this epoch — a spirituality of dwelling in the 1950s, which is challenged by a spirituality of seeking from the 1960s into the 1990s. Finally, he delineates a spirituality of practice, a continuing quest in the present.
The last two patterns were predominant in this event, albeit the fellow with the Bible probably fit in the spirituality of dwelling. There was a palpable sense that very few can dwell in an unexamined faith, yet the eclecticism of cherry-picking from widely disparate traditions seems destabilizing. My learned colleagues were widely conversant with varied traditions, and they modeled the spirituality of seeking.
Yet, I was uneasy with their capacity for hybridization. The mixing of Eastern and Western worldviews can be perplexing, especially as we consider the significance of the individual within community. Rather than functioning as theological magpies, stealing from one another’s nests, I contend it is possible to remain in a tradition and stretch it from within — as long as one does not stoke the fires of triumphalism.
I could tell the incarnational story of Jesus, his cross and resurrection, without suggesting that God has been nowhere else at work within humanity. The patterns of worship throughout the world’s peoples portray the very nature of our being; we long to make sense of our lives and innately seek transcendence. The limited situations we encounter — especially suffering and death — prompt us to pose eschatological questions.
Entering into respectful dialogue with those of other traditions evokes humility, for none can claim to hold all the truth. As we sought to share the heart of our faith, I noticed how our words, even of our sacred texts, could only go so far in describing our understanding of the infinite being. Ultimately, receptive silence may be most appropriate. Members of the Orthodox Church have a saying: “The closer we get to God the quieter we become.” Or we can chant.
The rabbi led us in an opening and closing prayer, a simple chant that filled the hall with prayerful resonance. As we mingled our voices, a numinous sense of the holy quieted our hearts. We had moved beyond doctrinal disparity to encounter — with God and with one another.
As we opened the floor for observations and questions, participants peppered us with personal questions about practice. What helps us mature in faith? What is the ethical impact of our particular spiritual pathway? What do we do each day to cultivate mindfulness? What should be the goal of a spiritual life — find self or lose self? A really delightful question was: “What are your favorite lines of poetry that nurture your spirit?”
Practices matter, for they put us in a “posture of receptivity” (Richard Foster) as we seek the divine presence. Practices are grounded in a historical narrative and conceptual framework about how holiness and wholeness arise from attentiveness to the ways of God. When we abstract a religious practice from its field of meaning, it is less sustainable. A theological perspective underlies embodied expressions of faith.
In their helpful study, Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra offer three insights about Christian practices. First, practices address fundamental human needs and conditions through concrete human acts. Second, practices are done together and over time. Third, practices possess standards of excellence. Indeed, practices such as forgiveness, discernment, lectio divina, hospitality and singing our lives, to mention only a few, illumine how our “daily lives are tangled up with the things God is doing in the world.”
Focusing on practices will not erase the thicket of theological questions about God’s relationship with humanity, but it will open common ground for thoughtful reflection. So when a Buddhist, a Jew and a Christian walk into a room — and have a constructive conversation — the outcomes are more promising.