Pentecost 2 May 29, 2016
Back in the summer of 2001 – before 9/11, before I decided to leave Buffalo – I went on vacation for a week at the Omega Institute. Omega is an educational retreat center in the Hudson Valley, about 100 miles north of New York City (17 miles from Woodstock). Their catalogue describes them as being “at the forefront of human development, nurturing dialogues on the integration of modern medicine and natural healing; designing programs that connect science, spirituality, and creativity; and laying the groundwork for new traditions and lifestyles.” Or as one participant called it: “guru camp.”
The 5-day class that I signed up for was led by Niles Goldstein, a young rabbi who had founded The New Shul (synagogue) in NYC in 1999. As I look back on it, I see that New Shul is kind of a cross between First United and Middle Circle. Their website describes them as “a progressive, independent, creative community in Greenwich Village exploring meaningful ways to experience Jewish life and ritual in the 21st century.” Goldstein, who describes himself as a gonzo rabbi, incorporates teachings not only from all sects of Judaism, but also from other world religions. I didn’t know it then but I’d had my first taste of interspirituality.
I got my second taste that weekend in a 2-day workshop with Huston Smith, the great scholar, writer, and practitioner of world religions. Smith has not only studied and taught, but actually practiced Hindu Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than ten years each—all the while remaining a member of the Methodist Church. At that time, I was deeply interested in knowing how that worked: how could I (could I?) remain a Christian while exploring and even accepting aspects of other religious traditions? At the workshop, after we’d been captivated by stories of Smith’s experiences, someone asked the question that was on my mind: “Why are you still a Christian?” His answer, which has stayed with me over the years and has informed my ministry as a preacher, teacher, and worship leader, was “Christianity is the string on which I hang my beads.”
I later learned that Smith is an adherent of perennial philosophy, which holds that while the outward features of the world’s religions are diverse and often contradictory, the in-ward features point to a single transcendent unity. It’s believed that perennial philosophy is very old, experienced in the very earliest faith expressions of humankind, as well as in the great religions of the world. But if in God the religions converge above, below they are different. While the religions may be the same in the spiritual sense, in practicality, unity among them is not possible or even to be desired. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”
Although references to perennial philosophy go back to the 15th century, it was popular-ized by writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1957. And it lives on today. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, one of our presenters at our InterSpiritual Wisdom conference, has written a book called Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, in which he says, “There is only one reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation.” But you might say that, for both Rabbi Niles and Rabbi Rami, Judaism is the string on which they hang their beads.
I’ve been thinking about all this as we approach our fourth Summer of Pluralism. As in perennial philosophy, interspirituality recognizes that there are many approaches to the spiritual journey. There is no advocacy for a rejection of the individual traditions or for the creation of a new superspirituality. So, for us, Christianity can still be our string.
But what kind of Christianity? We’ve undertaken an unusually difficult thing: putting our interfaith encounters right smack dab in the middle of our worship service, making it as welcoming and inclusive as possible to those of other or no faiths, while still remaining true to who we are as Christians. And this is not always easy.
Take, for instance, our Bible. There are some passages that are just plain offensive in an interfaith context. Such as the passage from Galatians, our second reading today: “I’m astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel. If anyone preaches a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let them be cursed!”
This is one of the texts used to warn Christians who accept the validity of other religions. But what is this “different gospel” that was so offensive to Paul? Well, it turns out that it was all about the big intrafaith question of Paul’s day: did Gentile converts have to follow Jewish law, e.g. circumcision, adherence to the purity code, eating with Gentiles? There are several places where we find evidence of Paul butting heads with Peter and James and other leaders of the Jerusalem church over this issue and of Peter’s waffling on it. At one point, Peter’s mind had been changed by his vision in which a voice from heaven told him, “Don’t call anything unclean that God has made clean.” And later, visiting the home of Cornelius, he said, “Even though it’s against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone impure or unclean.”
But then later, in Galatians we learn that Peter regressed. Paul says that “certain men came from James” – that is, leaders of the Jerusalem church, teaching that Gentile converts had to obey Jewish law. And Peter gave in to them and drew back away from the Gentiles.
Paul uses the harshest language in response: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” He also used harsh language for anyone who would try to narrow the gospel down to a strictly Jewish sect. His gospel was about expanding the message to include Gentiles and all people.
Paul eventually won this argument and Christianity became a global religion. The “different” gospel that Paul anathematizes in Galatians is one that restricts, narrows, or limits the love of God to an exclusive few – in his time and place, those who wanted to force Gentiles to live like Jews.
So, by examining Paul’s words in their context we see that his anger was not directed at other religions – not even Judaism. What he didn’t want was the gospel being hindered by rules that determined who was in and who was out.
I had an experience just this morning of this freedom of this gospel. I’ve just begun attending meditation with a Sufi group. As you might remember, Sufism is the mystic branch of Islam. But it is Islam. They read from the Qur’an, pray in Arabic, and follow the basic tenets of Islam. Islam is the string on which they hang their beads. But when I asked if there were any practices or gatherings that would be inappropriate for me, as a non-Muslim, in which to participate, the answer was no. I was welcome to be part of everything. The purpose of the prayers, the meditations, the teachings was to be close to God. Simply that. If that not gospel, I don’t know what is.
So this is what we want to convey, not only in our Summer of Pluralism, but every time we meet – the transcendent unity of the hearts of all people who long to be near the heart of God. We do so as Christians, but as Christians who have learned from Paul, that the gospel cannot be restricted. Could it be that some of the beliefs and practices that have defined Christianity for so long may not be required for someone who is sincerely seeking closeness with God? Can a Christian community be open to such a wide-open inclusivity? What does our Christian string look like in the midst of this diversity and inclusivity?
That’s what we’ll be looking at this summer – how to be an interspiritual Christian church. How to speak of one reality, called, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Brahman, Dharmakaya, Great Spirit – while at the same time praying, as Gandhi recommended, to be better Christians.
It’s going to be an adventure. But the gospel is the same. The love of God that exists in transcendent unity also exists within every person. The Divine Presence is as near to us as our breath. We can feel close to God because we already are. This is the gospel of Christ that we proclaim.
Galatians 1: 1-12
From Paul, appointed to be an apostle, not through human agency but through Jesus Christ, and through Abba God, who raised Christ from the dead—and from all the sisters and brothers who are here with us,
To the churches of Galatia:
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrifice for our sins rescued us from this present wicked world, in accordance with the will of our God and creator, to whom be the glory forever and ever! I am astonished that you have so soon turned away from the One who called you by the grace of Christ, and have turned to a different gospel—one which is really not “good news” at all. Some who wish to alter the Good News of Christ must have confused you. For if we—or even angels from heaven—should preach to you a different gospel, one not in accord with the gospel we delivered to you, let us—or them—be cursed! We’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if any preach a gospel to you that is contrary to the one you received, let them be cursed!
Who am I trying to please now—people or God? Is it human approval I am seeking? If I still wanted that, I wouldn’t be what I am—a servant of Christ! I assure you, my sisters and brothers: the gospel I proclaim to you is no mere human invention. I didn’t receive it from any person, nor was I schooled in it. It came by revelation from Jesus Christ.