ACTION FOR ALL ORDAINED/CO-ORDAINED CLERGY ONLY
This year our legal counsel, Rev. Marie Lucca, OUnI, drafted new documents to refile with the Washington, District of Columbia, USA, government and with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of the United States. These documents assist us in complying with language changes mandated by the IRS for our status as a religious 501(c)(3) charity.
PLEASE CLICK HERE AND VOTE FOR OR AGAINST THE DOCUMENTS. The motion to deny the change requires over 1/3 of the ordained/co-ordained clergy to vote “NO”. Please vote even if you want to make the change by voting “YES”.
Take a moment to review the new draft documents HERE… then click the button below and vote…
Thank you for your support of OUnI and our movement.
GUEST POST BY: Rev. Lauren Van Ham, M.A., OUnI (from her presentation at the Big I Conference 2014)
I call myself an Eco-chaplain. Briefly, in this post, I want to describe what this means and, more importantly, I want to invite you to join me in the work of eco-chaplaincy.
First, what’s an Eco-chaplain?
Chaplains are trained to shed light on the spiritual, in what might otherwise be secular surroundings. My work as a chaplain has challenged me to look for the Divine within the complexity of hospitals, pysch units, corporate America and most recently, a space that’s too vast to name: it is the place where our planet home and human behavior intersect.
But we already know that with or without Her natural resources, this third rock from the sun will continue spinning in our solar system, exquisitely held in the Milky Way galaxy – one galaxy in a TRILLION others. Quick note: How amazing is that?
SO, really, the more accurate story is that we need to save life. Today…
- Just under 61% of workers in the developing world still live on less than $4 a day
- Indigenous cultures are in decline all over the world
- 200 species go extinct everyday — 1000 times the normal rate
- At this moment, around the world, humans are fighting 9 major wars (1000+ fatalities/yr) and 25 other conflicts (<1000 fatalities/yr)
And RIGHT NOW, on this spinning mass of interconnected bio-diversity it is ONE species, one tiny genus in the mammal family – the humans! – whose current behaviors and choices, whose systems and policies are creating system-wide suicide.
So, in truth, the “Eco” in Eco-Chaplain is less and less about the Ecology of our planet and evermore urgently about the Ecology of ourselves and the inter-dependent relationships with our fellow species.
To live, teach and to tend a new, life-sustaining story is Eco-chaplaincy. We have before us, an act of midwifery, wrought with joy and pain. It requires steady, sustained spiritual practice and here’s the REALLY important part: it’s only going to work if we all share the story.
I’m going to highlight a three-fold practice I’ve found to be helpful as I tend the plot. The practices are somewhat cyclical, and I share them with you to encourage own eco-chaplain practices:
Practice One: This is a Love story! Build Intimacy
Sometimes I think humans and the planet need a good marriage counselor. Have you noticed, when under the seduction of your email inbox, or checking stock quotes, or tackling a full to-do list, how easy it is to divorce ourselves from how simply blessed we are? And worse, how easy it is to begin blaming others for what isn’t working? In these moments, remembering love is a our salvation!
Recall the last time you consciously brought yourself to be with the person, the job, the pet, the HOME you so desperately did not want to lose! When I move from my love, I find the courage to become more intimate with that which was previously the target of my outrage and blame.
Practice Two: We’re all protagonists in this story. Begin Again. Tell it Like it Is
This story is NOT about recycling. Don’t get me wrong, the “Going Green” movement of 2007 began an important chapter in our new story. But driving a Prius is NOT enough, and neither is riding a bike. Our growth economy model is broken.
Many of us are afraid that giving up certain things will mean scarcity and lack. Many of us are dubious about change and innovation and trying new ways to create safer, saner ways of consuming what we need without hurting ourselves and future generations.
Reinventing our economy and other systems will take coaches, visionaries, career counselors, bereavement specialists, and lots and lots of chaplains!!! We’re the ones who begin again and tell it like it is. The script might well be, “I know this is scary and SO disappointing. I believe that slowly, carefully we can undergo this together and transform it. We will learn something valuable. Will you stay in this with me?”
Would you like to try it? Really, read it again, and this time aloud, and consider how you can say something to this effect the next time you’re engaging in the tough conversations about the changes we need to make, in order to save life on our planet:
I know this is scary and SO disappointing. I believe that slowly, carefully we can undergo this and together, we can transform it. We will learn something valuable. Will you stay in this with me?
Practice Three: Play. Use your voice. Express Yourself
Our new story is rooted in Regenerative Humility. Contrary to the rhythms and patterns popularly employed in our culture, we are not on and off switches. With care and practice, with support from our communities, we can source from a place that’s regenerative. I call it God — it’s the place where the inner Prophet and inner Mystic live.
Recently, to raise climate change awareness in the Midwest (an area of the U.S, often left-out of the conversation), I rode my bike across the state of Nebraska. Pedaling through the breath-taking sandhills, I rode 57 WINDY miles with Thomas, a devout conservationist and professed atheist. When I told him why I was riding, his words were, “There is no hope.”
Perhaps Thomas is right. The Western Shelf of Antarctica is falling to sea and new fires are burning every day in the Southwest. Regenerative Humility puts less of my interest on changing the world, and more attention on how the world changes me.
It keeps me curious, and forces intimacy. It frees me to move and act without the guarantee of success.
My friends, we are mammals, human mammals who create. Our life depends on it. WHAT we create is part of the story we’re reconstructing. I have no clue how this story ends; what I do know is that I’m not the only Eco-chaplain.
There are LOTS of us, prophets and mystics. And the Divine is ready for each one of our co-creative acts to set the story back on course.
Guest Author: Rev. Lauren Van Ham, M.A., OUnI: Dean, Interfaith Studies and Core Faculty at The Chaplaincy Institute. Rev. Lauren Van Ham, was ordained with the first cohort of ChI ordinands in 1999 and completed the Interfaith Spiritual Direction Certificate Course in 2006. Before joining the ChI staff in 2010, Lauren served for eight years, as a staff chaplain at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. From there, she moved to a corporate environment, where she custom-designed employee programs for multi-national companies committed to sustainability and culture change. As part of her evolving call and commitment to “eco-chaplaincy”, Lauren served as Executive Director for Green Sangha (a non-profit dedicated to spiritually-engaged environmental activism) from 2004-2006 and currently chairs Fair Trade Berkeley, a group whose dedication helped make Berkeley the 19th Fair Trade Town in the U.S. Lauren holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, and Naropa University. Lauren, along with fellow ChI faculty, was co-ordained into OUnI at the Big I Conference in 2013 and at the conference in 2014 was ordained as one of the first 10 Eco-Ministers. She also currently serves on the OUnI Board of Directors.
We hope you’ll find this small selection of great publications a helpful resource in your service to the world!
The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies
The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies is a forum for academic, social, and timely issues affecting religious communities around the world. Published online, it is designed to increase both the quality and frequency of interchanges between religious groups and their leaders and scholars. By fostering communication, the Journal hopes to contribute to a more tolerant, pluralistic society.
The Interfaith Observer
The Interfaith Observer (TIO), launched on September 15, 2011, is a free monthly electronic journal created to explore interreligious relations and the interfaith movement as a whole. It provides historical perspectives, surveys current interfaith news, profiles major stakeholders, and otherwise provides maps and sign-posts for the different sectors of an emerging interfaith culture. It offers a context to explore and respond to the new religious world around us. TIO is designed as a resource for the general reader
Interreligious Insight: a journal of dialogue and engagement
Interreligious Insight is published 4 times a year by the World Congress of Faiths, Common Ground and the Interreligious Engagement Project. As a shared venture between three interfaith groups, it aims to transcend narrow interests by providing a platform for reflecting with passion on many of the critical issues facing our world.
Kosmos: Co-Creating the New Civilization
Kosmos is available in both digital and print formats. Their mission is to inform, inspire and engage individual and collective participation in a global shift that reconnects the objective world of global realities with the inner world of humanity’s highest principles: compassion, integrity, wisdom, and sharing. Spirituality, Economics, Governance, Law, Media and Business are some of this journal’s focuses.-
Tikkun: to heal, repair and transform the world.
Tikkun is a magazine dedicated to healing and transforming the world. It seeks writing that gives insight on how to make that utopian vision a reality. They build bridges between religious and secular progressives by delivering a forceful critique of all forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination while nurturing an interfaith vision of a caring society — one whose institutions are reconstructed on the basis of love, generosity, nonviolence, social justice, caring for nature, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. Tikkun brings together progressive Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, secular humanist, and agnostic/atheist voices to talk about social transformation and strategies for political and economic democratization. Founding Editor Rabbi Michael Lerner.
Guest Post by Theodore Richards, a poet, writer, and religious philosopher. He has received degrees from various institutions, including the University of Chicago. He is the author of Handprints on the Womb, a collection of poetry; Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, recipient of the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal in religion and the Nautilus Book Awards Gold Medal; the novel The Crucifixion, recipient of the Independent Publisher Awards bronze medal and the USA Book Award; and Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto, finalist for the USA Book Award. Theodore Richards is the founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project and teaches world religions at The New Seminary. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughters.
Presented at The Big I Conference, Nashville, TN – 2012
The Interfaith Movement at the Moment of Apocalypse:
Toward an Interfaith Philosophy in the Modern World
One of the great challenges for anyone active in the interfaith movement is how to articulate what it is all about. Generally speaking, interfaith groups fall into one of two categories—both of which, we shall see, are somewhat dissatisfying to the spiritual seeker, philosopher, or mystic.
When the interfaith movement began, it was a wonderful, beautiful, radical idea. It still is. But we are in need of going deeper. There is a risk that in claiming to be all things interfaith ends up mired in superficiality. In this essay, I will make an argument for what I see as the crucial role of the interfaith movement at this moment in history.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “INTERFAITH”?
Part of the beauty of a movement like interfaith is its diversity. I’ve noticed that the term means something slightly different to everyone. As a way of talking about the subject, I have created some general categories. These are not meant to be definitive, but to provide a means of having a discussion about how one might speak about interfaith meaningfully.
The first category I would describe as secular. Groups in this category are interested in dialogue across faiths, but not in the depth of these faiths. Common ground is found, but only in secular areas. The interfaith minister will often—quite rightly, in many cases—employ this approach in offering a service or compassion to someone whose beliefs they cannot abide—the fundamentalist, for example. Generally, this group is wary of interfaith groups or philosophies that claim to find any spiritual unity or ultimate truth across faiths. Interfaith seminaries have frequently fallen into this category with their emphasis on ministering uncritically to those from various faith traditions. But most frequently this category can be associated with various interfaith organization which attempt to foster religious tolerance.
The second category holds that there is indeed a spiritual connection between the faith traditions. But whereas the first group is often far too intellectual, the second tends to be anti-intellectual. I call them New Age Fundamentalists, because, like fundamentalists of the great faiths, they reduce the answer to every question to a simple phrase, rejecting the beautiful, chaotic diversity of our religious world. Moreover, the soul—ie, the isolated, Cartesian soul—not the world, is the focus. There is a certain self-indulgence in this approach, a fixation on healing the soul, a soul that is entirely apart from what is happening in the world.
The most of obvious critique of the secular interfaith movement ironically comes from the very group that birthed it: academia. Most academics rightly criticize the anti-intellectualism and cultural appropriation of the New Age Fundamentalist. In doing so, they ignore what their own scholarship tells us about the nature of religion: that our religions have never been static and isolated. There has always been an effort to integrate the philosophies of various traditions. One needs only to look at the syncretism of African religions and Christianity in the New World; or the blending of Greek and Jewish traditions at the birth of Christianity; or the integration of northern European traditions and Christianity as it spread across Europe; or the Taoist and Confucian influence on Zen; or the Hindu influence on Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Indian Islam. I could go on.
At the same time, reducing the world’s religion to oversimplified platitudes often reflects a poor understanding. To be an adherent of a faith means more than liking a couple of ideas, more than changing one’s clothes. It means inhabiting a new world. To have any clear understanding of how the world’s religions truly do reflect a shared, integral wisdom—not to mention avoiding a shallow and offensive appropriation—we must understand the underlying cosmology, the essential context in which they arise.
THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT AND THE APOCALYPTIC MOMENT
Each group, while seemingly quite different, actually reflects the same worldview—that is, the fragmentation, literalism, and individualism of the Modernity. The first group is fragmented and literal in keeping with the Western intellectual tradition. Each religion is distinct and separate and we should keep it that way, the logic goes. The second, while appearing to reject Modernity—again, this is just like the fundamentalist—actually retains the core values of the Modern industrial world: the distinct, separate, isolated individual. The soul, in this approach, is entirely separate from the world. In each case, the Modern industrial world’s core assumptions are retained: that each religion, each individual, is separate and distinct from one another.
Why does it matter? While admitting that there are benefits to the Modern worldview as in every cultural paradigm, this one is coming to an end. This apocalypse, like others before it, must involve a reimagining of the relationship between the human and the world that is our home. The question for humanity at this moment is how this end is going to come about. Globalization and industrial capitalism have brought us wealth and inequality, unprecedented individual rights and unprecedented destruction of the natural world. Will its end come with horrific death and destruction that seems imminent with global warming? Perhaps this is unavoidable. Certainly history has taught us that loss and despair will change one’s way of relating to the world. But perhaps we can, in the midst of the despair that is surely a part of life, come to a richer, more enchanted, more meaningful worldview, one that allows us to participate in the rich tapestry of nature and humanity’s diversity.
The interfaith movement can participate in this paradigm shift in several ways.
- First, we can reject the fragmentation of modernity in embracing the paradoxical nature of existence. To do this we must connect to the mystical elements of religion and to the nature-based traditions. The answer to the question of “what is interfaith?” cannot be found in avoiding the difficult questions. Our religious traditions are at once deeply interconnected and wildly diverse.
- Second, we must understand the cosmologies and worldviews—that is, how a culture sees the relationship between the individual and the whole or the divine—of the spiritual traditions in order to find a deeper, more authentic connection among them. While I do advocate an integral spirituality that sees where the religions interconnect, we must be careful to take a rigorous approach that acknowledges their genuine differences.
- Third, we must embrace the insights of science, especially those that call into question the assumptions made in the Modern world.
- Fourth, we must express the new insights we have through creativity and imagination. For it is the mythic, not the logical—the Greeks would have called this mythos as opposed to logos—that expresses the core values of a culture.
THE NEW MYTH
When we study the world’s religions, we often spend a great deal of time on the various doctrines of the faiths. These are, of course, important. But we perhaps give them an undue amount of our focus. Modernity has taught us that facts are the most important thing. In fact, when it comes to religion, it is the story that is most important. Indeed, no religious tradition is without a myth. And it is the myth that invites us to participate in that reality, connecting our individual story to the greater one. The mythic is what brings the doctrine alive.The myth is how the values of a tradition or culture are conveyed. I would argue that interfaith as a way of seeing the world can be a part of the basis for a new myth. That is, the values of the interfaith movement speak to a world that is not fragmented, a world in which we can hold the paradox of two seemingly contradictory facts. If Modernity is marked by fragmentation and either-or logic, the interfaith movement is marked by integration and both-and, paradoxical thinking.
Additionally, interfaith movements can and must uphold certain values that speak to the specific struggles of this moment. I would describe these values as “cosmo-centric”, that is, values that connect us more deeply to the rhythms of the earth, to the story of the universe, to our selves as expressions of the cosmos.
Moreover, we are each participating in the telling of this new myth as we tell our own stories. No individual can create the new myth. It comes together as a tapestry, a story made up of stories woven together. It is unlikely that a new myth will come from the elites alone. The wisdom of the margins is required.
This integration of a new story is how a new cosmology comes forth. In today’s world, I believe that this new cosmology must integrate the insights of modern science the wisdom of our mystical and philosophical traditions. Whereas the myth of Modernity was based on the notion of the universe as a machine, the new myth must be of a sacred, organic universe. Whereas the myth of Modernity was based on a fragmented world in which each of us is independent, the new myth must teach us that we are interconnected. In Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth, I describe the fundamental metaphor to build from is that of the universe as our womb, and its unfolding a process of continual birthing. This is the work of the mythmaker, the poet, the artist.
This is what Thomas Berry calls our “Great Work”. It is the task of mythmaking, of worldmaking, the most fundamental act of our humanity. The most ancient artwork, the cave paintings, reflected this: our ancestors, when they painted handprints on the walls of the cave, understood that we are always at the edge of our world, our womb, creating meaning.
These ancient paintings also commonly depict the relationship of predator and prey, the ecological reality that our ancestors deeply felt, that we have largely forgotten. Far from the rugged individualists that Modernity would have us to be, we are ecological beings, deeply interconnected to a community of living beings. The great predators from which we fled and the prey we chased on the African plain shaped our minds and our bodies, our communities and our stories.
The interfaith movement has always appreciated the desire for cultural diversity. But often it has lacked a real articulation of why diversity is so important. The importance of diversity—and of difference—is a lesson that ecology teaches us well. Whereas a loss of genetic diversity leaves gaps in the ecosystem that may not be filled, the loss of cultural diversity—for example, the loss of a spiritual tradition, a language, a culture—leaves us with a gap in the cultural ecosystem. Just as the loss of the wolf leaves the ecosystem imbalanced, so to does the loss of, say, feminist theology to provide a balance to patriarchy. This is only one example. We simply cannot say what kinds of worldviews might provide us with potential answers to the challenges our species faces. Just as a loss of genetic diversity leaves a species subject to disease, without a diversity of perspectives humnaity might not survive.
Introduced at the right moment, a mere idea can become a movement. I believe that this is just such a time for interfaith. This moment—Modernity—is marked by many things that are coming to an end: fossil-fuel-based industry, individualism, capitalism, imperialism. But above all else, this moment is about a loss of meaning, emptiness. But this void is pregnant. Apocalypse, after all, means “unveiling.” We have the opportunity to make new worlds of meaning, and I believe that the Interfaith Movement is well placed to influence this process. Of the four suggestions above, it is the creative and imaginal which are most important. We must give birth, through our imaginative capacities, to a world in which spirituality, paradoxically, can represent the beautiful, chaotic diversity of human and be a source of our ultimate unity. For more on the mythos/logos dichotomy in the history of theological thought, see Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Anchor, 2010)
 More on this can be found at HERE.
 This is the work of the Chicago Wisdom Project
 Theodore Richards, Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, and the Birth of a New Myth (Danvers, MA: Hiraeth Press, 2011)
 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the future (Broadway, 2000)
 More on this topic can be found in my article “An Ecology of Interfaith: A Biological Argument for the Necessity of Diversity”
Today we are happy to share information on an upcoming course offered by Sw. Shraddhananda aka Rev. Dr. Sonya Jones, OUnI. Here are a few words from Sw. Shraddhananda:
I want to share news of a wonderful adventure I have undertaken with Wholistika, LLC, an Internet company based in northern California. As the hub of holistic education, Wholistika is devoted to offering high quality online classes on spiritual wholeness as well as mental, emotional, physical, and financial well-being.
My course entitled Jesus Was a Shaktipat Guru, based on my book which is scheduled for publication this fall by The SACRED FEET Publishing Imprint, is slated to inaugurate Wholistika’s course offerings in May. Please find our announcement below, and if this is an Interfaith/Interspiritual/Integral/Intra-Tantric subject that interests you, take advantage of the special introductory rate of $108 as compared with the $150 that will be charged for the course when the book is published.
We have been advised that some ministers are planning to set up study groups devoted to Jesus Was a Shaktipat Guru, and I know from experience with my Honors students at The University of Kentucky, that this is a text which helps to promote inter-religious dialogue.
Guest post by Amy Edelstein OUnI. Amy is cofounder of Emergence Education, is a gifted spiritual teacher, educator, and author committed to individual transformation and the evolution of our shared values. A Cornell University College Scholar, Amy has a background in Judaic philosophy as well as in Eastern thought. She studied with a number of preeminent Vedantic and Buddhist teachers in the early 1980s then began practicing evolutionary enlightenment with Andrew Cohen in 1986. Passionate about human development and the unfolding of our mystical stirrings within, Amy teaches a variety of transformational programs in the US and abroad. She is author of Love, Marriage & Evolution and loves taking long walks with her husband by their home in historic Philadelphia exploring life, liberty, and the pursuit of true happiness.
Presented at the Big I Conference, March, 2014
Evolutionary Spirituality: empowering our practice with the energy of the universe.
“Shaping and reshaping, in wonder I am here!” ~Goethe
Over the last decade, evolutionary spirituality has spread its canopy over many of our beliefs, mystical intuitions, and the quality of our relatedness. A marriage of science and spirit, some argue this path is as old as Jakob Boehm or as new as Barbara Marx Hubbard. Some circles credit Plotinus and in others Vedic scholars even lay claim to the origins of evolutionary sensitivities.
While the origin is debatable, and discerning where to place the marker on the stretch of history’s timeline raises a number of fascinating and subtle metaphysical debates, for many practitioners now, without even knowing it, the sensibilities of an evolutionary worldview, and the exploration of the ultimately nondual nature between matter and consciousness, form and formlessness, emptiness and that which pervades and therefore contains all, shapes the contours of our spiritual path.
A Quick Peek at the Evolutionary Spirituality Pioneers:
The Pioneers of Evolution & Evolutionarily Inspired Mysticism:
Alfred North Whitehead, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey, Charles Hartshorne
Contemporary Eco-Evolutionary Christian-Inspired Mystics:
Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Beatrice Bruteau
Flagbearers of Conscious Evolution:
Barbara Marx Hubbard, Andrew Cohen, Ken Wilber
So what are the basic tenets or characteristics of evolutionary spirituality? How can we practice it? Is there a single system to follow? Do we need to renounce allegiance to more traditional paths in order to be true to a metaphysics that seeks emergence?
It’s my goal to encourage as much exploration as possible of these questions and also of the spiritual inquiry that lead us into a more dynamic and vibrant relationship with the numinous.
Evolutionary Spirituality Is Experiential
One of the great early evolutionary thinkers—and I would argue also a mystic—Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”
So let’s begin with a short contemplation…
Let it take you in. Let it loosen up the weave at the edges of your fixed notions of self and time.
Picture the shiny flecks of the Milky Way scattered across the sky. Or imagine that you’re telescoping in to the inside world of the nucleus of an atom, and you’ve gone in so far, you’re swept up in the midst of all these tiny particles, quarks, pi-mesons, and gluons swirling around each other surrounded by incredible energy and light and little bits of matter.
Visualize yourself as process, as part of the vast movement of the universe from the biggest scale of the formation of suns to the tiniest scale of nuclear particles, that’s the stuff that we’re made of.
That stuff is constantly reconfiguring at higher and higher levels of complexity and integration. It has cohered and coalesced into human form and the human capacity of cognition and self-reflection.
Now you can recognize for yourself, “My emotional life, my self-identity, and my self-sense are intrinsically non-separate from that unfolding process. That process that began so many eons ago, which now includes everyone in the world around me!”
Changing Our Sense of Self
Now that you’ve been on a brief meditative tour following the complexification of life from the first particles through our homo sapien sapien capacity to “know that we know” take note of your experience.
- Are you so sure that your notion of yourself, as that individual born to such-and-such parents, on such-and-such a date is the most accurate definition of when you began and what formed you?
- Is your sense of the solidity of the universe unraveling a little as you realize that the chair you may be sitting on is not so solid at its core but is, in fact, more energy and space then “stuff”?
- When you look at the world from this perspective, with such vast interconnectedness and movement, would “process” more accurately define you and the world we inhabit, rather than the meeting of discreet objects in a field of consciousness?
Confidence in our own experience
Process as an Updated Understanding of Dependent Origination
Evolutionary Spirituality calls us to awaken to process as us. As radical as the traditional realization of cosmic consciousness is, I Am That I Am, an awakening to process is also a radical spiritual awakening. It unseats our fixed notion of the separate self in such a way, once the veil has parted we can never go back to before we “knew.”
Carter Phipps, author of Evolutionaries, described it as “breaking the spell of solidity.” Systems theorist Gregory Bateson spoke about the “relationship between” rather than the objects being our primary point of reference. Looking at the unfolding of the world around us and in us radically shifts our sense of self. We become aware of the march of life and development, of the complex interrelatedness of all things, of the presence of the past and the future in this present moment. For if all is process, in flux and flowing, then that which moved 13+ billion years ago is also in some way expressed in the wave of process of today. It extends as well into a future beyond that which we can currently see.
This is not only the stuff of science. This way of understanding the nature of ourselves has everything to do with the inseparability of form from emptiness, emptiness from form, the manifest world from Is-ness or consciousness, matter from Spirit that breathes life into all. As the sensitive evolutionary visionary Teilhard de Chardin proclaimed, “matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen.”
The shift from looking at the relationship between static objects to the relatedness of a single all embracing process is profound enough for a lifetime of contemplation and mystical discovery. That shift of perspective has powerful moral, ethical, philosophical, material, as well as spiritual implications. It shifts our relationship to all sentient beings in the biosphere; our relationship to time—past and future; and our sense of the possible.
It’s not only matter that evolves, the capacities of consciousness evolve too. Think about it. We are having a complex conversation, requiring the ability to conceptualize, to visualize in the abstract, to reflect on ourselves. While prehistoric humans 26,000 years ago painted vibrant horses that streaked across cave walls and ceilings, their capacity to communicate and converse, to relate intersubjectively was a barely developed potential. We’ve grown in our interiors. Evolution is not just outside us. Its scepter grazes the mind and heart of humankind. And as our interiors evolve so too, in some small way, does the mind and heart of the universe.
That is part of the wonder of an evolutionary spiritual path.
Recognizing that consciousness evolves exerts more than a little pressure on our spiritual trajectory now. Since consciousness evolves, and we can see that it evolves, then we’re clear there are capacities that haven’t become known yet.
At the furthest edge of where we’ve come to now, we can continue to stretch and push that membrane out further. Tipping forward beyond ourselves, our shared aspirations can pop a little hole in the proverbial outer wall of the known. What will stream through next we can’t imagine.
This becomes the signature note for an evolutionary—that sound from the future, heard in the present. That plaintive and beckoning horn echoes in our ear and our life becomes tuned to follow it. And we respond to the urge to break new ground in the field of consciousness and relatedness, taking one step towards a higher order of fulfillment and purpose.
Consciously Evolving Is A Spiritual Calling
In evolutionary spirituality, consciously pursuing the evolution of consciousness is seen as a spiritual calling. The effort to bring higher more effulgent orders of Love into the present governs how a practitioner approaches religious life. It defines the aspirant’s attitude towards purification of motive, adoration of the divine, care for all creatures and the beautiful biosphere. It re-orders our relationships with each other.
Purification & Spiritual Grounding
The path of awakening and transformation is fraught with challenge. Evolutionary spirituality is rife with temptation to arrogance, spiritual pride, self-deceit. And so some strains of evolutionary spirituality stress right relationship to the self-aggrandizing ego. They actively pursue a path of ego-transcendence.
“According to the skill with which we set our sails to their breeze,
it will either capsize our vessel or send it leaping ahead.”
~ Teilhard de Chardin
Love of process, wonder at that which always remains a mystery, we “cleave unto the holy” and that intimacy lifts us up above our baser impulses. We transform out of love, for the sheer joy of it, the ecstasy of swelling by even one drop the pool of expanding consciousness. What gives us the courage to pursue such an transformative relationship with Self? A reservoir of energy and optimism seems to go hand-in-hand with the current of evolution itself.
Spiritual Awakening & Transforming Culture
Evolutionary spirituality is at heart an activist path. It looks to culture as well as to cosmos, to psyche and to spirit. Its theology and practice emphasizes the nonseparation of inner transformation for outer revolution, “changing the world from the inside out.” Awakening to the structures that make up our psyche and our values—individually and culturally—that have been created over time, we awaken to our own potential to transcend the shared currency of our postmodern culture.
The interplay between the classical realization of Being or cosmic consciousness and awakening to ourselves as process open up all kinds of deep questions for reflection and for spiritual activism. It is a path that is fresh with new beginnings and unexplored hills and dales. It extends an open hand and open invitation to intrepid explorers to experiment and inquire, fertilize and begin to mature an understanding of self, spirit, and evolution. As we become more skilled archaeologists of ourselves and cosmonauts of the future, we participate, in a small way, with the divinization of the world.
“The coming of a spiritual age must be preceded by the appearance of an increasing number of individuals who are no longer satisfied with the normal intellectual, vital, and physical existence of man, but perceive that a greater evolution is the real goal of humanity and attempt to effect it in themselves, to lead others to it, and to make it the recognized goal of the race. In proportion as they succeed and to the degree to which they carry this evolution, the yet unrealized potentiality which they represent will become an actual possibility of the future.”
~Sri Aurobindo Ghose from The Human Cycle
For Further Reading:
- Download the beautiful history of Evolutionary Spirituality written by Tom Huston and first published in EnlightenNext magazine.
- Read A God Shaped Hole at the Heart of Our Being, an interview with Theologian John Haught
- Read A Song That Goes on Singing, an interview with Beatrice Bruteau
- Click here for a short booklist of recommended readings
- Amy Edelstein will be teaching her next 10-month immersion in Evolutionary Spirituality Starting October 19th, 2014. Email here to be among the first to receive course information.
- For more about Amy’s current teaching and writing, visit http://www.amyedelstein.com
Presented at the Big I Conference 2014 – Scottsdale, AZ
by Rev. Tom Thresher, PhD
Our world faces unprecedented challenges. Responding to these challenges requires us to think more expansively, care more deeply, and access the divine more regularly. The question is how?
I contend that faith communities are uniquely positioned to help serve the needs of our rapidly changing world: Collectively, we own the great mythological stories that guide our actions and shape our personal identities; we have permission to help people change at the level of soul; and we have time to nurture individuals through the foundational changes required in this new world.
Transformational Inquiry is a westernized practice for evolving consciousness. It is based on the revolutionary Immunity to Change (ITC) process developed by Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. I believe that ITC reaches its full potential in faith communities. Get a glimpse of this potential from the PowerPoint slides below. For more information please visit my website: www.transformationalinquiry.us.
I will offer a training Transformational Inquiry for faith leaders June 22-26, 2014 at St. Andrews Retreat Center in Western Washington.
Guest Post: Swami Shraddhananda (aka Rev. Dr. Sonya Jones, OUnI)
TNS Class, Sunday, March 16, 2014
Part II: Introduction to Interfaith Scholarship and Research
Based on Plenary Talk for the Big I Conference 2014, Scottsdale, Arizona
“Toward an Interfaith Theology” (expanded version).
Good evening. Good evening to each of you. Can you hear me? Good. My WizIQ audio is working. I am pleased to be with you this evening for Part II of Introduction to Interfaith Scholarship and Research.
Part II of an Introduction to Interfaith Scholarship and Research is based on the plenary talk I presented at the Big I Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, a talk entitled, “Toward an Interfaith Theology.” I’ll plan to talk for about 30 minutes, and then we’ll open the session out to questions. Please hold your questions or comments for the dialogue session following these remarks.
The Big I Conference is one you need to know about as students of Interfaith scholarship and research. It is a conference you may want to attend if you continue working in the field of Interfaith, Interspiritual, Integral, Intra-Tantric approaches to spirituality. The conference is hosted by the Order of Universal Interfaith (OUnI), and you may want to consider being co-ordained by OUnI after you graduate from The New Seminary. OUnI is a kind of umbrella structure for Interfaith ministers that operates in much the same way as a denominational conference—except there are no doctrines and dogmas governing OUnI. The guy in charge is an Interfaith minister whose name is Rev. Tim Miner. He is also a pilot, i.e., he flies airplanes, and he was ordained at the Big I Conference 2014 as one of the first Eco Ministers.
This year the Big I Conference, the third of its kind, was held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona not far from Phoenix. The center was very nice—mission style architecture—and the food was delicious. My room mate was Swami Omkarananda, Director of the Sivananda Vedanta Center in Los Angeles. I had the good fortune to give a plenary talk along with other plenary speakers such as Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, an excellent study of the importation of Eastern religions into the United States, Mirabai Starr, critically acclaimed translator of mystic poetry, and Swami Ramananda, President of the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco as well as long-time devotee of Swami Satchidananda who was a co-founder of The New Seminary. Dr. Ted gave a presentation, too, and we both participated in the working group on Eco Spirituality as well as the Poetry and Pastry evening during which a number of conference participants read from our own poetry. Perhaps the highlight of the conference came when our very own Fr. Giles Spoonhour, co-founder of The New Seminary in 1979, was presented with the Huston Smith Award for Lifetime Achievement. As you most likely know from your TNS Reading List, Huston Smith is a pioneer in the study of The World’s Religions, the title of his best selling book by the same name—and he agreed to have his name attached to the lifetime achievement award given by OUnI. The conference flew Fr. Giles out to Arizona to receive his award, and he gave an eloquent reception speech befitting the co-founder of the oldest Interfaith seminary in the world. From the Interfaith or Interspiritual seminaries, Rev. Joyce Liechenstein, Associate Director of One Spirit Learning Alliance (and former faculty member at The New Seminary) was also presented with the Huston Smith Award for Lifetime Achievement.
My topic at The Big I Conference was: “Toward an Interfaith Theology.” The operative word was and is toward. As I told the conference, anyone who would be silly enough to bring a proposal before that group of radicals and holy rascals and ask them to adopt the hats of cardinals might be better advised to seek solace in the red rocks of Sedona (where I went with a group of colleagues prior to the formal opening of the conference). As you may know, Sedona is famous for being a vortex of spiritual energy transmitted through and contained in the huge rock formations in the desert.
And yet, I continued to tell the conference, The New Seminary has instituted a course this year called “Introduction to Interfaith Scholarship and Research.” The Director of The New Seminary, Rev. Jay Speights, wants students to be “more theologically sound.” If the oldest Interfaith seminary in the world is placing such emphasis on the theological dimensions of the Interfaith movement, then it may be time to try and articulate an interfaith theology.
Toward the end of Part I, the first seminar of the “Introduction to Interfaith Scholar and Research” module, a very bright student—I believe his name is Je Exodus—asked: “I think I can see grounds for an Interfaith philosophy, but what is an Interfaith theology?”
Imagine such a question coming from a student who is on track to graduate from an Interfaith seminary! In the interest of time as Part I of our seminar was winding down, I told Je Exodus to go read Matthew Fox and Rabbi Rami Shapiro.
At the Big I Conference, I could see heads nodding in approval when I mentioned Fox and Shapiro as being two authors who are immediately recognizable as Interfaith writers and teachers. There are others, of course, many of whom populate the Readings List given to you as TNS students.
One of the hazards of being on the cutting edge is that you have the responsibility for articulating what you think you are doing. Most of us at the Big I Conference had a pretty good idea of what we think we are doing, and our path has been lit by such books as Kurt Johnson and David Ord’s The Coming Interspiritual Age. Additionally, co-founded with Bro. Wayne Teasdale, the Spiritual Multiplex that Kurt publishes on the Internet contains a wealth of information.
But, we speak of Interfaith and Interspiritual, an approach that grows out of Interfaith, as a movement, a “response to globalization and multi-culturalism,” to use Kurt’s words. We also speak of Interspirituality as a better way to live, a way to help save the planet from the forces of consumerism.
Since we rarely speak of an Interfaith theology, is it fair to ask if we are writing God out of the picture? I don’t think so. In fact, I think we are trying to write the divine and a sense of the sacred back into the picture by expanding the ways in which we perceive and live out “the kingdom of God within.” We are trying to expand the meaning of theos to mean something other than the old white man with a long white beard who sits in the heavens far removed from planet earth and to encompass something very close to my mantra in the Saraswati order: Aham Brahmasmi—I am the absolute. Aham Brahmasmi—I am the formless.
In one of the Interspiritual clips that Kurt featured in a recent Multiplex—available on You Tube as Clip #4—Diane Berke, Founder and Director of One Spirit Learning Alliance (as well as former faculty member at The New Seminary), cites A Course in Miracles as saying that an Interfaith, a universal theology is “impossible,” but an experience is “necessary.” Interspirituality, according to Berke, is far less concerned with “what do I believe” than “how can I live”—is more concerned with “how can I be the best human being” as distinct from “how can I be the best Jew, Christian, Muslim,” etc.
These are great observations. Historically, they most likely would fall in the province of ethics. In these critical and unprecedented times, however, they may constitute the basis for a new theos, at once immanent and transcendent, very much in the world and yet attuned to the vibrations of the formless.
In moving “Toward an Interfaith Theology,” I have constructed a list of nine tenets that could lay the groundwork for articulating a theological position. Here they are, not necessarily in order of importance as it is not my project to try and construct another hierarchy or hegemony. I am going to give you the list of nine tenets and then double back and offer some commentary about each.
An Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology:
- emphasizes and reflects interconnectivity;
- is transcendent as well as immanent;
- resists dogma;
- honors the earth;
- honors the bottom line truths of all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions;
- seeks to tell new stories about being human (or at the very least, does not invest or get caught in old stories that lead to destruction);
- values culture and cultural expression;
- encourages pro-active engagement of unjust structures, religions included;
- values personal, existential truth.
Now, I’ll go through the nine tenets, and offer commentary about each.
An Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: emphasizes and reflects interconnectivity
In so doing, Interfaith theology is closely allied with the new physics, the ancient Vedas, and the Buddhist law of interdependence. For more on the new physics, may I suggest you have a look at two early works from the late 20th century—Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum and Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. In the Hindu and Buddhist Tantras, it is thought that no action in the universe is insignificant; a leaf falling from a tree in China effects snow falling in Alaska. This emphasis on interconnectivity shows up in current television advertisements as well, in a beautiful ad for Apple and another ad for T. Rowe Price that says: “How could switch grass in Argentina change engineering in Dubai?’’ The Asian religions have long recognized interconnectivity and interdependence as foundational, and now interconnectivity is showing up in Interfaith Theology. Interconnectivity works among human beings, too. What I think and do in Kentucky effects you in Pennsylvania and in Australia or Japan. Our discussion of interconnectivity reminds me of the joke that when the first scientists got to the moon, they discovered that the theologians had already been there.
An Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: is transcendent as well as immanent
In other words, the divine exists in ethereal realms as well as in material reality. In Sanskrit, we refer to the non-material as purusha and the material as prakritri. In Interfaith Theology, there would be no division between the two; thus, Interfaith theology, like its cousin Kashmir Shaivism, is non-dual.
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: resists dogma
This is very important as current statistics are showing that the young don’t want much to do with organized religion. Actually, this tendency dates back to the 1960s. In 1969, in my senior yearbook in college, I listed one of my organizations as The Society for the Prevention and Extermination of Dogma. Of course, there was no such club on campus, but there certainly was in my imagination. (Imagine there’s no religion . . . it’s easy if you try . . .)
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: honors the earth
Survival of the planet is necessary if any of us is to continue in any capacity at all. To that end, OUnI has begun to ordain Eco Ministers and to work with hard scientists to try and convince them of the earth’s sacredness. As the neo-Hindu Guru Gurumayi Chidvilasananda said, and I paraphrase, it’s not the four-legged creatures that concern me; it’s the two-legged creature (i.e., human being who is capable of doing such destruction to the earth).
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: honors the bottom line truths of all the world’s religions and spiritual traditions
or as Fr. Giles Spoonhour is fond of saying, quoting Rabbi Gelberman, “never instead of, always in addition to.” Inclusivity has been a major theme of The New Seminary since its founding, and by bottom line truths, I mean: 1) conceptions of divinity or luminosity in the case of Buddhism; 2) ethical systems such as the Ten Commandments of Christianity, the yamas and niyamas of the Hindu Tantra and Yoga, and the Eight-fold Path and Precepts of Buddhism; and 3) the Mahavakyas or great statements of the world’s religions, i.e., “Love your neighbor as yourself” in Christianity, “Aham Brahmasmi,” I am the Absolute in Hinduism and Yoga, Desire creates suffering and grasping in Buddhism.
In other words, the bottom line truths of the world’s religions can be explored in terms of three categories: 1) conceptions of the divine (or not as in the case of some sects of Buddhism which do not consider themselves to be theistic); 2) ethical systems (I don’t want to get into the dualistic language of right and wrong)—but how we behave toward others either creates a sense of peace (or not) as well as order in our societies; and 3) the great statements of the world’s religions such as “I am the way, the truth, and the light” which is actually very close as one of the great “I am” statements of Jesus the Christ to “Aham Brahmasmi—I am the absolute; I am the formless.”
Interfaith or Interspiritual theology: seeks to tell new stories about being human
(or at the very least, does not invest in or get caught in old stories that lead to destruction)
As I told Big I Conference participants, I got this tenet from Dr. Ted and Cosmosophia which many of you have been reading. The old stories such as the doctrine of original sin do not tend to work for postmodern beings who have the advantage of other perspectives such as the Shambhala Buddhist notion of basic goodness. Neither do the patriarchal stories about woman’s subservience and the depravity of homosexuals work for a postmodern audience. New stories must be inclusive and pay attention to non-discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology:values culture and cultural expression
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology, being a response to multiculturalism and globalization, honors all cultures—not just the dominant cultures such as those in the Western hemisphere. Art matters to Interfaith Theology as does music and dance—no more prohibitions against dancing as being “sinful.”
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: encourages pro-active engagement of unjust structures, religions included
Interfaith Theology is fed by the great liberation movements of the 20th century—Civil Rights, the women’s liberation movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the multi-cultural movement—and by liberation theology. Sacred Activism is one of the major threads in this tenet, and it is marked by the work of such activists as Andrew Harvey and Adam Bucko who co-founded The Reciprocity Foundation in New York City to help homeless youth find their way to spiritual wholeness and who published a book (with Matthew Fox) entitled Occupy Spirituality. Our own Dr. Ted is very much involved with Sacred Activism through his work with the Wisdom Project in Chicago.
Interfaith or Interspiritual Theology: values personal, existential truth
Interfaith Theology does not ask adherents to adopt a standardized theology based on doctrines and dogma. Each person decides what is and is not theologically acceptable.
Could these nine tenets work to lay the groundwork for an Interfaith Theology?
Maybe, so long as those who do the codification do not get overly invested in setting up doctrines—or “nailing down” matters that are just as well left in the nebulous zone of ambiguity. For instance, political positions can become doctrines as easily as theological positions, so care must be taken across the board not to try and tell anyone what to think about political or theological issues. And, the “anyone” who practices Interfaith Theology must be careful to distinguish the ego from the atman, a chip off the old block of the Brahman, or the force at the center of the universe, so that the ethics of the theology do not become narcissistic in intention.
There’s still the question of faith in the title of my presentation, “Toward an Interfaith Theology.” Since my monastic name means the bliss, ananda, of faith, shraddha, I’ll say a word about faith before closing.
At Slate Branch Ashram, where I serve as Spiritual Director and Sandy, my personal assistant who is with us tonight on WizIQ is a Sacred Feet Yoga Teacher-in-Training, we teach an Interfaith Yoga called Adishraddha Yoga which means adi, from a position of, shraddha, faith. This yoga is different from most in that we don’t tell students where to place their faith. Each student decides whether to place his or her faith in God, Buddha, Shiva, Allah, the Holy Spirit, human reason, or the deep mystic heart. If students ask for guidance, we offer it. If not, we don’t try to play like the patriarchal, totalitarian managers of old.
In the 1970s, at the height of second wave feminism, Adrienne Rich voiced a claim that “the personal is the political.” In postmodernity, could we say, “the personal is the theological”?
Perhaps, if we expand “personal” to mean a reflection of what Kurt Johnson calls “second tier consciousness,” or consciousness that extends beyond the boxes of -isms all wrapped up in exclusive truth claims.
Incidentally, or perhaps, not so incidentally, Kurt Johnson was present at the Big I Conference, and after my talk, he was the first to raise his hand. Prior to the conference, he had spent some time with Ken Wilber who, according to Kurt, is convinced that much of what we see going on in spirituality today has to do with the evolution of consciousness.
It has been the position of Indian philosophy—reflected through the lens of teachers such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who established Transcendental Meditation or TM—it has been the position of Indian philosophy for a long time that we are moving toward a golden, satvic age (satvic from the Sanskrit means light or pure). And, no age can be more than the sum total of all our consciousnesses as life proceeds from the inside out.
A reporter once approached the Siddha Guru Baba Muktananda when he was still in his body and said, “I hear you’ve been running around the globe telling people that you are God.”
Without skipping a beat, Muktananda replied: Yes—and so are you.
Yes—and so are you.
Recognition of the kingdom or queendom within, of our divinity (anchored in what Hinduism would call the atman as distinct from little ahamkara, or the ego) may be a necessary pre-requisite for connecting to the new theos of Interfaith Theology. If not that, then light or luminosity seems to be the one common denominator in the world’s religions and spiritual traditions that nobody would quarrel with. Or, sound. After all, “In the beginning was the word,” according to the Christian scriptures, and the Hindu Tantra is built on the law of vibration as expressed in sound—and silence.
Guest Post by Rev. Dr. Robert Salt ~ Dept Chair and Professor, Dept of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Wisconsin-Stout; Minister, Menomonie Interfaith Fellowship, Menomonie, WI; Founding Chair, Council of Interfaith Communities-USA.
The following paper was presented at the Big I Conference on Inclusive Theology, Spirituality and Consciousness, Scottsdale, AZ ~ March 2014.
I am an interfaith minister who loves and admires the world’s religions. While it is certainly true that religion has been a source of much good in the history of the world, we must be honest and admit that religion has been a source of much violence and hatred.
Let us briefly review a few obvious examples –
- The Inquisition caused the torture and deaths of tens of thousands of people who allegedly did not believe in the correct understanding of Catholic faith.
- In India, there have been over 15,000 people killed in the past 20 years in fighting between Muslims and Hindus, much of it over holy sites.
- Internal fighting between Catholics and Protestants has killed thousands of people over the past 5 centuries and continues to create conflict and some violence today.
- Internal fighting between Shia and Sunni Muslims has caused conflict and war since the 7th century up to this present day in Syria and Iraq.
- Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have been imprisoned, whipped, beaten, and killed in the name of God for thousands of years and across multiple religions.
- Native Americans and indigenous peoples across the world were often killed if they did not convert to Christianity.
- Conflict between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka has been ongoing for decades, killing thousands.
Well you see the horrible pattern. We could spend a long time reviewing other painful examples. But it is not just religious faith that creates hatred and violence and war. It is faith in the alleged truth of one’s knowledge, one’s political viewpoint, one’s worldview, and one’s culture.
My reason for raising this is that the joy and peace and serenity that can come from a deep belief in any belief system can also create hatred and suffering. One of the primary reasons for this, I believe, is the lack of humility on the part of many believers about their beliefs.
Most of us are raised to believe that knowledge is a simple and obvious thing, and that what we believe, is based upon obvious truths. I wish to challenge this view by discussing the concept of knowledge, in both philosophy and science, and then moving back to religion and faith. To have more humility about faith, it seems helpful to me that we start with humility about knowledge.
In the discipline of philosophy, there has been an ongoing debate for thousands of years about the possibility of accurate knowledge. There are many philosophers who have argued that all knowledge is a human creation, with its inherent ignorance, biases, errors, and the problem of perspective. A couple of the most famous philosophers to critique human knowledge were Socrates and David Hume. My favorite was Socrates, who (if he actually lived, rather than being a literary creation of Plato) was said to have demonstrated over and over again that most of what people thought they knew was based on opinion, tradition, assumption, error, and a lack of humility about their alleged knowledge. He argued that it was better to be honest about being ignorant, than to be in denial of one’s ignorance.
To aid us in understanding the problems of knowledge, Psychologist Jean Piaget said we all form mental schemas in our minds that structure how we understand the world. When we experience something new in life, we want to understand it, so we often unconsciously assume that it is like what we already know. Piaget called this mental process assimilation. For example, when we hear a new word, we often think of it as like a word we already know in our schema. The important point here is that we do not just see the world as it is. We see it through our schemas.
In the fields of science during the 20th century, there were many contributions to this conclusion about the problem of knowledge. One, was the insights of quantum physics, with observations regarding the inability to show a complete separation between the observer and what was being observed. Noble Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg, developed his “uncertainty principle” for the field of physics.
Later in the 20th century, Karl Popper argued that science could never be certain to arrive at ultimate truths, only that it could falsify what was not true. Finally, Thomas Kuhn argued that science was not the objective search for truths, but rather was tied to working within a specific accepted paradigm (world view) that was accepted by the scholars in a particular academic discipline, even when the accepted paradigm led to ignoring all anomalous (unexplainable) results that did not fit within the paradigm. This is very similar to the Piagetian idea of being fooled by our schemas.
In the field of scientific research, there are two important concepts that help us understand the point I am making – Type 1 and Type 2 errors. A type 1 error is when a research study has shown evidence for a particular conclusion, which the researcher makes, but unknown to the researcher, the results were a mistake.
Type 2 errors are the opposite, where the researcher concludes based on their data that something is not true, when in reality it really is true ontologically, but they do not know it. All scientists are taught to be aware of the possibility that any conclusions they make from their data are at risk of committing a Type 1 or Type 2 error. This training is training in scientific humility.
This same struggle to have perfect truth has also been an underlying struggle for theologians and religious believers. Many religious believers have a belief that they can simply “know” the truth through prayer, and faith, and the reading of sacred texts. This gives them all a great sense of peace and comfort believing that they know the truth about life and how to live properly. The problem, as I see it, is that a belief in the absolute truth of one’s knowledge or faith, sometimes leads to the problems mentioned at the beginning of my talk.
At the risk of alienating some of my audience, let me argue that no faith is inerrant. First, inerrancy would mean that we could ever have perfect human knowledge. Second, it would mean that the received sources of religions meet that standard. Let’s use a few illustrations:
In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote – “For four hundred years during and after the Buddha’s lifetime, his teachings were transmitted only orally… After that, monks in the Tamrashatiya school…began to think about writing the Buddha’s discourses on palm leaves, and it took another hundred years to begin. By that time, it is said that there was only one monk who had memorized the whole canon and that he was somewhat arrogant. The other monks had to persuade him to recite the discourses so they could write them down. When we hear this, we feel a little uneasy knowing that an arrogant monk may not have been the best vehicle to transmit the teachings of the Buddha.”
“Even during the Buddha’s lifetime, there were people such as the monk Arittha, who misunderstood the Buddha’s teachings and conveyed them incorrectly. It is also apparent that some of the monks who memorized the sutras over the centuries did not understand their deepest meaning, or at the very least, they forgot or changed some words. As a result, some of the Buddha’s teachings were distorted even before they were written down.” (pp 13 -14).
Scholars of other faiths have demonstrated similar concerns about the accuracy of their sacred texts.
In Judaism, the Torah begins with two distinct creation stories. Scholars have told us that they were written by different authors at different times, and they tell two distinctly different, and somewhat contradicting, stories. One says God created humans after the other animals, male and female, and created in the image of God. The other story said that Adam was created first out of the earth, and then animals were created to give Adam a partner, and later on Havva (Eve) was created after Adam was still lonely. Which story is the correct one? Are they both correct? Neither? Should they be understood as allegory or history?
In Christianity, many authors have pointed out all the changes and errors and interpretations of the New Testament over the years. One scholar calculated that if you created all the possible Christian Bibles with all their differences, you could have 10,000 different Bibles. This obviously begs the question of accuracy and truth. Let me push this issue by taking the most important story in the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection. Here are the accounts on Easter from the four gospels –
- Matthew 28 – ‘After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
- Mark 16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. …
- Luke 24 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles….
- John 20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was not yet light, Mary Magalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,…then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb….
Which version of this story is correct? Why are there different people seeing different things in the different versions? Or are the stories all just the best guesses of authors who were not there at the time, as they themselves imply?
In Islam, think about the famous night journey of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) to Jerusalem and up to the 7 heavens, where he met Jesus and Moses and other prophets and then Allah. A big debate in Islam is – did his body do all this, or was it his soul? Perhaps it was his mind? Or was it a prophetic dream?
Are the prophetic insights of Muhammad always the accurate understandings of Allah speaking through his mind? Even Muhammad himself said it was very hard to be certain that he was understanding the messages properly.
How do we in interfaith communities comprehend the many different versions of God, or the many different Gods and Goddesses? What actually is the nature of God? A being with thoughts, feelings, and mind? A creative energy? A human creation? A metaphor? Nature itself?
When someone judges, or hates, or uses violence against another in the name of their God, where is the humility to say maybe their understanding of God is incomplete, flawed, or basically their best guess?
What about atheism? I gave a talk once at a UU service about the possibility of reincarnation and the implication of souls, life after death, and God. One of the listeners said it was all nonsense, because science proved there was no God. Modern scholars like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and others seem to be certain that there is no such thing as souls, God, life after death, reincarnation, etc. Sometimes, their atheism is as dogmatic, as the religious believers they are criticizing.
There are in contrast lots of good examples of humility in faith. There have been many religious scholars that have said that there is always a level of mystery, or the unknown, in their understanding of life.
- Lao Tzu, the alleged author of the famous Taoist book the Tao te Ching, says in one English translation of his first chapter, “the Tao that can be told, is not the true Tao.”
- In medieval Christianity, many theologians worked in what they called the Via Negativa (meaning they could know God only through saying what God was not). In fact, a famous book by an anonymous Christian mystic is titled “The Cloud of Unknowing.”
- In Islam, Allah is called by 99 different names, partly because any one name alone could never explain the complexity of the deity.
- In Buddhism, the Buddha is famous for taking the Noble Silence about topics, like God, about which he said he could not be certain.
- In Kabbalistic teaching, an understanding of G-d is referred to as Ein Sof, which refers to that quality of the creator which is far beyond human comprehension.
The overall point, is that whether we are talking about truth in philosophy, or truth in science, or truth in faith, is that there will always be, in my opinion, a level of mystery about them. There are always gaps in knowledge, errors of belief, errors in translation, opinions treated as facts, and an overall level of ignorance about the ultimate truths we seek to know. My conclusion about knowledge is that knowledge is usually an over simplification of a more complex reality. It should be held lightly and acknowledged as our current best guess about the nature of reality.
When I first began to think this way, I was a grad student at Purdue University. I went there to learn facts and theories about life so I could help people have healthier, better lives. I became aware, in my study of both philosophy and of science, that what I thought were ultimate truths, were always in some way imperfect. The research tools were flawed, or incomplete. The data were confusing and not always supporting our hypotheses or conclusions. This created an existential crisis in me. Why should I stay and learn truths that were to some degree inaccurate? This led me to briefly consider that nihilism was correct -that there is no such thing as knowledge. I eventually rejected that conclusion and decided to live with a middle position between pure truth (which I came to believe did not exist epistemologically) and nihilism (which I believed made life meaningless). I concluded that while I believe ontologically in a spiritual universe created by God, I believe that one should always hold faith and knowledge lightly, knowing that it contains bias, error, and ignorance.
I am not arguing against the pursuit of knowledge or the value of faith. In my day job I am a social scientist studying patterns of relationships and human development. I believe in the value of searching for more and more “imperfect” evidence, so one could in some way have more confidence that their conclusions are somewhere close to the ontological truth.
As for faith, just recently I have been reading an interesting book titled, “In Praise of Doubt,” written by a sociologist of religion named Peter Berger and a colleague. Their book is an attempt to describe a healthy middle ground between fundamentalism and relativism. It combines the value of both faith and doubt. I encourage you all to read it.
So the pursuit of knowledge and faith are both healthy goals. But I believe we should be mindful and humble that our knowledge and faith are always filled with layers of opinion, assumption, guesswork, other people’s opinions, errors, and gaps of understanding.
For me, as an interfaith minister, the practices of interfaith and multifaith and interspirituality are not about accepting the so called “perfect truths” of any belief systems. Rather I believe that interfaith is about living in respect and solidarity with the people and beliefs of the world’s religions and spiritual belief systems.
Let’s remember that each religion in the world has its variation of the golden rule. It seems to me that being humble about what we know and what we believe is a good first step to loving our neighbor. While I cannot personally accept some ancient teachings, even those in so called sacred texts, that teach me to hate or judge or discriminate against people of other faiths, of other genders, or other sexual orientations, I do love and accept the peoples and religions of the world, as being like I am, imperfect, making our best guesses about truth, knowledge, God, morality and the like, and trying to live a good and just life. Of course, I could be wrong, too!