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.