Monday, March 23, 2015

When Faiths Meet (March 22, 2015)

Reading- from Rev. Rebecca Parker's Introduction for 2015 Starr King President Lecture
I had been raised in a liberal Methodist home and was devoted to the sense we had of the purpose of liberal Christianity. That purpose was formed for my parents in the early fifties in the aftermath of the horror and the tragedy of the Shoah. For my parents’ generation the revelation of the magnitude of the human capacity to destroy human life and human culture out of racial and religious hatred, out of a search for some kind of pure identity and its preservation was the life shaping shock and sorrow. And my parents, perhaps like some of you… my parents made a decision as young adults to devote their life to fulfilling the cry “never again.” Never again let there be such war. Never again let there be an enactment of human hatred. Never again such exploitation of human life and destruction of human life and attempted destruction of religious culture. 

…”Never again”, they felt, could be advance through the life of progressive religious communities. I inherited that life, that belief that in covenanted life with one another centered in devotion to the holy and engaged in on caring not only for one another and all the generations but the communities of the world. There was hope for peace and justice and compassion in the world .

I carried that with me. .. But I found myself as a young Progressive Christian restless with the experience of life within an exclusively Christian sphere. it seemed wrong to me as a Christian of conscience that after the Shoah, after the holocaust, that Christians would presume to worship in exclusive Christian communities. I thought the only way you could be a Christian after the holocaust was to enter into multi-religious community. To be in a place …where people of Christian and Jewish heritage could be together in some way. And UU enticed me as such a place-- A place beyond the religious violence of the holocaust. Within my work … at Starr King, the joy of being in a multi-religious community, the challenge of it and the importance of it has been the heartbeat of the work. And it has opened to me experiences beyond my wildest dreams, of entering into and learning from the religious practices of others...

As a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church, we took it for granted that a basic religious literacy, not only of our faith tradition, but of our neighbor’s faith traditions was an important part of religious education. But it was not until I heard Rebecca parker tell this story at GA that I really got a sense of why this it was important. Growing up in a community which encouraged multi-religious dialogue, I didn’t understand what an important gift it is to our children and to our world. 

A couple of weeks ago I saw on a news story about a day when the Texas Council on American-Islamic Relations visited their state capitol, much like some of us and UUs from around the state are going to do on May 12 to meet our legislators and let them know what issues are important to us. Other folks had taken the day off work to drive to the Texas state capitol to shout hate slogans at their Muslim neighbors. They held placards that said things like “Go Home and take Obama with you” one protester rushed the podium and grabbed the microphone from the speaker.[i] One of the state representatives, Molly White, made news with her Facebook post saying that she had left instructions with her staff “to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.”[ii] This story, while not as dramatic as the massive anti-Islamic protests in Germany[iii], shows the depth of our ignorance. It didn’t dawn on Representative White that these visitors were her constituents, were American Citizens. She imagined that all of them were in some way connected to terrorist groups, and felt somehow exempt from the laws of their own country. 

After 9-11 it occurred to many of us in a blinding flash of the obvious that we were profoundly ignorant of Muslim culture, theology and history. At the Graduate Theological Union where I prepared for the ministry there were centers for Buddhist, Jewish and just about every flavor of main stream protestant and catholic traditions, but when my seminary offered an elective class on Islam, some of the other seminaries forbid their students from attending, lest it be a bad influence on their students in their ministerial formation. In the whole of my 3 years of coursework preparing for the UU ministry, there was only a single unit in a survey of “world religions” class to provide all we would need to know about Islam. 

According to a 2010 Pew study, %23 of the world’s population is Muslim. But what we see in the media represents a very narrow and fringe perspective on that ¼ of all the people on earth.[iv][v] Our ignorance of Islam and its people leads western cultures to view this incredibly diverse population with a monochromatic paintbrush of fear and anger. In a climate where Islam is painted as a boogyman hiding in our collective unconscious closet, the role of UUs and all those who remember the horror of the holocaust is to remember that part of “never again” is an inter-religious dialogue and relationships of care for one another. 

When I ask people who grew up Unitarian Universalist what they remember about Sunday School, I often hear about an experience called “Neighboring Faiths” which I personally count as one of the coolest things I did at my own UU church. The idea is that we would study a variety of religious traditions, and make a visit to their places of worship. I remember visiting a Greek Orthodox church, a reform synagogue, and a fundamentalist Christian church. I remember how empowering it was to go into a completely new religious community, like the Greek Orthodox church, prepared by our teachers and surround by other kids my age. We were greeted by a leader in the church who welcomed us, showed us to our special spot in the balcony, and could answer questions like “can we take communion?” His answer, “anyone who has been baptized can take communion here” left us with even more questions like “does a UU dedication count as a baptism for purposes of taking communion? We decided it probably didn’t.

We have learned some lessons over these decades of multi-religious dialogue. The first is that sometimes when we engage in this important conversation with our neighbors, we lose our grounding in our own faith tradition. A lay leader in one of our Midwest churches told a story about a youth in his church who asked in all earnestness “do you teach us about the world’s religions because you expect us to leave the UU church?” Another religious educator told me that whenever her students studied the Jewish and Christian traditions their UU kids became confused. Were they Christian? Were they Jewish? This raises some important questions for us so as we try to engage religious diversity with integrity: What is our intention in studying and participating in these faiths? What is our role? What ethical precepts shall guide our engagement? I'd like to look at these questions this morning to see if there are any central principles that can guide our way.  

If you turn in your hymnal to the page where our principles are listed.  You will see that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources.” These sources were adopted after a decades long struggle to articulate who we are and where we came from. Remember, both Unitarianism and Universalism were born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But while most of the Universalists still self-identified as Christian at the time the Unitarians and Universalists were considering merging in the 1950s, many of the Unitarians were humanists. Add to that all dauntingly diverse theological perspectives of our membership, and you can imagine why it would take almost 20 years after our merger to arrive at those 6 sources which finally felt large enough to hold our plurality.

These 6 sources reflect our openness to the ideas we encounter at the religious crossroads. They reflect our willingness to be changed and moved by what we find at the crossroads. That’s why we call it a living tradition because change and growth are an innate part of our identity as a religious movement. In exploring these sources, we begin to understand our own roots, both historic and contemporary. Some root systems go down deep, like the Acacia tree, others reach out along the surface, connecting neighbor to neighbor, like the redwood. These sources show organic our connections to our ancestors and to our neighbors.

As we study these sources – when we open the Upanishads or visit a Catholic Mass how might we understand our role. The role of sociologist or cultural anthropologist is a popular model for UUs, but this has some limitations. If we use ONLY the objective gaze of evaluation, we miss the chance to let any of the religion into our own hearts or spirits. The role of religious consumer is common in our contemporary culture. I could go online to buy the scriptures or ritual objects from a great variety of traditions. Right now my grocery store sells all the consumer goods you could want to celebrate Passover - but I want something different. I come to this church because I believe that the spiritual journey is both safer and more powerful when practiced within a community of people who inspire and watch out for one another. If we participate in religion only as a consumer, we loose the grounding and context being part of religious community provides. The Kabalistic tradition so popular with celebrities right now is an ancient aspect of Judaism that was hidden for centuries, taught only to initiates who had proven themselves ready. Now its sacred symbols are sold at teen accessory stores along with the mala beads used by Hindus and Buddhists for their prayer practice. As part of our “free and responsible search” I believe we have an ethical responsibility to the traditions which feed our spiritual life, a responsibility that goes beyond what is expected of us as “consumers.”

Let's take that communion question my Sunday School faced at the Greek Orthodox church. I nervously asked the same question at a Catholic Mass I attended with my roommate in college. She replied "Oh, no. Even if you are Catholic you can't take communion unless you've been confessed,” and sure enough as I looked around I saw almost 30% of the congregation remain in their seats as others formed lines in the aisle to receive the host. But later that year, when I attend a Presbyterian service with a friend in her tiny old white-steepled church, she looked amazed that I would even ask. "How could we turn anyone away from God's table" she responded, and so as the basket of rough cubed bread passed hand to hand, I took a piece and ate. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am not going to tell you whether or not you may take communion in a particular tradition. I can only encourage you to act with integrity. Does the gesture feel false and empty? Then please don't sacrifice your personal integrity. But if you are invited to participate in a ritual that is sacred to your friend or neighbor, and you want to be in communion with that community in that moment, I encourage you to accept that gift in the spirit it was offered. 

Perhaps the most important questions are asked and answered in our own hearts at the front door of the synagogue or mosque. Am I prepared to enter a sacred space that is not my own? Can I, with integrity, align myself with this worshipping body for this time? Can I help them hold a sacred space? Can I honor and respect their sanctuary while being true to my own core? Christianity is an evangelizing faith, and so it seems natural for many Christian communities to share their sacred texts (as the Gideons do) and to invite their neighbors to hear the words they hope will bring salvation to a newcomer. Not all traditions feel the same about their sacred rituals and traditions. Some Native Americans, for example, feel that religion is tied to a particular place, to a particular community; it belongs to the people and the land they share. And so when European-Americans borrow a chant or a symbol, it can feel like appropriation, it can feel like one more act in the imperialism that destroyed the very cultures we now turn into objects of consumerism. And so when we study Christianity we might be bolder than when we study indigenous traditions. We look for ways to learn from our neighbor’s faiths without opening old and unhealed wounds.  

As the vilification of Islam began to gain momentum in this country in recent years, Dr. Conde Frasier, a professor at Claremont Theological Seminary, a Christian School, asked a Muslim friend to talk to her about Islam. She wanted to have something real, personal and deep to inform her thinking about her Neighbor's faith. After several conversations, her friend invited her to worship. And so after receiving instruction in the Moslem way of prayer Dr. Frasier covered her head, entered the mosque, kneeled on her prayer mat, and prayed to Allah. She reports that she did experience something of Allah that day. Dr. Frasier remains a Christian, but I have to imagine that she now has a much deeper experience and knowledge of Islam that brings her closer to her Muslim neighbors, and gives her a new understanding each time Islam is in the news, each time she is in the classroom teaching. She also experienced something that enriched her own religious life.  

One of the concerns people have about exploring the world's religious diversity is that it can be done in a very shallow way. It takes patience and intention to get beneath the surface, where most of the gifts of a religious tradition lie. The Celebration of Easter without the struggle of Lent loses it’s power. If you were here last Sunday you may remember Don Bisson’s words: “Suffering, death and resurrection is one mystery. Whenever you try and separate these mysteries, you miss the mysteries.” Think how different Dr. Frasier's experience would have been the first time she joined her friend in prayer if she had done so without all the study and preparation. When I heard Dr. Frasier tell her story during the Fahs lecture at General Assembly this summer, I was moved by her courage, and by the clear respect she showed to her friend, and to the ancient tradition she encountered. Keeping her example in mind, I offer respect, humility and integrity as the primary ethics of our sojourns in other traditions.  

More and more I like to take the role of guest. For example, I love the traditional lighting of the menorah to honor the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Sure I can buy a menorah and candles on my way to the checkout at my local grocery store, but I believe that without the depth of tradition behind that ritual, without the grounding in community, the ritual loses most of its depth, content and meaning. That is why I prefer to invite someone raised in or otherwise grounded in the Jewish tradition to light the candles that celebrate Hanukah, so that I can participate with humility in an observance as their guest.  

When Parker spoke those words at General Assembly, they were as introductory remarks for a panel on “Multi-religiosity.” This strange phrase is trying to express something new that the word “interfaith” does not. It is trying to articulate something that has been present in our UU contraptions for decades. That, for example, if you were raised Catholic and now attend a UU church, you don’t lose all those formative experiences that shaped you growing up in the Catholic tradition. When Marcia blew the Shofar for us to celebrate the New Year this past fall, it was because that tradition still had meaning and power for her as one who grew up Jewish, even though now she is a member of a UU congregation. Priestess Lady Hawk is coming to lead us in a Beltaine ritual next month, and she is also the president of the UU congregation in Towanda. We don’t always have to leave our own sanctuary to be guests in a new faith, If we open our hearts and minds we find a richness of experience right here in our own beloved community. 

This is and will continue to be a complex issue. But imagining ourselves as guests in a friend or neighbor’s home might provide a central organizing metaphor for our explorations. We treat their space and treasures with respect. We observe the house rules, just as some of my friends like me to take my shoes off when I visit, and others like me to leave them on. We listen from a place of shared humanity. And we humbly remember there are dynamics, history, wounds and gifts present of which we are not aware. We take only what we are given, and offer our gratitude in return.  

When we next hear the anger and fear of religious bigotry in the news, remember, as Rebecca parker reflected, “ I thought the only way you could be a Christian after the holocaust was to enter into multi-religious community.” Likewise, as UUs, whenever we are reaching out to our neighbors, or reaching deep into our roots and sources, this act is part of what it means to say “never again.” Moreover, it is a practice which helps us connect to the sources of our own religious wellspring. There is much we don't know about our neighbor’s faiths, so much they have to teach us about ourselves, about our roots, and about the world. As humble and respectful guests we undertake this journey, grounded in this our religious home, centered in the wisdom that lies in every human heart.






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