Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 15 October 2017
Many of you already know that I’m leaving for Europe next Thursday for a two-week trip. Sometime ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the European Unitarian Universalists’ fall retreat that will be held in Spa, Belgium. Before we get to Belgium, we’re starting out in Paris where I’ll be preaching at the Paris UU fellowship next Sunday. I want to thank you for graciously letting me make these connections with our fellow UUs in Europe. I’m also grateful to Rev. Nicoline Guerrier who will lead the worship services during the two Sundays I’m away.
When Nicoline and I mapped out the services for this month’s theme on connection, we agreed that there was a lot that could be said about human connections, this sort of horizontal connection to each other, but there had to be at least one week when we talked about connecting to God or to the Ultimate. In other words, the vertical connection. Nicoline laughed and said to me, “I’ll let you do the God connection.”
I want to start by telling you about a course I took this past July called Encounter World Religions Discovery Week. This is a course held every summer in Toronto that I highly recommend. It’s one very intense week of visiting a lot of religious communities in and around metropolitan Toronto. This year, there were about 40 of us who took the course. We came from a variety of backgrounds. There were police officers and human resource people who were responsible for multicultural training. There were clergy like myself and lay leaders from mostly Christian denominations, along with two Jews (if you include me), a couple of Buddhists and a bunch of people who were not religious but curious.
Each day, we’d meet in a classroom at the University of Toronto. We’d listen to lectures about different religious traditions and then we’d hop on a bus to visit each community. We did 15 visits over the course of the week. We attended a Wicca gathering, met with a Métis Elder, visited a Jewish yeshiva and a synagogue, met with a young pastor of what is probably the largest and fastest growing evangelical church in the Toronto area, we visited an Eastern Orthodox church and two Hindu Temples, we ate at the Hare Krishna centre, we shared Friday prayers in a mosque, we sat zazen with a group of Zen Buddhists, we visited a Doaist centre, a Chinese Buddhist temple and a Zoroastrian temple, we met with a group of Rastafarians, and we visited a Sikh gurdwara (a Sikh temple).
Our intrepid guide was Brian Carwana, an amazing man who has built deep contacts with many religious leaders in Toronto. On the first day, he presented this fascinating chart comparing nearly all of the world’s religions, boiling everything down to its essence. Brian apologized that his overview was seriously oversimplified, but he encouraged us to use his introduction as a way to make sense of the many distinct groups we’d be meeting during the week. He invited us to consider this as one lens to use as we encountered contrasting world religions.
Brian divided world religions into three three main groups:
The traditions that originate in India — Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism;
The traditions that originate in the Middle East— Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism;
Finally there was what he called the Balance traditions — Indigenous and First Nations spiritual traditions, Confucianism, Daoism, Neo-Paganism and Shintoism.
Each of these three groups has a particular approach to understanding what is God or the Ultimate and how we connect to the Ultimate. Each of these groups has a different approach to finding truth, understanding time, explaining the causes of suffering and has a different myth or story that holds it all together.
According to Brian’s summary, the traditions that originate in the Middle East, what we think of as the monotheistic traditions, see the Ultimate as a top-down relationship. God, Jesus or Allah, speaks to the people. Truth is revealed through scripture that’s handed to the people. The people connect to God through a relationship that is expressed through a covenant, submission, or a father-child relationship.
Brian says that the foundational myth of the Middle-Eastern traditions is “correction”. That really gets me. Think of it. Correction. As Brian explains it, these traditions see human disobedience to God as the source of all suffering in the world. So human behaviour needs to be corrected. To become a member of these traditions, you have to be invited in. You have to agree to a creed or specific beliefs and follow certain observances. There are laws, commandments, Sharia, the Christian cannon. Time is linear, and it has a direction that points to judgement at the end of life.
In contrast, the traditions that originate in India see the Ultimate as one reality. The relationship is hard to describe. Everything exists and everything does not exist at the same time. There is a divine light within all beings and all things that transcends the human capacity to describe it. Connecting to the Ultimate is open to anyone at anytime. It’s an individual experience. There’s no communal membership process. You shed the ego and you find divinity or enlightenment.
Brian describes the foundational myth in the Indian traditions as “non-correction”. Non-correction. There’s nothing to correct. The whole world is an illusion. The truth is found within, not from an external voice. Suffering is caused by ignorance, by thinking that you are somehow separate from the rest of reality. Time is cyclical, not set by a God or anything else, it just is, and the goal is to escape from the structure of time.
Finally, there are the Balance traditions, Indigenous spirituality, Daoism and so on. Here the Ultimate is the universe. The universe is one living, breathing thing. It is what you can actually touch and observe in nature. You connect to the Ultimate through being in harmony with the environment, by maintaining proper relationships with all beings and with nature, by accepting the yin and yang of things, the darkness that defines the light, the silence that defines sound, and so on. The foundational myth, Brain says, is “correctness”. It’s about being in balance. Suffering comes from being out of balance with the universe. Time is the present, the eternal now. There may be sacred stories that are told, but what matters is experience not doctrine.
So to do a quick recap of Brian’s overview: the Middle Eastern Traditions are about a top-down faith that is focused on doing; the Indian traditions are about a faith where light that comes from within that is focused on seeing, and the Balance Traditions are about a faith that comes through balance with the universe and is focused on being.
That’s my oversimplification, in 500 words or less, of Brian’s oversimplification of comparative world religions — and yes it is flawed! But it turned out to be a useful stating point.
After his presentation, I found myself struggling to figure out where we, as Unitarian Universalists, fit into Brian’s three categories of religions tradition. Historically, we do come out of the Middle-Eastern traditions, out of Christianity that grew out of Judaism. But we don’t fit all the characteristics, right?. Maybe we are a reaction to some of those characteristics. Most of us don’t see ourselves in a top-down relationship with God. I don’t really see the Ultimate as something outside of us, but that’s me. Each of you may see the Ultimate differently, and we say that’s OK. We’re not supposed to all see the same way. We’re supposed to encourage each other to seek our own responsible paths to truth and meaning. And being responsible does not mean that I already know what path you should take.
I would say that our UU foundational myth is not correction. We do not see ourselves as fundamentally sinful or depraved. The story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden is not our central story.
Sometimes I think that our first story may actually be “The Word.” As in the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We love to talk. We love to debate. Maybe the Ultimate is the Word for us. Or maybe our first story is that refrain in Genesis, after each step of creation, “and God saw that it was good.” Look back at our nearly 500 years of history. Our belief in goodness, in the potential goodness of humanity, is always there. But do we believe in redemption or salvation? Do we see the truth as something that is outside of us? Our forebears said that God gave us reason and so we’re supposed to figure out the rest.
So what’s our responsibility? What’s the source of suffering in the world? We talk a lot about doing, about justice, sometimes with a top-down fervour that is all about telling others what they should do. We seem to get caught between the call to do something and trying to find balance that enables us to be at peace with the universe. We seem to dance between the Middle Eastern traditions we grew out of and the Balance and Indian traditions we are drawn towards.
We’ve been influenced, in particular, by Indian thought for a long time. As early as the the late 1700s, Unitarians have been fascinated by Hindu scripture and philosophy. It was the Hindu conception of the divine as the unity of everything that deeply inspired the thought of Unitarian Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1800s. It’s that idea of the light that comes from within. For Emerson, it was all about the seeing.
There are so many stories I could tell you of that week in Toronto, about witnessing the doing, the being and the seeing of different faiths. I want to end with three very short stories.
One day we stopped at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for lunch. There were 40 of us. A woman working at the restaurant stopped me in the restroom. “Are you Indian?” she asked me. Then she told me that she was, and that she’d heard that we’d visited a Hindu Temple. When I explained about the program, she said, “I’m so grateful you went to one of our temples.” Nearly all our hosts told us that they were amazed that so many people of different faiths would be willing to step into their communities and experience their religious practices. “Which temple did you go to?” the woman asked. “Was it dedicated to Durga?” I pulled up a photo of the central Murti, the central image of the goddess in the temple we’d just been to. “That’s Durga. That’s my goddess. I’ve got goosebumps,” she said as she rubbed her arms. Then she gave me a big hug.
At the Sikh gurdwara we witnessed the Guru being put to bed for the night. In the Sikh tradition there are no human gurus, only their holy book. During the day it sits on a throne. At night it’s put to bed in its special bedroom in the temple, with music and a big procession. Afterwards, we sat down on strips of carpet to eat in the temple’s lower floor. You can always get a free meal in a Sikh gurdwara, because service is one of the holy requirements, and each temple serves hundreds or even thousands of meals each week. What’s incredible is that there’s no organizing committee. No calendar of volunteers. No desperate phone calls searching for help. Everyone just trusts that a enough people will show up to cook and to serve each day, and it always works.
Finally, my last story. Brian had encouraged us to fully immerse ourselves into the spiritual practices we encountered. So when we were at the mosque for Friday prayers, I covered myself with a scarf and joined the women. We sat on the floor and we talked as we waited for the call to prayer. When the time for prayer began, we stood shoulder to shoulder. We were packed in tightly. A small woman squeezed in next to me. She had a small silk prayer rug that she placed vertically in front of herself. Then, suddenly, she shifted it so that it was lying horizontally in front of us both so that when I kneeled in prayer, I would be sharing her rug. It was a moment of incredible hospitality that brought tears to my eyes. I’m sure she knew that I was not about to become a Muslim, but she was willing to open her world to me. I never saw her face. I never got to thank her, but the generous presence of that woman in that brief moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I admit that my own theology draws from all three traditions that Brian painted with such broad brushstrokes. I don’t mean that I feel I have indiscriminate license to pick and choose what suits my own needs. We come out of the traditional faiths of the Middle East, and I do think there is much beauty and wisdom still to be found there. It’s just that I don’t see us ever neatly fitting into that box. I also think that we have much to learn from the Balance Traditions. We need to be in balance with community, with the earth and with the universe. We need that balance and strength so that we act wisely in the world. And on days when I feel most lost, when I become discouraged, there is something of the Indian Traditions that speaks to me. I simply reach out to the light, to the oneness of everything. It’s the Ultimate that fills me with love, the God on the inside that enables me to keep going. I am filled with light, just as I see all of you filled with light.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.
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