Reshaping Religion: Interspirituality and Multiple Religious Belonging, by Matthew Wright

A thesis

submitted to the faculty of

the Department of Practical Theology of

the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia

in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of

Master of Divinity

May 1, 2012

______________________________

The Rev. Joyce Mercer, Ph.D.

Faculty Advisor

 

______________________________

The Rev. Tilden Edwards, Ph.D.

Reader

 

RESHAPING RELIGION

Interspirituality and Multiple Religious Belonging

 Matthew Wright


 

for my parents

Becky and Tony

 

with deepest salaams and pranams to

 Fr. Bede Griffiths – Swami Dayananda

(1906 – 1993)

 

and

 

Lex Hixon – Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi

(1941 – 1995)

 

lights of my heart


Acknowledgments

             Deep gratitude to The Rev. Dr. Joyce Mercer, who accepted my request to work with her on a thesis my Middler year (even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to write one) and was persistent in her encouragement (perhaps too weak a word) that I finish this project when more than once I said things like “maybe this should just be an Independent Study…” Thank you for believing in me, and for creating room in your busy life and on this campus for a conversation about reshaping religion.

Equally deep gratitude to The Rev. Dr. Tilden Edwards, who came in late in the game to serve as my reader, and offered enough helpful insights and additional questions to turn this brief essay into a book should I ever take the notion! Thank you for serving as a gentle listener, friend in discernment, and voice of encouragement these past three years. Your compassionate wisdom has been an invaluable blessing.

And special gratitude and pranams to Swami Atmajnanananda and the Vedanta Center of Greater Washington, DC for hosting me on multiple occasions, offering (sacred) space and time away that were needed for this writing. Swami, not only did you share your food, but your shoes as well! May Thakur bless you always.

 

Contents

__________________

1          Setting the Scene and Self-Implication                                                                      1

 

2          Degrees of Dialogue                                                                                         5

 

3          Defining Multiple Belonging                                                                                 8

 

4          The Mystical Imperative                                                                                     15

 

5          Taking Sides: Constructivism and Essentialism                                                         21

 

6          Dealing with Doctrine                                                                                       25

 

7          Doctrine in Mystical Use                                                                                    30

 

8          Constructing Sacred Worlds                                                                                  40

 

9          Religions as Resources                                                                                      51

 

10        Whither Interspirituality?                                                                                   55

 

Bibliography                                                                                                           59

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Setting the Scene and Self-Implication

 

We live in a rapidly shifting religious landscape. The process of globalization has allowed religious and cultural interaction to happen on a never-before-seen scale, and with it, old ways of engaging religious and spiritual realities increasingly give way to new forms of identity, community, and practice. The formal meeting of religious traditions on the global stage began in earnest at the close of the 19th century with the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893, and serious dialogue attempting to better understand the phenomenon of religious diversity has been well underway ever since. Today, in the context of global pluralism, personally-encountered religious diversity is a simple fact of many of our lives.

This heightened degree of encounter has led to the increasingly common phenomenon of multiple religious belonging—that is, the phenomenon of individuals (or even whole communities) who find themselves called to stand in more than one religious tradition. The depth of this kind of multiple engagement runs a spectrum, from the Christian who flirts with Hindu yoga, to the Jew who has taken refuge in the Buddha and practices deeply in both traditions (or any of the countless other scenarios you might imagine). Detractors of this phenomenon argue that it is neither possible (with any degree of depth or authenticity), nor desirable (as it dishonors the integrity of individual traditions and denies the seeming incommensurability of their competing truth claims). We will explore these challenges in the pages ahead.

My own interest in multiple religious belonging grows out of my personal engagement with this reality. An ordained clergyperson of the Episcopal Church who has made a lifelong commitment to Christ, I have laying on the floor beside me a Muslim prayer rug, on which I prayed the morning fajr prayer in Arabic—as I do every morning—before sitting down to write these words. I am sitting at a desk in a guest room of the Vedanta Center of Greater Washington, DC, with images of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda overshadowing my work. This morning I also attended the daily puja, or worship ceremony, in the shrine room here. Tomorrow morning, I will don clerical shirt and collar to preach and proclaim the Christian gospel at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Bethesda, MD. These three traditions—Islam (specifically in its mystical tradition, Sufism), Vedanta (as expressed through the Ramakrishna Order), and Christianity (of the Anglican/Episcopal variety)—are sacred worlds that I move in, carry with me, and am carried within daily. This is not the traditional way of “doing” religion—participating so deeply in more than one tradition—and, as stated, many would see it as an invalid (or simply impossible) approach to religious observance. I hope to express here something of the “why” and “how” of such a religious life, and offer a vision of where the evolving spiritual landscape may be taking us today.

Academically, I situate this exploration within the emerging discipline of Spirituality Studies, which solidified as an academic field in the 1990s.[1] Sandra Schneiders identifies the formal and material objects of this field of study as lived faith and experience.[2] Mary Frohlich adds that it is not simply the study of experience, but of “the human spirit fully in act”; and for Frohlich, it is here that we approach the radically self-implicating nature of this field, because “We cannot know ‘the human spirit in act,’ except as the human spirit in act. We cannot recognize the constructed expressions that radically engage the human spirit except on the basis of our own radical engagement.”[3] There is no “academic” aloofness here regarding one’s subject matter, but rather a radical and risky willingness to “dive in” to the thing studied and be transformed. Jorge Ferrer agrees with this approach, arguing that “two of the most distinctive methodological features of the emerging discipline of Spirituality are self-implication and transformation.”[4] To study within the field of Spirituality is to personally engage the spiritual traditions explored.

While self-implication in academic study has traditionally been viewed as a contaminant to objectivity, there is a growing awareness that pure objectivity is impossible, and that it is far more desirable to be honest and critical regarding one’s own vantage point and experience. For Spirituality Studies, however, such transparency is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, for the discipline of Spirituality “is not only informative but transformative”—and the inner transformations of the scholar are themselves an object of the study. As Ferrer writes, “The artifacts of such a discipline are not just books, journal articles, conferences, and lectures, but the changing lives of both professors and their students, scholarly authors and their readers, clerics and religious communities.”[5] In this light, I implicate myself as a “multiple religious-belonger” and a participant in an internalized dialogue between three distinct spiritual traditions. I have been, and continue to be, personally, profoundly, and gratefully transformed by this work.

My own area of interest is largely in the mystical and contemplative dimensions of the traditions I engage, with their aim at the transformation of human consciousness. I am also informed by feminist and liberation theologies, which seek to free human beings (and the wider world) from oppressive structures in consciousness and society. The resulting contemplative-liberationist hermeneutic is concerned primarily with transformative and liberative praxis, and holds this as the normative criteria for evaluating religious and spiritual expressions. Because it is contemplative, it seeks the freedom and expansion of consciousness: negatively, releasing human beings from bondage to egoic and selfish impulses; positively, uniting us more deeply to the creative source of reality. Because it is liberationist, the desired transformation is not only inwardly-focused, but also deeply concerned with our bodies, communities, and the world. Contemplative is prioritized in the labeling, however, as inner transformation is held to be necessary for deep and authentic structural evolution to emerge. This approach to human flourishing can be labeled integral, as it is concerned both with the human depth/interior and our bodies and the world. Such a hermeneutical lens shuns reductionist and materialist accounts of existence and robustly affirms the reality of Spirit.

 

Chapter 2

Degrees of Dialogue

The question of multiple religious belonging relates directly to the growing field of inquiry that is the dialogue between religions. This dialogue happens at many levels: cultural, doctrinal, ritual, liturgical, textual, etc. Often all forms of dialogue are lumped under a single heading: interfaith. The result is a term that has become too general and vague to serve a helpful function, as it is often used in labeling groups that serve different and even cross-purposes. A finer pairing of terms will help immensely in understanding the current state of religious dialogue; to that end I offer three basic groupings: interfaith, interreligious, and interspiritual.

Interfaith signifies a very general kind of dialogue that happens between people of goodwill, sometimes ordained but often lay, from the various faith communities. Members in this dialogue seek to “get to know their neighbor,” learning the fundamentals of another’s faith, discussing key differences and areas of overlap, with the general focus of finding common ground. Basic doctrine and shared ethics are emphasized. Common activities for this dialogue are “interfaith dinners” and shared service projects. One of the best examples of this work is Eboo Patel’s “Interfaith Youth Core,” which brings young people from the various traditions together to unite against social ills.[6]

Interreligious specifies dialogue that happens significantly at the academic and intellectual levels, often among elites in centers of higher learning or ordained persons who have received formal religious education. This dialogue is multi-disciplinary, engaging the sociological, anthropological, theological, and historical-critical dimensions of faith reflection. It is capable of attending to a kind of minutiae (we might say “religious hair-splitting”) not generally found at the interfaith level. It is not, however, to be completely equated with the secular study of religion found in Religious Studies and Comparative Religion departments, as it remains primarily an encounter of faiths between people of faith. Examples of this include theologians such as John Hick and Diana Eck.[7]

Interspiritual refers to the dialogue happening primarily at the level of the contemplative traditions of the world’s religions. This approach is concerned more with spiritual practice and experience than dogmatic formulation (which it honors, but seeks to get behind). “How do you pray?” would be a more common question than “What do you believe?” For the contemplative, religious practice is aimed at direct, transformative experience of the ultimate reality posited by their tradition (in theistic terms, “union with God”), and the rational and intellectual dimensions of faith reflection are to some degree held as secondary. Examples of this model would include Bede Griffiths and Thomas Keating.[8] This dimension of dialogue is the one that will most interest our study, and with its emphasis on experience and transformation it is the paring that falls most clearly into the field of Spirituality.

Because the interspiritual dialogue is focused primarily within the arena of practice and experience, it makes possible a depth of conversation that is uncommon at the other levels. Br. Wayne Teasdale, the Roman Catholic monk who coined the term interspirituality intended it to signify such an opening to the interior of another tradition; he writes: “Interspirituality and intermysticism are the terms I have coined to designate the increasingly familiar phenomenon of cross-religious sharing of interior resources, the spiritual treasures of each tradition.”[9] For Teasdale, interspirituality was not merely about dialogue, but actual sharing between traditions. In his last book, he says more to the point: “Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions.”[10] Interspirituality, then, represents an especially vulnerable form of dialogue in which one actually opens herself, not only to the ideas held by another tradition, but to the actual experience of its lived spiritual reality.

We should also note that these three forms of dialogue—interfaith, interreligious, and interspiritual—are not self-contained; a single person may engage any or all, with varying degrees of involvement and commitment. Nevertheless, such categories serve as a helpful heuristic, delineating basic angles of approach. In the emerging phenomenon of multiple religious belonging, these dialogues, until now having happened between individuals, become internalized—that is, they happen within individuals. Buddhist and Christian, Hindu and Jew, become realities converging on the ground of a single soul. We might see this experience as the logical and inevitable spiritual outcome of the process of globalization; just as we may come to know and love many cuisines or languages, so too for religions.

 

Chapter 3

Defining Multiple Belonging

At what point do we cross the line from external dialogue with “the other” to an internal dialogue with ourselves? And perhaps more significantly, at what point does the experience of (or even respect for) multiple religious traditions cross over into multiple religious belonging? Drawing from the work of Catherine Cornille, we will explore a taxonomy of forms of multiple religious engagement, distinguishing those expressions which best reflect a reality that can be authentically called “multiple belonging.”

First of all, it is important to distinguish multiple religious belonging from the phenomenon of “New Age” spirituality. Cornille writes that

one of the most noted features of New Age religiosity is its openness toward all religious traditions and the freedom with which it combines beliefs and practices from mainly the Asian religions, the mystical strands of the monotheistic traditions, and various forms of Shamanism. This has led to the image of New Age as a form of religious bricolage or a religion of the supermarket.[11]

The image of “a religion of the supermarket” is one that I want to push back against in our approach to multiple belonging. While I do not seek to entirely invalidate New Age faith, I distinguish it sharply from multiple religious belonging, which, as we will see, involves a much greater degree of commitment and, often, struggle. Cornille incisively observes that, “[w]hile New Age religion may […] be regarded as a form of multiple religious belonging, it might be more appropriate to speak here of a complete absence of religious belonging.”[12] It is exactly this lack of belonging that most clearly distinguishes multiple-belongers from New Agers, with whom they are often uncritically lumped, being charged with an individualized, pick-and-choose-style faith (hence the pejoratives “cafeteria Catholics” and “buffet Buddhists”). Their project, however, is quite different.

So what constitutes multiple religious belonging as different from self-styled New Age spirituality? The primary difference is that multiple-belongers work within traditional religious systems—multiple ones. The New Ager is often involved in a solo-style spirituality, with no serious commitment to a traditional religious body and the community, ritual, texts, and practices that come in tow (this is not to say they have no community, ritual, etc.—but that when present they cannot be identified with any traditional religion in its fullness). The multiple-belonger, rather than working with no tradition or a single tradition, engages two or more, although this can be in varying degrees and levels of commitment. It is these shades or varieties of belonging to which we now turn.

A common and fairly simple form of multiple religious engagement “remains within the sphere of compatible or complementary beliefs and practices.”[13] Here we may find Christians who remain within the normative framework of their tradition, and yet “borrow” or take inspiration from elements of other traditions that do not directly conflict with their own. We might place in this category the Christian who uses Buddhist mindfulness techniques or practices yoga. These practitioners do not necessarily take on a second or hybrid identity.

A few steps further are those who actually claim two traditions, although when pushed it becomes clear that one’s first tradition remains the primary interpretive lens. This is the Christian who says “I am Buddhist and Christian”, while in actuality they “see” Buddhism through a “Christian” lens. For example, they might describe their “Buddhist” meditation practice as “resting in the presence of God”, although Buddhist meditation is itself non-theistic.

This type of belonging could go in the opposite direction as well—the new tradition becoming the primary interpretive lens for the original tradition. Such a person may practice within a Christian context, receive the Eucharist, and use the language of Christian doctrine. Their new tradition, however, (let us imagine that it is Hinduism) becomes the primary interpretive framework for understanding the rites and doctrines of the old. For example, they may understand the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation through the Hindu concept of avataras or the doctrine of creation in terms of maya. Cornille well describes this approach as “belonging to the symbolic and historical framework of one religion and the hermeneutical framework of another.”[14] She points out that these believers may not identify as belonging to two traditions (their identity is still with the first tradition), although they interpret their religious commitment through an alternative lens.

Cornille questions whether or not these approaches can be truly described as “multiple belonging” (she uses the phrase “double belonging”), offering another model that she sees as genuinely “double.” She describes it as

a genuinely intermediate position in which one tradition is normative in certain areas of belief and practice and another tradition in other areas. Buddhism may thus be believed to be true and normative in certain fundamental questions and Christianity in other, or one may submit to the absolute authority of a Buddhist teacher on some issues and to a Christian teacher on others. It is here that one might rightly speak of an experience of double religious belonging.[15]

What Cornille actually describes, however, is a situation that would more appropriately be called partial belonging to double traditions, rather than double belonging. In this situation, neither tradition is embraced in its fullness. None of the models so far explored are examples of what I would uphold as full or authentic multiple religious belonging. While acknowledging the sincerity and spiritual nourishment that may be involved in these approaches, I hope to offer a final model that avoids the pitfalls of both the New Age, pick-and-choose and partial or hybrid commitments.

As with any authentic life commitment, the multiple-belonger should evidence genuine engagement, honesty, and integrity in their work across traditions. Those entering into such a venture might ask some basic questions: Am I being honest about what I am doing? Am I deeply engaging both traditions? Am I honoring my own integrity and the integrity of the traditions which I engage? Am I open to new insights and transformation? To engage multiple traditions with maturity, we must come to know the sacred worlds that are being engaged as fully as possible, on their own terms. This requires not a partial commitment, but rather a deep commitment of the whole self, with all of accompanying contradictions and tensions that this may entail (we will explore this more fully below).

Raimon Panikkar, Roman Catholic priest and self-identified Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist, writes of the person who embarks on “the multireligious experience”:

She starts by making a real, heartfelt, unselfish effort—a bold and hazardous one—to understand the belief, the world, the archetypes, the culture, the mythical and conceptual background, the emotional and historical associations of her friends [in the new tradition] from the inside. In short, she seriously attempts an existential incarnation of herself into another world—which obviously involves prayer, initiation, study, and worship. […] It is not experimentation but a genuine experience undergone within one’s own faith.[16]

Such a person does all she can to truly understand the new tradition from the inside out—taking initiation and involving herself in the community, worship, study, and prayer of the second tradition, while also maintaining the similar requirements of her original tradition. As is obvious, this requires hard work, and it is not for everyone. Because of this, I place multiple belonging in the special category of vocation. It is essentially an act of faith, and one must be so called. Panikkar captures the vocational nature of such a venture beautifully:

I need hardly add that not everyone is called to such an undertaking, nor is everyone capable of it. Besides a particular cast of mind, it presupposes perhaps a special constellation in one’s character and background that enables one to undergo the experience without any taint of exoticism, exhibitionism, or simply unremitting intellectualism. In a word, we need a kind of connaturality to go through that venture in a genuine way.[17]

A person authentically living into such a vocation, Panikkar aptly observes, should not evidence exoticism or exhibitionism in the effort. It should be natural and organic to their journey, engaged for the sake of genuine calling, not to shock or sensationalize.

Different religious traditions, on the level of doctrine and historical formulation, are often contradictory, and the multiple-belonger must confront this reality head on, if they are to maintain honesty and integrity. They stand fully in both worlds, allowing the apparent contradictions, and often historic wounds inflicted by one tradition on the other, into their souls. Out of this tension, one waits for something creative and healing to emerge—which requires deep trust in the calling. An excellent example of this work is in the life of French Benedictine priest Henri Le Saux (later Swami Abhishiktananda, 1910-1973).[18] Throughout his later years, Le Saux maintained a deep commitment to his Roman Catholicism and to the Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta (actually living in India, where he founded a Roman Catholic ashram, and apprenticing himself to Hindu teachers). At times, the lived tension of these two traditions created deep anguish and conflict in his soul. Rather than attempting a facile reconciliation or the renunciation of one tradition for the other, Le Saux advised acceptance of the difficulty: “It is still best, I think, to hold, even in extreme tension, these two forms of a single ‘faith,’ until the dawn appears.”[19] New Age or partial-belongers cannot claim to live with such commitment.

Again, using language befitting our “vocational” model of multiple religious belonging, Le Saux writes:

It is precisely the fact of being a bridge that makes this uncomfortable situation worthwhile. The world, at every level, needs such bridges. The danger of this life as a ‘bridge’ is that we run the risk of not belonging to either side; whereas, however harrowing it may be, our duty is to belong wholly to both sides.[20]

It is this vision of fully belonging to both sides that I find best reflects authentic multiple religious belonging. It is only such a commitment that avoids the pitfalls of a pick-and-choose-style faith or a shallow engagement of another tradition that does not honor its integrity and wholeness. Because of this, such belonging is not for the spiritually dilettante. Cornille concludes that “multiple religious belonging always implies a certain holding back” and that it defies “the basic religious logic that those who wish to reap the most must also give the most.”[21] Quite the opposite, however, deep multiple belonging can be seen as requiring a greater giving, rather than a holding back—as is evidenced profoundly by the lives of multiple-belongers such as Le Saux. Certain detractors of multiple belonging use metaphors of promiscuity or infidelity to describe the venture, arguing that it points to a lack of commitment. Those who have lived it, however, often see these metaphors as inappropriate, preferring to speak of having two parents or two children, whom they love and are committed to equally.

Roman Catholic priest and educator Peter Phan writes of the work of multiple belonging as “a demanding vocation”, concluding that “[i]t is not unlike martyrdom. Ultimately it is not something one looks for or demands at will. Rather, it is a gift to be received in fear and trembling and in gratitude and joy.”[22] Indeed, for those so called, it is not only struggle and suffering, but a source of deep gratitude and joy. Perhaps this should be the final indicator of an authentic multiple belonging.

A deep belonging to multiple traditions would necessarily involve all three of the models of dialogue explored earlier—communal/social (interfaith), a deep intellectual understanding (interreligious), and intentional spiritual practice (interspiritual). It is those engaged in the interspiritual dialogue, however, who have often been most ready to internalize their work. Cornille writes, “it is perhaps no coincidence that the individuals who appear most often as examples of multiple religious belonging belong to the spiritual branches of the traditions.”[23] What Cornille calls the “spiritual branches” of the religions we might also name the contemplative or mystical dimension of the various traditions; to this we now turn.

 

Chapter 4

The Mystical Imperative

The contemplative or mystical dimension of these traditions, as we have seen, is that which is primarily concerned with spiritual practice and the transformation of consciousness. Anglican mystic and author Evelyn Underhill writes in her short treatise Practical Mysticism: “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality. The mystic is a person who has attained that union in greater or less degree; or who aims at and believes in such attainment.”[24] “Reality” stands in here as a circumlocution for what theistic traditions term God—the Ultimate Reality, Source, or Mystery from which life and cosmos spring. Different traditions conceive of this reality in different ways, some personally, others impersonally, but it is the ultimate isness from which all existence is derived. Whatever way they conceive it, the contemplative (I will use this term interchangeably with “mystic”) seeks conscious union with (or even extinction in) this primal Mystery, while still living in the body. It is the “while still living” that sets the mystic apart from others in their religious traditions, who imagine that such a state is only possible in an afterlife and is to be patiently waited upon. The mystic, however, turns to words such as those of the Prophet Muhammad, “Die before you die,”[25] or Saint Paul’s vision of Christian baptism, in which one is “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4) The old, egoic self dies and the mystic is raised—here and now—into the life of the world to come.

This is the vision to which the contemplative gives herself—the diminishment of the ego, the loss of the sense of a separate self, a life lived in union with God. As St. Paul proclaimed from that place of ecstatic union, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal. 2:20). The great Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj was martyred for a similar proclamation, “An al-Haqq!” or “I am Truth!” Heard from the level of the ego, such claims sound absurd—not to mention arrogant. But it is a claim that with any integrity can only be made by the most humble, those who have become empty so that only Reality is left to speak through them. As the strong walls of the egoic self begin to soften and dissolve, there is an increase in compassion; a newfound sensitivity to the single web of life of which we are a part (and simply are), expressing itself as open-hearted love and concern for the whole.

Whatever the reason—and the traditions propose many, from grace to good karma—certain individuals find that this longing for mystical union awakens within them. Women have told me about the awakening at a certain point in life of an internal, biological urge to give birth to a child that has taken over and driven them to reproduce. The motivation was powerful, unchosen, and seemingly irrational (it did not always “make sense” for their current station in life). Other friends have told me that such an imperative has never taken hold of them. I find this an apt comparison for the drive of the mystic. The whole thrust of the mystic’s life is determined by the overwhelming desire for union with Reality—be it conceived of as personal or impersonal, God or Ultimate Mystery. Meister Eckhart, the great Dominican mystic of the 13th century, writes of this irrational (in the best sense of the word—not limited by the rational mind) desire: “[I]f I am to know God without mediation […] then ‘I’ must become ‘he’, and ‘he’ must become ‘I’. More precisely I say: God must become me and I must become God, so entirely one that this ‘he’ and this ‘I’ become one ‘is’ and act in this ‘isness’ as one.”[26] The goal is total union, a state in which the painful “idolatry” of a separate existence gives way to “only God”—the moth is consumed in the flame.

I once spoke with a friend in the Sufi tradition about the intensity of this drive, and the chasm it can set between the mystic and those who seek to love and serve God in a more conventional way. “Ah yes,” he said, “there’s a difference between those who want to serve God, and those who want to be obliterated in God.

While we might want to qualify this language—recognizing that many oppressed persons struggle simply to be recognized as a self (making language of self-obliteration particularly difficult)—it captures perfectly the divide. There are those who want to walk with and serve their God, and those who want nothing less than to die into God, to be utterly taken by Reality.[27] Because of the disconnect between these two approaches, it is often the case that contemplatives find more in common with their kindred from other religions than they do with those in their own tradition who lack the mystical imperative (this may also name something of the “why” in Cornille’s observation that multiple belonging is more common—and perhaps easier—within the “spiritual branches” of the traditions). Nevertheless, while this profound drive for union with Reality may seem to be limited to a special class called “mystics,” those mystics themselves will often say that it is actually this single desire that lies behind all desires—that eventually we realize that only Reality itself can fulfill us. In this sense, then, everyone is already on the mystic journey.

The mystical or contemplative paths hold that there are ways of knowing available to the human being beyond the limits of the rational mind. They reject a Kantian epistemology which divides reality into experienced phenomena and unknowable noumenon (“reality in itself”). For Kant, the only means of knowledge available to the human mind comes through the senses and rational mind; this knowledge is inherently conditioned by our categories of understanding that overlay naked reality. Colin Gunton sums up Kant’s position well:

the dogma canonized by Immanuel Kant [was] that we do not experience things; rather, we shape the appearance of things into rational patterns which may or may not be true to reality. Even more insistent was Kant that there is nothing that can be called the knowledge of God, only an oblique positing of his existence on the basis of certain moral realities.[28]

The first half of this statement the mystic agrees with—we do typically experience the world through the limits of the senses, rational mind, and ego; to this she simply adds, “That’s not the whole picture.” The contemplative path posits a transrational mode of knowing that is capable of engaging the spiritual dimensions of existence, leading ultimately to “mystical union”—the experience of the oneness of Reality, or “things as they are” (a truth that is not achieved but realized, having always been the case). The second half of Gunton’s summation—“there is nothing that can be called the knowledge of God”—is rejected outright by the contemplative paths, which see such knowledge as their whole purpose.

Several of these traditions—varieties of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian mysticism, and Islamic Sufism—identify this deeper mode of knowing with an organ of spiritual perception they term the “heart.” Speaking with words almost representative across the traditions, contemporary Mevlevi Sufi shaykh Kabir Helminski writes:

We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities, intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative, and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification because they are operating best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection with the cosmic mind. This total mind we call “heart.”[29]

This “heart” is the spiritual microcosm at the center of one’s being. In Judeo-Christian parlance, it is identified with “the image of God” that resides within every human being. St. John Climacus, writing in the 7th century, described it this way: “God appears to the mind in the heart, at first as a flame purifying its lover, and then as a light which illumines the mind and renders it God-like.”[30] Expanding on this vision, Philotheus of Sinai wrote in the 9th century:

Let us go forward with the heart completely attentive and the soul fully conscious. For if attentiveness and prayer are daily joined together, they become like Elias’ fire-bearing chariot, raising us to heaven. What do I mean? A spiritual heaven, with sun, moon, and stars, is formed in the blessed heart of one who has reached a state of watchfulness, or who strives to attain it.[31]

In language strikingly similar to that of Philotheus, the Chandogya Upanishad, a Hindu scripture loosely dated to the mid-first millennium BCE, states:

There is this city of Brahman [the human body] and in it there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus, and within can be found a small space. This little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars; fire and lightning and wind are there, and all that now is and is not yet—all this is contained within it.[32]

Similarly, a hadith qudsi, or saying of God through the Prophet Muhammad, reads: “Heaven and earth contain me not, but the heart of my faithful servant contains me.”[33] This spiritual heart, according to the traditions, is capable of containing the whole of Reality; when cultivated it offers a radically different way of seeing. While the rational mind is inherently dualistic, cutting reality into parts and pieces that it can quantify and interpret, the heart sees nondualistically. “Nonduality” is a term derived from the Indian philosophical concept of advaita, literally “not” (a-) and “two” (dvaita). The advaitic vision holds that Reality—God and creation, self and other—is “not two”; that there is ultimately no separation within the field of existence.

While the logical conclusion might be that things are then “one,” advaitic thinkers are quick to point out that this “oneness” is not of the numerical variety, as in “less than two” but “more than zero.” Advaita points to a mysterious oneness that is “not one, not two,” a oneness expressed through, rather than overcome by, multiplicity. Another way of saying this is that God or Ultimate Reality is beyond the division of subject and object (while simultaneously expressing itself through this apparent division). “God” is not an object—one thing among other things—but rather the Unity of Reality itself. To “see with the eye of the heart” (a term used by Orthodox Christian tradition)[34] is to see unitively or with “nondual consciousness”—beyond the conditioning of the subject-object divide. Mystics within each of the traditions point to this unitive vision.

 

Chapter 5

Taking Sides: Constructivism and Essentialism

Here we must face two significantly different accounts of mystical experience: constructivist and essentialist claims. A purely constructivist account of mysticism argues that all mystical experience is mediated and conditioned, “a product of its historical, cultural, and religious context. […] There is nothing universal about mystical traditions, paths, or experiences—they are as varied as the contexts in which they occur.”[35] Such an account denies the possibility of mystics from different cultures and religious traditions having common experiences or shared, universal insights into the nature of Reality; mystical experiences are entirely constructed and contextual.

The opposing view, essentialism, holds that there is indeed similar and shared experience at the heart of the world’s mystical traditions, sourced in a common Reality, and, further, that at the “heights” of mystical experience, unmediated and unconditioned experience of Reality is entirely possible (if rarely experienced). Some degree of constructivism is not incompatible with essentialist claims; indeed the mystic of an essentialist bent recognizes that the majority of everyday experience is deeply conditioned and mediated by religion, culture, memory, emotion, etc. Their claim, however, is that de-conditioning is possible, and that such de-conditioning is actually the intent of contemplative practice. The deeper one goes into contemplative experience, the more “unmediated” and “unconditioned” (less ruled by the sense of ego and separation) one’s experience becomes. My own account is a qualified essentialist vision.

According to Randall Studstill (and in line with essentialist claims), “mystical paths may constitute means of breaking down the system of factors stabilizing ordinary dualistic consciousness, thereby ‘opening up’ the system (consciousness) and prompting its evolution toward ‘higher’ (more environmentally sensitive and adaptive) states of consciousness.”[36] This is what we have identified earlier as the movement towards “nondual consciousness” or “seeing with the eye of the heart.” The constructivist, however, argues that mystical practice is simply a reconditioning, within the categories posited by the mystical tradition at hand. Studstill sums up this position well: “[P]ractice shapes mystical experience in the same way that beliefs shape the experience: not by bringing about any kind of cognitive transformation or de-conditioning of consciousness, but by shaping experiential content or reinforcing the mediating effects of beliefs.”[37] The constructivist claim is dependent upon an a priori assumption that unmediated experience is impossible. Such a view says there is only conditioning, and above this truth an iron ceiling is hung.

Stephen Katz, who perhaps best represents a “hard” constructivist account of mystical experience, writes: “the question I tried to answer was: ‘Why are mystical experiences the experiences they are?’ And in order to begin to answer this query, I adopted as a working hypothesis the epistemic thesis that there are no pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences.” Mystical traditions, then, are analyzed (by constructivists) from a starting point that denies their own central claim: de-conditioning (direct experience of Reality) is possible. This closed starting-point prevents a free and unbiased analysis of the claims of the traditions studied and is rooted in the Kantian epistemology that denies the possibility of any noumenological experience. To honestly test mystical claims, however, we must have a willingness to at least entertain the possibility that the traditions speak a truth, and (with those in the discipline of Spirituality) to test that truth by engaging in the methods these traditions claim lead to its experience.

Studstill helpfully breaks down essentialist accounts of mysticism into four models: doctrinal, epistemological, cognitive, and therapeutic:

Doctrinal essentialism (more commonly, the perennial philosophy) maintains that all religions/mystical traditions teach a set of core doctrines. Epistemological essentialism asserts that all mystical experiences are oriented toward (and in some way, know) the same divine reality, which may or may not be experienced differently. Cognitive essentialism refers to the view that mystical doctrines and practices produce identical changes in cognitive/psychological functioning. Therapeutic (or soteriological) essentialism is an extension of cognitive essentialism—mystical paths not only initiate identical changes in the consciousness of mystics, but these changes are therapeutic or salvational in character. In other words, all mystical paths effect processes of transformation associated with greater knowledge of reality and enhanced psychological/affective well-being.[38]

He quickly points out that none of these forms of essentialism are mutually exclusive, and that, indeed, two or more are usually combined within a single framework. With these divisions in mind, the essentialist can more easily clarify their position and take into account certain constructivist critiques (for example, doctrinal essentialism might be rejected for a constructivist approach to dogma, while still maintaining therapeutic essentialism). Studstill posits his own “mystical pluralist thesis,” which combines therapeutic and epistemological essentialism. In this view,

[t]hough mystical doctrines and practices may be quite different across traditions, they nevertheless function in parallel ways—they disrupt the processes of mind that maintain ordinary, egocentric experience and induce a structural transformation of consciousness. The essentialist characteristic of this transformation is an increasingly sensitized awareness/knowledge of Reality that manifests as (among other things) an enhanced sense of emotional well-being, an expanded locus of concern engendering greater compassion for others, and enhanced capacity to creatively negotiate one’s environment, and a greater capacity for aesthetic appreciation.[39]

Such an approach conveniently bypasses conflicts in doctrine, focusing its essentialist claims in the realms of transformation and experience; in general, I agree, and place my own emphasis here. Before making this easy leap, however, I want to look more closely at the question of doctrine, angles of approach to the difficulty for the multiple-belonger, and finally, the function and meaning of doctrine within mystical tradition.

 

Chapter 6

Dealing with Doctrine

Often the greatest difficulty for those on the outside of multiple religious belonging is in understanding how multiple religious practitioners overcome the seemingly incommensurable truth claims of the various traditions. For example: Christianity claims that Jesus is the Incarnation of God the Son, the Second Person of a co-equal and co-eternal Trinity. Islam says that there is neither Incarnation nor Trinity, and that these doctrines promote idolatry and polytheism.

When such core doctrines are mutually incompatible, how can one claim to practice in both faiths? It would seem that to hold one is to necessarily renounce the other. There are two basic approaches to this quandary; in the first, the practitioner simply brackets the doctrinal conflicts. This (at least temporary) suspension of conflict allows for a sympathetic engagement with the second tradition on its own terms. The contemplative may say that these divergences exist primarily on the level of doctrinal formulation, and that their goal is to get behind words to experience. A good example of this approach is expressed in words from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, writing to the Sufi Muslim Abdul Aziz:

Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas. In the realm of realities we may have a great deal in common, whereas in words there are apt to be infinite subtleties and complexities which are beyond resolution. It is, however, important, I think, to try to understand the beliefs of other religions. But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light […]. It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.[40]

Merton gently side-steps the question of doctrine, pointing instead to the “realm of realities” beyond the words. Whether using Merton’s contemplative tack or not, in this approach the difficulty is simply placed in a “suspense account,” while the practitioner takes on the practices of the community and engages in its worship and devotion. Perhaps this mutual engagement will shed new light on the doctrinal disagreement that could not be arrived at through non-participant observation or intellectual engagement alone. This approach we might identify as a primarily “interspiritual” tactic.

In the second approach, falling more into the “interreligious” realm, the practitioner attempts to deconstruct the difficulties based on a critical romp through language, text, culture, and history. What, in their original contexts, were these doctrines attempting to say? What situations were they responding to? And how could they have misunderstood each other? For example, take the argument between Islam and Christianity over God’s “begetting” a son. The language of “begetting” carried over into Christianity from Judaism; we find it used of God’s appointment of David as king in the Psalms: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). Here it is obviously metaphorical language, not intended to be understood in a literal or biological sense. The same language also developed along philosophical lines within Judaism and Christianity to speak of “eternal divine emanations” (as seen in mystical texts like the Jewish Zohar).[41] In this latter sense, it became attached to the Christian doctrine of the “eternal generation” of the Logos or “Word” who is “begotten” eternally—outside of time and space—within the Godhead.

The Qur’an, however, rejects this language (Sura 112:3: “He begot no one nor was He begotten.”[42]), as it was heard anthropomorphically and biologically within the cultural-linguistic matrix of Arabic. Samuel Zinner observes that “this language could not have been integrated in an orthodox sense by the polytheistic Arabians of Muhammad’s time, so deeply ingrained in them was the notion of the quasi-physical nature of God having male and female offspring.”[43] Confronted with this, one might argue that what one tradition protests in the metaphor is not what the other tradition seeks to affirm, creating space for doctrinal renegotiation and fresh understanding (and bringing us to a position not unlike Merton’s: the bulk of the difficulty seems to exist at the level of language and culture).

Similarly, it has long been recognized that the conceptions of the Trinity denounced in the Qur’an are equally heretical for orthodox Christians. For example, Quran 5:73: “Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God.”[44] No orthodox Christian would say that God is the third of three, but rather that there is a dynamic “threeness” within God. In orthodox Christian doctrine, there is not “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit” but rather “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit”; this is “God-the-Three-in-One” not “God-the-One-of-Three.” That which one tradition rejects, when examined closely, is not actually that which the other affirms.

Likewise, Quran 5:116: “When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say…’”[45] In this ayah (verse) we see not only the divinization of Mary, but Mary and Jesus elevated as gods beside God. Such claims represent legitimate threats to monotheism for both Muslims and Christians. In light of the specific doctrinal rejections made by the Qur’an, many scholars have posited that the early Islamic community was primarily in dialogue with “heretical” Christian sects that were still active in seventh-century Arabia, creating fresh space for conversation between Christians and Muslims today.[46] Simple historical context can help peal back layers of misunderstanding that arise from scripture’s transposition into a new setting.

Such explorations into the formulation of doctrine begin to break down the hard lines with which we draw our doctrinal distinctions. We sometimes find that our religious traditions have been talking over and under each other; while they may not ultimately formulate their sacred worlds in the same way, their doctrines may not be as antagonistic as they initially appear. Entering through the interspiritual dialogue, which tends to prioritize experience over formulation, we will not be surprised.   As Lao Tzu, the fabled author of the Tao Te Ching wrote: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”[47] Or, in the words of Thomas Keating, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[48] The reality of God (and remember, says the contemplative, “God” is only a word which points to that Reality) can never be captured with language, because it is a reality that is ultimately beyond the grasp of the finite mind. Only the spiritual “heart” can gain such access, and the heart knows by unknowing.

Neither of these approaches, however—contemplative side-stepping and critical deconstruction—reveal what could be understood as a true “essentialism” in regards to doctrine in the mystical traditions. To this third approach we now turn, in search of a “mystical unity of doctrine” that will stand across traditions.

 

Chapter 7

Doctrine in Mystical Use

Let us maintain clarity that different religions teach different things: Krishna is one of countless incarnations or avataras of Ishvara (the personal dimension of the Godhead in Hinduism); Jesus is the single incarnation of God and once-for-all sacrifice for sins; Muhammad is the messenger and final prophet of God (of whom there can be no incarnation); the list goes on. These doctrines, quite simply, are different. They paint different pictures of reality, and often, at least on the surface, are mutually contradictory.   This would seem reason enough to reject doctrinal essentialism out-of-hand.

But if we wait just a moment, avoiding such a quick and easy dismissal, the interesting thing becomes, not these vastly different doctrines, but rather what the mystical traditions do with them. It is not in their immediate surface meaning that we will find any kind of doctrinal essentialism, but rather in the doctrines’ use by the mystics. That is, mystical traditions use diverse and divergent doctrines in similar ways; the essentialism is not actually in doctrine, but in doctrinal function. A key distinction made by Perennialists (adherents of the “perennial philosophy”—the group Studstill equates with “doctrinal essentialism”[49]) is held in the terms exoteric and esoteric. The prefixes exo- and eso- mean literally “outer” and “inner,” and exoteric and esoteric are used to refer to both two angles of doctrinal approach (outer or literal meaning vs. inner or mystical meaning) and two spiritual temperaments or dispositions. Huston Smith describes the difference in spiritual disposition thus:

Esoterics are persons whose key meanings are more abstract than are those of exoterics. “Abstract” here is not, however, opposed to concrete if the latter means that which is fully real. Or to be precise, for esoterics it is not thus opposed, this being precisely the divide. For esoterics, universals with their generality and “abstractness” are more real than are the particulars that embody them. For exoterics they are less real.[50]

Esoterics tend to “move out” from the particular to the universal—not, in doing so, abandoning the particular, but finding therein truths that are universal. Exoterics tend to focus in on what (for them) seems more concrete. Using Christianity as an example, Smith describes well how this relates to their different approaches to doctrine:

The distinction arises in Christianity—to cite the case closest to home—because theologically it can stabilize at a number of points along the concrete-to-“abstract” continuum. Where in fact it does “dig in” depends on the spiritual type (exoteric or esoteric) of the Christian in question. For the Disciples the focus was originally Jesus of Nazareth; later it became the Risen Christ. Still later Christ was identified as the Logos, while for certain mystics the Logos itself derives from the Godhead which exceeds it categorically. The meanings in these several specifications flow into and to some extent condition one another, but this does not alter the fact that minds differ in the point on the continuum where they find reality centering and from which, consequently, meaning ultimately derives.[51]

We see here in Christianity the movement from Christ as a “concrete,” historical person to a cosmic or universal Logos (“Word”). Traditional Christianity honors this entire spectrum of the Christ-reality; as Smith has it, however, the esoteric will tend to drift towards the “cosmic” end of the spectrum, seeing the historical Jesus as embodying and revealing a universally operative truth, while the exoteric will focus primarily on the historical Jesus (rather than the seemingly “abstract” Logos). To over-simplify: for the former, truth is defined by Jesus; for the latter, truth is confined to Jesus. Smith continues:

As theology works its way from particulars toward universals, from the specific toward the general, exoterics arrive earlier than esoterics at a point where they feel that meaning is becoming attenuated. Why attenuated? Because the longer the ladder of abstraction the shakier its grip on the ground from which meaning for exoterics rises: the terra firma of concrete particularity.[52]

This divide also represents the gap between dualistic and nondualistic approaches to spirituality. As Smith aptly puts it: “The test case is whether the soul is distinct from God.”[53] The exoteric Christian will be much more comfortable with a “me-and-Jesus” approach to the spiritual life; the esoteric will feel more at home in John of the Cross’ proclamation, “The center of the soul is God.”[54] Put another way: for the exoteric, to say “I am God” amounts to blasphemy; for the esoteric, saying “I have existence apart from God” is the arrogant claim.

These two basic approaches come with radically different (and sometimes entirely opposite) uses of doctrine. Comparing exoteric and esoteric readings of key doctrinal statements, we find that exoterics often hear exclusivity and particularity in exactly the same places where esoterics hear inclusivity and universality. Take, for example, the Islamic shahadah, or statement of faith: La ilaha illallah Muhammadan rasulallah (“There is no god but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger”). An exoteric interpretation of the statement “There is no god but God” might simply be “My God is the real God—and yours isn’t!” The Sufis, or mystics of Islam, however, hear this statement as resonating with multiple levels of meaning, one being “There is no reality but the Reality,” or, more simply “There is only God.” The first half of the phrase, la ilaha (“there is no god”), is understood as the negation of limited ideas and egoism (the unreal “gods” that drive the sense of separate self—greed, pride, vanity, etc.); the second half, illallah (“but/only God”) is understood as the affirmation that Divine Unity alone exists (nondual consciousness).

Lex Hixon, who served as Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi, a spiritual guide in the Halveti-Jerrahi tariqat (order), translates the essential meaning of the shahadah as: “Divine Unity alone exists and humanity is Its principle of Self-revelation.” [55] Here we see the esoteric universalizing tendency marvelously at work, especially in the latter half, where “Muhammad is God’s messenger” has become “humanity is Its principle of Self-revelation.” The particularity of the historical Muhammad is seen as the universal symbol for the whole of humanity. What exoterically might be heard to mean “Muhammad is God’s messenger and thus so-and-so is not” is heard instead with universal application.

Similarly, the great thirteenth-century Persian Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi wrote “The name of Muhammad is the name of all the Prophets.”[56] Muhammad, then, is not simply the name of a sectarian religious leader, but rather the inclusive name par excellence, embracing the messengers of every religion. Out of this understanding developed the concept of Nur Muhammadi or the “Muhammadan Light”—the light of prophecy that shines through every messenger.[57] A hadith qudsi, or saying of God through the Prophet Muhammad, relates “If not for you, O Muhammad, I would not have created the worlds”; Muhammad, then, is understood not only as the name of all prophets, but the essential name or cause of the entire creation. This development is strikingly similar to the Christian doctrine of the Logos, who was “in the beginning” and “through whom all things were made” (John 1:1-3).

Sufism holds that there are four basic levels of spiritual development (similar “maps” charting the movement from egocentricity to mystical union can be found across the traditions[58]), and that at each stage doctrine will be heard differently. Sharia, the level of religious law, holds the basic, exoteric meaning of religion; tariqa, the Sufi orders, is the path of the heart and the entry point into the mystic way; haqiqa is Reality, the pathless path of Oneness; and marifa is integrative gnosis, the union of all levels.[59] When I asked my own guide in this tradition, a Turkish shaykha (female teacher) in the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, about the meaning of Muhammadan rasulallah, she responded:

La ilaha illallah is affirmation of Unity, Muhammadan Rasulallah is affirmation of Humanity.  Through this affirmation in its fullness of transcendence and immanence, the primordial hiddenness of Allah reveals Itself to Its Own beloved Light, the Essential Light of Guidance. La ilaha illallah is the Truth, Muhammadan Rasulallah is the Love. […] Muhammadan Rasulallah is the Love-Light in our hearts, in all hearts.  When we say Muhammad, on the first Sharia/Sacred Law level, we mean the historic Muhammad; on Tariqa/Sacred Love level, it is Muhammad as Muhammad appears to each and every being in their own heart; on Haqiqa/Union level, Muhammad is experienced as the pure light of our souls; and on Marifa/Gnosis level, Muhammad is seen as the light of all creation, all around, total unity consciousness.  Our makam/station in this way determines what we mean when we say Muhammadan Rasulallah.[60]

At each level of spiritual consciousness, the doctrine—“Muhammad is the messenger of God”—is interpreted differently—taking on an increasingly deepening meaning that serves ultimately as a signifier for nondual oneness. For an exoteric Muslim, to say that “Muhammad” refers to “the light of all creation” or “total unity consciousness” would sound nonsensical, and utterly removed from the actual meaning of the name. In Smith’s words, at this point the meaning has become far too attenuated, a long slide away from the particularity of the seventh-century Arabian prophet; for the esoteric, this simply is the essence of Muhammad and his teaching.

We see a similar division in understanding among Christians. Take, for example, John 14:6, the classic proof-text for exclusivist Christian theologies: “Jesus said to him [the apostle Thomas], ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For the exoteric, this is heard to mean that without knowledge (and acceptance) of Jesus and the Christian religion, salvation is impossible. The esoteric, however, remembers that John has introduced Jesus as the embodiment of the universal Logos, “the light of all people” (John 1:4) and it is this voice that they hear speaking, not simply a limited, historical personality. In this vein, Fr. John-Julian Swanson, OJN interprets this passage: “He is the Way—that is, any human way to God is Christ. He is the Truth—that is, every truth is Christ. He is the Life—that is, every life is Christ. There is no way to the Father except through the Christ, so all ways to the Father are also Christ, even when that is not overtly stated.”[61] Again, in typical mystical fashion, the particular is universalized, just where the exoteric would expect to make their greatest case for exclusivity.

This ability to take seemingly particular doctrines and melt them down until they become pointers to pure oneness is not unique to the Sufi or Christian mystical paths; it is rather representative of the mystical handling of doctrine in general. The mystics’ reading of doctrinal content is ultimately subversive, dissolving (quite happily) the very ground on which they stand. This undermining, and ultimate relinquishment, of doctrine is generally held by mystical traditions to be a necessary step in spiritual realization. For example, the classical Christian tradition divides prayer into two general categories: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic prayer is prayer with content; that is, it is intellectual, affective, discursive; made up of thoughts, feelings, words, and concepts. Apophatic prayer is prayer without content; simple emptying; the letting go of all thoughts, feelings, words, and concepts.

Fr. Thomas Keating, a Roman Catholic monk and teacher of Centering Prayer, an apophatic Christian prayer form, makes it quite clear that everything is to be let go of during the period of prayer—even seemingly divine intrusions: “If the Blessed Virgin herself should appear to you during prayer time and offer to pluck that wound from your flesh, the answer is ‘Not now, Dearie, I’m doing my Centering Prayer.’”[62] Such an approach would sound shocking to the exoteric, whose prayer is typically made up solely of kataphatic means, always dependent on content. Similarly, in the Hindu path of jnana yoga, one practices viveka, or discrimination, continually negating all phenomena with the words “neti, neti” (“not this, not this”), pushing beyond anything temporal or finite to pure Reality alone.[63] It is only in this utter letting go—even of the most sacred visions and doctrine, say the mystics—that Reality can be experienced directly, free of all construct and mediation. When this shift occurs, however, everything previously negated is seen in new light: that which had veiled naked Reality is simply its expression—there is only the One dancing as the Many.

When a mystical tradition so obviously subverts its own framework, the constructivist account of mystical experience—that all experience is shaped by conceptual content and cultural and religious context—seems lacking. The mystical traditions themselves are designed to deconstruct the trappings in which they exist, viewing both their doctrines and practices primarily as tools to serve this complete giving up of self to Reality. The constructivist account is helpful, however, in understanding the differences in mystical experience up to the unmediated or unconditioned, for up to this point we are indeed working with concepts conveyed through religion, language, and culture. Even so, epistemological essentialism would hold that these mediated mystical experiences are nevertheless experiences of actual realities that are then interpreted through (not simply constructed by) our specific cultural, religious, and linguistic lenses.

I will illustrate with an example from my own experience. During a period of Sufi zikr (literally “remembrance”—a spiritual discipline that involves the recitation of Divine Names), I had an overwhelming experience of the whole of reality (note the lowercase ‘r’) as the universal Muhammad longing for Allah—every atom of existence was penetrated with the desire for union, the whole creation nothing more than the Divine Beloved (“If not for you, O Muhammad, I would not have created the worlds”) longing for the Divine Lover. Because of my formation within Hinduism, however, as I sat with/in this universal longing, the concept which mediated it shifted—now it was the play of Radha-Krishna, the longing of the inseparable divine consorts. Now Muhammad-Allah, now Radha-Krishna, now simply nameless Love longing for nameless Love. Was this experience of universal longing during contemplative practice an encounter with an actual dimension of reality? Was this the Desire that lies behind all desires? I will not claim so profound a knowledge! Whatever the case, the same experience was mediated or interpreted (within a single person) through different conceptual lenses, each belonging to different (and differently constructed) religious worlds.

Both of these mediations—the Muslim and the Hindu—“flavoured” or “filtered” the experience in slightly different ways. It seems to me, however, that there was nevertheless a single experience within my consciousness that was being refracted or mediated in different ways, without losing its essential qualities of longing and love in either setting. Epistemological essentialism would say that these kinds of interpretive lenses make up for much of the reported differences within mystical experience, the one Reality (or aspects of it) being mediated through our own religious thought-categories (and simply our individual human-being). Historically, much of humanity has had only one set of religious thought-categories through which to interpret an experience, as religions and religious identity have so often been contained by geographic, cultural, and political realities and understood in largely exclusive terms. The situation of the contemporary multiple religious-belonger represents a unique opportunity to refract a single encounter or experience through a plurality of lenses (perhaps something similar can be said of the multilingual), opening up new avenues of interspiritual understanding.

Doctrine, then, while perhaps utterly disparate from one religion to the next at the “exoteric” level, we nevertheless find functioning in strikingly similar ways within the more “esoteric” dimensions of the traditions. At this deeper level, we might compare the different doctrinal systems to elaborate pieces of stained glass, each window uniquely coloring the light of oneness to which they point and serve to reveal. While each window expresses a different pattern, each also serves the same function—to let in the light. Such an approach in no way diminishes the uniqueness and even contrary nature of the individual “windows” at the exoteric level—they relate to different histories, cultures, beliefs, and trajectories of development. And yet the mystic is concerned primarily with the light that is shining through them.

This account takes an essentialist position at three significant junctures: its view of mystical knowing—a “seeing with the eye of the heart” that perceives the deep unity of existence (epistemological essentialism); the transformed character of the mystic—a shift away from egocentricity and towards compassionate action (therapeutic essentialism); and the similarities in doctrinal usage across mystical traditions—a “melting down” of doctrine which serves to point towards oneness (doctrinal functional essentialism).

 

Chapter 8

Constructing Sacred Worlds

Frithjof Schuon, one of the chief representatives of Perennialist thought, argued for “the transcendent unity of religions”—the key word being transcendent. For Schuon, and very similar to my argument, at their exoteric “base” each religion is quite distinct in both ritual and dogma; it is only at the esoteric “summit” that any significant convergence or unity is to be found. For the classical Perennialists, however, each “orthodox” religion is a divinely initiated project of salvation, a complete system given by “Heaven” for a particular time, place, and people.[64] This degree of essentialism I find untenable, unwilling as it is to incorporate into its account the best of modern anthropology, sociology, textual criticism, etc. I instead welcome a constructivist account of the evolution of religions that situates each tradition within the context of our wider human and historical unfolding. Each religion is inextricably linked to humanity’s own evolution and our developing understanding of divinity, the natural world, and our inter-relationship with these realities.

The “sacred world” of a religion is the universe seen through the metaphysical lens by which that religion interprets and gives meaning to reality. This “world-making” typically takes place around a central, defining event; for example, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; the enlightenment and teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha; or the twenty-three year revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. These historical moments become the epicenter for the formation of a new sacred world. As those who walk these paths (then and now) reflect on the significance of the original revelatory event, they enter into a relationship of meaning-making, and out from the center of that original teaching or revelation, they begin to construct a sacred world (or, perhaps more accurately, a sacred world begins to organically emerge).

In the words of Peter Berger, “Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. Put differently, religion is cosmization in a sacred mode.”[65] Berger recognizes a unique relationship of the human organism to its “world,” which is much more open and creative than that of other species. The non-human animal, he writes:

enters the world with highly specialized and firmly directed drives. As a result, it lives in a world that is more or less completely determined by its instinctual structure. This world is closed in terms of its possibilities, programmed, as it were, by the animal’s own constitution. Consequently, each animal lives in an environment that is specific to its particular species. There is a mouse-world, a dog-world, a horse-world, and so forth. By contrast, man’s instinctual structure at birth is both underspecialized and undirected toward a species-specific environment. There is no man-world in the above sense. Man’s world is imperfectly programmed by his own constitution. It is an open world. That is, it is a world that must be fashioned by man’s own activity.[66]

This “world-making” is “always and inevitably a collective enterprise”[67] and includes the creation of culture, religion, and societal norms, which we then enter into a reciprocal, or dialectic, relationship with—we shape our worlds and our worlds shape (both serve and limit) us.

As evidenced by our diverse religious bodies, this world-making takes many different forms. According to Berger, “Whatever the historical variations, the tendency is for the meanings of the humanly constructed order to be projected into the universe as such.”[68] That is, we take our given sacred world to be the world; our projected world of meaning becomes for us coextensive and coterminous with “things as they are.” Today, however, in an era of religious diversity unlike any before, the “inter-encounters” (interfaith, interreligious, and interspiritual) are shaking up this assumption on a massive scale. As we experience other sacred worlds, we begin to realize the possibility of the relativity, incorrectness, or incompleteness of our own—an initially often frightening experience. It is an encounter that, at the extremes, will lead to either a fundamentalist entrenchment of current boundaries and a demonization of the other, or to the relaxing or relativizing of boundaries, creating permeability between worlds and the opportunity for erasure, renegotiation, and recreation of lines. Here, the interspiritual dialogue is especially significant, as contemplative experience offers the possibility of moving to a level of experience deeper than our constructed realities; a conscious union with the “open ground” from which all sacred worlds arise, and thus a freedom and confidence to shape reality anew.

Aloysius Pieris, a Jesuit priest active in the internal dialogue between Buddhist and Christian traditions, suggests that there are three essential dimensions to any religious tradition (and that dialogue can happen between traditions at all three levels). These are 1) core experience (essentially what I have pointed to above as the initial revelatory event; we might even say the contemplative or mystical life of the tradition’s “founder”), 2) collective memory, which “enables the core experience to be transmitted to future generations,” and 3) interpretation, which “makes the core experience meaningful and accessible in given historical contexts.”[69] In the context of the dialogue categories presented earlier, we might find resonance between core experience and interspirituality, collective memory and interfaith engagement, and interpretation and interreligious study.

Seeing the “construction” or “growth” of the traditions within the light of these categories, it becomes clear that any tradition is an organic project, as memory extends and interpretation is reshaped in light of ever-changing contexts. The situation we find ourselves in today—the context of globalization, pluralism, and personally-encountered religious diversity—presents an opportunity to re-set the continually remembered and reinterpreted core experience of each tradition within the context of a religious world with no boundaries (in futurist Linda Groff’s words, we are in an age of “boundary meltdown”[70]). The removal of hard-and-fast boundaries, however, is not to say the traditions must lose their distinction and difference; it is rather to allow their various spiritual possibilities to exist alongside each other in mutual recognition and with the absence of antagonism.

Each sacred world represents one among a potentially infinite number of ways in which humanity can orient and anchor itself within the universe. Each sacred world looks out on Reality from a given vantage point or perspective. From a nondual or unitive understanding, however, Reality itself is non-perspectival; that is, it has no viewpoint.  It is the infinite field of awareness in which all angles of vision are held.  Reality in itself (Kant’s noumenon) cannot be spoken, named, or even experienced, as it is beyond all division into subject and object.  It simply is. It is from within this field that all possibilities emerge or arise.  Reality is not anti-perspectival.  It holds all perspectives, allowing for a plurality of possible sacred worlds to evolve. The contemplative, through cultivating the spiritual heart, is able to see the oneness behind all arising phenomena which unites all sacred worlds (even though on the relative plane they may hold competing or contradictory theories and angles of vision).

Jorge Ferrer writes, “To the modern mind, the plurality of religious worlds raises a perplexing dilemma: How to account for such important differences when most of these traditions are claiming to depict universal and ultimate truths about existence?” He presents two extremes among the responses to this quandary: at one end are materialistic and scientifically-oriented “nonreligionist” scholars who regard “religions as cultural fabrications that, like art pieces or culinary dishes, can be extremely diverse and even personally edifying but never the bearers of any ‘objective’ truth whatsoever.”[71] At the other end are the “religionist” scholars who maintain either “exclusivist” or “universalist” frameworks for understanding religious truths. Universalist approaches to the religions, according to Ferrer, tend to suffer from one major drawback:

Despite their professed inclusivist stance, most universalist visions of human spirituality tend to distort the essential message of the various religious traditions, hierarchically favoring certain spiritual paths over others and raising various obstacles for interreligious dialogue, open-ended spiritual inquiry, and social harmony.[72]

For example, a universalist operating within a Christian framework may seek to rank and then fit within their overarching Christian vision the spiritual truths and values of other traditions—rather than presenting or appreciating these other visions on their own terms. A noble example of this is found in the work of Roman Catholic scholar Peter Phan, who attempts to validate the experience of multiple religious belonging within an ultimately Christian framework. For Phan, the Christ-event remains “the climax of God’s plan of salvation” and “Christ is uniquely constitutive of salvation.”[73] Phan, however, still sees the possibility of a reciprocal relationship between Christianity and other religions in which “the process of complementation, enrichment, and even correction is two-way” (making multiple belonging a worthwhile experiment). The catch: the relationship, though reciprocal and complementary, is assymetrical; to put it crudely, Christianity still “comes out on top.” Phan is essentially attempting to find a way in which the epicenter of his own sacred world can remain central, while still validating other religious systems—essentially incorporating them into his larger Christian map (which is actually enriched and enhanced in the process).

Attempting an alternative to such forms of universalism, Ferrer posits that “human spirituality emerges from cocreative participation in an always dynamic and undetermined mystery, spiritual power, and/or creative energy of life or reality.”[74] This “participatory understanding not only makes universal hierarchical rankings of religious traditions appear misconceived, but also reestablishes our direct connection with the source of our being and expands the range of valid spiritual choices that we as individuals can make.”[75] In this participatory understanding, there is “a multiplicity of transconceptual disclosures of reality”[76]—and thus different spiritual goals and absolutes among the different traditions. According to Ferrer:

if rather than resulting from the access and visionary representation of a pregiven reality, spiritual knowledge is cocreatively enacted, then spiritual truths need no longer be conceived as “conflicting.” Divergent truth claims are conflicting only if they intend to represent or convey the nature of a single referent with determined features. But if we see such a spiritual referent as malleable, undetermined, and creatively open to a multiplicity of disclosures largely contingent upon human religious endeavors, then the reasons for conflict vanish like a mirage.[77]

This is a noble attempt on the part of Ferrer to dissolve antagonisms between traditions by simply removing the idea of “a single [absolute] referent with determined features” to which the traditions are pointing, replacing it instead with “a spiritual referent [that is] malleable, undetermined, and creatively open to a multiplicity of disclosures.”[78] He intends to place himself in tension with the classical Perennialist account, which argues for a single “transconceptual disclosure of reality” which reveals “things as they really are” (making it then possible to hierarchically rank various spiritual truths around this single, absolute truth). Ferrer creates more tension between these two accounts than necessary, however, for the “absolute” posited by the Perennialists is the transconceptual, nondual Mystery itself. As nondual Reality, we cannot speak of it as a “referent” (let alone one with “determined features”), for it is not an object, but rather that from which the subject-object division arises; it has no “features,” but is rather that in which all features are held.

Ferrer’s argument depends on the possibility of a “multiplicity of transconceptual disclosures of reality,” but this term is somewhat confused. The thrust of the Perennialist view is that beyond concept, we arrive at things “as they really are,” beyond conditioning. Multiplicity arises out of differentiation and conceptualization—there cannot be a multiplicity beyond these, for they are the very conditions that allow multiplicity to arise. Ferrer seems to mistake the nondual Reality of the Perennialists for a “referent” (which it can never be). In reality, Ferrer’s “malleable mystery” seems to be much closer to the Perennialist’s nondual, which is not a “ready-made” or “pregiven” reality, but rather that from which all reality emerges (and is one with and expressive of). To push for a “transconceptual multiplicity” is pointless, for the nondual is that which includes both oneness and multiplicity (“not one, not two”).

A more helpful shift would be to cease thinking of the nondual as an “Absolute” (identified with the experience of “oneness” or what-have-you). It is this particular identification that, I suspect, has pushed Ferrer towards his chosen languaging. When speaking of an “Absolute,” it does indeed sound as if we are pointing to a given referent, and perhaps a particular experience or “disclosure” (such as “oneness”). The nondual, however, is that which includes both “absolute” and “relative”—it is the whole mystery of existence, not a particular state or dimension within it. A favorite metaphor of Hindu wisdom has been to see the manifest world as “the Absolute playing hide-and-seek as the relative.” In such a set-up, the “Absolute” is given spiritual precedence over the “relative.” What if, instead (or in addition), we also saw the relative playing hide-and-seek as the Absolute, with no priority placed in the relationship? There is now no hierarchical ranking in experience; rather, these two (absolute and relative, oneness and many-ness) represent a wheel of experience within the one nondual Mystery. The experience of “oneness” or the “Absolute,” however, is a point on the wheel of Reality, awakened to through spiritual discipline, seen with “the eye of the heart,” and accompanied by a compassionate shift in action and personal being. This possibility will be enacted in slightly different ways through the various traditions; for those who witness its stabilized presence in another being, it will “look” and “feel” differently, in relation to the individual personality and tradition through which it is being manifest.

As for Ferrer’s “multiplicity of transconceptual disclosures of reality,” I would prefer to drop the term “transconceptual,” instead seeing a “multiplicity of disclosures of Reality.” These disclosures are the infinite possibilities participatorily enacted within the nondual Mystery. The nondual itself, however, cannot be “disclosed” (or “nondisclosed”!), but rather simply is (both transcending and including all concepts). The possibility of a multiplicity of enacted spiritual realities allows for sacred worlds that are in tension, but this need not mean antagonism. For example, the Jewish and Islamic spiritual realities eschew monasticism—seeing it as practically blasphemous—for an integrated spiritual life grounded in family, business, and generally-speaking “life in the world”; strands of the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual realities, however, uplift the monastic ideal and the eventual renunciation of sex, marriage, and business. Rather than hierarchically rank these two paths, seeing one or the other as flawed or inferior, a participatory vision allows for each of these approaches to authentically enact a potentiality within the one Mystery that can only be disclosed through commitment to the path taken. The spiritual realization attained as the end goal of each path is an authentic, non-hierarchically valued enactment of the Mystery. Because of this, it is not inappropriate for the traditions themselves to eschew the paths or practices taken up by each other, as their commitment to the realization of a single vantage point or perspective requires singular focus. The other paths are inferior within the context of the realization or spiritual possibility they seek to enact, because the other paths fail to enact their unique spiritual possibility—but this “inferiority” is relative to each sacred world.

Seeing each religious “core” as enacting/initiating a different spiritual possibility within the infinite context of the one Mystery, there is no longer a need to try and find a way to “fit” the epicenter of another sacred world into one’s own sacred world in neat (and hierarchical) relation to its central event (à la Phan). The sacred worlds become relativized one to another; therefore it is appropriate to say that Christ is the “climax of history” or the “unique savior” within the context of the Christian sacred world. A world of meaning that reads history through this central, defining lens has emerged from the Christ-event and enacts a specific religious universe with its own unique spiritual possibilities. Acknowledging that other “universes” can emerge within the one Mystery and orient themselves around different defining events allows the possibility of dissolving antagonisms between traditions, which are now seen as absolute within themselves, but relative to one another.

Such an approach bypasses the over-simplification of “all paths lead to the same goal,” and also avoids ranking the spiritual realizations of the different traditions hierarchically. In the words of comparative religion scholar Lex Hixon:

Religious traditions do not “say the same thing in different languages.” They each say something unique. Nor do the spiritual exercises of the various traditions “lead to the same ultimate experience.” Enlightened persons from different streams of spiritual practice do not readily agree on the nature of realization. Each enlightenment is a unique flowering of truth. Pluralism goes right down to the root; it is radical pluralism. All spiritual practices are independent currents or tides in one planetary ocean. The Gulf Stream is not equivalent to or interchangeable with some current in the Indian Ocean or some tide along the coast of Japan.[79]

 

With Hixon, I concur that the traditions do not necessarily “lead to the same ultimate experience,” but add that beyond “experience” (which is dependent on the subject-object division), they are all held within the same nondual Reality. At the same time, because these spiritual realities are participatorily enacted within the one nondual Mystery, and because manifest reality is open-ended (we belong to an evolving, rather than a static, universe), it is possible to enact new sacred worlds—as was the case in the birth of each of the existing sacred worlds. These existing religious universes are not static, isolated, or monolithic realities, but rather dynamic, participatory processes, continually being remolded around their core experiences. The religions have never been hermetically sealed from one another, nor have they reached crystallized, unchangeable expressions. From the earliest, we find what we might call “syncretism” within the great traditions: Christianity, a blending of Jewish and Greco-Roman thought; Zen, an East Asian merging of Buddhism and Taoism; Judaism, the interaction between early Israelite religion and Babylonian influence; etc. There are, then, no “pure” traditions. Realizing this, it becomes possible for us to participatorily reshape the spiritual landscape, and this is exactly what we see happening in the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging—entirely new possibilities are being enacted, born from the creative tension and interaction of multiple traditions.

 

Chapter 9

Religions as Resources

Much of the opposition to such reshaping comes from an understanding of the religious traditions as pure, reified, and unchanging. But a quick view of history reveals that this has never been the case. The difficulty, in part, relates directly to our definition of religion. Michele Voss Roberts observes that the “perception of multiple religious belonging as inherently problematic derives in part from the genealogies of religion with the modern academy.”[80] The most restrictive definition, she observes, “reduces religion to doctrinal systems […]. On this account, religions are mutually incompatible if they do not articulate the same truth statements in the same way.”[81] She then rightfully observes that many religious systems “do not fit easily into the mold of propositional systems.”[82] Citing Jan Van Bragt, she points to the easy blending of Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism in traditional Japanese society, where these systems “‘[have] tended to be experienced not as a matter of objective truth and obligation but as a subjective matter, something one could have recourse to,’ in various circumstances of life, death, and morality.”[83] Here we see a model of religious traditions, not in competition, but coexisting as spiritual resources.

A movement towards understanding religious traditions primarily as the shared spiritual resources of humanity, rather than competing doctrinal systems, allows for a significant shift towards healing and cooperation. As diverse resources, the different teachings and practices of the various traditions will better speak to different circumstances, spiritual needs, and temperaments. In my own experience, the “resource model” is useful in understanding my pull towards multiple traditions; the various “tools” each tradition offers work to reveal different dimensions of both God and myself that I would not have known by using a single instrument alone. In some cases, a ritual or practice from another tradition seems better suited to my particular spiritual temperament than the practices available in my original tradition. For example, I am incredibly at home in the ecstatic chant and movement of Sufi worship, which opens me to a contemplative depth that the staid worship of my Anglican Christianity typically does not. Understood as a spiritual resource available within the human family, rather than the limited possession of a bounded religious world, I can avail myself of Sufi practices and not feel that I am in some way “cheating” on my other religious commitments (anymore than using an ankle brace is cheating on my allergy medicine!). At the same time, it is important to know the religious world from which each practice has emerged, engaging also in the interfaith and interreligious dimensions of the encounter, not entering only through the door of interspiritual engagement. These other dimensions are necessary for the fullest understanding, honoring, and integration of a practice into one’s life.

A concern expressed by many spiritual teachers, even those with a deep commitment to religious pluralism, has been that working among multiple traditions leads to a shallow spiritual skimming that never reaches any transformative depth. “You have to dig one well deep to get to water,” the advice goes. “You can honor other religions, but if you want to go deep, you must choose one path and commit.” There is certainly a legitimate risk here: when someone hits a bump in the spiritual road or grows uncomfortable, she drops her practice and runs to another tradition, truly flitting about and never putting down roots. This is not, however, the necessary outcome of a journey that engages multiple traditions and practices, if walked with seriousness and commitment. A friend who is a swami in the Ramakrishna Vedanta tradition summed it up for me this way: “There’s a difference in digging fifteen shallow wells, and using fifteen tools to dig one well.” The horizontal span involved in a path of multiple belonging—which can bring healing, creativity, and expansion to the religious landscape—need not result in shallowing skimming, but can be used to serve a single, vertical deepening.

Voss Roberts suggests moving away from metaphors that envision religions as “plants that begin with a single seed-disseminating specimen,” in exchange for that of the rhizome, “underground tubers that propagate horizontally through offshoots and thickenings of their nodes.”[84] The rhizome offers “a paradigm of connection, heterogeneity, and multiplicity, in contrast to the ordered and dichotomous logic of the ‘root-tree.’”[85] Seeing the growth of religious traditions and sacred worlds in light of the rhizome opens up a model for growth in new, interesting, and surprising directions. Specifically, “it helps us imagine persons as nodes in a rhizomatic generation of religious subjects in which no single center definitively determines identity.” This speaks directly to our contemporary interspiritual landscape and the reality of multiple religious-belonger, who actively engages multiple religious “cores.”

In the Christian tradition, St. Paul describes life “in Christ” using the metaphor of a single body with many members, each contributing to and necessary for the whole (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Likewise, he says “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (I Cor. 12:4). Understanding our religious traditions as various members of a single body of humanity, each can be seen as holding various gifts or resources—specific truths, emphases, and practices—for the world.

Such an understanding allows for a theological sea change away from models of religion rooted in conflict and competition towards a vision based on cooperation and complementarity.  The unique emphases of each tradition are seen as mutually enriching, together offering a fuller picture of “the body of Reality.” For example, while Advaita Vedanta articulates clear and explicit teachings on nonduality, it can be lacking in insight into the significance of the manifest world; Sufism, however, offers profound teachings on creation and embodiment and can serve as an important balancing force. By introducing such creative tensions and “balancing acts,” interspirituality and multiple religious belonging offer the possibility of enacting new spiritual paths that are both more integral and more deeply resonant with individual spiritual temperaments and journeys.

 

Chapter 10

Whither Interspirituality?

So where are we going? I begin with a personal encounter: I was recently invited to a conversation on interspirituality that brought together five young religious leaders—myself, a rabbinical student with deep connections to Vedanta, a Colombian woman from a Roman Catholic background with experience in yogic and shamanic traditions, and a young couple coming out of the Emergent Church experience; a professor and translator of Christian mystical classics, herself Jewish, and personally steeped in several traditions; and the organizers, a couple committed to furthering interspiritual emergence with primary roots in Christianity and Hinduism. Every morning our group would gather in a circle for silent contemplative practice. Before everyone arrived, I entered the space early to pray salaat, the ritual Islamic body-prayer, moving through a series of bows and prostrations. I was joined by the rabbinical student, who prayed his Jewish morning prayers, swaying with prayer shawl and tefillin. As the others arrived, we moved into a circle in the center of the room, and set for a half hour of practice. I was aware that, in the silence, one woman was engaged in a Christian Centering Prayer practice; another used a meditation form taught by her Hindu guide; the rabbinical student was visualizing the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton; and I gave myself to Sufi zikr, inwardly chanting Arabic names of God.

All of these practices and more were woven together in a single space, each working towards the enactment of a unique spiritual possibility, and all of them together enacting a completely new reality—the meeting of sacred worlds, within a single space, even within single souls, without hostility, all held deeply in friendship and love. A new spiritual landscape was being formed in our midst, in our consciousness—a beautiful garden where many rivers flowed into one. Those moments of morning prayer spoke to me more deeply than any words of the place where the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging and interspirituality can carry us should we cultivate it.

Much of humanity currently lives within a narrative based on “the clash of civilizations,” and the threat of nuclear war and deepening religious and national tribalization are profoundly alive. At the same time, we also live with an increasing awareness of our global interdependence and the possibility to tell a new story. Increasingly we know that we belong to a global ecosystem as members of a global species. We are aware that our actions impact the whole and that there is truly no separation within the web of manifest existence. Science in its various fields pushes us towards greater and greater recognition of this reality—from quantum physics, revealing the deep unity and interconnection at the most subtle levels of matter; to evolutionary biology, uncovering life’s common origins, informing us that all of the planet’s immense biodiversity represents a single unfolding process of life. Whatever our religious tradition (or lack thereof), it is becoming more and more difficult to deny that in some deep way, we are one.

The increasingly conscious recognition that the reality in which we participate is an expression of “oneness-in-diversity” has an inevitable impact on religious consciousness. The mystics of our world religions have long intuited such a oneness in contemplative awareness, aided by their practices of prayer and meditation. The great revolution today is in this unity’s recognition, not only by the transrational consciousness of the mystic, but by the rational consciousness of the scientist as well. Ways of knowing are converging upon a shared truth, recognized at different levels of awareness and thus different dimensions of reality. The unity discovered within our ecosystem by environmentalists is the unity discovered in the quantum depths by physicists is the unity discovered in consciousness by mystics.

The evolutionary thrust today is toward increasingly conscious expression of the truth of oneness within the manifest dimensions of existence. As this ever-present, underlying truth is brought into conscious expression at the level of the human community, we see it accompanied by a re-visioning and re-expression of religious truth and structures. This process, like all evolution, is a gradual one. Since entering the age of globalization, however, religious traditions have entered into serious encounter—at first between individuals, and now within individuals, opening humanity to the realities of multiple religious belonging and interspirituality. Multiple and interspiritual religious identities are working to stretch the religions from within, allowing for profoundly increased understanding across traditions, as well as the possibility of “cross-pollination” and creative re-formulation and re-expression. The result is expressions of the original traditions that carry new openness and fresh edges, as well as entirely new “non-traditions” that carry the traditional wisdom forward free of the former labels or limits.

At the moment, this work is in its initial phases, leaving much of humanity caught in a fairly awkward evolutionary moment—the old religious forms no longer fit our new awareness, while the new religious forms don’t yet exist. The wisdom of Jesus comes to mind: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22). Now is a time of crafting new wine skins. Aware that we are a single humanity, we are also becoming aware that the religious wisdom of humanity is our shared spiritual heritage; all of it belongs to all of us. However much some members of the human family may attempt to maintain ghettoized expressions of the religious traditions, such fragmented realities are simply no longer reflective of the humanity that we are becoming—they are “old wineskins.” What deep multiple engagement and belonging allows for is the possibility of a healing and re-expression that is truer to, and expressive of, the emerging reality—wineskins expansive and flexible enough to carry new vision.

If our sacred worlds are truly participatory enactments of Reality, it is our duty now to enact new worlds that honor the oneness-in-multiplicity that we are coming to know ourselves to be. With the precarious situation of our planet and a profound awareness of our interconnection, we cannot afford to do otherwise. It is our time to tell a new story, to write a new religious narrative big enough to contain all of our previous narratives. We can take our direction from the great mystical traditions that have always pointed to this oneness, without forfeiting their histories, practices, or profound core experiences. We can carry our unique cores and possibilities forward, setting them within a beautiful garden that is both one and many.

 

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[1] Jorge Ferrer, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (State University of New York Press, 2007), 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] See Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007), which chronicles Patel’s own spiritual journey and the building of the Interfaith Youth Core.

[7] For examples of their work see John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) and Diana Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003).

[8] See Netanel Miles-Yepez, The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue (Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books, 2006), which explores the work of the Snowmass Interspiritual Dialogue Conference initiated by Fr. Thomas Keating in 1984.

[9] Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999), 10.

[10] Wayne Teasdale, A Monk in the World (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002), 63.

[11] Catherine Cornille, “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 44.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Ibid., 47.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Raimon Panikkar, The Intra-religious Dialogue (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), 50.

[17] Ibid.

[18] For a full account of Le Saux’s life see Shirley Du Boulay, The Cave of the Heart: The Life of Swami Abhishiktananda (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005).

[19] Peter Phan, “Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church,” Theological Studies 64 (2003), 513.

[20] James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), 213.

[21] Catherine Cornille, “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (University of Hawaii Press, 2003), 49.

[22] Peter Phan, “Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church,” Theological Studies 64 (2003), 519.

[23] Catherine Cornille, Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 5.

[24] Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (Columbus, OH: Ariel Press, 1988), 1.

[25] Omid Safi, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 168.

[26] Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1994), 238.

[27] This “death” is a giving up of the egoic or limited self, not a subservient or weak stance that would submit to oppression; in fact, the freedom that comes with such a death may actually embolden one to stand more strongly against injustice. For an exploration of the connections between mysticism and justice see Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001).

[28] Ian Markham, Understanding Christian Doctrine (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 57.

[29] Kabir Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (New York: Putnam/Jeremy Tarcher, 1992), 157.

[30] “Orthodox Mysticism: Teachings of the Desert Fathers,” accessed Saturday, August 20, 2011, http://www.orthodox.cn/patristics/apostolicfathers/mystic.htm

[31] The Institute for Applied Meditation, “The Christian Origin of Heart Rhythm Meditation,” accessed April, 10, 2012, http://www.appliedmeditation.org/About_IAM/christianity.php

[32] Pascaline Coff, “Man, Monk, Mystic,” accessed April, 9, 2012, http://www.bedegriffiths.com/bede-griffiths/

[33] E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi of Rumi (Evinity Publishing Inc, 2009), Kindle Edition.

[34] Hierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers (Greece: Birth of Theotokos Monastery, 2005).

[35] Randall Studstill, The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism, (Boston: Brill, 2005), 4.

[36] Ibid., 13.

[37] Ibid., 41.

[38] Ibid., 4.

[39] Ibid., 5-6.

[40] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), 54.

[41] Samuel Zinner, Christianity and Islam: Essays on Ontology and Archetype (London, UK: The Matheson Trust, 2010), 94.

[42] M. A. S Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 444.

[43] Samuel Zinner, Christianity and Islam: Essays on Ontology and Archetype (London, UK: The Matheson Trust, 2010), 94.

[44] M. A. S Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 75.

[45] Ibid., 79.

[46] Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur’an in Its Historical Context (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), 112.

[47] Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Tao Te Ching (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 3.

[48] Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2006), 90.

[49] To be fair, I would say that classical Perennialism draws on all four of Studstill’s categories and that its “doctrinal essentialism” is focused primarily on mystical doctrine.

[50] Huston Smith, “Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendent Unity of Religions: Pro,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44/4 (1974), 721.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., 721.

[53] Ibid., 722.

[54] Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychologist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 2004), 39.

[55] Lex Hixon, Atom from the Sun of Knowledge (New York, NY: Pir Press, 1993), 17.

[56] R. A. Nicholson, Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi: Volume I (Gibb Memorial Trust, 1990), 62.

[57] Samuel Zinner, Christianity and Islam: Essays on Ontology and Archetype (London, UK: The Matheson Trust, 2010), 95.

[58] Compare, for example, the seven levels of the nafs, or self, within Sufism to the seven “mansions” in Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. See Kabir Helminksi, The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2000) and Mirabai Starr, The Interior Castle (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2003).

[59] See Lex Hixon, Atom from the Sun of Knowledge (New York, NY: Pir Press, 1993), 2-4. Compare these four levels to Ramakrishna’s understanding of the place of dvaita (dualism), vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism), and advaita (nondualism) in a continuum (the vijnani similarly representing the integrative level of marifa). For an introduction to Vedantic thought within the Ramakrishna Order, see Swami Atmarupananda, Vedanta: A Religion, A Philosophy, A Way of Life (Hollywood, CA: Vedanta Press, 2010).

[60] Aysegul Erdal, e-mail message to author, August 3, 2010.

[61] Swanson, Fr. John-Julian Swanson, “The Mystical Christ,” last modified November 8, 2006, http://frjakestopstheworld.blogspot.com/2006/11/mystical-christ.html

[62] Cynthia Bourgeault, “Mystical Experience or Unitive Seeing?,” December 20, 2009, http://www.spiritualpaths.net/mystical-experience-or-unitive-seeing-by-cynthia-bourgeault/

[63] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 29.

[64] See Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1953).

[65] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1967), 26.

[66] Ibid., 5.

[67] Ibid., 7.

[68] Ibid., 25.

[69] Devaka Premawardhana, “The Unremarkable Hybrid: Aloysius Pieris and the Redundancy of Multiple Religious Belonging,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 46/1 (2011): 76-101.

[70] Wayne Teasdale, A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 174.

[71] Jorge Ferrer, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 135.

[72] Ibid., 135-136.

[73] Peter Phan, “Multiple Religious Belonging: Opportunities and Challenges for Theology and Church,” Theological Studies 64 (2003), 502.

[74] Jorge Ferrer, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 136.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid., 139.

[77] Ibid., 149.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Lex Hixon, “Nondual Polytheistic Pluralism,” Loka 2 (1976), accessed on February 10, 2012, http://www.lexhixon.org/simplesite/pressloka2.html

[80] Michelle Voss Roberts, “Religious Belonging and the Multiple,” Journal of Feminist Studies 26/1(2010), 53.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid., 59.

[85] Ibid.