During college, I lived in Japan for a year. It was a wonderful experience. My homestay family lived in a massive apartment complex outside of Kyoto--row after row of big white towers.
A friend and I decided we would try make it to Mt Fuji over a long weekend in October. Other Westerners we knew had had luck hitchhiking around Japan, so we thought we give it a try. Never mind that Kyoto to Fuji is roughly the same distance as the Springs to Amarillo, Texas: the train was expensive, we were broke, and Japan was considered a pretty safe place to hitch.
We got a late start; it was a miserable, rainy evening. Our first ride didn't take us far, and after hours of standing by the side of the highway--cold, wet, and tired--we called it quits and bought train tickets home. A couple of hours later, exhausted and disappointed, I walked up the short flight of stairs to my family’s apartment. Thankfully the door was unlocked so I didn’t have to dig through my gear for the key. I put down my pack, took off my jacket and shoes. The apartment seemed different somehow--different art on the walls, a lot of strange jackets on the hooks by the door. The door to the dining room was closed, sounds of conversation and laughter floated out. I felt a bit hurt. I go away for a few days and they redecorate and have a party--nice. Disgruntled, I headed for my room. I slid open the door and immediately noticed that my futon was in a different place, and all my stuff was gone. By now I was more than a little upset and getting angry. I then noticed the startled, and somewhat frightened-looking, teenager sitting at a desk in the corner. I asked him who he was, where my stuff was, why he was here. He stammered something, but it didn’t matter as realization was slowly dawning. I apologized and left—quickly. I had, of course, walked into the wrong building. Everything had looked the same. The walls, the windows, the doors, all were in the same place—but the details were different and that was what mattered and what I, in my exhaustion and desire to be home, had missed.
Now I’m sure we all have stories of missing the trees for the forest. But why did I make such a silly mistake? I relied too heavily on the large structures that were the same and ignored the details that should have made it clear I was not actually home—and I want us to avoid walking into other people's theological homes and assuming they're ours.
Now, as a minister, strangers and friends routinely talk to me about religion. A friend back in Boston had made a comment that I had heard many times about how all the world's religions are at their core, the same. She asserted that the mystics say that they are. She felt that they "had to be the same." She wanted to see mystical experience as something that connects all of us, all religions, across culture and time. My response to her became this sermon.
My friend isn’t alone in her feelings about religion. We’ve all heard the metaphors: many paths up the same mountain, different waves upon a single ocean. The late Rev. Forrest Church, in his excellent intro to Unitarian-Universalism, A Chosen Faith, uses the image of various windows in a cathedral—one building, one sun, but different patterns shine through the stained glass—these varying patterns of light are the various expressions of the divine we call the world’s religions. These metaphors and analogies resonate with us. They seem intuitive and speak to our desire for unity. But metaphors are appealing specifically because they take complex ideas and transform them into homey, accessible images. The map is not, as they say, the territory. We have to ask ourselves where these metaphors come from and whether they actually reflect reality or simply our wishes—not just for unity, but for simplification of an increasingly complex world.
Let's look at mysticism for a moment as an example of how these matters aren't as simple as they seem. I'm going to borrow a former colleague's definition of Mysticism as “the experience or feeling of union or communion with some kind of ultimate reality.” But does having a basic definition, a common set of characteristics, mean all mystical experiences are the same? Remember, we don't want to get confused by the large structures and miss the details that tell us we aren't actually home.
Traditional Jewish mystical experience usually describes a journey to heaven or a vision of the divine chariot and throne. A Jewish mystic learns the various prayers and meditations that will guide him safely past the angels guarding the heavenly palaces, he prepares to see the strange beasts that pull the chariot. He does not have experiences that lead him to believe that he has no soul, has lived many lifetimes, and is essentially one with the universe. He wouldn’t think these were a weird mystical experience; he would think something had gone terribly wrong. But, Jewish mystics, as I said, don’t have those kinds of experiences. Buddhists, on the other hand, do, and would be just as distressed to have experiences involving angels, divine chariots, eternal souls, or supreme beings.
Mystical experiences tend to happen to people of deep faith and long practice. They almost always conform to cultural norms and expectations. They confirm belief systems instead of blending them. Indeed they are among the most specific of religious experiences. Hindus don't have visions of Jesus, Buddhists don't experience the trickster Coyote leading them to their totem animal.
So maybe mysticism isn't a good basis for comparison or unity—what about other elements of religion? Concepts of the afterlife—heaven and reincarnation are pretty different; one god, many gods, no god; individual soul, universal soul, no soul. Even conceptions of time itself can be exact opposites. Is time purely linear or does it run in cycles? What controls our lives—God, Karma, blind chance? In each case, we see over and over how specific religions are. Sure, you can say all the details are just centuries of culture and myth, but what do you actually get when you strip away all the particular, peculiar traits that makes Buddhism Buddhism and Judaism Judaism.
A lot of these points of comparison don't really work all that well if you take seriously a tradition's claims for itself. We might want to ask why we try to make all these faiths match up in the first place. Why do we seek for these commonalities? What do we think we can do once we discover them? What do we hope to get out of studying other religions?
To answer these questions we have to think about inheritance. In this case what we have inherited are Enlightenment-era attitudes toward religion. The Enlightenment saw the rapid ascension of reason over faith during the 18th century. Inspired by a growing confidence in science and human capacity, liberal thought blossomed. The philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the spirit of the time in the short phrase, "Dare to think." The Enlightenment was a product of its historical circumstances and grew out of the many decades of political turmoil and terrible, religiously-inspired conflicts following the Protestant Reformation. Conflicts like The Thirty Years War saw almost a third of Europe’s population dead by their end—almost seven million people.
The suffering and terror of the wars of religions as well as growing religious diversity deeply influenced the Enlightenment thinkers. Many of them came to believe that traditional religions were just an inevitable source of strife and a tool of those in power to control the masses—which, I might add, is a not uncommon view among modern UU's. We are, perhaps more than any other religious tradition, children of the Enlightenment.
Philosophers of the era sought to separate "natural religion" from "revealed religion." By "natural religion" they meant something akin to what people now call "spirituality," whereas "revealed religion" had the negative connotations now summed up in "organized religion." Spirituality suggests personal belief, a lack of dogma or structure, authentic experience. Organized religion brings to mind ritual, hierarchy, dogmatic theology, priests in big stone buildings, maybe nuns with rulers for some of you. One represents all that supposedly is good, intuitive, and natural about religion; the other all the political and power issues that accumulate on top of "true" spirituality. Nowadays, you can find many folks who say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” That is a phrase and sentiment born out of the Enlightenment.
Natural religion, to them, was not only more authentic, but was also seen as reducing the potential for conflict by focusing on what they thought to be the essential elements of true religion. If this core, this essence of religion could be substituted for the divisive rigid structure of various dogmatic sects then people could live in harmony. The religion that was safe for the public sphere was that which everyone could agree upon. This sounds pretty good—leave off all the problematic, divisive, conflict-producing junk that has accumulated on top of the pure religious drive of the rational human being. Again, sounds like us.
One catch, of course, is that most of the people doing the thinking I’ve been describing were some form of Christian. With that in mind let's rethink those descriptions of "natural" religion—a focus on individual belief, dismissal of empty ritual and mediating priestly figures, use rational thought to understand true religion. Sounds a lot like the Protestantism we all know and, in some ways, all participate in. As they say, "in America, even the Jews are Protestants." (And I guess being here this morning, I’m living proof.) It's easy to come up with a core of religion, if most people in the room are more or less the same religion. Think of how easily most Protestants move between denominations—grew up Baptist, went to Methodist church in college, now Presbyterian cause the church is close. It gets harder as you go out in the wider world—and yet we tend to carry our categories with us. I'm reminded of the true story about a theologian who visits Japan. He observes an elaborate Shinto ritual and then asks the Shinto priest to explain their theology. The priest thinks for a moment and then says, “we don't have theology, we dance.” We look for the large structures that are familiar and miss the details that tell us this isn't our home. These attitudes about what constitutes “religion” may not be ours by choice, but they are deeply woven in the American culture, and perhaps are even stronger elements in the warp and woof of our UU history.
As we know many of the founders of this country were Unitarian or Deists and were deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophy—Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Adams: theological ancestors to us all.
You can see this Enlightenment, Deist heritage clearly in our founding document--the Declaration of Independence.
When in the Course of Human Events [human events—not god’s plan], it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them [notice the separation of the "laws of nature" and of "nature’s god"—the space between god and the natural world—not god’s laws.] , a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
Basically that says if you are going to break up with someone, you should give them a reason. The next part are some of the most beautiful and important sentences in history.
WE hold these Truths to be self-evident [self-evident—no need of a priest or a king or a revealed piece of scripture-we can see this for ourselves]. That all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights [rights not derived again from some musty tome of antiquated church canon—directly from God], that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed [again from human powers, not divine or royal]
We are a country deeply influenced by the Enlightenment. So we have this Enlightenment inheritance—a desire for explanation, a faith in human reason and the authority of individual conscience, a quest for essences or core characteristics. How do we wind up spending this inheritance?
One place is how we understand religion. We tend to follow our Enlightenment forebears in looking for an essential strand in the various religions, and our inheritance encourages us to look at individual beliefs, personal interpretation and rational philosophy and to want to discard what we see as extraneous—ritual, hierarchy, dogma. We unintentionally look for what is, more or less, Protestant in what we look at—and in the process strip away what we don't consider essential.
The Enlightenment was an amazing time in human history. Modern political theory grew out of it—concepts of human rights, democratic governments, separation of church and state. All wonderful contributions to our modern consciousness and to our liberal faith. But like all philosophies, movements, theologies, groups and individuals—there are blind spots.
We go to the Other looking to find ourselves—too often using other traditions as mirrors showing us what we want and expect to see. We tend to carry with us the general Enlightenment view that rational “men” come to similar conclusions—a possibility perhaps, if by multicultural you mean Unitarians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and maybe a few Quakers to shake things up a bit. The founders of this country, even with often brilliant foresight, could not have imagined the scope of the cultural and spiritual diversity which we face. With this diversity it becomes even more important to be aware of our own prejudices and motivations. We see more and more that there are different rationalities, different ways of being.
There are, of course, similarities and even commonalities, between religious traditions. Do religions function in similar ways in different cultures? Sure. Are there common structures in different religions? Yes. Are there family resemblances in related religions? Of course. Do religions address common human experiences? Yeah. But even given all that, the world's great religious traditions are not the same, they're not even the same internally and yet we treat them like vast monolithic structures. An American Buddhist in Boulder has very little in common with a Buddhist farmer in Sri Lanka. And if we're honest, a modern Unitarian Universalist has significant differences from the Unitarians and Universalists of the past.
I read once that human beings can be reduced to around three pounds of calcium, 27 pounds of carbon, maybe 10 gallons of water and a handful of other chemicals. All of us in this room share this basic structure. We are united by these core facts—we are, in this, the same. But knowing we have this in common, reducing us in this way doesn’t seem to move us very far-intellectually or spiritually. It doesn’t tell me how Einstein is different than Stalin is different from my wife Julia or from Tim Oliver or Diane McRae, or anyone. I don’t want to know how we are all the same. I want to know how each of you is unique. Focusing on what is similar can lead to a sort of tunnel vision. We look for what we expect to see and miss far too much.
As we spend the coming months together—exploring, learning, engaging these other religions, I hope we can be aware of the assumptions we bring. Too often we reduce other traditions to what we want from them. We treat the traditions like a Chinese menu—we take a dish from column A, another from column B, and we cobble together a meal that isn't all that nutritious though it's easy and tastes good. As Roger said last week, one of our goals is to hear stories of how other people have “seen the rabbit.” We want to try to really understand not what we can take from Buddhism, but why someone dedicates themselves to being Buddhist, or Muslim, or Wiccan, or, God forbid, Christian. If we are to be agents of understanding, we have to first understand. Knowing and embracing that our understanding will be limited, incomplete. We want to know not how they're like us, but how they are truly unique, different, even mysterious. Our aim this year to see the rabbit, and resist the temptation to make a stew of it.
At our best, Unitarian Universalism is growing into a new and unique religion. Finding our own wisdom and practices, inspired by the world's traditions and our history. On our less good days, we can sometimes have a sense that we know better than other folks, right? We see through the illusion and self-deception of orthodox religions. We know that their religions aren't “true” in some sense—we look past their superstitions to see the wisdom behind the story. We can take their rituals and practices, combine, adjust and rearrange them and make them our own. Doesn't sound very attractive? Ask yourselves hard questions this year. What is important? Is it being on the same mountain, or is it being on a path? What are we really interested in---the calcium, carbon and water—or the living breathing faith that inspires our friends and neighbors?
We shouldn't be too seduced by similarities—they're comfortable and easy, but they also tend to be weak and simple—incapable of doing the heavy lifting of actual compassion and action, of understanding and spiritual practice, of love and the challenge of relationship. Finding the similarities is easy, easy to feel comfortable with, easy to understand. But it is in genuine engagement with the Other where we learn, where we take risks, and where we demonstrate our liberal faith.