In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote: “We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. In fact, I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I created.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
Ergo: Experience is the starting point, theology is the outcome.
Why is that important? Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
Hunger for Direct Experiences
Today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more. With this in mind, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer. According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, we are constantly reaching out to people and offering them our services. As one would expect, we get mixed responses. I’ve personally been surprised by one repeated response that I had not anticipated. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen it coming.
Here is what the gist of the response sounds like: “We are in complete harmony with each other here at the [church, temple, synagogue, spiritual center] and would welcome any and all to come and be with us. We see no need to engage in interfaith efforts at this time.” Reading between the lines, one can interpret the response this way: “We are okay. It’s them, not us.”
Maybe that is at the heart of the problem. No one thinks that they are to blame. Few are willing to accept responsibility and try to bridge divides. Think about it. Liberals think that conservatives are to blame for the ill will that exists between them, and Conservatives think Liberals are to blame. Christians think that Muslims are to blame and vice versa. The list goes on. Even interfaith activists think that those who refuse to participate are to blame.
We Are All Involved
In his interreligious principles, Dr. Leonard J. Swidler, points out that those who engage in interfaith dialogue need to be, “minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.”
Human beings have a tendency to place other human beings on a pedestal. We look for examples of perfection and hold them up in contrast with the fallibility of the rest of us. Perfection is the ideal, the aspiration, the pinnacle. We long for it. And yet, more often than not, it turns out to be a mirage, a form of wishful thinking.
It's a story as old as time. A portrait of perfection is toppled when someone gets close enough to the person in question to see the truth (which is that some people are better than others, but none of us are truly perfect or infallible). An old Indian aphorism exemplifies this when it tells us that spiritual masters are like fire. If you are too far away, you get no heat. If you come too close, you get burned.
For most of us, if not all, perfection is not in the cards. But progress is. And we can all strive to be better.
Why Choose Progress?
Encouraging people to choose progress over perfection has become a staple in psychology, especially in cognitive behavioral therapy. In his landmark book, Feeling Good, one of the pioneers of CBT, David D. Burns wrote:
“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”
Happier and more productive. That sounds like a recipe for creating harmony from within.
Setting Ourselves Up for Failure
If this is true about individuals, isn’t it doubly true about groups? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure by aiming for perfect interactions or expecting too much from each other?
In fields such as interfaith work, community bridge building and social harmony, we cannot allow ourselves to be tempted by perfection. If we are expecting flawlessness, we will fail to see progress. For example:
In my line work, I am fortunate enough to cross paths with great people that are doing important work all around the globe, from South Africa to Great Britain, Canada to India, Texas to Minneapolis, and beyond.
All the people I communicate with at this level are working actively towards social harmony. For one reason or another, they have realized that social harmony is the cornerstone of society. Instead of seeing it as something nice or pleasant, they see it as imperative, in the same category as food, roads, education, and healthcare.
Seeing the Shadow or Being Whipped
An ancient parable tells us that a wise horse moves when he sees the shadow of the whip, while a foolish horse needs to be whipped every step of the way. The people I work with have seen the shadow that social discord is creating.
Last summer, I facilitated a course with nearly three hundred people from over twenty countries. More than half of them attended the course because they recognized the signs of division and acrimony as potentially dangerous. All of them wanted to learn strategies to push against the forces of friction and work towards social harmony.
Sadly, many in the larger population refuse to see the shadows of the ‘whips’ that are being cast all around them. Like the foolish horse, they are waiting for the whip to crack on their backside before they move a muscle. By then it may be too late.
We are told not to talk about ideological differences. Look at where that has gotten us. We are more ideologically divided than ever before. Maybe we should reconsider? These are important topics worthy of conversation. For example, when we discuss politics, we are debating what kind of society we want to live in, and when we discuss religion, we are speaking of personal values and spiritual inclinations.
If we want to have civil discussions, we need to make a distinction between two competing elements that are found within each human being. Equipped with that understanding, we can practice talking to each other rather than talking at each other.
Human and Ideological Personas
The idea of the two personas—which is central to our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative and was originally presented by Padraig O’Malley who took part in the Northern Ireland peace process—explains the distinction we need to make if we want to have meaningful discussions. According to O’Malley, each human being is a mix of two personas. One is human the other ideological.
Interfaith is about creating harmony between people who profess to different faiths and ideologies. Interspirituality is an exploration of mystical traditions and experiences. Interfaith is for everyone. Interspirituality is not. Allow me to explain.
The Need to Feel Safe
Most people want to live in a peaceful society. They want to be able to go about their business without feeling marginalized, being discriminated against, or having to stay alert because of threats of violence.
However, because we live in a pluralistic and diverse society where people have different views and ideologies, there are those among us who do not feel that way. Because this need to feel safe is always present, it is important for all groups to get to know each other, to be around each other, to feel safe in each other’s presence—to inter-mingle.
My experience with interfaith events over the past few years has been exactly this. People of all faiths and different backgrounds come together, not to agree on ideologies or theologies, but rather to appreciate each other’s humanity. After each event, I have walked away with a feeling of calm and a certain degree of elation because I have witnessed cordial personal interactions in a larger societal context that feels much more divisive.
Working Towards a Peaceful Society
Interfaith should be for everyone* who wants to work towards a more peaceful society. As the name implies, interfaith should include all faiths, but we also need to include those who stand outside of organized religion, including humanists, secularists, those who prefer to label themselves spiritual-but-nonreligious, and everyone in between.
Does religion equal division? It is a seemingly easy question to answer. From observing the news on any given day, most people would answer yes, religion does divide. Any number of conflicts around the world can be attributed to religious differences and modern political rhetoric is using religion to pit people against each other.
The same can be said when we look back at history. Religious differences seem to be at the root of many conflicts. The dividing aspects are easy to amplify. “I believe this, you believe that and that is why we are different. In fact, your beliefs so offend me that I am willing to take up arms against you.”
Those who place religion at the center of most conflicts use this rhetoric.
Religion Itself May Not Be the Cause
Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, maintained the position that most wars have been fought over lands and resources, been mired in tribal history (as in, “your tribe did this to my tribe many years ago, that is why we fight”), or been instigated by power hungry individuals who used religion to fan the flames of war. In short, divisive people cause division with divisive rhetoric and actions, sometimes under the guise of religion.
Can religious division be explained away like that? It’s probably too simplistic, even if there is truth to it. Religion can’t be exempt when it comes to divisiveness.
Faith Reflected in Behavior
However, when we look at the other side of the ledger, we see that religion has the potential to extract the very finest from within people and be the cause for harmony. There are religious people of all faiths who place tremendous emphasis on kindness and compassion.
Isn’t that the hallmark of true religion, practicing your faith until it shows in your behavior? In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James notes that:
The time, when diversity was a mere ideology, has long passed. In the modern era, diversity is a reality. People of all colors, faiths, and creeds are living side-by-side in societies all across the world—nowhere more so than here in the USA.
People who rail against diversity as an ideology are behind the times. They have not yet accepted the reality of what has happened. Some are trying to turn back the tide, but the tide will not turn. Diversity is here to stay.
The Only Question Is...
The only question we are faced with is whether or not we are going to make this new reality work for all of us. In some areas of the world, communities have adapted, but others are still struggling.
If people have been brought up to believe that diversity is an ideology, the resistance is understandable. They believe that they are preserving their way of life by railing against the changes. “Why can’t it be like it’s always been?” they ask.
How many times have you been having a conversation about your values or beliefs—political, theological, spiritual, nutritional—and been met with absolute statements? People say things like: “The truth of the matter is that…” or “what you don’t know is that…” or “this is that way…”
Telling people how things are, what the truth is, and what they don’t know, in relation to beliefs and values is extremely unhelpful in a two-sided dialogue.
The fix is simple, yet powerful. All you have to do is qualify statements with the words “what I believe” or “what we believe” or “my tradition says” and so on. It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a world of difference. Even when you believe that what you are saying is the absolute truth, you are not betraying your belief by stating that, in fact, it is a belief. Rather, you are opening yourself up to dialogue.
If you tell me what you believe, then I can respond by telling you what I believe. But if you tell me how things are, then the probability of the dialogue turning into an argument increases.
Bridge Building and Social Harmony
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, interfaith means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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