God is one, and the many religions of the world are like many paths up the same mountain, or like many rivers emptying into one great ocean. Then again, maybe not. Maybe God is not one, in the sense that religions are so radically different in their beliefs, practices, their understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality that any talk of oneness threatens to gloss over some very important distinctions, distinctions that define who we are as Christians.
The question of how religions of the world understand and relate to each other is an important one, especially in today’s world where religious violence and harassment continue to rise, a world that cries out for more interfaith tolerance and cooperation. Of course, this is hardly a new problem. In our reading from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians we’re reminded of the tensions between the gentiles and Jews of long ago. Today, however, with the world seeming ever smaller, our opportunities to encounter those of different religious traditions has grown in ways Paul could never have imagined.
Those embracing the God-is-one, many-paths-up-the-mountain view, see fundamental unity as a powerful motivation for accepting one another, and they often draw inspiration from mystics of the many faith traditions. The idea is that although there are many differences among religions, perhaps mystical experience, those direct encounters with the mystery we call God, point to a deeper, universal truth. It’s true that we can find general agreement within the mystic tradition on the subject of God’s oneness and our oneness in relation to God. In fact, sometimes the interreligious implications are made clear as when Saint Francis writes: “So precious is a person’s faith in God, so precious; never should we harm that. Because He gave birth to all religions.” Or when Saint Teresa of Ávila writes: “Light baptizes life wherever it falls, and every religion and all upon this earth is a shadow.”
Sentiments such as these support the claim that mystics provide for a source of revelation common to all religion, but it’s also true that religion, as the essential container of a community’s traditions, symbols, and shared experience, is the container within which the mystic tradition itself flourishes. Mystics, then, by necessity, remain firmly grounded within one particular religion or another, naturally tending to be limited by its language and norms. And so even while suggesting unity, they highlight important distinctions.
Something else to consider is that, on the topic of oneness, there can be apparent contradiction even within the writings of a given mystic. Since the mystical tradition struggles to describe an ineffable reality, a truth beyond words, each affirmative statement about God is often followed by its opposite — a practice religion scholar Michael Sells calls the “language of unsaying.” A good example is German theologian Meister Eckhart who can speak of God as one, God as three, God as all, and God as nothing, sometimes all in the same sentence. So where does this leave us. Is God one? Is God not one? Are all religions really the same on a deep level? Or is that not recognizing and honoring their unique identity and diversity? Turning to mystical theology doesn’t seem to be getting us very far, although, it could be that we’re just asking the wrong questions. For example, I can remember two of my own formative experiences with other religions and they have little to do with questions of theology.
The first was back in 1991 when the United States went to war with Iraq, and anti-Muslim feelings were running high. Near where I lived in Brooklyn there was a small store owned by a Muslim couple, and the overwhelming response in my neighborhood was to avoid shopping there — there was even an act of vandalism outside the store. My mother and father reacted by saying how wrong it was to target the Muslim couple, and they said we’d be doing more of our shopping at their store to support them. My parents’ example must have made a big impression on me, because I still remember it with gratitude.
Another time, I was visiting with a friend from the Sikh tradition, and as we were sharing our experiences of God in the world and different aspects of our faith I felt something powerful form between us. It’s hard to put into words, but it was like recognizing Christ’s presence within us, drawing us closer in communion. And I remember thinking how impossible it seemed, regardless of whether she was a Sikh or a Christian, that God’s love wasn’t living in her heart, an open heart sharing that love with me. Not long after our conversation some young men threatened and harassed her for wearing her Dastaar, a Sikh turban. I remember feeling very angry, a feeling of wanting to protect something that I had come to see as sacred and beautiful.
Those two experiences demonstrate ways of knowing and relating to people of different faith traditions as we encounter them in the world, choosing to be present for real people in a real relationship, which seems more helpful then asking what could be unanswerable questions about truth in belief and practice, questions that might in fact only serve to separate us. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for example, he talks of circumcision, the ancient practice distinguishing Jews and gentiles, as “made in the flesh by human hands.” That phrase, in the original Greek, is the same phrase used to describe the making of idols, idols that create distance between us and God and between one another — idols like the stories we make up about people who are different than we are, perhaps practicing a different religion than we do.
There are important differences between religious traditions, and they can be used to separate us, to focus on questions of right and wrong, this and that, or we can commit to the value of the relationship itself, and then those differences become opportunities to celebrate all the diverse expressions of God’s love in the world. Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, when trying to describe his vision of the city of God as being defined by both perfect unity and individual uniqueness used a phrase that seems helpful: “distinction without distance.”
Mystical theology may not be able to give us a completely satisfactory answer to the nature of God’s transcendent oneness, but mystics of all traditions share something else with us, namely how God’s truth teaches us the way we’re meant to relate to each other in the world. This truth comes in two parts, and it’s very, very simple. One, God is love. That’s what we read in the First Letter of John, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Theologians can tear that apart to analyze it, but we’ll leave that to them. We’re only interested in the truth of it that lives in our hearts. God is love. The other part of it is this: all human beings, all of us, suffer. Whether we’re Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious” we suffer. And if our hearts open to God’s love, they also open, in compassion, to the suffering of all our fellow human beings on this world we share.
This is the way of Jesus Christ, who through his incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection broke the dividing wall between us and God. He broke the dividing wall between us and all our sisters and brothers, Christian or otherwise. And so we can choose to either build that wall back up, focusing on the things that separate us from God and from each other, or we can surrender to God’s will and work to keep tearing that wall down wherever we find it.
Let’s end with a story. Once upon a time, there was a person of faith who, feeling a little impatient and wanting some certainty asked “OK, God, just tell me, are you truly One? Or somehow not one?” Our Beloved Creator must have thought this was pretty funny, because the only reply was a playful, perhaps even a bit mischievous smile, followed by a hearty and beautiful laugh. Now, I’m not completely sure what that story means, but maybe it would be best if by the sound of that laughter we forget the question, and instead simply remember not to build up any of those walls our savior tore down, to keep our hearts open in love and compassion, so that all of us, everyone together, become God’s dwelling place, God’s city of distinction without distance, here on earth.
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