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Sunday, May 03, 2009

One River, Many Wells: A Sermon

One River, Many Wells
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 3rd, 2009
Pluralism Sunday

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 10:14-16

The first Sunday in May is designated as Pluralism Sunday by The Center for Progressive Christianity. On its website is written:
Progressive Christians thank God for religious diversity! We don’t claim that our religion is superior to all others. We recognize that other religions can be as good for others as ours is for us. We can grow closer to God and deeper in compassion—and we can understand our own traditions better—through a more intimate awareness of the world’s religions.
In our own mission statement we affirm that one of our tasks as a community is to
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
Pluralism Sunday is right up our alley.

Celebrating and honoring religious diversity is one of the most important tasks we face as a species. I am going to offer two reasons for that statement. One is a negative reason (what happens if we do not honor religious pluralism) and the other is a positive reason (what can happen when we do honor religious pluralism).

I will begin with the negative.

In 2005 Catholic Theologian Hans Kung delivered a speech at the opening of the Exhibit on the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University. He said:
"There can be no peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. There can be no peace between the religions until there is dialogue between the religions.”
In a time in which religious convictions can lead people to do violence, and in a time in which humanity has the technology that allows violence to be catastrophic, we have an important task in front of us.

Professor of Religion at Wake Forest, Charles Kimball, wrote a book a few years ago, When Religion Becomes Evil. I recommend it. He writes:
Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed. When religion becomes evil, these corruptions are always present. P. 39
Kimball lists five warning signs that a religion has been corrupted. When one or more of these signs are present, religion has the potential to become evil. Here are the five warning signs:

1) Absolute Truth Claims
2) Blind Obedience
3) The Establishment of an “Ideal” Time
4) The Ends Justify Any Means
5) Declaring Holy War

The common thread of these five warning signs is paranoia. It is us against them or us against the world. “We” as opposed to “them” become the chosen vs. the unchosen or the believers vs. the unbelievers or the righteous vs. the unrighteous.

The fruit of inter-religious dialogue is the recognition that the corruptions of religion are corruptions not their essence. We recognize our common humanity. We are one human family sharing one planet. We also recognize that people are more complex and ambiguous and frankly a lot more fun and interesting than what we think are the beliefs of their respective religions. Finally we recognize that the heart of another’s religious tradition is remarkably similar to our own in its most basic ways. These corruptions are exactly that—corruptions.

For instance, all of our religions teach that

1) As opposed to absolute truth claims, we are to be humble in regards to truth rather than think we possess it.
2) As opposed to blind obedience, we are to use discernment and respect our own and others’ freedom of conscience.
3) As opposed to the establishment of an ideal time, we recognize that the times and seasons are known by G-d. If there is such a thing as a divine blueprint none of us has access to it.
4) As opposed to the ends justify any means, we recognize that the ends and the means must be congruous and reciprocal. If we want forgiveness we must forgive. If we want peace we must be peaceful.
5) As opposed to declaring holy war, we recognize that war is a failure and a tragedy, and is never holy, beautiful, or sacred.

All of our religions teach these things. Only when they are corrupted by fear, paranoia, or greed do they teach these other things. The celebration of religious diversity and the practice of inter-religious dialogue can help us disarm the violence of religious corruption in all religion.

If the first reason for religious pluralism is to disarm non-violently religious corruption, the second reason is to draw out that which is beautiful, true, and empowering from all of our various religions and create something new.

For this I turn to another book, One River, Many Wells by Matthew Fox. In this metaphor, the wells are the individual religions or wisdom traditions. The River is the Source into which the various religions dip. Different wells, same river. To quote the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart:
God is a great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop.
Matthew Fox invites us to practice Deep Ecumenism. He invites us also to remythologize our species by creating new myths. His book, One River, Many Wells, draws from the mystics, prophets, sages, and poets of all of the wisdom traditions.

He discovers 18 themes of deep ecumenism and weaves them into four chapters and a conclusion.

1) Relating to Creation
2) Relating to Divinity
3) Relating to Ourselves: Paths to Encounter and Enlightenment
4) Relating to the Future: What the Divine is Asking of Us
5) Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here? How Deep Ecumenism Explodes our Imaginations with Eighteen New Myths and Visions

Myth-making is about engaging our imagination. He writes:
Remember that myths are not stories that are not true; myths are stories that are too true and too large for facts alone, for the left hemisphere of the brain alone. A myth is not primarily about analysis but about seizing imagination. (p. 436)
For instance, take this familiar phrase that begins the Bible:

When God began creating the heavens and the earth…

That is a myth. It is True not at the factual level but at the mythical level. All wisdom traditions have creation mythologies. They tell us who we are and how we might navigate our way. Fox discovered that the 18 themes he had woven throughout his book could be expressed as modern myths. I won’t list all 18 that he mentions, but a few, such as
The myth that all our spiritual traditions can learn from each other and offer something fresh from their experiences and teachings. That is, the myth of Deep Ecumenism. (All are enumerated pp. 436-438)
That is a myth that is true and it wants expression. It is as true as ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ Here is another:
The myth that all Creation is sacred and we humans are part of it, integral to it, though late on the scene. Ecological care and concern is part of being here.
What might it mean for us to live that true myth? Here is another:
The myth that whatever name we give the Source of sources, the Artist of artists, the Creator of Creation, all are accurate and none are sufficient.
Let us write stories and paint pictures and sing songs of that myth as we engage with all of our sisters and brothers in their name naming.

As we have inherited a religion in which G-d has been spoken of mostly in male language, here is a myth for our time:
The myth that the Divine has a feminine as well as a masculine side. And so do we, made in her image.
There we have a few of modern myths for Creation and for Divinity. How about myths regarding personal transformation? Here is my favorite:
The myth that joy is possible even daily—and that we have a right to it as well as a responsibility to search it out, prepare for it, and pass it on.
On the flip side…
The myth that suffering, while it is everywhere, is real yet endurable. That suffering comes as a teacher of wisdom and compassion and rather than fleeing it, we ought to sit at is feet and learn what it wants to teach us.
How do we do that? Here is another myth:
The myth that we experience mindfulness, a state of being more and more fully present to the “I Am” and to our deepest self through meditations of various kinds.
How about myths for relating to each other?
The myth that compassion is the imitation of the Divine and compassion includes celebration and relief of pain and suffering and the active struggle against injustice. That service is something we can commit ourselves to that is worthy of full commitment.
What of our future? What myth do we need to face the tasks ahead of us?
The myth that we are all spiritual warriors (prophets) as well as lovers (mystics). And this means that we struggle with self and not just with outside enemies when we struggle for social transformation; it also means that we work from the heart not just from reaction.
Pluralism Sunday is remythologizing Sunday. It is myth-making Sunday. It is the invitation to creatively engage our wisdom traditions and all that is available to us. I really cannot say it better than how it has been put in the mission statement of our community:
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
My sermon had two points:
1) We need inter-religious dialogue so we don’t kill each other, literally.
2) We need inter-religious dialogue so we can gather what wisdom we can to create mythologies that the 21st century demands of us.

And now a final point:

Our traditional religions have carried us like ships on the sea for millennia. But they can’t get us to where we need to go as a species. These ships when they are not crashing into each other are sinking under their own weight. Yet, we aren’t sure how to get where we are going without them. We need to take what is valuable from all of them. We also need to discover the poet within each of us and among all of us and create some new verses.

I’ll leave you with this bit of provocation from the great poet and Sufi Mystic, Hafiz. Those who have ears, let them hear:

The great religions are ships,
Poets the life boats.
Every sane person I know
Has jumped overboard!
That is good for business,
Isn’t it,
Hafiz?


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