Spirituality, Art, and Unity among Faith Traditions

    Rabbi Josh Stanton is the Assistant Rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey.  He has some powerful thoughts about interfaith unity. Here is a snippet of something he wrote:

The core book of Jewish principles, the Babylonian Talmud, explains, “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace. Over fourteen hundred years ago, our sages recognized something of key importance: by serving non-Jews in need alongside their Jewish counterparts, we not only do what is right, but we also foster peace. Interfaith collaboration reveals the deeper Jewish call to pursue justice for all human beings. Just action inspires belief in something greater than ourselves

    Bishop John Shelby Spong; former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ; is a modern-day Martin Luther--calling for radical reform of the Christian movement.  I am gripped by much he has to say, but in connection to our concerns for today is this:

I would like the church to be a place where the questions of people are honored rather than a place where we have all the answers. The church has to get out of propaganda. The future will involve us in more interfaith dialogue….We cannot say we have the only truth.

    Imam Husham Al-Husainy, of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center, said: 

Christians, Jews, and Muslims can be united under the light of God. If the maple tree is able to make syrup out of the sun, then we the believers better make love and harmony and unity from the light of God.

Blessings on all those who, especially from within conflicted and conflictual situations religious and otherwise, call for peace.

    Truth is truth, wherever it may be found; so if a religious tradition that is not my own can get across to people a message I consider indispensable better than can mine, I should be thrilled that a life-enhancing principle was taught and embraced by those I most likely could never have reached.  As a minister and a seminary professor, I can tell you flat out that few seminarians in our country today are getting more than one course on interreligious, interfaith dialogue.  Yet, it is absolutely impossible to minister in our diverse nation, much less our diverse world, unless we understand cultural attitudes--including religious ones--that are not our own.  

   I applaud much about Silverside Church, but on my list of outstanding attributes among the top three is this church’s desire to understand other religions and to embrace all we can in them that is life-affirming.  And thank goodness, by the way, for folks in all major religions who don’t believe a willingness to respect and learn from ancient texts means that every word and every topic can be applied to our day and time.  

    Even Christian fundamentalists who are not vegans or vegetarians and who claim to believe every word and rule of the Bible probably have ordered a rare steak here and there and absolutely work on the sabbath when their bosses require it; neither has prompted God to smite them.  “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.”  Ever heard that one?  What about this one from Genesis, chapter 9?  “You must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”

    The foundation for interfaith unity has to be respect reinforced with courtesy, I think.  When I was serving University Church in Baltimore, I was asked to become a member of the board of directors for the pastoral services division of Greater Baltimore Medical Center, typically referred to by locals as GBMC.  I didn’t complete my term as a result of being chewed up by a “Christian” pastor in a board meeting one day.  It was an interfaith board serving the pastoral services department of a religiously unaffiliated hospital.  

  Christmas was rolling around; I think my second Christmas on the board.  And the head chaplain asked the board to solve the problem of Christmas decorations.  The hospital had traditionally decorated for Christmas with Jesus more in mind than Santa Claus.  Imagine that!  It seems, however, that through the years complaints about Christmas decorations in a  hospital that served a number of Jewish patients along with patients who, if they celebrated Christmas, left off the Jesus part of it altogether.  Certainly there are no Christians around who have ever done the same!!!

   I voted with those on the board who wanted to leave all religious holiday decorations out of the lobby and instead provide religiously based holiday decorations to those patients who wanted them; you know--little manger scenes for the Christian patients, little Hanukkah menorahs for our Jewish patients, little baseballs for Ravens fans, etc.  The fundamentalist pastor wasn’t the only one who wanted to keep religious decorations in the lobby--though they lost the vote, and he started in on me in front of the rest of the board saying things like:  “You have denied your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  

   I don’t mind a good debate in the proper context, but I was appalled that he verbally attacked me instead of simply pushing for his preference to the board as a whole.  I told him in front of the whole board--and eye for an eye, you know--that I didn’t celebrate Christmas because Jesus didn’t celebrate Christmas.  He went beserk.  Well, he started it!  

   If I’d had time on my hands, I’d have stayed on the board, but I just didn’t have time to invest in situations where anyone could imagine such behavior was anywhere near acceptable.  In any case, having blasted me, what message do you think he left with those who were not Christians around the table regarding his respect of lack of respect for their religious commitments and values?


    Norma Day is delightful person, oozing with creative perspectives and energies.  Formally trained in art and literature, her gentle spirit and elegant manners find their way into her art.

   For many years, she was the “go-to-girl” for commissioning formal portraits in our area; but her work away from portrait-painting calls to consciousness in those who study her paintings a sense of both the beauty as well as the mystery of nature.

   The work Norma shared with us for for this series on “Spirituality and Art” is a painting she did several years ago of Mount Sinai on site.  She was in the Holy Land with her sister and caught the particular view recreated in her painting we see today.  Like a writer carrying a little notebook at all times in case inspiration hits (before technology displaced pen and paper and “notebook” got its technology-world-definition), she--on the spot--brought out her miniature canvas and palette and painted an abbreviated version of what you see on display this morning.  When she returned to the States she used the mini version to guide her in painting the gripping full version we see today.  

   If I recall correctly, Norma didn’t have a title for her painting when she initially shared it with me, but I named it “From Faith to Faith.”  I couldn’t have done so without hearing the details of what she had painted--right from the artist’s mouth, you could say.  

   What we see in her painting is Mount Sinai (which was also called Mount Horeb by some of the Hebrews who wrote about it)towering over St. Catherine’s Monastery, which sits on the site where Moses saw the burning bush.  It is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world; though it has been closed to the public at times because of safety issues, it has never been priestless--according to what I’ve been able to discover.  Its full name, and I love it, is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.  Norma’s painting is her artistic celebration of interfaith or interreligious affirmation of God.

   Mount Sinai stretches heavenward as it rests on Egyptian land--a nation most of whose citizens profess religious affiliation with Islam.  Norma’s guide was a Muslim gentleman.  Mount Sinai, however, is most famous as a sacred site for Judaism--the place where God met Moses to talk covenant and give him the Ten Commandments.  And, as I mentioned a few steps back, a Christian monastery has long sat at the base of Mount Sinai.  In this singular, exceptional re-creation of what Norma beheld, we see as she saw diverse religions unifying for the common good and singing in beautiful three-part harmony an ages old yet ever-new affirmation that God is--thus, my title for her painting, “From Faith unto Faith.”

   Since God perpetually remains mystery (Karen Armstrong describes her understanding of God as “the Great Mystery.”) we COULD allow ourselves to stop at mutual affirmation of God with others and rejoice in that commonality; if we WOULD do so--huge difference between WOULD and COULD, we in the world community would be at a phenomenal place, but many of us, most of us, want to impose our views of God on others so that even the matter of God becomes conflictual rather than unifying--both within religious groups and among collections of multiple religious groups.  

   Some in our world, in our nation too sadly, would say, “If you don’t think of God the way I think of God, I may have to kill you.”  Killing even in our “highly sophisticated” [wink, wink, wink ;( ] country for religious and other reasons has become one of our favorite pastimes, hasn’t it?  Religions, most of them, hurt more than they help in this regard.

There is no such thing as a religion without dark sides and skeletons in closets.

   Back to Mount Sinai, though.  St Catherine's Monastery was built between 548 and 565; long before one of the major divisions in the history of Christianity occurred; namely the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church--causing what scholars often refer to as the Great Schism in 1054. This is when the Eastern Church decided it could no longer be under the domination of the Pope who was in the Western Church, and so the Eastern Church pulled out and eventually created its own sort of mirror group with its own leader who is not called a pope, but instead carries the title Patriarch of Constantinople, making him the head of various branches of Eastern Christianity including Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and so on. Across the years this exemplary spiritual site has been visited by luminaries such as Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great; Muhammad, the founder of Islam; Napoleon Bonaparte; and, of course, Norma Day.   

                           The current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew

                          The current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew

   The priests in the monastery today may find it difficult to understand why Christians can't get along with each other when they, the priests and their forebears, have been getting along for centuries with Jews and, once Islam was established as the third monotheistic faith in history, with Muslims.  Many of you feel no loyalty to any kind of religious institution except Silverside Church; and your love for and devotion to our Church has nothing to do with your affinity for institutions.  You love this church because of the people, because of its mission and ministry, and because of its very bright future.  But for those who have been attached to institutional Christianity as a necessary paradigm, I have a question:  since for a little less than two centuries Christians have been fighting among themselves and with people from other faith traditions (and by fighting I mean everything from arguing on the one end of the spectrum all the way down to at war on the other end.), how has negative conflict (and there is such a thing as positive conflict) bettered any cause? If you say it has not or if you say in very few places, then we have to ask why do we keep putting up with it? Why do we keep living as if participating in an institution that has established destructive patterns that apparently cannot be broken is a good thing?  

Morning Prayer from the Franciscans
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you
with enough foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you will do
what other claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and poor.

   The greater voices today both within Christianity and beyond Christianity are the ones calling for every conceivable kind of unity among people.  If you're part of a faith tradition or a subgroup within a larger movement, and your group encourages violence of any kind unless related to self-defense then you need to get out of that group because it's contributing to the destruction of human beings in the present and building tensions toward a future of violence. 

   The book of Revelation pictures one great final battle in human history, which is a symbol and not a physical war the writer thought would be waged in human history.  The symbol is of one final shattering battle fought between good and evil. The good guys are supposed to be those devoted God as revealed by Jesus, and the bad guys would be those who essentially had made the Roman Emperor their god.  Wouldn't it be a horrible turn, though, if there were a cataclysmic battle, and the good guys were actually the non-religious having to fight off the religious types who because of conflicts within their own religious groups and with other religious groups are killing off the good folk?

   Dr. Ben Carson is a gentle, kind, sincere person. I doubt he will end up in the Oval Office, but many conservative Christians endorse his values from abortions being declared illegal except in any cases where the mother will likely die in childbirth to a citizen’s right to arm herself or himself to the hilt, which could prevent really bad stuff like the Holocaust, for example. 
Seventh Day Adventists, the religious movement with which Dr. Carson identifies and affiliates, generally believe in a sudden end of the world, brought about by the physical re-appearing of Jesus and as such may be accurately described as an apocalyptic movement.  Might his belief in such an end of human history and the joy it will usher in for some cloud his judgement if he had decisions to make about large-scale warfare?

   Dr Carson also has said he has trouble with interfaith affirmations; specifically, he doesn’t think any Muslim could be suited to be President of the United States until he (no chance of she for most Muslims I gather) disavowed the portions of the Koran that appear to urge war on non-Muslims.  But what about the Jewish and Christian scriptures that Dr. Carson as a Christian is supposed to affirm?  The Jewish scriptures are filled with war stories--some seeing God Godself as a warrior and all or most wars called for by God, and Christian scripture has Jesus saying, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

   Could Dr. Carson’s anti-Muslim sentiments and his views of Hebrew and Christian scripture cloud his judgment in the same kind of way he suspects a Muslim president would be misled by certain passages in the Koran?  Now, that is something to think about if somebody is actively embracing ancient Holy Writ as justification for war.  By the way, using the same logic, the great surgeon would have to disqualify Jews from the presidency as well.  

   It may be time to get religion out of the Oval Office altogether.  I mean two things by that. Yes, I think a person with no religious beliefs could make a fine US President, far surpassing many who have been President who had sincere religious commitments.  I also mean that a candidate’s religious practices are rather private.  If the practice of religion has been a big part of her or his life--as in the case of President Carter--it can’t be missed.  If she or he has been less engaged religiously, that shouldn’t be a disqualifier.  As long as a candidate or an incumbent fully respects healthy religious practice, not just her or his own if any, we should be fine.  

   The healthiest attitude toward any religion is based on a desire to find its greatest truths and incorporate them into one’s life to the degree it is possible; that principle applies to the religion we call our own as well.  There is no such thing as a religion without dark sides and skeletons in closets.  If I can’t learn from Gandhi, then the problem is with me, not his legacy; he was certainly willing to learn from Christianity though it was not the religion he embraced.  Many of you have heard the quote about Christianity attributed to Gandhi supposedly in conversation with Christian missionaries, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Zing accepted, but with the respectful corrective:  not many are, but some truly are.

   In our highly complex, hopelessly fractured world, finding the healthful and hopeful perspectives offered by any religious group is a tremendous goal eclipsed only by the necessity of finding enough common ground to respect those who differ from us religiously in the hopes that they will offer us the same courtesy.  Norma’s painting, masterfully capturing a geographical study, challenges me, and I hope you too, to embrace the best in all traditions and dispose of the rest.  Unity of any kind built upon the affirmation of life is a beautiful thing; unity enhanced by the spirituality of many traditions is lovelier still.


Silverside ChurchComment