Troubling Perspectives

I have periodic periods, to coin an awkward phrase, in which something is trying to give birth in my consciousness that makes other projects difficult if not impossible. I find the things I read immensely unsatisfying, I struggle to come up with ideas for my podcast, even writing becomes more of a struggle. When I find myself in this space, having contractions just often enough to keep me unsettled but not close enough together to leave for the hospital and give birth to the baby, about the only thing I can do it pray – and even that can be a struggle except for mantra practice.

I have been in one of these periods, but I believe that as I write this my water has broken.

In Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, the Enterprise is in combat against a Starship that has been stolen by Kahn, a leader of a group of genetically engineered super-humans played in both the movie and the original TV series by Ricardo Montalban.  As the combat continues and the Enterprise has its hands full, Mr. Spock points out that Kahn is intelligent, but inexperienced – that his patterns of attack indicate two-dimensional thinking. Space, like the ocean, is a three-dimensional proposition. Those of us who spend most of our time on land rather than on airplanes, the space shuttle, or in submarines are used to thinking in terms of two dimensions – length and width. We turn left and right, but aren’t really able to make significant movement up or down.

Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong recently stated on Jesse Herriott’s Living on Purpose show on radio that, while he doesn’t believe that all religions lead to the same place, he does believe they lead to the same territory. I find that to be tremendously helpful and tremendously insightful, particularly for those of us who think of the spiritual life as a journey. I often speak of the spiritual life as a journey rather than a destination and borrow the title of a book by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in saying that the path – the journey – is the goal. That having been said, no one sets out on a journey without a destination in mind. When we discuss the spiritual journey, the destination is defined by the spiritual or religious system one adheres to – even if one’s “system” is no system at all.

Returning to our space metaphor, what if the goal of all religious and spiritual systems is the same planet, and what if the starting point of each of those systems is another planet in our three-dimensional spiritual solar system? It’s important that we consider the three-dimensional possibilities of space and the fact that planets orbit a sun because now we have a model that offers infinite possibilities in terms of the direction we must travel from our starting point as we set out on our journey, including where our point of departure is in its orbit as well as the orbits of the other planets. We may have to adjust our course along the way should other planets cross our path in their orbit. Then of course there are the moons that orbit those other planets, asteroids, and a host of other things we may encounter along the way – including those headed to the same destination we are but having departed from other planets (religious or spiritual systems).

Now, if we come across the instructions for a journey to our goal originating on another planet we may very well be completely confused and conclude that it cannot be possible these instructions would work for anyone. In fact, we may well find ourselves responding indignantly to the suggestion that those instructions have any basis in fact – just as we see so many Christians becoming indignant when someone expresses appreciation for the Koran…

Maybe the truth is that even those spiritual perspectives that seem pretty far out, rather airy-fairy, and completely lacking in anything of substance actually work for someone from another (spiritual) planet and so they don’t have to make sense to you and I for them to be valuable to someone. If that is true than the only way we are going to ever understand each other is to learn to look at the spiritual journey from at least two perspectives. It’s probably the case that none of us can master every tradition – that would be more information that we could assimilate in one lifetime. Imagine, though, if several of us could speak more than one spiritual “language” and so be able to understand the spiritual journey and perspective of at least some people not from our own traditions.

If we rely on individual people to undertake the study of another tradition we could be waiting a very long time to reach a critical mass of people who would be able to reach across the chasms that divide us. However, if religious and spiritual traditions begin making an intentional effort to teach about commonalities and similarities between traditions we could make some real progress rather quickly. Did you know, for example, that every tradition has a version of the Golden Rule? Or that many traditions had in their history stories of virgin births and resurrections? How many people realize that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have a common ancestor in Abraham? Did you know that the Buddha was Hindu and not a Buddhist, or that Jesus was a Jew – and never a Christian?

Can we see that with just a handful of facts about things religious and spiritual traditions share in common we could increase interfaith understanding – and by extension peace – profoundly? Can we see the truth is what Joan Chittister said years ago – that there is nothing disloyal to our own traditions in learning the practices of another tradition? Perhaps most importantly, in a three-dimensional spiritual universe, can we see that only knowing our particular path leaves us with a very narrow understanding of the journey to the Divine?

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