By popular demand (OK, not that popular really), I'm reprinting my homily from last Sunday's "Peace with Justice" service at my church. Certain references and names changed to protect the innocent. Comments welcome.
Traditionally here at [insert my church name], [my] Class has a Peace with Justice study each spring, leading up to this Sunday, and our Class takes responsibility for designing the service and bringing the message. You might wonder how the topic of world religions and pluralism fits this theme of Peace with Justice. But really, when you think about it, religion and clashes between religions are the cause or catalyst of so much of the war and injustice and destruction in our world throughout history and even today.
Of course, it’s easy to classify religion that leads to violence and warfare as “bad” religion. Some say the answer or antidote to bad, destructive religion is NO religion. No religion, or atheism, is an increasingly popular alternative, according to today’s bestseller lists. With books by such notable authors as Daniel Dennett, Richards Dawkins, Sam Harris, and yes, Christopher Hitchens all bestsellers, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is a Great Revival of atheism sweeping across the nation.
And we all want to escape from bad religion, the accusatory kind of religion that points a finger and says, “If you don’t believe and act exactly like I do, you’re going to hell in a handbasket”. Many of you probably had some encounters, in college or elsewhere, with the guy who always tried to corner you and say “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life – have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior yet?” While YOU were trying to get AWAY from that guy in college, as many of you know, I WAS that guy.
Some of you have heard this story before, but one of the ways I began to change my beliefs away from what I now consider to be “bad religion” was when I spent a summer in Malta working on converting a bunch of Libyan Muslim college guys. But the more time I spent with them, the more I came to think “Hey, these guys seem to be doing pretty well without my Christianity – they’re trying their best to love God and love their neighbor – maybe the fact that they were born and grew up in Libya and were raised as Muslims isn’t so bad after all?”
One of the main things we’ve been studying in Discovery these last several weeks, as we examined various religions of the world, is whether there is some sort of underlying unity among these religions, or at least whether they have more in common than not. Is it possible, perhaps, that all the great religions are attempting to describe the same singular truth, and they just have different ways of going about it?
According to Buddhist teachings, the notion of separateness is an illusion altogether. This means not only that the separate religions with their separate teachings and traditions and theological statements of belief are illusory, but even that our separateness from each other and from the world around us is illusory.
But this isn’t just a Buddhist idea. Maybe you remember from one of my previous sermons, if you were one of the handful of folks I didn’t put to sleep at the time, some ramblings about quantum theory, and how everything is made of atoms, which in turn are made of subatomic particles like electrons and protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons are composite particles made of quarks, and that the only difference between objects is how these particles are organized, put together, and which molecules they wind up forming. Furthermore, at their most basic all of these particles are really just energy, so everything we call matter is really just energy organized in different ways, all tied together in this one big underlying field.
In case you’re worried that this is just something I’ve come up with on my own, let me reassure you that I consider this to be very much in line with our United Methodist teachings. John Wesley himself taught the doctrine of prevenient grace, whereby the Holy Spirit lives and move in and among and through ALL of us, even if we don’t recognize it.
Recall the passage from Proverbs that we just read – about how Wisdom is the expression of God’s very Self: When God established the heavens, Wisdom was there. When God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, Wisdom was right there beside God, like a master worker, and was God’s daily delight, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race. And then in the Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit being the Spirit of Truth, coming to guide us into all truth, taking what is God’s and declaring it to us. What I take from these passages is that wherever there is Wisdom and Truth, there is God.
So this idea of there being some kind of underlying unity to all spiritual seeking and wisdom isn’t just a Buddhist idea or some crazy quantum theory idea. It’s also, I believe, very much of a Christian one, at least the kind of Christianity that I consider to be “good” religion. Look at the symbols of our faith – right here on the communion table, there is one loaf. When Rex celebrates communion in a few minutes, he’ll recite those familiar words: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the same loaf.”
So maybe there is something to the notion that the religions of the world are similar in value, similar in Wisdom, and their distinctive thoughts and ideas and patterns and teachings have been shaped by the cultures in which they arose. Most of us were born and raised, to one degree or another, as American Christians. Chances are, if you had been born in India, you probably would have been raised as a Hindu, and if you had been born in Indonesia, you probably would have been raised as a Muslim. Is it possible to consider that maybe these are simply various names for the attempts to grasp the ineffable, eternal common truths about the Divine?
We made some very intentional choices of songs for today’s service. There’s the word Shalom, meaning peace in Hebrew, and the word Salaam, meaning peace in Arabic. And if you were an Arabic-speaking Christian, do you know what you’d call God? That’s right, you’d use the Arabic word for God, which is Allah. So isn’t it possible that when billions of faithful Muslims call on Allah, they’re not worshiping some competing deity, but are in fact calling on the same God that we are when we say God?
As well as being Peace with Justice Sunday, today is also Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar. On Trinity Sunday we attempt to grasp the Christian mystery of recognizing three Persons in one, three expressions or manifestations of the triune God, and yet we still proclaim that God is one. If we Christians can call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then why can’t others call God “Allah”? Does the name we human beings assign to God really matter? Does our naming of the ineffable divine somehow change its nature and character? I seriously doubt it.
Our first hymn, “Bring Many Names”, by the great contemporary hymn-writer Brian Wren, reflects this understanding: Strong mother God, warm father God, old aching God, young growing God. Notice that God is always God. The descriptions of God in this hymn are merely the author’s attempt to describe the indescribable Divine. As the saying goes, “God is one, but the sages call God by many names”.
I want to close here with some lyrics from my favorite contemporary hymn-writer, an Irishman by the name of Paul Hewson, though most of you know him better as Bono of U2. The song is called One, which is also the name of Bono’s campaign to combat global AIDS and end extreme poverty, particularly in Africa. I actually didn’t know the full background of this song until I looked up the lyrics for this sermon. As Bono describes it, and I quote:
It's a father-and-son story. I tried to write about someone I knew who was coming out and was afraid to tell his father. It's a religious father and son. I have a lot of gay friends, and I've seen them screwed up from unloving family situations, which are just completely anti-Christian. If we know anything about God, it's that God is love.
Hear these words from the song:
One love, one blood, one life
You got to do what you should
One life with each other
One life but we're not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other