The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
February 2016 – Vol. 18 Issue 12
For the first half of the meeting a panel discussed how faiths interact with and support a democratic society. Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg of Congregation Kol Ami quoted 1st-century BCE Rabbi Hillel. Asked to expound the whole Torah while standing on one leg, he replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.” The meaning of neighbor has broadened, especially in the last century. All too often, people of different religions, races, and classes who lived in one place had nothing to do with each other – they didn’t consider each other neighbors. Today, as a Jew, the Rabbi feels an obligation to all the people in her community and to all her fellow countrymen.
The Rev. Meredith Dodd of Bear Creek Methodist highlighted the parable of the Good Samaritan, the outsider and stranger. It’s the person who acts, who stops to help, who is the neighbor, not necessarily those of one’s ethnic or religious group. She also spoke about righteousness in the context of John 3:10: “whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We are all children of God and through righteousness can become more like our divine parent, who has a very inclusive view of who a neighbor is. But we must be willing to take unpopular stands for the least among us – the poor, suffering, homeless, displaced, oppressed, or ostracized.
Muslim Aneelah Afzali, Esq., quoted the Qur’an on how the most righteous person was the most honored by God, and how those who do good deeds for others and improve things are considered the most privileged among mankind. She cited passages in which the Qur’an supports tolerance and pluralism, justice and truth. The panel then took questions. As to why violence is done in the name of the Abrahamic religions if a shared core teaching is respect for all, panelists responded that all groups have extremists, who are by definition outliers. Their violence indicates the brokenness of human nature rather than whatever religion they may use as a tool. Unfortunately, popular spirituality too often is at odds with its religion’s core teachings, resulting in violence in the home and in the world. In Islam, for example, Muhammad’s example is too often disconnected from the interpretation of verses taken in isolation. It’s important to help believers and the wider public understand the various religions and to stand together to counter violence as a solution to people’s very real problems. As to how to handle extremism, the Rabbi advised that the vast majority – moderate people – need to be LOUD, to make themselves heard and set a public example. Ms Afzali pointed out that even though most people are doing positive things, the good is marginalized and largely ignored in the media. Rev. Dodd mentioned how one congregant phoned her representative supporting immigrants and was told that she was the only person identifying themselves as Christian who called on that side of the issue. More religious people need to identify themselves as such and make their voices heard.
After a break for Muslims to perform their evening prayers, the session continued with small groups discussing what one step each person might be willing to take to make a positive change. Members of one group brought out how they knew many people of goodwill who wouldn’t attend such an event because they were afraid, the implication being of Muslims. It was suggested that fear of the “other” might lessen through telling stories, perhaps about one’s positive experiences with these others, since people relate more to stories than to lectures or arguments. Several attendees mentioned to me that they had never been to a mosque and were looking forward to having that opportunity at the next Standing Together meeting on February 21st, 4 to 6 pm, at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond. For more information, visit www.standingtogether2016.com.
In recent years I’ve met several people associated with Interfaith Churches. Last October at the Parliament of the Worlds Religions I attended two sessions that helped me understand this path, which began in 1978 in New York City with a Rabbi, an Orthodox Catholic priest and a Methodist minister. Interfaith is a form of worship that sees many ways to reach the sacred without privileging or ranking them. It respects each religion’s uniqueness and rejects the attempt to turn them into a “spiritual smoothie” by blending favorite bits from various religions into a new spiritual path.
Rev. Steven Greenebaum and Cathy Merchant of the Living Interfaith Church of Lynnwood, WA, discussed interfaith as a religion and presented an Interfaith service. Rev. Greenebaum described each spiritual path as based in someone’s encounter with the sacred. All too often such a person considers their experience the best or only way, correcting or denying the experiences of others. At another Parliament session, Baptist minister Dr. Robert Sellers spoke to this point with an analogy: You and others are trapped in a cave system, and you manage to find a way out to the light. You return to show others how to get out and find that several people are also claiming to have found ways to the light. Are you going to say that your path is the only one and the others are wrong? Do their paths invalidate your own experience? There is no need to deny other paths or feel threatened or reduced if your path is not the only or best way for everyone.
For Rev. Greenebaum, the question is not “What religion do you practice?” but “How do you practice your religion?” Any faith can be practiced with compassion and love or with self-concern, intolerance, or cruelty. Every faith can produce saints or grand inquisitors. Moreover, religion to him isn’t so much about theological beliefs, as how it is expressed in daily life and community. Because Interfaith Churches bring together people of any faith (or none) to worship and form a community of seekers, most people in Interfaith congregations also belong to another faith.
There are a wide variety of practices at Interfaith Churches. At Living Interfaith Church, for example, a committee chooses a number of holy days from various faiths that they are going to observe in the coming year. Someone from the faith involved, whether a congregant or invited speaker, leads that celebration. Also, the observance is not on the actual holy day so that members of that faith can celebrate with their family and co-religionists. Thus a Christmas celebration would never be held on December 24-25.
Cathy Merchant said that celebrating interfaith worship is a matter of respect. She herself was raised Catholic, delved into Judaism, but became a Mahayana Buddhist. The Interfaith Church is a place where she, her Catholic father, and Muslim husband can all worship together and each feel their path is honored.
A philosophical basis for Interfaith as a spiritual path was explored by Interfaith minister Robert Salt of Menomonie, WI, in a talk on knowledge and a theology of humility. He explained that knowledge may seem obvious but is actually a complex human creation. We all feel our religious, political, scientific, and cultural beliefs are true; however, we see the world through mental and psychological lenses of our own making, not as it actually is. Hopefully our lenses change as we grow in understanding but very often we remain stuck in traditional or habitual schemas of thought and belief.
Faith, Rev. Salt maintains, is the struggle for truth. This course may seem simple and straightforward when we study, worship or pray, but no human understanding of truth is inerrant. It always involves incomplete understanding. Religions contain many contradictions, such as the two accounts of creation in Genesis, incompatible stories about Jesus’ life in the New Testament, and different versions and visions of god/gods in many scriptures. Truth in all fields remains a mystery. Some religious expressions of this mystery are Lao Tzu’s statement “The Dao that can be named is not the real or eternal Dao”; the medieval Christian Via Negativa’s emphasis on the Cloud of Unknowing; the 99 names of God; terms like Ain Soph and Parabrahman that express the sacred as beyond human words; and the Buddha’s noble silence on the question of the existence of the gods.
Rev. Salt concluded that the pursuit of faith and knowledge is a wonderful goal, but our knowledge will always be full of opinions and errors. It is this humility that draws people to Interfaith as a religious path. While one can pursue such a path independently, those who wish to be part of a community of seekers and take part in communal worship and rituals find that Interfaith as a faith can provide them with a spiritual home.