By All the Lights of Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 30, 2014
When I was young I heard stories of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. This was in a Sunday School class at the Unitarian church in Rochester, NY. Hinduism has three main gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva is the destroyer and re-creator. It is an elegant rendering of the full cycle of life. These three are really just aspects of the impersonal “absolute” divinity called the Brahman behind all the faces of the gods. And each of these three gods has a multitude of forms. Thus, Krishna is one aspect of Vishnu the preserver. There were many stories I remember of him as a mischievous blue-skinned child. He is also one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita.
In one story, Krishna swallows a forest fire to save his friends. In another story he is always stealing everyone’s butter because he loves it so. To stop him, his mother hides the butter up high near the rafters. Krishna then gets all his friends together so he can climb on top of them and reach the butter, which he shares with all his friends. Another story tells of how Brahma plays a prank on young Krishna by hiding all the boy’s friends and cows in a cave. Unable to find any of them Krishna takes the form of all of them and returned home. Baffled by this, when Brahma visits all he can see is Krishna, in each and every one.
While the stories of child Krishna were entertaining, what has stayed with me is the concept that there is an absolute unity in the universe that manifests in a multitude of forms – each a particular aspect of the holy. Later, when I was in seminary studying the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I learned how his concept of the soul and the Oversoul is a parallel to this Hindu concept of the Atman and the Brahman. To this day, my own theology and understanding of the universe lines up well with this Emersonian rendering of this basic Hindu concept: you can visit a village and all you can see is Krishna, in each and every one.
Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. We recognize that different cultures have lifted up different aspects of life through their holy texts and sacred practices. In the mid-1800’s Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker proposed that all religions have transient, culture-bound elements that need not be carried forward and repeated. And all religions likewise have permanent elements that are the pith and kernel of truth in all ages. In recognizing the differences as cultural elements, we can lift up and honor the universal elements that thread through each of the many religions.
There are many Unitarian Universalist congregations that offer some of the traditional practices from other religions. Mindfulness meditation is rooted in Buddhism. Many UU congregations have Bible Study groups and Pagan rituals. Usually these practices will take a Unitarian Universalist focus while honoring the original source. We engage with the traditions and texts of these different religions as a way to deepen our spiritual lives. Unitarian Universalism is not threatened by the contemplative and devotional practices of other traditions. We are instead inspired by them. In recognizing the commonalities amidst the differences, we also lift up universal values of hope and renewal as well as the ethical teachings of justice and compassion that lead us to treat one another with respect.
I have shared before the Taoist meditation about how we each ride our own donkey to reach high places in the world. When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore. The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.” The donkeys are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain. “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit? Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey. There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys. All lead to the same place.” (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao) And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience. “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.”
This is not to say that all the world’s religions all say the same thing. People will sometimes say, “We at least all worship the same God;” but that is not accurate. The Tao and Allah are not interchangeable concepts. Each religion does share a general understanding that there is an ‘ultimate’ reality – by different names they point to different concepts: Great Spirit, the Tao, Cosmos, and Allah are not identical but they are each ways to talk about the ultimate reality.
This is actually a very familiar conversation in Unitarian Universalism. We hold community with pagans, atheists, mystics, and theists along with many other perspectives. We know how to engage with each other theologically even when we don’t use the same words and concepts for the ultimate reality. This makes it easier for us to consider lessons and insight from the other major religious traditions. In our list of the sources we draw from as Unitarian Universalists we include “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
We honor the different paths and acknowledge that we can even sample from them without converting. People all over the country do yoga without believing in the Hindu belief structure that grounds the practice. Many Unitarian Universalists will partake in mindful meditation, a maypole celebration, or a communion service without believing in all the tenets of Buddhism, Celtic Neo-Paganism, or Christianity. Some do, to be sure, but many UU’s are able to participate or engage in such practices for personal inspiration and insight.
I find significant insight for my life, for example, whenever I explore the Tao Te Ching. Taoism speaks for balance. The Tao Te Ching has several chapters about the difficulties of imbalance and the benefits to a calm balance. “Countless words count less than the silent balance between yin and yang. The space between yin and yang is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.” (Chapter 5) I am not looking to become a Taoist. I have every intention of remaining a Unitarian Universalists, but I do so while exploring the wisdom of other religions that inspire me.
Recently I have had more interactions with people from the Islamic faith and one thing I am seeing is the gracious behavior of these adherents. I find myself wanting to be more like them. “Don’t be confused by the images of terrorists,” one of my friends said the other day, “those are not real Muslims. Those men claiming to be Muslims are not acting like Muslims.” Murder, my friend went on to explain, is against the Qur’an. The heart of Islam is Submission to God. The Qur’an (in 6:151) says, “Do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” To be truly faithful as a Muslim is to abide by the will of God in all things.
We Unitarian Universalists tend to emphasize our freedom of conscience and individual capacity to discern right from wrong. This Muslim perspective could be considered the near opposite to one of our central values. That’s why it intrigues me. It’s not so much that I want to be more submissive in my spirituality. Instead I am curious to find two near opposite stances – submission to God’s will on the one hand and being responsible for my own choices on the other – to lead to very similar ways of acting with compassion and peace in the world.
The line I mentioned earlier from our six sources, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life;” offers an elegant framework. The examples I just shared are of a spiritual inspiration from one religion and an ethical inspiration from another. The Taoist text inspires my spiritual searching. The Muslim practice is an example of inspiration for my ethical understanding.
In the readings we had this morning the two forms of inspiration are lifted up there as well. The Patrick Murfin piece uses the metaphor of building temples in our hearts. Our spiritual lives are built from ‘the stones of many alters.’ My spiritual path is well formed by the various incarnations of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist thought and theology through the centuries. And it is also informed by Taoism, Hinduism, Earth-centered spirituality and modern liberal Christianity.
My ethical outlook on life is also well formed by my encounters with my Unitarian Universalism as well as by prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and again modern liberal Christianity. The Kendyl Gibbons reading begins with the words of Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole of the Law; all the rest is commentary.”
In many ways, of course, it is a false distinction to say some insights are for my spiritual life and others are for my ethical life when the reality is that these two aspects feed each other. The same reason I feel drawn to the spiritual insight of interconnectedness through Pagan spirituality leads me to feel an ethical call to treat the earth and all its inhabitants with care. The call to love my neighbor as myself is both ethical and spiritual.
I very much appreciate that Unitarian Universalism is a religion that features tolerance in the way we come together. We honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth. Tolerance, leaning toward acceptance, of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith. We say that every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Expanding that basic premise we say that every religious path, when it is travelled with good intention and integrity, can lead you where you need to go.
This is not to say I am interested in creating one grand unified and universal religion. Oh, to be sure that has been the goal of several prominent Unitarians and no small amount of Universalists throughout history. In the 1950s, for example, Universalist minister and poet Ken Patton worked to create a “religion for one world” at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. And a century before on the Unitarian side, Rev. Theodore Parker was aiming in part to lift up the unity in all religions.
But I do not believe our goal is to create such a universal religion. I think the particulars of time and place, the details of practice and culture, are important to the religious endeavor. Day to day living is intertwined with eternity. This exact spot is an important place in the effort to experience the vast magnitude of all space. This tree, this river, this building, this hour, this series of steps and movements – the particulars of time and place are the vehicle by which we each access that which transcends time and place.
Our goal is not one unified and universal religion for all people for all time. I believe instead that our goal is to meet and engage with the diversity of particularities that we may learn and grow from the experiences. Our goal is to celebrate all the world’s religions. The various truth claims need not be made compatible with each other. Others may insist on parsing out the particulars. ‘Either water is hot or it is cold. Either God is one or three or a thousand, but not all of the above. Either the practice of praying five times a day is the true way or it is not.’ But I say we do not need to unify all the different practices and beliefs. That is what the concept of plurality is all about. Religious pluralism honors the differences and allows that we can instead live within a plurality of meaning; to recognize the differences, but to really honor the underlying values that make life whole.
Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. All the religions lift up the various key threads of value found in the human experience: justice and compassion, hope and renewal. Each share, with their own distinct patterns, practices and beliefs that can make us whole. May you find, in your searching for meaning and truth, resources not only from your Unitarian Universalism but also from all the world’s religions that can feed you and challenge you and bring you to a deeper understanding of yourself and of our world.
In a world without end
May it be so