One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

by Matthew Fox



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585420476
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 7.46(w) x 8.82(h) x 1.65(d)

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Chapter One


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It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God. —Howard Thurman, Creative Encounter

Religions are integral to Creation because they are themselves created, set up by humans in relationship to their stories of the Divine. In addition, religions provide us with a perspective, a lens through which we see Creation and interpret it. Therefore, it seems important to consider Deep Ecumenism even before we delve into the deep mysteries of Creation itself.

    I am writing these words at the ocean in Northern California, where the waves are churning and inspired, full of energy and rushing where they will. Spirit is like that—full of energy and free to choose its own path.

    My thoughts turn to the subject of our various religions. None of them is mother of the ocean, rather the ocean is mother of all things. Our religions are so recent in relation to the lifetime of the sea and to most other creatures—including humanity itself. What religions did our ancestors practice for the two million years that preceded the forms we now recognize as "world religions"? How humble our religions ought to be before all creatures. As Mechtild of Magdeburg said, the truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures.

    Deep Ecumenism should be deep, it ought to demand of human religions that they imitate the depths of the sea (la mer) in its capacity to maintain mystery and energy, being mother (la mère) to all beings, Varying with the course of seasons and the topography of land and water alike, ecumenism ought to be big, accepting, magnanimous, forgiving. It ought to just be.

    Our souls are meant to imitate the sea also. That is our origin. Our very life-blood imitates the saltwater of the ocean. But culture so often shrinks our souls that they fit a consumer mold or some other tribal size.

    I am not alone in calling for religions themselves to practice the humility they so often demand of individual adherents. All the mystics—the truly deep ecumenists—speak as I do. Hear them out. Consider how well we are doing.

The Indian mystic Kabir sings:

Neither a Hindu
Nor a Muslim am I!
A mere ensemble
Of five elements is
This body,
Where the spirit
Plays its drama
Of joy and suffering!

    Kabir is telling us how the cosmic gift of his body supersedes the claims of organized religion to his allegiance. The spirit plays within that body, it plays games of joy and games of suffering. Life is a drama when one moves beyond mere religious allegiances. Divinity cannot be locked up.

The god of Hindus resides in a temple;
The god of Muslims resides in a mosque.
Who resides there
Where there are no temples
Nor mosques?

    We are reminded of Jesus saying, Do not look here nor there. The kingdom of God is among you. True religion is not about institutions, be they mosques, temples, or objects of any kind. It is about relationship. It is about intersubjectivity and not objects and the objectifying of objects that we so often fall into. Creation brings us all together. As Kabir put it, Once you experience his presence in all beings, all debate comes to naught!

From Hinduism we hear: Many are the paths of humans, but they all in the end come to Me. Nikhilananda, a scholar on Hinduism, believes that the great religions of the world are not competitive but complementary. One religion is not the enemy of the other, but all religions are faced by common enemies: skepticism, atheism, and perhaps worst of all, severe indifference. Only if the religions of the world stand together will they preserve themselves [and] help to bring about a new manifestation of the world spirit. In the Bhagavad Gita, God says: I am the thread that runs through the pearls, as in a necklace. Nikhilananda adds to this line: Each religion is one of the pearls.

    From the Hindu Scriptures we read: Truth is one, sages call it by different names. The Hindu mystic Rajjab writes:

The worship of the different religions,
which are like so many small streams,
move together to meet God, who is like the ocean.

    Hindu philosopher Ramakrishna writes: I see people who talk about religion constantly quarreling with one another. Hindus, Mussulmans, Brahmos, Saktas, Vaishnavas, Saivas all quarrel with one another. They haven't the intelligence to understand that He who is called Krishna is also Siva and the Primal Shakti, and that it is He, again, who is called Jesus and Allah. "There is only one Rama and he has a thousand names."

    Truth is one; only It is called by different names. All people are seeking the same Truth; the variance is due to climate, temperament, and name.... People injure and kill one another, and shed blood, in the name of religion. But this is not good. Everyone is going toward God. They will all realize him if they have sincerity and longing of heart.

Islam, too, is ecumenical in its core: Islam considers the acceptance of anterior prophets as a necessary article of faith (iman) in Islam itself and asserts quite vigorously the universality of revelation. No other sacred text speaks as much and as openly of the universality of religion as the Quran. Islam, the last of the religions of the present humanity, here joins with Hinduism, the first and most primordial of existing religions, in envisaging religion in its universal manifestation throughout the cycles of human history.

    Following are some passages from the holy Qur'an apropos of Deep Ecumenism. Surely, of the Believers, the Jews, the Christians and the Sabians, those who truly believe in Allah and the Last Day and act righteously, shall have their reward with their Lord and no fear shall come upon them nor shall they grieve. Respect for Moses and the Hebrew Bible as well as for Jesus and Mary is offered in the following passages. Indeed We gave Moses the Book and caused a number of Messengers to follow after him; and to Jesus son of Mary, we gave manifest Signs and strengthened him with the Spirit of holiness. Again, We gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs and strengthened him with the Spirit of holiness. The Muslim faith is clearly placed within the Jewish and Christian traditions of the prophets and of the Bible in the following passage. We believe in Allah and in that which has been sent down to us and that which was sent down to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and his children and that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and that which was given to all other Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and to him do we wholly submit ourselves. Again, We make no distinction between any of his Messengers; we have heard Allah's command and we have submitted ourselves wholly to him. He has sent down to thee the Book, comprising the truth, which fulfills the revelations that preceded it; and he sent down the Torah and the Gospel before this as a guidance for the people.

The mystical tradition of Islam, the Sufi tradition, also sees all mystical traditions as one.

    Rumi says:

All religions,
all this singing,
is one song.
The differences are just
illusion and vanity.
The sun's light looks a little different
on this wall than it does on that wall ...
but it's still one light.

Rumi grounds the likeness found in every mystical tradition to the depth of the experience of the Divine one touches in a particular tradition. Love is the key.

For those in love,
Moslem, Christian, and Jew do not exist....
Why listen to those who see it another way?—
if they're not in love
their eyes do not exist.

    Thirteenth-century Sufi Hafiz also addresses Deep Ecumenism. He writes:

I have learned so much from God
that I can no longer call myself
a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.

    He warns about living in the past and following a religion that lives nostalgically when he writes:

What do sad people have in common?
It seems they have all built a shrine to the past
And often go there
and do a strange wail and worship.
What is the beginning of happiness?
It is to stop being so religious like that.

    Sometimes spirituality demands that we jump ship.

The great religions are the ships,
Poets the life boats.
Every sane person I know
has jumped overboard!
That is good for business, isn't it, Hafiz?

From the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the centrality of going deep if we are to do ecumenism when he says: Through the practice of deep looking and deep listening, we become free, able to see the beauty and values in our own and others' tradition. Yet, to get to the point of seeing the beauty and value in others' traditions, one must look and listen deeply into one's own. One must practice some path along the journey that leads to depth. One must enter the well of mystical experience.

    To meet another is to meet oneself and one's own tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh insists. When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own. The implication is that every tradition accomplishes like things in the soul of individuals—so alike are the things accomplished that we become mirrors to one another: We can see ourselves in one another. What we see emphasized by Thich Nhat Hanh is found in all mystical traditions: experience is key. The sixteenth-century Indian saint-poet Dadu once wrote:

All men of wisdom have one religion;
They all have one caste;
They all behold the face of the One!

    It has been said that Buddhism teaches that kindness and love are the universal religion.

From the African-American tradition we listen to the voice of a great mystic and prophet, Howard Thurman, who was the spiritual mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Howard Thurman saw what we are calling Deep Ecumenism as the central call of his vocation when he wrote: A strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all men are members one of another. And this insight is spiritual and it is the hard core of religious experience. He too, like Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabir, and the Dalai Lama, is calling us to experience that of which we speak. Thurman develops his Deep Ecumenism even more explicitly in another place when he writes: It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God. Thurman had an experience of Deep vs. Theological Ecumenism when he visited India in the 1930s. He dialogued with a Hindu, Thurman speaking as a Christian, for half a day and with little result. Then they shifted gears, putting the discussion at the level of experience instead of concepts. Says Thurman: We were thus released to communicate with each other as sharers of what each in his own way had discovered of his experience of God. We were no longer under the necessity to define anything but were free to be to each other what was most fundamental to each.

    Howard Thurman founded a church called the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, together with Rev. Alfred G. Fisk in San Francisco, in 1944 to bring people of all religions, races, and classes together. It was the first church in America that was interracial in its membership and leadership. This church is still vital and alive today.

We have heard in the Introduction from Christian theologians Nicholas of Cusa and Father Bede Griffiths about Deep Ecumenism, but consider also these words from Saint Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century who wrote:

Every truth without exception—and whoever may utter it—is from
the Holy Spirit.
The old pagan virtues were from God.
Revelation has been made to many pagans.

    Imagine how different history would read if the European explorers and exploiters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had approached the shores of Turtle Island and Africa and the Pacific islands with this theology instead of proposing that indigenous people have no souls and treating them as such through slavery and conscription and cultural annihilation.

Father Bede Griffiths in our own century also celebrates the commonality of mystical experience among world traditions. In the fourteenth chapter of Genesis we hear of a pagan priest named Melchizedek, who is said to pray to "the most high God, the creator of heaven and earth." The term used, El Elyon, is the Hebrew name for the "most high God." Comments Father Bede: This is very important: in the beginning of the biblical tradition there was this recognition that God had revealed Himself to the Gentiles, to what were later called "pagans." Other pagans honored in the Hebrew Scriptures as holy people include the ancient patriarchs such as Abel, Seth, and Enoch and also Noah and Job.

It is clear from these many and various examples that Deep Ecumenism will demand much of us. Religion alone will not do. Shouting that our God is better than your God will not do. Experience is what is shared in Deep Ecumenism.

    The Jewish mystical work of the Middle Ages, the Kabbalah, says: The only genuine proof of this wisdom is experience itself. If our faith has not given us experiences to share, then we ought to spend more time with it or find another. Just as our times call for Deep Ecumenism, so Deep Ecumenism calls for 1) experience and 2) the sharing of experience. At the level of experience we are all one and we encounter the One Divinity, however he/she be named. But experience also leads to Deep Ecumenism, for when one encounters the beloved, one wants to share that encounter and one is curious about the encounters others behold. Am I alone in this experience? Have others before me shared such wonders? Will others after me? What about my community—do they, can they, share in the same glory and revelation? Many questions are aroused by love experiences. In subsequent sections of this book we will examine some of these common questions and themes. The first of these has to do with our shared existence, the reality of Creation itself.

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