The Wisdom of Difference

World Religions/Workshop
 “Crossing the Line” Conference at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA – June 2017

On hearing that the theme for this conference focused on meeting or crossing borders and boundaries, I knew that engagement with diverse religions applies. Borders might appear where or how people worship, as before a sacred symbol. They may also mark religious doctrines or membership qualities. Distinct loyalty may be expressed toward a founding figure or in going on pilgrimage to holy sites.

I as a Christian have encountered religious boundaries when refused entry to the central sanctorum of a Hindu temple in south India or when unable to buy a plaque with Islamic calligraphy from a store in Malaysia, told that I was not trusted to duly respect it. As a Protestant, I have also been excluded from receiving sacramental elements during mass at a Roman Catholic parish.

Borders, like removing shoes before a sacred object, reflect a measure of identity; they may be flexible or ambiguous. Only ordained priests may directly approach certain altars. Attitudes also mark boundaries—conviction that one’s religion is superior to all others or that salvation is possible through only one path, the speaker’s.

We all honor some boundaries or hold to borders. My vegetable garden has a fence around it to keep rabbits out. Roadways often mark the border between Canada and the US. But crossing lines between world religions reflects a distinct difference. Choice or conviction matters. Birthplace may shape belonging. Membership change from one religion to another may affect wellbeing or community good will. Differences may be major or minor. Patterns of loyalty might shift with age, rituals, friendship, or location. Husband John and I noted our first anniversary when living in India in 1962. The fact of fewer than three percent Christians there soon drew me toward learning about Eastern religions—through reading or direct contact with Hindu temples, early morning Muslim calls to prayer heard across the valley, Sikh features of dress or hair style, and Buddhist history that includes Tibetan refugees.

Ponder a few basic facts:

Several personal anecdotes reflect crossing borders. “Decades ago on entering a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth, I paused to engage sacred “lines.” On prominent display were symbols of three major religions. The multiple arms and legs of a brass Hindu god form stood posed to “offer” support for human needs. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat poised in contemplation. And a wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly—the Jesus figure linking a common meal with personal covenant. En route to choose a table cover—to sort through color and shape, to ponder an artist’s craft—I first paused, there being little choice. In India where much of life exudes Spirit, where the spiritual and practical provide context for each other, this experience drew my attention. Intent to select a cloth to enjoy with spiced curry meals, I pondered borders of faith. Religious and cultural be-ing intersected. Not present to demand boundaries, symbols affirmed Ultimate Reality.1

In February of this year, I joined an eight-day tour of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka—temples and stupas, monks and monasteries, culture mixed with religion.2 Occasional intersection with minority Hindu, Muslim, and Christian segments also occurred. A boundary became clear to me: difference within Buddhism. Whereas I had presumed to also learn about Mahayanist practice, the focus throughout centuries in Sri Lanka has centered on Theravada Buddhist experience, with its attention to monks. When observing the holy awe extended to monks, my own belief related to leaders was also triggered.

Invited by our good Sikh friend to attend with him the Prayer Breakfast in South Bend last month,3 I welcomed a direct crossing of sacred lines. People of diverse religions and Christian denominations prayed to the One God; friend Surinder expressed the Sikh prayer. He is as loyal to the Sikh faith as I to Christianity. We honor each other’s distinct commitment along with openness to truth from each other. His daily reading of the Guru Granth Sahib exceeds my biblical pattern; he values my interfaith projects. We expect to learn from the other’s worship place; his people have shared their meal (langar) with me after worship with them multiple times. I had earlier crossed lines when joining loyal Sikhs at the sacred Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. When with them I pray to the one God when they pray, though our languages differ. With them, I cover my head and remove my shoes. Both to hold and cross religious borders reflects Wisdom. Neither of us presumes that God works to repair or save the world’s nations through one religion alone.

As with any boundary, religious experience has limits. As expressed elsewhere,4 “I cannot know whether Jesus is the only or ‘best’ or final savior, not having been exposed to all whom God might have chosen to so endow or without experience of God’s people of faith in many world religions.” Not intent to bind followers, Jesus saves, empowers, or helps Christians to better know and follow the One God while moving deeper into relating with the “otherness” of religious others. Following the Divine Teacher Jesus to meet human need and restore the hurting world, I have no wish to insist that Jesus alone reflects God’s design for wholeness. I value John Cobb’s idea that being faithful to Christ prompts me to look for truth wherever it might be, then integrate it. “Because Christ is center for Christians no boundaries need exist,” he suggests. “Expectant, we believe that others have truth that we need.”5

Let’s reflect a bit about Wisdom. Whose wisdom do you trust and why? Do you capitalize the term, to suggest a Divine source, or present it in small case? Jeanine Hill Fletcher notes how wisdom can be countercultural or conventional before she notes “wisdom of (this) world.” She sees the moral of the story of Jesus on the cross as “challenge the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of power, violence, and greed, and you will suffer.”6 She also repeatedly notes that religious plurality is God’s gift; through the wisdom conveyed in more than one religion, our awareness of God’s mystery and complexity increases, she suggests.7

According to Anne C. Klein writing in the Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion8 “Wisdom, the personification of human or divine knowledge, appears in many world religions as a goddess.” She elaborates about the Mesopotamian fertility goddess named Inanna-Ishtar, the goddess Ma’at of Egypt, and Athena whose Roman counterpart was Minerva. The Bible’s female personification of wisdom named Hokmah finds focus in poems of the first nine chapters of Proverbs. There, fear of the Lord, of Yahweh, “is the beginning and end of wisdom.” Klein explains how the Hebrew Hokmah, named Sophia in Greek and God’s co-creator, mediates between worlds and conveys “salvation on those who know her.” In the Second Testament as patriarchy’s fear of Sophia’s being God’s representative increased, Sophia (Wisdom) was subsumed under Christ (Logos). Writers about Jesus the Christ had him take over Wisdom’s “way that ensures life”; he alone was then described as “before all things.” What Judaism had claimed of personified Wisdom (Hokmah), Christian writers transferred to Christ as “image of the invisible God.” Yet, Paul proclaimed Christ crucified “the power and wisdom (Sophia) of God.” (1 Cor 1:24)

I have written elsewhere9 about Sophia and the female divine figure in several world religions. Over twenty years ago I attended the ecumenical “Re-Imagining Conference” in Minneapolis—the most profound gathering that I have known. Hearing feminist mentors and sharing worship rituals with two thousand kindred spirits prompted an aura of profound wisdom. To invoke Sophia via song—“Now, Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within”—prior to each speaker ensured a Presence distinct.10 As Eastern Orthodox priests today might exclaim “Sophia!” or “Wisdom” before reading scripture, Orthodox Christians for centuries worshipped in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), a Byzantine cathedral that Dmitri Kessel calls “perhaps the greatest of all monuments in Christian art.”11

All religions thrive on principles of Wisdom; more appears in common than we think. Consider what Christians call the Golden Rule. While Hindus declare: “Do not to another what is disagreeable to yourself,” Zoroastrians affirm: “That nature alone is good which shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self”; and Islam states “None of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.”12 In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word prajna is feminine for wisdom. Kwan Yin is known as the Buddhist “Spirit” of compassion, as “presence within all.” And the concept of Presence alerts us to the Jewish term Shekinah—God’s presence. Whether within the ancient Temple’s Holy of Holies or as Jews wandered in the wilderness, Shekinah dwelled between human and Divine.13

Borders indeed exist between and within religions. Might we celebrate crossing such lines? Or, might we acknowledge the extent to which individuals are hybrids regarding religion? Patterns and principles differ; such difference expresses Divine will. To look more closely at difference leads me to Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book titled The Dignity of Difference. He notes obvious details: “. . . because we are different, each has something unique to contribute. . . We must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference.”14 Does a Hindu person your age who bows to a nearby god form cause you anxiety or relief? Do you wish to know, from her, more about her ritual, doubt power in the mantra that she devotedly repeats while circling the object, or feel inclined to inform her about Jesus? Or, might your thoughts turn to gratitude for richness in difference?

Difference in religion implies plurality. How does the presence of many or predominance of one religion shape your experience? Have you lived in a context where the religion or denomination to which you were loyal was a minority among much larger other groups? Recall the German Max Muller’s quote: “To know one [religion] is to know none.” Descriptive of but not limited to religion, consider other singular issues. Does having one applicant for a position enhance the scope for deciding? Will encounter with people loyal to four major religions likely provide more basis for self-critique of your own, presuming that self-critique is necessary?

Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s book titled Monopoly on Salvation? carries the subtitle A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism. Not only might today’s Christians be hybrids. So too, early Christians combined Jewish, Roman, and Gentile religious details. Aware that much of Christian history endorsed a viewpoint that only through Jesus was God or a way to salvation known, Hill Fletcher notes how such “exclusion limits knowledge of God to Christian sources and leaves little room for real conversation with those of other faiths. Neither total sameness nor extreme difference enables authentic encounter with religious others.

While Christians find orientation to the world through the story of God, Christ, and salvation, people of other faiths describe the world in different terms. Buddhists understand distinctly Nothingness and Nirvana; Hindus honor multiple forms and names for the One God who descends to the world; Muslims and Jews defend radical monotheism whereby none is God but God.

Need such descriptions of the world or Mystery be in conflict, or might that diversity be helpful? Hill Fletcher nudges us to recognize how features of identity overlap with the religious other. “Only through contact with difference do we see infinite potential for becoming,” for enriched change toward wholeness (salvation), Hill Fletcher suggests.15

According to theologian Wesley Ariarajah, native of Sri Lanka now retired from Drew University, most Eastern religious traditions accept “manyness” (plurality) as the nature of things and look for ‘harmony’ instead of unity.16 Five years ago, he authored a fine book titled Your God, My God, Our God. Clearly, a specific theme with which difference occurs among religious folk is the symbol of God or the Divine. Ariarajah’s insight abounds. Without emphasis on doctrine or theology—“Who is God? or What do we believe about God?”—Judaism focuses on practice: “What does God require of us?” Whereas Judaism’s closest formulation of a creed is: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, Yahweh is One!” Islam proclaims, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Hinduism “approaches Ultimate Reality as a Mystery beyond all human comprehension and description.” Whereas Muslims and Christians do not have the same concepts about God, they worship the same One. Whereas Muslim’ absolute emphasis on one God faults Christian honor for three forms, the Christian doctrine of Trinity can witness to divine qualities of One who creates, redeems, and renews. Nothing of Christian understanding of God as creator or of God’s revelation in Jesus calls us to reject God’s revelation in others’ religious experience. Nor does it rule out God’s presence or activity in the lives of neighbors whose way to salvation or wholeness differs from ours. Difference does not mean that one is right and another wrong. God loves, listens to, and provides for people of all nations.

To take other religions seriously involves openness to move from some classical views and to cross lines that affirm plurality, otherness, and difference. A North American Mennonite may have a Hindu surgeon, Buddhist co-worker, Sikh neighbor, and Muslim congressman. How informed are we about how each of those friends’ worship patterns are expressed or what most matters religiously for each? Is our faith threatened by affirming theirs? Diana Eck, noted director of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project for decades and writer of seminal books on related themes refers to Robert Wuthnow’s study of American Christian response to religious pluralism.17 He found that responses divided into three groupings: “spiritual shoppers”—who regard “all religions as more or less true,” another third who see “truth and even salvation in other religious traditions and paths” and the other third—the “one-way” people—who believe that “only Christianity is ultimately true.” Eck raises questions that we might also ponder in relation to boundaries. What might a Christian mean who finds compelling the Dalai Lama’s worldview; who disagrees with some Christians’ absolute claims; or who finds idolatry in language of “My God” or excessive “Jesus focus” alongside limited attention to Spirit or God?

Perhaps as effective as stating principles of faith regarding God’s plan for religious pluralism might be telling anecdotes that illustrate crossing lines. Anecdotes can reflect religious loyalty alongside openness to learn from truth central to another’s view that differs. Perhaps some of you have seen the Strasbourg Cathedral in France that depicts an allegory of sculptures titled “Ecclesia” and “Synagoga” (church and synagogue). A “triumphant Ecclesia stands erect next to a bowed, blindfolded figure of the defeated yet dignified Synagoga.” Proud church gazes over the other, the woman “conquered, with her crown fallen, staff broken, and Torah dropping to the ground.” There is Christian supersessionism set in stone. For her fine book Has God Only One Blessing? Mary Boys invited an artist to create a new “posture” for the two figures. Boys believes that the relation between the two religions will be righted when the church repents of its distortions of Judaism, when Ecclesia sees Synagoga as her “partner in waiting for the full redemption of the World.”18

One of the books written by Emory University professor Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger describes her fieldwork done over a decade with Amma, a Muslim healer from Hyderabad, India. Amma may see, diagnose, and describe spiritual forces for Hindu, Muslim, or Christian patients. “They’re all the same in the healing room,” she says. Asked whether Joyce was a disciple, Amma replied, “She loves God and I love God, so we have a connection.”19

Doug Hostetter has served with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) with war relief. Currently MCC’s representative at the United Nations, his first MCC assignment during the Vietnam war was in the village of Tam Ky. Learning that the local people’s priority need was for education for their children, Hostetter explored with religious leaders in the area. A Protestant pastor’s priority was “to win souls for Christ,” not help with literacy. A Roman Catholic priest supported the idea provided the youth group worked with Catholic children—an option that would neglect the ninety percent majority of Buddhist children. When Hostetter asked a monk in charge of Buddhist youth to help, he agreed without reservation to assist—a striking learning for the young Mennonite. He then and multiple times since has readily and effectively crossed a religious line.20

One creative method used to relieve the anguish of Bosnia-Herzegovina was a fifty-member, interreligious, adult choir. The Pontanima, Latin for “spiritual bridge,” choir brought together members and music of Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and Far East religions. Committed to crossing religious borders, choir members witnessed to diversity and openness toward one another. The Franciscan priest who started the choir had had nine relatives including his father, thirty-two neighbors, and eighty-two from his parish killed during the war. From their common tragedy the choir sang reconciliation, transitioning from:

Do not such connections of “crossing religious lines” reflect Wisdom?
Is faith that is held lightly but with conviction to be trusted?
Do we believe that Divine truth is “bigger, deeper or more profound” than any person’s strong claims?
Do we affirm difference that strengthens the distinct for each?
How convinced are we of Hans Kung’s statement “There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the religions”?