Orthodox/Interfaith

One of my desires as a Christian contemplative — and as a writer about the mystical life — is to celebrate the orthodox heart within Christianity. By “orthodox” I mean engaging with key elements of Christian tradition, including the teachings regarding the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation and the Passion, the Sacraments as means of grace, and the Church as Mystical Body. I try to safeguard against several forces active in our world today that would pull against such an understanding of Christian orthodoxy, including fundamentalism (the attempt to manage the Christian Mystery by reducing it to a literary formula), skepticism (the attempt to deny the Christian Mystery by insisting that it is inconsistent with science, or philosophy, or psychology), or esoteric speculation (the claim that the Christian Mystery is incomplete without introducing ideas from outside the mainstream tradition, often from ancient non-canonical writings: such as the notions that Christ and Magdalene were lovers, or that Christ was an initiate of an occult order, or studied in India).

Indeed, there is really only one significant way in which I part company with many Christians who see themselves as standard-bearers of orthodoxy. I believe the church has been called to prayerfully discern where God is leading us in regard to letting go of sinful gender and sexual prejudices that the church inherited from the world in which it was born — prejudices that continue to alienate many thoughtful people of good will, and that directly or indirectly oppress nearly all Christians, but particularly women and LGBT persons. (Note that I am not suggesting the church uncritically adopt secular or marketplace values in regard to gender and sexuality; rather, that we discern where God may be leading us in such a way that we may be a forceful witness for God’s love and grace even while the church remains a countercultural organization). I am persuaded that, just as the church was called to repent of colluding with slavery and racism over the last two centuries, so for today and in the future true Christian orthodoxy will do nothing but flourish as the church repents of its sexism, heterosexism, and denigration of sexuality.

I’ll leave that hot potato aside for now, because I want to write about another issue: the question of how Christians ought to relate to faiths and wisdom traditions other than their own. It seems to me that in the church today two basic approaches exist: the “conservative” idea that non-Christians have only one function, which is to be converted; and the “liberal” idea that we should be so eager to learn from other great wisdom traditions that it is okay to uncritically accept whatever values and beliefs we encounter, even when they are inimical to Christian orthodoxy. Put another way, conservatives tend to be hypercritical of non-Christian paths, while liberals often seem to be too uncritical of such “other” traditions. I suppose it’s obvious by the way in which I’m developing this idea, that I seek to walk a third, middle way: in which both individual Christians and the collective Body of Christ seek to remain maximally orthodox while maximally engaged in constructive dialog with adherents of other faiths.

It’s quite a tightrope I’m suggesting we walk here. After all, doesn’t scripture explicitly command Christians to “make disciples of all nations”? On the surface, this would suggest that the conservatives have it right: non-Christians are not our dialog-partners, but rather our future converts. But this is a classic example of where proof-texting can be so dangerous. For doesn’t scripture also insist that Christ commanded us simply to “love one another”? That God requires us to “do justice and love mercy”? Perhaps most important of all, that “there is no fear in love”? All of these aspects of the Christian wisdom tradition would argue against the kind of proselytizing that has too often characterized Christian dealings with non-Christians, where the message is one of fear rather than love, of coercion rather than mercy: “join us or be damned.” I believe that the command to make disciples of all nations is merely a command never to be ashamed of the gospel, to always be ready and willing to accept those who approach the church with an eagerness to walk the way of Christ. It’s also a command for Christians to be themselves (i.e., faithful to Christ) wherever they may find themselves (and by that I don’t think it’s so much that we need to send missionaries everywhere, but simply that we need to be ready and willing to encounter “all nations” in our midst, which in today’s world is pretty much everywhere).

In other words, I believe the overall message of the Bible in regard to how Christians relate to non-Christians involves these principles: be present, be yourself, honor your own beliefs, share them with others as appropriate. “As appropriate” is really key, here: many non-Christians really don’t want to hear about Jesus, and are sick and tired of Christian attempts to convert them. In such contexts, the only loving thing for Christians to do is to refrain from any attempt to convert, whatsoever. We need to love people first, and then share our spiritual enthusiasm later. And what does such inter-religious love look like? Well, for starters it is vulnerable, it is based on listening and gentle sharing, it is open-ended and trusting: it has a non-directive approach to the future (i.e., truly loving religious dialogue has absolutely no agenda to “convert” — its only agenda is to share, to learn, and when appropriate, to teach).

“But wait,” many conservatives will object, “you are suggesting that Christians should encounter non-Christians from a position of vulnerability rather than one of power. That we should listen to non-Christians as much as we speak (witness) to them. Doesn’t this put us at risk of being corrupted by non-Christian ideas?” Well, let’s put it this way. I believe Christians should approach non-Christians as Christ. We are suffering servants, not triumphalist warlords. We bring good news and glad tidings, not a message of fear or intimidation. Most of all, we are lovers of God and trust in God’s grace. Out of this deep center of love and trust, we dialog with others both to celebrate the wonders of God’s multivalent creation and to learn how we may humbly be of service. We do not learn about non-Christian wisdom just to find “errors” that Christianity will “fix,” but rather take a more holistic and transactional approach, trusting that the leadings of the Holy Spirit can move in multiple directions: that we can offer our wisdom to others, even while learning of their wisdom which can help us to grow in the Spirit. Because we dialog in a discerning way, we will not uncritically accept everything that is offered to us by adherents of other paths. But neither will we stand with arrogant pride, insisting that our way is the only way, and therefore alienating those to whom we supposedly are sharing our wonderful good news.

I suppose my model of orthodox/interfaith dialog is a true win-win model. When we share Christ with others in an open, vulnerable, non-coercive way, perhaps we aren’t cutting any notches in our belt for Jesus (!), but we are truly witnessing to the possibility of grace and good news, which in the long run is truly the more Christian thing to do. Meanwhile, if we trust that all wisdom that is grounded in love is itself a gift from God, then we are availing ourselves of many deep wells rich with spiritual nourishment. This is the path that Christians like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Henri Le Saux and Sara Grant have walked before us. May we join them in the adventure.

One final comment about orthodoxy: my understanding of orthodoxy as open and inclusive, rather than defensive and armored, comes in large measure out of reading Brian McLaren’s wonderful book Radical Orthodoxy. I think it’s essential reading for thoughtful Christians who seek to remain faithful as we move into God’s future.

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  • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

    Great post, Carl. Oozing with grace. And truth. May more and more of us latch onto the love of God and receive it and live in it so we can spread it abroad. *That* would be good news :)

    (And it’s happening, more and more, do you not think??) I feel very excited about this period in time. I think God is doing tons of stuff in his Western kids. Very exciting.

  • http://www.thestumblingmystic.com/ ned

    Carl, I anxiously await your book. I think you have much in common with another friend of mine, Pastor Bob Buehler, from the blog, The Search for Integrity — http://godnix.wordpress.com. He also adheres to the Christian orthodoxy but articulates a nondual, evolutionary message.

    I’d like to mention here that there is much in common between Sri Aurobindo’s vision and Christ’s Kingdom of God. In fact Sri Aurobindo himself explicitly states that they are one and the same, e.g.:

    “The yoga we practice is not for ourselves alone, but for the Divine; its aim is to work out the will of the Divine in the world, to effect a spiritual transformation and to bring down a divine nature and a divine life into the mental, vital and physical nature and life of humanity. Its object is not personal Mukti, although Mukti is a necessary condition of the yoga, but the liberation and transformation of the human being. It is not personal Ananda, but the bringing down of the divine Ananda — Christ’s kingdom of heaven, our Satyayuga — upon the earth.”

    It’s interesting for me that Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the redemption of matter incorporates numerous elements of Christianity that are not emphasized in traditional Hinduism, e.g. an emphasis on the personal evolving soul and the Divine Personality, not just the Impersonal Brahman. In fact Sri Aurobindo actually did not grow up a Hindu at all. He was raised an atheist by his Anglophiliac father, but sent to school in England where he was taught by nuns. Thus his earliest religious exposure was to the Bible and to Christianity, though he remained an agnostic until his return to India much later on in life where he started practicing yoga.

    You mention Father Bede Griffiths. Father Griffiths was of course inspired by Sri Aurobindo, and in fact there is a book out called “A Follower of Christ and a Disciple of Sri Aurobindo” by Amal Kiran and Bede Griffiths:
    http://www.vedicbooks.net/a-follower-of-christ-and-a-disciple-of-sri-aurobindo-p-12862.html

    A commentary by Bede Griffiths on Sri Aurobindo’s vision:
    http://www.monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=33

    Although I most closely resonate with Sri Aurobindo’s vision, personally I have no problems expression my devotion to Christ as an Incarnation of the Divine. On a few occasions it has just happened spontaneously, often during conversations with Bob, leading him to suggest that I’m already Christian in an inner sense ;-). Outwardly however I have zero Christian credentials — I have never read the Bible fully, nor do I know much about the theological debates going on.

    Most Hindu teachers actually have no problems affirming Christ’s divinity, but would assert that Christ was not the only incarnation of the Divine — that there have been others as well and may well be more in the future. I guess my question is: Is there any flexibility here for Christian contemplatives? Can a Christian contemplative also affirm the divinity (Christ-likeness?) of other spiritual guides, such as Krishna, Buddha, and indeed more recent figures like Sri Ramakrishna or the Mother or Sri Aurobindo?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks for your comment, Ned. While I haven’t yet read Sri Aurobindo (I’m only just now reading Ramana Maharshi), Ken Wilber speaks as higly of Aurobindo as he does of Maharshi, so I think I’d love to check him out. He’s written so voluminously, though — where do you suggest I start?

    As for your question… certainly Christian dogma argues for what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” meaning the idea that Christ represents a unique incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity. Many observers of Christianity — including Wilber — see the great of tragedy of the church as precisely this: that Christ was fully realized, fully enlightened, and yet his followers quickly became mired in the radical monotheism and dualistic philosophy that was in the air in the world of Hellenism and the Roman Empire, and so could only make sense of Christ’s life and teaching by claiming he was one with God (doctrine of the Incarnation), that God, through three persons, remains one (doctrine of the Holy Trinity) and that all other human beings are mere creatures and thus existentially different from Christ, and furthermore, because of original sin (a nasty little doctrine that crept in around the time of St. Augustine) we mortals are incapable of full union with God, at least not on this side of death. In other words, Christianity as an institution effectively shut the door on the idea that anyone else (inside or outside the church) could be equal with Christ. Thus, the most common interpretation of Christian orthodoxy would hold that Buddha, Krishna, Aurobindo, Maharshi, etc. are no greater than the great Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila or Meister Eckhart: mere mortals who have experienced a profound sense of God’s presence.

    So… while this may be the orthodox position, it is hardly the only way of understanding orthodoxy! In fact, it represents what I would call Christian orthodoxy as interpreted by non-mystics.

    Many mystics have paid the price for daring to interpret Christian orthodoxy within an understanding engendered by their experience of Divine Union; I personally believe that such mystics were both fully orthodox and unfairly maligned by frightened religious bureaucrats who too often have wielded power within Christendom. What Christian mystics have almost universally witnessed to could be expressed as a simple syllogism:

    1. Christ is one with God (John 10:30)
    2. We are one with Christ (John 15:4; I Corinthians 12:27)
    3. We are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11)
    4. Therefore, we are one with, and in, God.

    It is a union that is both vertical (the human is one with God) and horizontal (we humans are one with and in each other). Thus, the “Body of Christ” (aka the Mystical Body) is the union of humanity as one person in relation to/union with the Father.

    Now, your question speaks directly to the Orthodox/Interfaith issue I was chipping away at in this post: can Christian mystics acknowledge this nonduality even in non-Christians. For me, the answer is yes. I understand the scandal of particularity in mythological rather than ontological terms: the Christian path is a wisdom tradition that celebrates the uniqueness of Christ’s relation to God, and our relation to Christ, and Christ’s relation to the world. Whenever I love somebody, I am Christ to them. When someone manifests love, a Christian will recognize Christ in that person. This is why Christianity teaches that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life: because Christ is Love. Love is the Way, the Truth and the Life: no one can “come to the Father” (be enlightened, reach the highest levels of consciousness) except through Love.

    So, from where I sit, I have no problem recognizing God in anyone who manifests Love. And to those who manifest Love nondually, God is nondually present. Frankly, I think it is all of our birthright — most of us just haven’t noticed it yet.

    By now, conservative Christians will be whining that I have effectively gutted the heart of orthodoxy by privileging Love in this manner. But I don’t see my perspective as a repudiation of Christian orthodoxy at all. Christian orthodoxy really and truly is a different path than others; and its description of the goal — the end of human life — is particularly unique. Christianity sees union with God as communion; being with God as interbeing. Even within the Oneness of God is community. Is our final destiny to be God, or to be One with/in God in Love? At this point perhaps we’re just splitting hairs, but that’s the distinction that keeps me grooving on the uniquely Christian path of wisdom. Not that I’m saying I’m right and everyone else is wrong, mind you! After all, at that level of ecstasy, I suppose all of us will be struck dumb in a state of Holy Agnosis. And once that happens, all of our different mythologies won’t really matter anyway.

  • http://www.thestumblingmystic.com/ ned

    ** After all, at that level of ecstasy, I suppose all of us will be struck dumb in a state of Holy Agnosis. And once that happens, all of our different mythologies won’t really matter anyway. **

    Totally … I mean at that level it becomes irrelevant. These are all just limitations of the dualistic human mind. To tell you the truth the whole particularity/universality debate is also one that is full of paradox … because even a particular Incarnation opens us up to the Universal in the end … so whether you start off with Christ only or someone else … ultimately if you follow whichever path you are taking to its logical destination you simply can’t help going beyond the particularity of your path. But again, the dualistic mind can’t grasp this.

    As for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, I think you’d like them because their whole concept of “physical salvation” reminds me so much of the Christian idea of resurrection and “the victory of Life over death”. I put a summary of their ideas on my blog:
    http://naqsh.org/ned/?page_id=170

    But if you have to read just one book on their vision, it should be Satprem’s “Sri Aurobindo, or the Adventure of Consciousness”, a book that has a good balance of head and heart, and is short enough but includes all the essentials of the Aurobindoan vision. I have to say that KW does not fully understand Sri Aurobindo — Sri Aurobindo was far more radical than KW is, he said that evolution is literally reversing physical entropy! I.e. he was predicting what Bede Griffiths later came to call the “new creation in Christ” — a redeemed creation in which there would be total unity and harmony in utter diversity.

  • Peter

    ‘Evolution literally reversing physical entropy’–that sounds miraculously wonderful, a very powerful idea. If you pause to think if it scientifically for a moment, it will quickly be apparent that this HAS TO happen at some point if life (in any form) is going to continue.
    And if you pause to think of it Scripturally for a moment, it will be evident that this is the actual promise of the Gospel, when stripped of the shallowness of the egoic “go-to-heaven-gospel” that so many of my dear friends around here seem to be so unswervingly convinced of!
    I am totally for a new creation in Christ, lion lying down with the Lamb, etc. Let’s start now!
    Love, Peter

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Ned, your comment about Wilber not fully understanding Aurobindo made me chuckle, as last February I had a conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault in which we both agreed that Wilber, for all his gifts, has a pretty poor understanding of Christianity!
    :-)

    I think his gift lies in synthesizing and drawing connections across cultural and disciplinary boundaries – but often he doesn’t seem to have an in-depth appreciation of all the topics he is integrating into his grand vision.

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