Here are four books, all recently published, that will nurture you as you deepen your spiritual journey, particularly from an interfaith perspective. Three of these titles are specifically designed to foster, or contribute to, interfaith conversation; the fourth is rooted in one particular tradition (Buddhism) but covers material on a topic (embodied spirituality) that can speak to practitioners from any tradition. Hopefully one or more of these books will speak to you.
The real treasure her is Mirabai Starr’s God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Starr first came to my attention a few years back because of her insightful and contemporary translations of writings of the Spanish Carmelite mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (see my review of her translation of Teresa’s autobiography). But God of Love introduces us to Starr’s own voice: poetic, heartfelt, and devotional, evocative of spiritual depth yet grounded in the interspiritual nexus point between the three great Abrahamic traditions. She draws on sources as divers as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Andrew Harvey, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Julian of Norwich, and of course the Spanish Carmelites, while also dipping deep into the well of her own rich experience (Starr spent much of her you at at the Lama Foundation, Baba Ram Dass’s spiritual community, and so has about as strong an interspiritual pedigree as anyone could hope for). The result? A testament to the common ground and united heart of these three faiths which is refreshingly rich and deep, offering a lovely glimpse into just how much wisdom is available to anyone who seeks to learn from multiple transitions or practices with a sincere heart. Topics she covers include the prophetic tradition, the Divine Feminine, hospitality, justice, suffering and exaltation, stewardship of the earth, and (of course) the contemplative life. But the guiding image which propels the book is the recognition that our common God is the God of Love, which therefore makes love the true heart of all three faiths (or, indeed, of all wisdom traditions, period).
After that heady trip into the ecstasy of Divine love, I have to admit that Mark Townsend’s Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ was a much more challenging book for me to read. Part manifesto and part anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes takes Christ’s central question: “Who do you say that I am?” and offers it to a variety of practitioners of pagan, Goddess, and earth-based spiritualities, creating a platform for a truly unique — and broad — set of answers to this question. Townsend — a former Anglican priest, Pagan practitioner, and now clergy with an independent sacramental community — does a fine job at introducing his readers to the distinction between the Jesus of History and the Christ of faith, drawing on Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Cosmic Christ as well as some more esoteric ideas (such as the Hanged Man of the Major Arcana). The second part of the book features essays from fifteen Pagans, including some well-known figures like Emma Restall Orr, Christopher Penczak, John Michael Greer and Philip Carr-Gomm. As might be expected, these essays vary widely in both literary polish and theological coherence; a true kaleidoscope of imagined Christs emerge: Christ as shaman, Christ as mystagogue, Christ as agent of ecclesiastical brainwashing, and Christ as metaphor for “the ever-returning life force” (perhaps a Pagan way of describing what Hildegard of Bingen called viriditas). The final section of the book features Townsend interviewing another thirteen Pagans, again including several prominent figures like Caitlín Matthews, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Selena Fox and Kerr Cuhulain. Again, a variety of perspectives (and values) regarding Jesus appear. More than one interviewee admits that Jesus is really not that important to them, preferring instead to discuss their vision of the Divine Feminine or of any of a variety of Pagan deities.
And that leads into why I found this book challenging. As someone who explored Paganism and abandoned it for a renewed commitment to orthodox Christianity, I am the inverse of many, if not most, of the voices in this book — who abandoned the Christianity, whether devout or nominal, of their upbringing to embrace one form or another of Paganism. Jesus is important to me, and both the content of his teachings and the contours of his mythic journey matter to me, pretty much as the tradition presents it. I seek to conform my life to him — not the other way around. As one who accepts the Christian path, I value the received tradition — which means I do not subscribe to an “anything goes” approach where everyone’s say is equal, at least regarding Jesus. Yes, we all have to answer his question (Who do you say that I am?) for ourselves, so in that sense each person’s response to Jesus matters, no matter how offbeat, fanciful, or shaped by rejection of the tradition. But not all opinions about Jesus are equal. Some are informed by careful scholarship, appreciation of the tradition, and a basic appreciation for his teachings, while other ways of seeing Jesus may be shaped by market forces, unexamined cultural values (what Christianity has rather unfortunately labeled “the world”), or simple narcissism. I’m not accusing any of the contributors to Jesus Through Pagan Eyes of bad faith — on the contrary, most of the contributors come across as articulate, intelligent persons who have given much more thought to “who do you say that I am?” than the average pew-warming Christian. But I did find myself arguing with more than one contributor, that their rejection of Christ (or the church) often seemed to be about rejecting the shadow-side of religious institutions (or Christian theology). “Most Christians would agree with what you reject in the tradition,” I thought to myself, “but we don’t reject the teachings, or what is beautiful therein.”
This leads to why I think this is an important book, even though I struggled with it. I see it as an important contribution to a much-needed dialogue. Christians need to understand why so many young people (and not-so-young people) walk away from the practice of Christianity, or the teachings, or the tradition. This book offers much insight along these lines. In this sense, I feel like this book is written more for Christians than for Pagans, since Christians, as I have pointed out already, have so much more invested into Jesus than do many/most Pagans. Hopefully when Christians read this, they will appreciate the candor and honesty (not to mention courage) evident in the words of so many of the contributors. But I think Christians need to be prepared for a challenging go of it. This book will zero in on all your unquestioned assumptions about Jesus and blow them right out of the waters of your subconscious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Finally, I’d like to take a brief look act two books that could be profitably read in tandem: Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s Prayer of the Heart in Christian & Sufi Mysticism and Will Johnson’s Breathing Through the Whole Body: The Buddha’s Instructions on Integrating Mind, Body and Breath. As the titles suggest, these two books explore three faiths — Vaughan-Lee considers connecting points between Islamic and Christian wisdom, while Johnson considers the embodied dimension of spiritual practice from a specifically Buddhist perspective. Since Vaughan-Lee considers the role of breath and meditation in the mysticisms he explores, the two books taken together provide a sort of east-west conversation on the role of the body (and especially the breath) in meditation.
Vaughan-Lee, himself anchored in Sufism, looks at the teachings of Teresa of Avila and the Jesus Prayer tradition, considering them alongside Sufi practices such as the dhikr. He articulates a common hope for prayer from both traditions: that it will lead not only to the “circle of love” but also to healing of the earth (and our earthiness) through embracing the mystical presence of God in all things. “We are love’s prayer,” he concludes, recognizing that in both mystical Christianity and Sufism, we become the very prayer we offer to the God who is not elsewhere. Meanwhile, although the theistic language of the Abrahamic faiths may not matter to the Buddhist understanding of meditation, Will Johnson’s concise but helpful consideration of proper posture and skillful breathing as an essential part of spiritual practice harmonizes beautifully with Vaughan-Lee’s examination of the prayer of the heart. Perhaps, beneath our cultural peculiarities and even our dogmatic statements about God (or the lack thereof), so much unites us — even to the point of recognizing that, at its most effective, meditation is about remembering who we are, that is to say, re-membering (being mindful of the essential goodness of being embodied in a material world).
So there you go. From the stories we tell about Jesus (or, indeed, about any tradition), to the love we seek for in our path, to the necessity of remembering our embodied selves embedded in a material cosmos, these books, different as they may be on the surface, each invites us to a more mindful, heart-centered, incarnational spirituality. For this invitation may we give thanks.