By Art McDonald
While still doing Catholic ministry in the Bronx around 1980 I began reading a book entitled: THE WAY of all the EARTH (John Dunne, a Catholic theologian). It began with the following words: “Is a religion coming to birth in our time? It could be. What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call “passing over,” passing over from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call “coming back,” coming back with new insight into one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. The holy man of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gotama, or Jesus, or Mohammed, a person who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, a person who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight into his own. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”(ix)
This book was the beginning of my own adult spiritual journey away from the Catholicism of my childhood, youth and early adulthood, into a more mature Catholicism (universalism), which, I suppose, ultimately wound me up in Unitarian Universalism. So, someone deeply immersed in my own religious tradition, got me moving in a direction which, in some ways, pushed me beyond that tradition, though I took some of it with me!
The author, John Dunne, who died a few years back after spending many decades teaching at the University of Notre Dame in the theology department, went on to write over 20 books which I’m guessing the Vatican under Pope JP II and Benedict, never read, for if they had, I’m guessing he would have been silenced. Imagine a Catholic theologian writing that Gandhi, not Jesus, ought to be considered the holy person of our time!
What really propelled me in a new spiritual direction, from which I’ve never been able to return from, was Dunne’s insight, adopted from Gandhi, that God is TRUTH (Gandhi entitled his autobiography, EXPERIMENTS with TRUTH), that no one has cornered the market on truth or TRUTH, that it is to be discovered anew everyday if we are on a serious spiritual journey, i.e., no one faith or religious tradition, RC, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc. has all truth, a surprise to many of us Catholics at the time, but we each as individuals and as a community, must discover it as we go along. And it will always be partial. This simple insight blew my mind; what a challenge. What an insight. What a responsibility. Especially in a time such as ours!
There is no other theme so prominent in the news these days than where is the truth, i.e., who do we trust? Whose news is fake, we ask every day. Who is truth facting? And just what is an alternative fact, other than a huge oxymoron?
In his search for truth, most especially as a serious religious social and political activist, Gandhi sought small t truth (everyday facts about social reality) and, most especially, ULTIMATE TRUTH, as he searched for God – for Gandhi God is love, God is Light, and God is TRUTH, a constant process of seeking new insight and adjusting one’s life accordingly, even if a new discovery contradicts a previously-held viewpoint. Gandhi said this about his search for T(t)ruth: “I have never made a fetish of consistency. I am a votary of Truth and I must say what I feel and think at a given moment on the question without regard to what I may have said before on it…as my vision gets clearer my views must grow clearer with daily practice…the opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final, I may change them tomorrow..all I have done is to try experiments in truth and non-violence on as vast a scale as I could…I have sometimes erred and learnt from my errors…by instinct I have been truthful but not non-violent…it was in the course of my pursuit of truth that I discovered non-violence.” Gandhi believed that one of the biggest obstacles to discovering truth was violence – once we turn to violence, we give up the search for truth.
So what’s this all mean to a Unitarian Universalist? How does a figure like Gandhi inform our own spiritual journeys? Furthermore, how do we undertake our own search for truth, especially in relation to other religious traditions, whether they be traditions we came from, our roots, or to which we know little about?
There are lots of jokes about UUs and what we believe; some cute, others troubling. We worship a coffee pot or as holy day of obligation for a UU is your turn to do coffee hour– we’re actually the League of Women Voters – we pray to whom it may concern – we ask what’s a blessing? – we can’t sing because we’re always looking ahead to see if we agree with the next verse – and what do you get when you cross a UU with a Jehovah witness? Somebody who knocks on a door for no particular reason. These all come from the days when UU meant a certain kind of liberalism in which you can believe whatever you want, it doesn’t matter, or we were too afraid to stand for anything because it might offend someone! So let’s say we redo the joke about UUs and Jehovah Witness by saying we knock on doors to engage in dialogue in search of truth, a more Gandhian perspective!
Some years back one of our UU presidents, Bill Sinkford, asked us all to come up with a 30 second elevator speech on what is UU, i.e., if someone in an elevator asked you what is UU, what would you say in 30 seconds. Here’s mine: we are Unitarians who are constantly inquiring and searching for truth and new insights and Universalists who practice the virtue of Love and who define God as love. Amen.
Given more than 30 seconds, supposing that the person is curious and wants to have a coffee to discuss UU further, I would then say we are religious pluralists, meaning we find truth in many spiritual paths and welcome into our congregations folks who follow different paths, e.g., Humanist, Christian, Buddhist, Quaker, etc. and that we are committed to open dialogue concerning these different paths all in search of truth and transformation.
A religious pluralist, writes Harvard religion professor, Diana Eck, means God, Ultimate Reality, Truth is too large for any one tradition – all are partial. We need dialogue and engagement and openness to discover truth and change – this position begins when we say that the One we call God, Ultimate truth or All That Is that we seek is greater than our understanding, thus cannot be fully grasped by just one tradition or path. But it also doesn’t mean we suspend our own beliefs when we listen to others or enter into dialogue; we dialogue from our own perspective on truth and then we seriously listen to the other’s point of view, trying our best to understand even through differences.
Thus, going back to the insights of John Dunne concerning passing over, we sincerely attempt to pass over into the other perspective not our own, in a sense suspending our beliefs and critical perspective to really listen and hear the other’s insights. And, writes Dunne, if we honestly do that, we will likely experience some understanding and possibly find truth in that perspective, so that when we return to our own spiritual journey, we are changed somewhat; transformed, if you will. No longer the same. So rather than trying to interpret a faith perspective from another tradition into our current beliefs if we are, for example, worshipping in a context not UU, be it a Jewish synagogue, Muslim mosque, or Episcopal church, we attempt to enter fully into that experience as believers in that tradition are doing themselves and decide what in that other tradition might, indeed, ring true for us. If we can do that, we are changed by the experience.
John Dunne wrote his book about the search for truth by traveling into countries where Buddhism and Islam, especially, were dominant religions, and in his inquiry and worship practices, try to engage as fully as possible in the experience. He came back and wrote his book having been altered, indeed, likely a Catholic heretic, though somehow under the radar! The great religion scholar, Huston Smith, spent much of his life doing the same thing, although at even greater depth than Dunne. Smith, a Christian, actually spent years of his life living in Buddhist temples, Islamic Mosques, Hindu shrines, etc. actually fully engaged in the practice of each of this traditions as he traveled, in order to attempt to understand and, subsequently, write authoritatively about each. His book on World Religions, originally written in the late 1950s, is still a masterpiece of passing over and coming back. He never left Christianity, but was constantly rethinking it as he experienced other faiths.
On a very small scale, as a UU minister, I’ve tried to do the same over the years as I prayed with Muslims in their own settings, visited a Hindu temple, meditated with Buddhists, been silent with Quakers, conducted a Christian-Zoroastrian wedding, participated in a Jewish Seder with Rabbi Judy, taken communion with Episcopalians, and in my own Catholic tradition, each time an opportunity to try to pass over and understand another way to worship or find truth.
What I have tried to do in my 26 years of UU ministry, in two different churches, is to try to encourage us to celebrate, hopefully respectfully, all religious traditions, and to enter that experience as fully as possible, even when it isn’t each one’s primary spiritual path. So, for example, a few weeks back, with Betsy’s extraordinary guidance, we entered, as best we were able, into the African American spiritual tradition, most especially by singing songs from that rich and tortured perspective that was developed in the midst of such suffering and oppression, yet had incredible life and hope and inspiration. And we encouraged one another not to read ahead to see if we agreed with the words, but rather to belt out the words, even though few of us as UUs likely agreed with the sentiment that said: “This train don’t carry no liars, no pretenders and no high flyers…no room for the greedy sinners..(and) there ain’t no refuge from the Judgment Throne!”
We’re Universalists and we believe everyone is going to get there, somehow, eventually, if there is a there! We leave that to God, but we can also identify with the pain and sorrow from which that song emerged; which gave consolation in a time of trouble. So we pass into that experience as best we can and shout it out as if it were happening to us. Some of us even swayed with the music, despite our cultural limitations! There is such truth in these laments; a history we can’t forget and which continues to play itself out. What a gift is this spiritual perspective. How great that we were able to pass over into it even for a brief hour of worship.
As I pass on to the next chapter of my own spiritual journey after June, I can’t wait to see where it will take me, every grateful for what Unitarian Universalism has given me. Last week Melanie and I decided to sign up for a workshop at the Catholic retreat house in Maryknoll, NY, offered by a priest from Kenya who will update us on transformative movements for change in Africa and beyond. In filling out the registration form for the Institute, there was a question as to religious affiliation. I pondered that for a good bit of time and finally wrote down: Unitarian Universalist Catholic and sent it off. I would love to be there when the nun who we spoke with on the phone receives the application and tries to figure out just what a UU Catholic could possibly be. If she asks me, I’ll say something like I’m trying to figure that out as well or maybe I’ll tell her one of the great stories about UUs like this one: “ A traveler couldn’t find the local Unitarian Universalist Church. After looking in the centre of town, in the suburbs, and out in the countryside, the traveler came across a farmer and asked: Excuse me but am I too far out for the UU church?, to which the farmer replied: “Nobody is too far out for that church.” I’m guessing she’ll get a good laugh out of that and let me into the workshop. That’s my hope.