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Center for Religious Experience and Study
The World's Religions -- Pieces or Pattern?

A 12-month serialized statement of the basic theory of the CRES interfaith research program.

copyright 2000 and 2011 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS

Primal faiths: restored with nature.
Asian faiths: the self made whole.
Monotheistic faiths: community in covenant.

Liberation movements: finding the sacred afresh.

Click on this link for a chart that summarizes the world's faiths.

Are the world’s religions separate pieces of history and spirituality, or do they, viewed together, form a pattern?

Dear Reader:

SINCE THIS ESSAY APPEARED in 2000, “The Gifts of Pluralism” conference, Kansas City’s first interfaith conference, was held with 250 people from 15 faith groups — A to Z, American Indian to Zoroastrian. From that conference a number of clarifications and new insights have emerged. In addition, many comments, suggestions, and criticisms of this essay have been offered, for all of which I am grateful. These are collected and awaiting incorporation in a revised version of this essay, which I expect to make early in 2003. 
     You, dear reader, especially after 9/11, are also invited to contribute your questions, responses, and criticisms for that revision. Please send them to me: or Box 45414, KCMO 64171. Thank you.

 August, 2002

NOTE.— Since this draft was issued, the crises in all three arenas — environmental, personal, and social — have deepened. To update just the domain of our business system: Microsoft’s practices have been found illegal, and the scandals of accounting and executive compensation are now no longer secret. These and other matters have not yet been incorporated into the present text which awaits revision.

1. Three Crises; Three Responses

THE CHIEF AND DEADLY DEFECT of our secularist culture is fragmentation; that is, there is no vision of how all things involve each other and of what things are most important, of what really counts.
This means it is difficult to decide what is worth living or dying for.
     The secularistic contrasts with the sacred, the holy (related to holistic, the whole), that on which our lives depend.
     This brokenness shows itself in three domains:
     — the degraded environment, to which the ancient theological term “pollution” has now been applied;
     — the loss of personal identity, evidenced by numbing codependent relationships and addictions;
     — the deterioration of social order, one example of which is the portrayal of violence as “entertainment.”
    It is difficult for us to see our situation clearly because we are enmeshed within it. But the world’s religious traditions can provide us with bridges from which we can view the currents of change.

INSTEAD of using such bridges to make sense of, or to envision reform of the secularism of today, two movements have themselves become dangerous vortices.
     l Fundamentalism reacts, a whirlpool of waste. It insists it has the answers to our problems in the exact words of the old texts of the One True Religion.
     l On the other hand, the New Age scavenges. New Age doctrine proclaims that all religions are basically the same, but its practice sometimes focuses on crystals, astrology, past lives, or ecstatic episodes, more than on fulfilling the claims of faith to do good for one’s brothers and sisters.
     l We propose a third response, a response that grows out of an examination of what is sacred in each faith. We believe that the world’s religions provide us with the resources to address the three domains, broken in us as individuals, as communities, and as members of a fragile biosphere.

 The urgent project for our age is this: to discover how the answers from the world's religions to the question “What is sacred?” mutually interpenetrate and inform each other. Unless we do this, the sacred will remain fragmented and our culture will teeter more precariously above a secularist hell.


2. The Paths of Healing

THE SACRED, that on which our lives depend, is generally located in different realms by the three families of faith.
   1. With significant variations, the Primal religions, including ancient practices of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the Maya and the Inca, and the almost extinct traditions of the American Indians and tribal Africans, and the Wiccan tradition now being recovered, generally find the sacred in the world of nature.
     2. The Asian religions, such as the faiths arising in China, Confucianism and Taoism, and the faiths beginning in India called Hinduism and Buddhism, generally locate the sacred in inner awareness.
     3. The Monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and one might add Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism, Bahá’í, Marxism, and what scholars call “American Civil Religion”), find the sacred disclosed in the history of covenanted community.
     This is not to say that the sacred is nature, or is inner awareness, or is the history of covenanted community. Rather, in general, these families locate the sacred in these realms. Of course there are exceptions and variations and subtleties. Shinto is an Asian religion that in our scheme belongs primarily with the Primal faiths. Zoroastrianism is a special case since it greatly influenced the Monotheistic faiths while its origins are not Abrahamic. But the scheme we outline, despite its limitations, can be useful in three ways:
     — to provide an overview of religious consciousness throughout history and the world,
     — to guide a “research program” for deeper understanding of the faiths, and
     — most importantly, to show us paths to the healing of the afflictions of our age.
     For example, we cannot be rescued from ecological doom only by technical solutions; a spiritual reorientation is required by which we understand our kinship and interdependence with trees, rocks, the air and water, not to be used so much as to be honored.
     The insights of each of the three families are easily perverted (see chart). The Primal faiths often degenerate into superstition; the Asian faiths into narcissism; the Monotheistic faiths into self-righteousness and militancy. Today dialogue amongst the faiths can lead to mutual purification.
     However, even the purest, fullest, human understanding of any separate revelation is no longer sufficient for us as a society because we cannot understand fully any one tradition without being acquainted with others. The additional, urgent project for our age is this: to discover how the several answers to the question “What is sacred?” mutually interpenetrate and inform each other. Unless we do this, the sacred will remain fragmented and our culture will teeter more precariously above a secularist hell.

Religion arises from the Holy; religion is the discovery of how 
to live in the world. The Holy leads to awe, then gratitude, then to service —the Holy in action.
3. The Holy

THE HOLY is that on which our lives depend, ultimate concern, or ultimate commitment, the cornerstone of all values. The English word is related to “health,” “wholesome,” and “holistic.” We sometimes sense the holy in “peak experiences.” Such experiences shape or direct or give meaning to all of life, and are rivers of the spirit. These experiences make us vividly aware of what is valuable, connect us to our deepest selves — and beyond ourselves, to the Infinite, and give us perspective. The Holy, the sacred, is what is worth living for, and dying for.
      Religion arises from the Holy; religion is the discovery of how to live in the world: “What is so important that my life depends upon it, and what must I do to honor and share it?”
     In philosophy the sacred is called Reality; to use information science language, it is the Structure of All Data. The sacred is supreme worth, fundamental significance, ultimate value, utmost concern.
     The sacred is contrasted with the profane, the fragmented, the partial, the instrumental, the means. Our culture is secularist because it so often avoids beholding the sacred, the whole, and instead seems preoccupied with fragments.
     Unless we are frequently recalled to the Holy, we lose the perspective, wholesome energy, and connection that makes life meaningful. Our secularist society distracts us from the Holy, rather than supporting our immersion in it. The trance of our culture places the Holy at the edge of our awareness, instead of at the radiating, nourishing center.
     Immersion in the Holy leads to reverence, awe, clarity, attention — “beholding.” When I behold, I see without agenda, for having an agenda shapes, deforms what I see, inhibiting clarity. The addictions, compulsions, repulsions, inhibitions, prejudices, paranoias, hang-ups, consumptions, and co-dependencies that characterize our age make beholding difficult. We cannot clearly see who we are, what our situation is, or what we must do. But with the freedom to see clearly things as they are — especially to see ambiguity instead of falsely defined situations — we live a fit, genuine life.
     In beholding the Holy, we apprehend ultimate worth. The Anglo-Saxon term from which our word worship derives means “shaping” or “scooping” or “considering things of worth.”
     Such beholding often leads to gratitude, which in turn often leads to a desire to share and be of service as a way of rendering thanks. This is why the sacred opens, organizes, and prioritizes our living, and gives us a power and authenticity that links us to the energy of the universe itself.
     Spirituality is a way of living out our worship experience so that our lives have transcendent meaning, coherence, order, and relationships informed by a sense of the Sacred. Spirituality is breathing with a sense of what counts.
     To eat or love or travel or listen or work or play or walk through a field or email a friend or attend a concert or a game or heal or comfort a companion or even breathe with sacred intent throws one into awareness of infinite connections and ultimate dependencies. The world is vivid, we belong in it, and we want to help.

Our age is secularistic because it has no unifying sense of the Holy.

The profane, the partial, separates the method from the result, the means severed from the end. The slogan, “The end justifies the means,” is rejected by those who, like Gandhi and King, understand that there can be no sacred distinction between the two. 

One does not build a nonviolent society through violence.

4. Three Profanities of Our Secularist Age

THE WORD PROFANE means “outside the temple,” but even the temple has often become profane, secularistic, in the sense of being disconnected to the rest of our lives. “Profane” and “secularistic” point to the fragmentation of our world into various disciplines (in the universities), special interests (in politics), and social divisions (by class, race, age, “sexual orientation” and such).
     The profane is the opposite of the Holy, that which is whole, the network on which all depends. Our age is secularistic because it has no unifying sense of the Holy.
     The profane, the partial, separates the method from the result, the means severed from the end. The slogan, “The end justifies the means,” is rejected by those who, like Gandhi and King, understand that there can be no sacred distinction between the two. One does not build a nonviolent society through violence. As Abraham Lincoln knew, when violence is necessary, a terrible price must be paid. The effects of slavery brought in the New World in the 15th Century still have not been healed. We profane • nature, • self, and • others.
      The Ecology. — The destruction of rain forests is one example of the environmental exploitation arising from the secularism that fragments and profanes us. If we deeply sensed how holy these forests are, and that our survival depends on their well-being, we would not cut them down any more than we would poke out our own eyes.
     Our environmental danger is sometimes summarized by the word “pollution,” actually an old religious term denoting ritual desecration and moral corruption. Overpopulation, toxic wastes from the auto, and the loss of diversity of species are signs of this pollution. “Pollution” cannot be corrected by mere technology because it is ultimately a spiritual problem.
      The Person. — Within the individual, the profane divides us from ourselves and leads to three kinds of failure. The first is addiction. It may be to substances like alcohol and tobacco, or to compulsive behaviors like gambling, sexaholism, and workaholism, or to the kind of consumerism which distracts us from recognizing the sacred in the ordinary. The second is dependency which keeps us from taking responsibility for ourselves by co-dependent relationships, handling others’ feelings, and destructive criticism of others. The third is prejudice — acted out in oppressions like sexism, classism, heterosexism, adultism, age-ism, limiting our spirits and distancing us from others.
         Society. — We are addicted to violence. Its portrayal often ignores its actual effect on victims and their families, further violating reality. Games like Mortal Kombat engender competition to see who can lop off the most heads in stylized “fun.” With advances in virtual reality computing, it will be possible to actually feel what it is like to cut open someone’s chest and pull out the beating heart, with your victim’s warm blood spurting in your face. There will be no immediate consequences since it is just a simulation. But such electronic rehearsals, profaning the spirit, will result in actual performances. The celebrity status and huge financial rewards that we give writers, actors, and companies that model violence show we have not been effective in shaming them.
     Our entertainment paradigms are win/lose battles instead of creative, respectful, loyal conflict out of which solutions which benefit all people emerge.
      Is any aspect of our society more profane than sexuality? Our culture has often disconnected it from spirituality and turned it into a commodity. The frequency of rape suggests that power, rather than mutuality, is society’s theme. Most faiths agree that sex is one possible way to express or explore transcendent love. But there is disagreement whether law and religious rules too often treat sex as a merely physical activity. For example, should the love of partners be expressed in marriage if they are of the same gender? Does a negative answer arise from a physical preoccupation?
     If there is an area more profane than sexuality, it may be the exploitation which creates the growing disparity between the very rich and the very poor. This is happening because our disengaged citizenry too often focuses on private matters instead of our common weal. Repenting our selfishness and greed may be more important than tax-cuts.





5. The Holy in the Environment

MANY PRIMAL RELIGIONS behold the sacred in the world of nature. Unlike creationists who fear the notion that we might be related to monkeys, the American Indian celebrates one’s bear, fox, or frog lineage, an ancestry which gives one intimacy with nature. This is why totem poles, family trees, portray one’s forebears in animal form.
     When we need groceries, the sanitized supermarket is our source, not the wild. But when a brave shoots a deer, he may say, “I am sorry I had to kill you, Little Brother. My children were hungry. My family needs your meat. See, I hang your antlers in the tree. I decorate them with streamers. I smoke tobacco in your memory. Each time I cross this path, I shall honor your spirit.”
     We seldom talk to our food, and even table grace is often an embarrassment to us: our consciousness is separated from the sacred, that on which our lives literally depend.
     When a woman in the Southwest extracts clay from the ground to make a pot for storing food, she offers a prayer to the earth. Even stones are considered “people.” The streams, the air, the mountains —all are alive with sacred power, and deserve respect as our relatives, not used as objects for selfish ends, outside of a sacred pattern of where everything fits.
     The ecological balance we need may be different than the one the hunter or the potter knew, but the Primal religions suggest that our environmental problems cannot be solved merely by technology.
     Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the more recent Maya and Inca civilizations, and the still-persisting tribal ways in Africa, Australia, Oceana, and elsewhere have strikingly different ways of understanding nature. For example, the Egyptians understood the sacred in nature as stability, the Greeks as a dynamic order, the Romans as potencies requiring compliance. But they all have understood nature as the fundamental expression of the Holy.
     Recent thinkers, some stimulated by encounters with Primal traditions, have begun to recover a sense of the holy in nature, including Thomas Berry, J Baird Callicott, J Ronald Engel and Joan Gibb Engel, Matthew Fox, Roger Gottlieb, Eugene Hargrove, David Kinsley, Delores LaChapelle, Peter Marshall, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Steven Rockefeller and John Elder, Charlene Spretnak, Brian Swimme, and, of course, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
    In sum: Our ecological endangerment cannot be remedied by mere technology. The intimacy Primal peoples have with nature can guide us toward healing.

6. The Holy in the Self

MANY ASIAN RELIGIONS behold the sacred in the psyche.  A Hindu story: In the forest ten thousand rishis worshipped the god, Shiva, in only one, static manifestation. Shiva decided to appear, to show them that his manifestations are multitudinous; that his personality is many, not one; that he is motion, movement, dance.
     But the rishis, whose preconceptions were challenged, rejected him. They called forth a great tiger who ferociously attacked Shiva at his throat. Shiva, with his little fingernail, skinned the tiger and wrapped the skin around him as a cloak.  Then the rishis chanted a magic spell, and a great serpent emerged from the ground and, around the body of Shiva, began to writhe and twist and choke. But Shiva disabled the serpent, and cast its long body around his neck as a streamer of garlands. The rishis’ incantations finally caused a demon dwarf to attack Shiva with a mace. But Shiva placed his little toe on the demon’s back and began to dance.
     All the gods came to see this dance, in which Shiva took every threat and made them props in his performance, showing us that whatever comes our way, however frightening, can be rendered harmless, even enriching, as we accept it into our dance — now moving forward, now retreating, now high, now low: the divine personality in many forms, always in process, moving in the eternal dance of the cosmos.
     This transforming power within is sacred; from it arises the meaning of our lives. The many dimensions of awareness are celebrated also by Buddhist mandalas. Even the ferocious Buddhist temple guardian figures challenge us to observe projections, and see that what we really fear may reside within us.
     Through yoga, meditation, rites, and other techniques for observing the Self (or, in the case of Buddhism, the not-Self), Asian traditions (including Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism) provide paths for release from the perils of the ego.
     In sum: The inner emptiness and disorientation that leads to addiction, dependencies, and prejudice can be healed by insights developed and nurtured by the Asian traditions.

7: The Holy in Society

THE MONOTHEISTIC FAITHS behold the sacred in the realm of history and covenanted community, not so much the tree or the inner light, as in human relations. God is found in our meeting one another. In memory the divine is recalled and welcomed into the present.
          Moses, though brought up an Egyptian, felt a strange kinship with the Children of Israel, who had been pressed into bondage. He discovered who he really was by affirming his relationship with them, leading them out of the land of slavery, into the holiness of freedom. The Law provided the way in which Israel could be organized for holy living. In American Civil Religion, that covenant is called the Constitution.
     As we relieve the suffering and oppression of our brothers and sisters, so, too, are our own spirits liberated into the vitality of the community, submitting to the commandments on which our lives and well-being as a society depend.
     The succeeding Hebrew prophets analyzed the historical forces acting on their nation and discovered divine patterns which we have ignored — our news seems to fall into pieces rather than patterns. Their prophesies were not so much prognostications and predictions as they were social commentaries and warnings; today’s prophets are the thoughtful political columnists and leaders of peace and justice movements. The faith  that God is working out his will for justice is expressed in what may be the most prized document in American Civil Religion, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
     For Jews, the holy community is the mystical Israel; for Christians it is the Body of Christ, the Church; for Muslims the Umma; for Sikhs the Khalsa. Zoroastrianism, Bahá’í, and other faiths have parallels. In the perverted version of Monotheism called Communism (God replaced by economic determinism), it is the Party which saves.
     In our time, we must develop a sense of community world-wide. From a shofar, or wherever we hear a call to holiness, we awaken to a spiritual kinship and to duties not just with those of like faith, but with all who live, have lived, and will live.
     In sum: Our social disorientation and disintegration, the eviscerated sense of community, the neglect of courtesy, the evaporation of  service, and the growing concerns for safety can be answered by a recovery and revitalization of the Monotheistic sense of meaning in the process of history, as the human relationships unfold in divine order.

But since most of us in this culture claim a Monotheistic heritage, how did our sense of community become so damaged?

Three Signs 
of Secularism 

Worship of the “bottom line”

Separating sexuality and spirituality

Acceptance of pervasive violence

8. Three Signs of American Secularism

Of the three families of faith outlined and charted above, American culture has been largely shaped by Christianity, a monotheistic tradition which emphasizes the covenanted community. Why, then, has the sense of covenant been broken? Why has it been weakened even in religious institutions?
     Although many believe they worship “the one true God,” our society is so fragmented that we have a de facto abandonment of monotheism. We adore power, possessions, pleasure — all of which may be good but become distractions when the vision of how all things involve each other becomes lost.
     The revelation that God works through community now seems strange — from the jokes about committees to our politics debased by special interests instead of decisions for the commonweal. Rather than government as an expression of community, its regulation and taxation seems to threaten the individual which has been transformed from a public person  (that is a citizen, a person in relationship with others) into a bundle of desires for consumption. The “happiness” of the Declaration of Independence involved the capacity to affect communal good; now “happiness” too often means selfish satisfaction.
     America is a “case study” of perverted religious impulse. (See chart.) The genius of monotheism — to see the sacred working through the history of covenanted community — is distorted by self-righteousness and exclusivity that are typical dangers of this family of religions.

In outline, here are three signs of this secularism:
     1. The Bottom Line, severed from a sense of the larger good, seems to be our overarching public value. The bottom line is expressed in pseudo-religious language by Christian extremists who focus on heaven and hell. Instead of urging us to do good because it is right, we are enticed with the promise of paradise and threatened with the prospect of damnation for our beliefs.  This reward-punishment model has us so hooked that many people believe Bill Gates has a right to fifty billion dollars of private wealth, even though it was gained through immoral, and possibly illegal, practices.
     We think of taxation as something the governments do. We are not permitted to regard our contribution to Bill’s bundle as taxation because it goes to him, rather than to the government. He gets to decide how to spend it, not us. We have little choice but to support his inferior products because of his predatory ways. His philanthropy is no defense: Instead of each citizen controlling one’s money, or being represented in government, Gates extorts and decides. It is taxation without representation.
     This is not to judge Gates personally; but this is a metaphor for how difficult it is to think about economic justice.
     Business is often judged not by whether society is helped but by whether riches result. We have abandoned the idea of vocation as a role by which one contributes to society with a wholesome service — making shoes, doctoring, producing food, settling disputes, entertainment. A fair return on investment is not wrong, but worshipping profit is.
     2. Sexuality is divorced from spirituality. One cannot be either fully spiritual or sexual without being both. Even celibacy is an intensely spiritual wedding to one’s sexual nature. The religious poet William Blake wrote of the genitals as “Beauty,” but we regard their portrayal as pornography. What does it mean that we accept the most appalling violence in the arena, on TV, and on the screen but restrict the display of love-making?
     3. The third sign is violence. Violence arises from, and reinforces, the first two signs of secularism. Separating profit from social good and dividing sexuality from the spirit distorts relationships and twists energy into acts of malignity.
     By the mid 60s, community participation measured in many ways and documented by Robert Putnum of Harvard, began a dangerous decline. Air conditioning replaced the front porch swing and neighborly interaction diminished. With each member of the family having one’s own TV, the viewing experience loses its social dimension. The investment we made in the Interstate Highway System could have been used instead for a public transportation system that would have avoided minimized the destruction of neighborhoods by the roads which divided or replaced them with the resulting social problems, the advance of urban sprawl, and the degradation of our air and other environmental damage. Recent popular perversions of Asian faiths also justified spirituality as merely an inner concern.
     Christianity has moved from the understanding of the church as the “Body of Christ” and the vision of community the Pilgrims shared to the “Sheila-ism” Robert Bellah identifies as the isolated spirituality of our time. The theological transformations have paralleled the technology in leading us into forms of disconnection. Whether the holistic metaphor of the world wide web’s interconnections will redeem the increasing specialization and cyberfication of humanity remains to be seen.
     With the loss of a sense of bonding, even within families, we have become addicted to violence. A typical American child sees 40,000 “play” murders and 200,000 dramatized acts of violence before turning 18. The link between the portrayal of violence and acting out by the vulnerable is no longer debatable.
     Rather than repeat the appalling statistics, let me focus on how accepted violence has become, so pervasive that we don’t even see it. Even gentle comic strips like Peanuts perpetuate our culture of violence.
     When I took my son some years ago to Worlds of Fun, a place for “family entertainment,” I discovered their video games scored by lopping off as many heads as you could. What does it say about us that we dismiss thus as “just fun, mere entertainment”?
     The first time friends proposed playing Cowboys and Indians, I was shocked. Why would anyone want to play bang-bang: you’re dead just for fun? Advertisements for games command: “kill your friends guilt free,” “get in touch with your gun-toting, cold-blooded murdering side.” We praise the ingenuity of special effects — violence as art — while we dismiss their impact on us, the children, and the vulnerable. Actors, producers, and the movie companies should be ashamed of serving their careers and the dollar by modeling violence. They should also be embarrassed at their imaginative failure to create wonderful, wholesome entertainment.
     Our language itself is a menace. We talk about fighting cancer more than healing. Radio station KXTR tries to be funny by asking us to enjoy a weekend with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as “the Killer B’s.” At my son’s graduation proudly posted was the host’s school song, called — you guessed it, “The Fight Song.” “We are the Shawnee Mission Raiders! We have the team that fights to win. . . . Go Fight, Win!” Why not “Play Well”? Why is winning so important that one must fight to do it? Why a school song based on such a metaphor instead of healing or building or growing or team spirit?
     We are so immersed in violence it is hard to see its extent. Because the nature of violence is separation, we need to discover the pattern which can heal the schisms and bring the pieces together.

Religions are alike in that they all originate from experiences of awe, encounters with the Sacred, but the way those experiences are understood or emphasized varies.

To blend religions together would produce a dangerous spiritual pabulum, just as reducing the dimensions of an amphitheater to a single point would forgo the expanses which can contain a powerful and glorious assembly of diverse people 

So how do religions fit together? Perhaps as the length, width, and height of a room are essential dimensions of the space, the Primal, Asian, and Monotheistic traditions we have outlined are essential expressions of the Sacred. Each religion may have some acquaintance with other dimensions, but as it has developed, it may become expert in a particular expression of the Sacred.

9. Are All Faiths Really One?

We want to stop the violence we see perpetrated in the name of religion. We think if we only recognize that all religions are basically the same, violence will cease. It is a beguiling sentiment. Two examples: All religions believe in God; the Golden Rule appears in all faiths. But neither is true. While Jews, Christians and Muslims worship one God, forms of Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism are non-theistic, and conceptions of God vary so greatly among many religions that it is confusing to use them to support the first italicized claim. While texts similar to the Golden Rule can be extracted out of context from many traditions, viewing them as like ethical principles violates the integrity of the faiths by forcing them into a Western category of thought.
     Huston Smith asks, “How fully has the proponent [of the view that all religions are at their core the same] tried and succeeded in understanding Christianity’s claim that Christ was the only begotten Son of God, or the Muslim’s claim that Muhammad is the Seal of the prophets, or the Jews’ sense of their being the Chosen People? How does he propose to reconcile Hinduism’s conviction that this will always remain a ‘middle world’ with Judaism’s promethean faith that it can be decidedly improved? How does the Buddha’s ‘anatta doctrine’ of no-soul square with Christianity’s belief in . . . individual destiny in eternity? How does Theravada Buddhism’s rejection of every form of personal God find echo in Christ’s sense of relationship to his Heavenly Father? How does the Indian view of Nirguna Brahman, the God who stands completely aloof from time and history, fit with the Biblical view that the very essence of God is contained in his historical acts? Are these beliefs really only accretions, tangential to the main concern of spirit? The religions . . . may fit together, but they do not do so easily.”
     While the mystical traditions within many faiths may be remarkably similar, mysticism is not at the core of many of the world’s religions.
     To say that all religions are alike is like saying all food is alike. If I have a cholesterol problem, have lactose intolerance, am allergic to shell fish, or observe religious dietary laws, the fact that all food by definition is nourishing does not enable me to eat everything. A religion may be life-giving to one person and toxic to another. A faith that is deeply meaningful and obviously beneficial to one person or society may be opaque or even distracting from the path of wholeness to another.

Religions are alike in that they all originate from experiences of awe, encounters with the Sacred, but the way those experiences are understood or emphasized varies.
     So how do religions fit together? Perhaps as the length, width, and height of a room are essential dimensions of the space, the Primal, Asian, and Monotheistic traditions we have outlined are essential expressions of the Sacred. Each religion may have some acquaintance with other dimensions, but as it has developed, it may become expert in a particular expression of the Sacred.
     To blend religions together would produce a dangerous spiritual pabulum, just as reducing the dimensions of an amphitheater to a single point would forgo the expanses which can contain a powerful and glorious assembly of diverse people.
     Our age is one which, beset by environmental, personal, and social challenges, can addressed by the special insights of Primal, Asian, and Monotheistic traditions. We understand ourselves and our own traditions better by encountering others, and engaging in mutual purification of the faiths through respectful exchange.
     We cannot afford to ignore their wisdom, or to live with our own so routinely that we have lost the refreshment of the experience of awe. The peril, despite the promise of the new millennium, is real. If we neglect any of the three dimensions of the Sacred, civilization as we know and hope it to be will end. As the ancient Tao Te Ching says, “Where there is no sense of wonder, there will be disaster.”
     Thus the mission of CRES — to work with all faiths to rekindle the sense of wonder in our overwhelmingly secularistic age.

 Those with faiths other than our own become our guides to a deeper understanding of the reality beyond words on which we depend, out of which we arise, and to which we return. 10. Faiths in Dialogue

The congress of the faiths can best occur by discovery and growth within each tradition, stimulated by mutual encounter, rather than by organizational assimilation or imitation.
     Those with faiths other than our own become our guides to a deeper understanding of the reality beyond words on which we depend, out of which we arise, and to which we return.
     Encounter must occur not only internationally and nationally, but regionally and locally as well. In many communities, religious pluralism is a reality ready to be celebrated, as it is here in Kansas City. Rather than focus on international leaders, it may be more productive to develop exchange between and among various faith communities within each locality. This is why CRES focuses on our metropolitan area, though we maintain contact with international organizations.

Because of complex and unconscious assumptions of identity and difference within faith communities about others, it is helpful to approach mutual study with a generalization such as the three-part pattern here described, a generalization understood as such, with the process of the exchange modifying, challenging, and ultimately abandoning the generalizations as the rich texture of interfaith encounter purifies, transforms, enlarges, and deepens the practices of the participants.
     Such faith encounters, by indirection, through conversation, visitation, common worship, shared projects, and significant friendships, may be the best way to discover solutions to the three crises of our secularistic age. The simple three-part pattern we have outlined in this year-long series becomes increasingly complex without falling into pieces.

Appendix One: 
from the Conference Declaration

Wisdom from Our Faiths Cited in 2001 Greater Kansas City “Gifts of Pluralism” Conference Concluding Declaration:

The gifts of pluralism have taught us that nature is to be respected, not just controlled. Nature is a process that includes us, not a product external to us that can just be used or disposed of.  Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility.  When we do use nature as we must - for food, housing, and other legitimate purposes - we should do so with respect and care, preserving its beauty and mindful of its connection to the Sacred and ourselves. 

We have also learned that our true personhood may not be in the images of ourselves constrained by any particular social identities.  When we realize this, out acts can proceed spontaneously from duty and compassion, and we need not be unduly attached to results beyond our control. 

Finally, when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service, the flow of history towards peace and justice is honored and advanced.

11. Three Attitudes

What attitudes further such dialogue? Targeting Jews for conversion on High Holy Days, Hindus at Divali, and Muslims at Ramadan may appear as silly ignorance or proselytizing arrogance by those who have tasted the fruits of genuine interfaith encounter.
     Thus Pope John Paul II, who has pursued interfaith relations vigorously, apologized for horrors through the ages done by Christians. One evening before the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians began, a panel here in Kansas City discussed the prospects for peace. The Muslim leader began by confessing the terrible things done in the name of his faith. The rabbi likewise enumerating evils perpetrated by those claiming to be Jews. The audience was deeply moved by such frank admissions. From such mutuality rather than defensiveness, genuine encounter becomes possible. What a contrast to the schemes of conversion some have pursued!
     1. While one can believe fervently in one’s own faith, to share it without equal openness in encounter with another may betray unacknowledged insecurity about one’s own religion. The idea that one religion is so superior to all others that all should convert to it fails to acknowledge that most of us follow religious paths shaped by the times and cultures in which we have been born. Most Indians are Hindu. Most Saudis are Muslim. Most Americans are Christian. Even those who adopt a different religion do so usually because of  the lens of exposure.
     2. The attitude that all religions are the same at core is also not the most helpful position for honest dialogue. "Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language us not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular," said Santayana. To say all religions at their core are the same is to say that all languages are fundamentally identical. But since most of us are unfamiliar with many faiths, this is not obvioius; and with a good heart and sincere intent, we look to confirm our presumption; and in an effort to accommodate one another, it is easy to edit differences out of our conversation and distort things to regard them as similar.
     3. If we begin, however, as explorers, without too great an eagerness either to sell or to buy, we can make great discoveries about our own traditions and those of others. We may find that our faiths historically have often influenced each other to such an extent that we may see all of us engaged in one rich religious adventure rather than completely distinct revelations. We may find that our common problems today — in the environment, in the personal realm, in the human community — can draw us into deeper understanding of the sacred, so that our attitude becomes one of mutual ownership of each others’ traditions without losing our own paths, just as we all own the highways of this nation even though we live on our own street. We may find that the many paths lead us not to a single sacred spot, but to many manifestations of the holy, from which our service to others as kin may abundantly flow.
      Such awareness may help to purify and mutually transform us into that greater witness by which the seductive powers of secularism may be healed.

Appendix Two
Four Levels of Engagement

1. Many people now know the dangers of religious prejudice. They believe that everyone has the right to one’s own religion, or none. This is the first, most superficial level of engagement with other faiths. It is an advance from the days when people were forcibly converted to another faith or denied opportunities because of their traditions. Home associations can no longer prevent Jews from buying in their areas. While Wiccans and other minorities still encounter discrimination from time to time, we have come a long way. 
   But are their deeper levels of engagement with faiths other than our own? 

 2. We can move from respecting not only others’ right to their own faiths to respecting their faiths as well. This is a subtle but crucial distinction. It is one thing for me to agree you have the right to have whatever painting you wish in your living room, and it is another thing for me to learn why it is beautiful to you, even if I do not want it in my living room. 

3. We take another step toward deeper understanding when we participate in interfaith exchange. I need a mirror to see myself. When Christians discover why Jesus is so revered by Muslims, when Tibetan Buddhists and Jews tell their stories of suffering, when Hindus and American Indians share dances, all can see their own heritage more clearly with the mirror of the other. 

4. But there is an even fuller engagement. The mirrors of faith transmit and reflect the holy from many angles. Bringing and focusing them together, a powerful, curative light can shine to heal the three great crises of secularism: we can apply the wisdom of the world’s faiths to the endangered environment, the violation of personhood, and the broken community. 

Is this the key religious task of the new millennium?

12. Finding the Treasures

Rather than threaten, differences can enrich. How? By disclosing ourselves as well as giving us a clearer sense of the diversity within the Infinite. While we can never fully escape from the limited, the partial, the secularistic, the world’s great religions arise from the whole, from experiences of awe and participation in the vitality of the cosmos, from the deep questions — “What is so important that my life depends on it or that I would die for?” and “What may I do to honor and share it?” In other words, “What is sacred?”
     The answer to this question may come from one’s own tradition. Yet we need the help of others to find that answer in this secularistic age. “He who knows one religion knows none,” said Max Müller, suggesting that until we can view our own faith from the perspective of others, we cannot know our own. The import is similar of Kipling’s question: “What knows he of England who only England knows?” I know what Kansas City is better by acquaintance with San Francisco and New York and Delhi and Rome. The paradox of these teachings is the key to understanding a favorite story of my teacher, Mircea Eliade:

A pious rabbi named Eisik once lived in Cracow.  He was very poor. One night as he slept on the dirt floor of his hovel, he had a dream which told him to go to Prague, and there under the bridge that led to the royal castle he could unearth a great treasure. The dream was repeated a second night, and a third.
     He decided to set out for Prague. After many days walking, he entered Prague, and found the bridge that led to the royal castle.  But he could not dig. The bridge was guarded day and night. The rabbi walked back and forth awaiting a moment when the bridge might be unwatched and he might dig for the treasure. The captain of the guard noticed him, and went up to him. “I’ve noticed you walking about here these several days. Have you lost something?” At this, the rabbi innocently narrated his tale. “Really,” said the captain of the guard, who was a secularistic, modern man, unconnected with his dreams, “Have you worn out all your shoe leather merely on the account of a dream? I too have had a dream, three times, which told me to go to the town of Cracow, and look for the rabbi Eisik, and dig in his dirt floor behind his stove in the middle of his room, and there I would find a great treasure. But dreams are silly superstitions.”
     The rabbi immediately understood  and promptly returned home, entered his hovel, and dug underneath the heart of his hearth, where the warmth of his own being lay. And there he unearthed a treasure, which put an end to his poverty.

From this tale Eliade draws two lessons. The first is that the treasure which can put an end to our spiritual poverty lies not in another country.  It can be found within the heart of our heart, the center of our own tradition.  In the house of ourselves it lies buried in our innermost being. The second lesson is the paradox: only after a pious journey to a distant region, in a strange country where someone speaks to us in a foreign accent, can we be directed to the location of that buried treasure.
     Through encounters we have with the strangers of other faiths we can discover our own faith. Through a far pilgrimage we can know ourselves and our home and be saved. It is through the mutual purification of faiths meeting each other that the Three Crises of Secularism can be healed. The religions of the world fall not into pieces but compose an infinite pattern.

The Four Wisdom Treasures

     PRIMAL faiths emphasize Nature is to be respected more than controlled; it is a process which includes us, not a product external to us to be used or disposed of. Our proper attitude toward nature is awe, not utility.
     ASIAN faiths emphasize Who we appear to be is a matter of convention; nonetheless, our acts should proceed spontaneously from duty and compassion, and we need not be attached to their results.
     MONOTHEISTIC faiths emphasize The flow of history toward justice is possible when persons in community govern themselves less by profit and more by the covenant of service.
     Liberation movements demonstrate Those disempowered by a secular age may, through their struggles, show the impulse toward the sacred in fresh ways.

[1] Judaism is a religion of history and as such it may be contrasted with religions of nature and religions of contemplation.
     Religions of nature see God in the surrounding universe; for example, in the orderly course of the heavenly bodies, or more frequently in the recurring cycle of the withering and resurgence of vegetation.  This cycle is interpreted as the dying and rising of a god in whose experience the devotee may share through various ritual acts and may thus also become divine and immortal.  For such a religion, the past is not important, for the cycle of the seasons is the same one year as the next.
   Religions of contemplation, at the other extreme, regard the physical world as an impediment to the spirit, which, abstracted from the things of sense, must rise by contemplation to union with the divine.  The sense of time itself is to be transcended, so that here again history is of no import.
     But religions of history, like Judaism, discover God “in his mighty acts among the children of men.”  Such a religion is a compound of memory and hope.  It looks backward to what God has already done.  The feasts of Judaism are chiefly commemorative: Passover recalls the deliverance of the Jews from bondage in Egypt; Purim, Esther’s triumph over Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews in the days of King Ahasuerus; and Hanukkah, the purification of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes.  And this religion looks forward with faith; remembrance is a reminder that God will not forsake his own.  The faith of Judaism was anchored in the belief that God was bound to his people by a covenant, at times renewed and enlarged.  [emphasis added] —Roland Bainton, Christendom, p3-4

[2]  “[B]ecoming God” happens individually, communally, and cosmically.    —Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity, p124.