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interfaith issues
copyright 1999 by Vern Barnet, Overland Park, KS


Clint Wynn interviews the Rev Vern Barnet, DMn, at a videotaped lunch in 1998. Redacted, arranged, and revised for length and clarity.

Is it wise to look at other religions?

     Huston Smith, author of  The World’s Religions and focus of a five-part PBS series, “The Wisdom Traditions,” with Bill Moyers, repeats the advice that, if you are searching for water, it is better to dig one 100-foot well, rather than ten 10-foot wells: a deep spiritual life comes from digging in one tradition seriously. Nonetheless, Smith obviously didn’t follow that advice himself, and I also have taken more of an expansive approach – not “cafeteria” style, but rather visiting repeatedly the restaurants of many different faiths.  And I find that my life is nourished, my own spiritual life is deepened by knowing how different faiths deal with similar issues.

     Knowing about other religions helps us to understand our own.  “What knows he of England who only England knows?” asked Kipling, suggesting that we understand ourselves better when we know about others. Max Mueller put it this way: “He who knows one religion knows none.”

As a salesman, I have found that if I try to sell too many items, I don’t sell any of them very well. So I narrow it down to as few items as I can. . . . I don’t know if we can use that same procedure when we look at religion.

     It depends. If your work is as a committed Christian person, then you’ve got one product to sell. I think that product is love – through a particular image,  Jesus.

     My professional work is not sales; I’m more of a “clearing house.” My job is to know what’s out there to help people connect. And to help them find the product that will . . . .

What if you’re wrong? What if you’re doing something very well, but it’s the wrong thing?

     I’m not wise enough to decide for somebody else. All I can do is say, “Here are your options. And if you’re particularly concerned about certain issues, this particular faith may be of interest to you.”

In Christianity, we hear terms like “Jesus is the only way to salvation.” Doesn’t that knock down everybody else?

     Why should it? The Christian thinks that Jesus is the incarnation of divine love. So, “No man comes to the Father but by me” is a wonderful metaphorical way of saying: “Unless you love, you won’t live a meaningful life.”

     Is Jesus  “the only way?” Is your wife the only gal for you?

Yes.

     (Referring to an observer)  Would you be upset if you heard him say that his wife is the only gal for him, the most beautiful woman that ever walked the face of the earth?
 
No.

     You might say the same thing about your wife. It is logically contradictory; both wives cannot be the most beautiful woman who ever walked the face of the earth. But I hope that your commitment would lead you to make such a statement. What seems an exclusive statement is really a statement of commitment.

But can we use that same example when we talk about God, Jesus, salvation? I just returned from a medical meeting in Washington, D.C. There were doctors from India. They had performers after the meeting. One performer, before she would do something, placed an idol on the floor, and knelt before it. After the performance was over, I went over to look at the idol. The idol was a kind of human body and an elephant head.

     Ganesh. Ganesh is a popular Hindu god invoked before almost any undertaking, the embodiment of wisdom. Sometimes he is regarded as the scribe for Vyasa’s dictation of the Mahabharata. He is paid homage before an artistic performance. We sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game.

What was the symbol of the elephant head?

     Now you don’t get upset when you go the football game and you say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” You are talking to a piece of cloth, promising allegiance to a piece of cloth. That’s kind of bizarre. Some Christians won’t do it because they say it’s honoring a piece of cloth or a country more than God. So you have to understand practices within a cultural context. And so you’re asking about the homage paid to Ganesh before this . . .  was it a dance performance?

Yes, exactly.

     Well, he’s the patron of the arts. The tusk andtrunk symbolize his ability to remove obstacles to success. Often regarded as the son of Shiva and Parvati, his elephant head was the first available head to replace his human one when it was lost, according to various tales. This may not make sense to most Westerners, but imagine how meaningful it would sound to the Hindu unacquainted with Christianity to hear a Catholic talk about consuming the body and blood of Christ.

Observer: You’re a cannibal.

Christians go to church for an hour or so, plus maybe a Sunday School class –  we seem to be operating at an elementary level. We don’t really know what we’re supposed to believe.

Listening to you now, there’s a college level, and a master’s level, and a PhD level in the study of religion.

     Well there is, but you don’t have to get a degree in order to live a good life. Didn’t Jesus say that the sum of the law is to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself? You don’t need all that academic stuff . . . .

Who is Jesus? Who do you think he was?

     That’s not a simple question. It depends in what context I’m speaking. If I’m in a Christian setting, Jesus was the only begotten Son of God. If I’m with certain Hindus, I might recognize their view that Jesus was an incarnation of  Vishnu. Christians might question whether they understand the claims of classical Christianity, but I understand why they say that, and I respect it, as well as the objecting Christians.

If you were invited to Shawnee Mission High School to speak on religion, and you’ve got the 300 kids sitting there, listening to you talk – what would you focus on? Would you just talk in generalities, or would you say, “It’s up to you as to what course you would take,” or “Follow the tradition of your family,” or “As Americans, we are traditionally a Christian nation”?

     I would say, “If you’re a Jew, be a better Jew. If you’re a Christian, I want you to be a better Christian. If you’re a Buddhist, be a better Buddhist. If you’re an agnostic, be a better agnostic.”
 

But aren’t all religions basically the same?

     Are all people basically the same? Yes and no. We may recognize our kinship, our similarities, but it is also important to recognize our differences. Would your wife like you thinking of her as identical with all other women?

     If you invited me and my son for dinner, I might say, “Thank you. I should mention that my son has a cholesterol problem, and so could you please not include inappropriate problem foods on the menu?” If we arrive and find you are serving big juicy hamburgers, I would say, “Gee, my son can’t eat that. I’m sorry.” Would you say, “Well all food is nourishing, all food is basically alike. He should eat it.” This is like saying “all religions are basically alike.” All religions are concerned with the sacred, and all food is nourishing, but what is healthful for one person can be poison for another. Respecting differences is important.

What about mysticism?
 

     Mysticism in all religions is similar. But there are profound differences in the world views among religions. Here is my card, with four sets of symbols. The first half of the top row represents primal faiths. Now   primal faiths – many of them extinct – find answers to the question “What is sacred? – what is it on which our lives depend?” in the realm of nature. The Asian faiths, represented in the second half of the row, find the sacred in consciousness – not in the tree or flowing water, but in the inner capacity to transform whatever comes one’s way. The monotheistic traditions, symbolized on the first half of the bottom row, find God revealed in the history of covenanted community. The Bible is a record of God’s intervention and rule of history. The symbols in the last set are contemporary liberation movements with spiritual dimensions.

     Environmental issues threaten our very existence; the search for personal identity now takes forms of substance addiction, consumerism, codependent relationships, and prejudice; our social covenant is broken by mistrust and selfish appropriation of power. These three crises of the end of the millennium can be cured with resources from the three families of faith as they encounter each other and are renewed by contemporary liberation movements.

     The CRES motto parallels these families of faith: Restored with nature, the self made whole, relationships reclaimed, finding the sacred afresh. Our survival depends on using insights from what Smith calls “the wisdom traditions.” This is why interfaith understanding is important, and why I do what I do.