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A King’s College Christmas Eve: Rumor of Transcendence

10 Dec

Our daughters, Sarah and Martha, then in high school, count December 24, 1977, as a high point of our year in Cambridge, England, because it was their chance to attend the celebrated King’s College Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. King’s College boys’ choir is a musical piece de resistance in Cambridge (although there are those who count the Saint John’s boys’ choir to be superior). The choir is composed three fourths of boys from the choir school (which is a regular private school) and the rest undergraduate men from the college. Everything in King’s College chapel is monumental in size. Its imposing interior contains more square feet of stained glass than any other church in Britain–truly a fitting place for this great service. A huge ebony-colored wooden screen divides the chancel and choir pews from the rest of the chapel. In the center of the choir is a huge lectern, of wrought iron and brass. The reader mounts the step to read the large lectern Bible, which is held in metal brackets, lighted by a candle on either side. The first lesson being finished, the lectern is rotated until it moves a full half circle, and in front of the reader stands another Bible, open to the second lesson.

The Christmas Eve service is a major event in Cambridge. (It is broadcast every year in Chicago on WFMT). Since it is intended to be a community event, only a fraction of the seats are reserved for college dignitaries and their guests. People stand in line (they “queue up” as the English say), to get their seats on a first come, first serve basis. Our daughter’s classmates suggested that they begin queuing at 3:30 a.m. for the 3:30 p.m. service. We bundled them up with sleeping bags, a thermos bottle of hot drink, sandwiches, blankets and other gear for their wait in the 30-degree weather. They had originally intended to ride their bicycles the three miles from our house to King’s Chapel, but a terrible windstorm had arisen during the night, so father had the privilege of driving them into town. At that hour, they were only 15th or 16th in line! At noon the rest of the family drove back to the chapel to bring the girls more to drink and eat, and to collect the sleeping equipment. To my surprise, by that time the college quadrangle was filled with people. Around the periphery of the huge quad, on all four sides, were the people waiting for the doors of the chapel to open. There were others there, however–friends and-relatives who had come, as we had, to bring fresh supplies to the queuers and to chat. My first thought was that this might be a typical tourist gambit, but as I looked around, I saw familiar faces of University dons and other families that I recognized as Cambridge residents. This was a community custom! Even those, like my wife and I, who had no intention of going to the service ourselves, could be part of the festivities. The rituals have changed since we were there–for example, now singers in the quadrangle entertain the queuers while they wait.

The music was grand. Sarah and Martha confess that they dozed only a few times. That might be a good measure for judging any choir: Can it keep its audience awake, when they have been standing (lying down, sleeping) in line for 12 hours?

(c) Phil Hefner. 12/10/2016
(Based on my diary )

Photo: King’s College quad, Cambridge

The truth is. . . Poetry explained

2 Dec

My last blog included three poems on the theme, “The Truth Is. . .,” which in turn was inspired by a news item reporting a survey taken during last summer’s political conventions in which people were asked to complete that sentence about what is truth.

I received more response than usual, and I delight in the widely differing interpretations from readers. Some readers are wondering just what the three poems are up to, so I’m taking an unusual step to clarify, briefly, what was in my mind.

What is truth? My starting-point was my own religious tradition, which I think has meaning beyond its own boundaries. Truth is in words, the theme of the first poem–sacred scriptures are vessels of truth for many religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, as well as Christianity. There are many non-religious approaches to truth as words, as well: our American constitution and constitutions in other countries, laws, contracts and legal traditions, literature, especially poetry. One thing all these hold in common is that they often need interpreters. Rabbis, biblical scholars, and lawyers. Words cannot exist without interpreters, even though the words are the base, the “scriptures.” The question arises whether we find truth in the original words or in the interpreters. And of course, this means which interpreter persuades us. My relation to the words of truth is triangular–me, the words, and the interpreter.

Truth is also associated with places, sometimes called sacred space. Jews refer to the Holy Land; Yahweh dwells in Jerusalem. A Catholic theologian once said, “However you think of the Church, for Catholics, it passes through Rome.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers, from the third century onwards, considered the desert to be a place where the Holy is present. As I write, Native American Indians are defending with their lives what they consider to be the sacred lands of North Dakota–against intrusion by an oil pipe line. For Hindus, the Ganges River in India is sacred and hence the place for their bodies to be cremated after death. The list goes on and on.

In the second poem, I reveal the land of my own spiritual home–the Great Western Plains and the mesas of New Mexico. This is the only truly personal disclosure in the poems.

The third poem takes note of truth embodied in individual persons. Many religious figures come to mind: Gautama Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus Christ. Other persons have elicited a kind of religious status, because they embody truth–think of Che Guevara, Mother Teresa (and indeed all saints), Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln. My own particular Lutheran tradition emphasizes that God’s Word of truth is Jesus Christ. The dogma known as the Two Natures of Christ and the tradition of the theology of the “communication of attributes” (in plainer English, “the co-existence of divinity and humanity”) are centuries-long discussions of how Jesus can be God’s truth.

I wrote the first draft of the poem with a male “person”–you’ll note the names I listed above are mostly male). However, the “Christa” tradition was also in my mind–the effort of some artists to represent Christ as a woman–Edwina Sandys’ 1975 painting is an example (See above). So, I decided to add this nuance.

I asked for comments as to whether the poem’s gender would make a difference. Interestingly, readers were not clear on this, but several suggested it was a personal matter for me. 

My relation to all three sources of truth–not just words–may be dependent on interpreters and tradition. There are dozens–perhaps hundreds–of interpretations of Jesus, for example. Even if living persons, or direct acquaintances are treated as truth-bearers, there is often–though not always–interpretation through media, staged performances, and the like. Similarly, people have to be taught about the community’s holy places. There are personal holy places, like mine, that we have direct experience of. Perhaps that is why I expressed my personal experience only in the second poem.

There is a profound and complex relation between what we experience as truth and what we are taught about truth. One reader asked, “What about the situations in which we ourselves feel prompted to speak ” truth”? We are the truth-bearers?

“The truth is . . .” Each of us has to complete the sentence for ourselves. And the same with my poems–what I had in mind as I wrote them is not necessarily the “correct” interpretation. As Paul Ricoeur wrote, they mean whatever they can mean–in anyone’s mind.

(c) Phil Hefner 12/2/2016

The truth is. . .

28 Nov

I reflected on a news item, which in turn prompted these three poems:

“The booth, the size of a small house trailer, in the shape of a cartoon word bubble with “TRUTH” in bold letters on its side, serves as a video confessional. It will be set up at several locations, including at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Visitors are asked to sit inside and finish the politically and metaphysically loaded sentence that begins, “The truth is …” (New York Times, July 18, 2016). I thought of three ways people seem to think of truth.

I.
The truth is …: Word

A word. . .

in sacred language,
we do not understand

requires learning
translation

we speak those words aloud
understood or not

by ourselves
and together

Sanskrit Hebrew Greek
Latin Arabic King James English
the constitution’s colonial rhetoric

our accents as variable
as we are

the truth they say
is in the recitation

words require interpretation
that’s what rabbis are for

never just one rendering
of truth

we must choose
which words persuade us

which rabbinic eloquence
or logic

the truth is. . .


II.
The truth is …: Place

A place

for the solitary monks
two millennia back in time

empty desert wastes
were truth-bearers

resonating to
lives emptied of things
and fancies

the great western plain
is such an empty vastness
like the sea when the shore is
left behind

emptiness is overflowing fullness

when I’m alone
my vessel
small barely visible
against the wastes
that have no boundary
is filled by a vastness
not mine

for me
this place is both
beginning and end
where arrival and starting out

are one


III.
The truth is …: A Person

Her eyes,
that’s what it is,
Piercing, yes–
but even more,
the world that lies behind her gaze
and projects outward.

Her voice
echoes with the resonance
of God.
Pulling me into her world,
I know that she
is truth for me.

She sees straight into my heart,
tells me who I am
who I can be
and who I must be.
She gives me my direction
and my mission.

She bodies forth the truth
and my truth,
not from afar
nor from a higher place,
but here, before me
at eye level.

Eye-to-eye, I can see
she’s more, better, than
I could ever be, but she is
very like me. I say fully like me.
She eats and drinks,
loves and struggles

to a degree that surpasses me.
But she cries,
fears death–
shouts out her abandonment.
So fully me I ask myself:
Can this be truth?


I considered writing a fourth poem about how all forms of truth are filtered through us–our vision, our minds, our judgments. No matter how we anchor truth in something objective outside us, we judge what is true. I would not say the truth is me and my judgment, but there is no truth for me apart from me.

Query: would it make a difference if the Person were male?

(c) Phil Hefner 11/27/2016

America’s Religion

14 Nov

The election campaign and results have revealed to us something about America’s religion. Eduardo Cruz, the Brazilian theologian, believes that the dark side of our religion has come to the fore. A few weeks ago Martin Marty wrote that football is the American religion. Bob Benne and I wrote a book in the 1960s, entitled “Defining America: A Christian Critique of the American Dream.”

Sociologists and historians like Sidney Mead (a mentor of Marty’s) and Robert Bellah pointed out decades ago that Americans have made a religion out of their society, coining the term “civil religion.” Mead put it in an aphorism: “America is a nation with the soul of a church.”

We’re not the first or the only society to do this–the ancient Romans practiced a religion of society. The Afrikaners, during the apartheid period in South Africa, held a story that is similar in some respects to the American Story.

I agree with Marty about football, but I will focus here on other elements of the American religion. The idea that we have made an Exodus from bondage to the New World is prominent for many different Americans. That Exodus may have been from Europe or Central America or Vietnam or Syria or many other places. The upshot is that everyone holds to a hope– feeling that there is something special or exceptional about the American experience–it is a place of promise. Sacrifice is also a part of the American Dream; hard work assures an upward spiral.

But the upward aspirations of these immigrants to the Land of Promise left a trail of damage in its wake–the dark side of the American Religion that Cruz sees. That dark side is always present, very real to some, even though it recedes into the background for others. It manifested itself first in dispossessing the native peoples who were here when the settlers arrived and became systematic oppression and even genocide by the Europeans. It manifested itself further in two centuries of slavery of Africans, the treatment of women, the exploitation by the robber barons, and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. We’ve exploited the natural world, wantonly, the whole time. These acts were justified by the sense of Americans that they are exceptional, a chosen people.

This is the America that has assumed the status of a religion. It seems to be more obvious in the aftermath of the election. Both candidates spoke of American greatness. The  most outrageous, theologically, was: “America is great, because America is good.” The other candidate argued that we must regain greatness–by exorcising foreigners, building walls of tariffs and also of fence and brick and mortar. Both are frightening. For our new president, civil religion has become “America First” and a jihad against immigrants. It is also the cult of the free market, even though the market economy is regularly manipulated to the benefit of the few. One form of that market has taken away the livelihood of millions of workers in the past quarter century–globalization still has its community of worshippers. Another group of worshippers hold that a different form of the market–marked by tariff barriers–will bring the jobs back. In the name of the market, health care for the underemployed and the elderly is stingy, public aid is withheld, and education neglected.

The Religion of America promises salvation, but it fails to deliver, and it perverts the idea of salvation. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and serious humanists know this–they know that the civil religion has no real God. America First and the free market just don’t work as gods. They’re not big enough, not honest enough, not loving enough.

I’ll be reflecting on these issues in my coming blogs. Send me your ideas and opinions.

 
(c) 11/14/2016 Phil Hefner

 

Re-invention: The Wisdom of Sally Field

18 Mar

“My 70th birthday is coming up soon–I’m an old woman,” Sally Field recently told an interviewer.

“No you’re not,” comes the response. “You’re not old.”

“It’s okay to be old–it’s natural,” Field insists. “And I’ve earned my years–there’s a value in those years that wasn’t there when I was younger.”

She follows up with thoughtful reflection on her situation, delivered with a deceptively light touch–this is not Gidget or the Flying Nun talking. The Sally Field who is turning 70 later this year may have done a turn as Gidget when she was just 19, but she went on to win leading actress Oscars in “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984), and play roles in several other major films. This month she opens in the film, “Hello, My Name is Doris,” as an older woman who romances a younger man.

She is unusual among Hollywood actresses in that she has secured roles through her 60s–in an industry that is known for its discrimination against aging women. She has sixty-three films and television programs to her credit, as well a screenplay and several stints as director and producer. She is sharply critical of the Hollywood system–including the fact that women who dissent receive the worst treatment and are frequently shoved aside. Her mantra: “I kept my head down and found the work wherever it was.”

What attracted me in the interview is Sally Field’s vision of her own life. As we live our lives, we move through stages–childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturing, old age. This is familiar territory, set forth by developmental psychologists for many years. I would add, for parents, the empty nest phase and, for many others, the phase in which one occupation disappears and another must be invented.

Field believes that in every stage we must re-invent ourselves–the adolescent into an adult, the mature adult into an aging person moving toward death. Rather than viewing this endless challenge with dismay, she chooses to highlight the excitement of re-invention.

Field closes the interview on a very high note. The interviewer (who, I think, never really got the point) asks, “So, what’s next?”

“This is my challenge. There is something there that I can’t see yet, and I won’t be able to see it unless I am willing to let go of what I have been and move into the future.” This is re-invention.

These words are inspiring, at whatever stage of re-invention we find ourselves. For me, moving into a retirement community is a direct confrontation with the challenges of a new stage of life. There is a strong urge to regret that we cannot resuscitate the bygone phase. Admitting that re-invention is necessary comes hard. What are the guidelines? What resources do I have? Most of us introduce ourselves to others in terms of that bygone phase, and people may respond to us accordingly.

What if I introduce myself, henceforth, in terms of what I have not yet become–a person in the process of re-invention? A person I cannot yet see?

Are you in the midst of re-invention? Or do you have a few years yet before you face that challenge?

If we compiled the stories of our re-inventions, it would make for inspirational reading. What is your story? Share it here. I include portions of a poem in which I pondered my own re-invention.

A Parable

I will turn my mind to a parable. Psalm 49

I asked my self to reveal myself to me:
“Disclose your depths, tell me what you see.”

Whether in the mirror or the eye of my mind,
I see but little; there must be more that I do not find.

Perhaps I am not my self at all
not a self
that could be found.

I may be a parable–
all the pieces of my life
a story to be sung.

Phil Hefner 17 March 2016

Loving and hating science in the Jurassic World

30 Aug

The final scene of the movie Jurassic World has received no attention in the reviews–in fact, it is not mentioned in the film’s synopses that I’ve read. For those who haven’t seen the film, or whose recollection is faded, let me set the scene: The dinosaur theme park, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Wu (of Jurassic Park fame) features genetically engineered super-dinos–“bigger, faster, crueler.” They are the next generation of dinosaur, developed from the T. Rex raptors in Jurassic Park that the good doctor cloned from prehistoric DNA that was preserved in Amber. Jurassic Park engaged in what is now called de-extinction; Jurassic World goes a step further to create a new breed of dinosaur. JPark’s dinos are “more natural,” and that’s the key to the final scene. The crueler and bigger “modern” reptiles have been vanquished by the T. Rex–that’s what the story line is all about. The movie’s final shot is of the victorious animal raising its head triumphantly above the trees.

Natural is better–that is a frequent theme in movies, even in sci-fi movies. Back in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s classic, Modern Times, ended with Chaplin and Paulette Godard walking down the road, away from the world of technology and into a more natural future. More recently, Bladerunner (1992) portrays the conflict between natural humans and genetically engineered “replicants, who were designed to work in extraterrestrial environments that are unfriendly for humans. The replicants are superior in some respects; their grievance is that they have been engineered with a life span of only four years. The outcome of the conflict is ambiguous–two different versions of the film were released, each with a different ending.

In Gattaca (the letters are an anagram of the ACGT nucleotides of the DNA molecule), 1997, the plot focuses directly on the competition of two brothers, Vincent, a natural “love child” with a normal number of genetic defects, and Anton, who was screened at the embryo stage and found to be “perfect.” Through several contests, the natural brother surpasses his flawless sibling.

The message could not be clearer, Jurassic World being the latest installment. Dr. Wu might even be seen as a Faust figure, the mad scientist, who trades his soul for unlimited knowledge. The Faust story, which has its beginnings at least eight hundred years ago, has taken on many forms (for example, Wikipedia lists more than twenty-five films based on the Faust story. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_based_on_Faust). It has been intertwined with Frankenstein and the figure of the Mad Scientist, perhaps most vividly in recent decades as Dr. Strangelove, in the 1964 film. The very old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (think of more recent portrayals in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and its 2000 sequel) focuses on the technological dimension of knowledge. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who created highly influential versions of both Faust and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was himself an important scientist.


Jurassic World draws upon these deep roots of popular culture as it combines the mad scientist with the horrific hybrid dinosaurs and adds a scheming capitalist who owns the Dino park and controls Dr. Wu. The film ends with the mad scientist and his capitalist patron escaping to live another day, while the “most natural” dinosaur wins a temporary victory over the scientist’s evil creations. The dinos have already killed the security guard who planned to steal embryos, to breed dinos as weapons of war.

What interests me especially are the attitudes towards science and technology expressed in this film. Jurassic World is sci-fi, as are several of the films I’ve mentioned. Sci-fi in which there is embedded a deep ambivalence about science, a not-so-hidden critique of science. This is not unusual–although the common view of sci-if is that it glorifies science and technology, in fact it expresses ambivalence–awe, to be sure, but also uncertainty and deep doubt about science. The Faust stream adds the fear that awesome knowledge has come by suppressing an essential side of life, whose loss we grieve–ambivalence that was given classic expression in the 1933 sci-fi film, Invisible Man, where H.G. Wells’ mad scientist hero says on his death bed, “I have tampered with things man should never touch.”

What are are we to make of this sci-fi expression of doubt about science? Occurring in the most highly advanced science-based society in history? It is not of recent origin, it is an enduring thread in the tapestry of America’s soul. Sometimes critics seem to think that ambivalence about science is a matter of poor education, or they link it to conservative Christianity. I’ve heard the epithet, “stupid and ignorant” used–as if that explained anything. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has argued that creationists are responsible for congress de-funding the supercollider. But it goes much deeper, and it crosses lines of religion, social class, and education. Well-educated upper middle-class parents are defying medical advice to inoculate their children against childhood diseases. Ivy League-educated members of congress are reluctant to acknowledge the scientific theory of evolution.

Several questions come to mind in connection with the popular culture of ambivalence about science and technology:

1–Is it possible to counteract deep-lying cultural dimensions, such as the ambivalence to science? Or will they endure forever, even below the threshold of our awareness, waiting to capture our public life at any moment?

2–Is this culture of ambivalence in any way responsible for the scientific illiteracy that bedevils our society?

3–How do religion and science figure in the culture of ambivalence. Although has been popular to speak of a “warfare” between science and religion, today historians mainly debunk the idea. On the one hand, many scientists are actively religious, while on the other hand, the culture of science itself harbors ambivalence. It was the Father of the Atom Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who questioned physics itself, saying after Hiroshima, “We have known Original Sin.” The filmmakers who gave us Bladerunner and the Jurassic Park franchise are not necessarily anti-science. But they do have their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. After all, the Faust and Mad Scientist traditions have lasted at least 800 years.

4–Is there a kernel of truth carried by popular culture–that unbridled scientific and technological advance can lead to destructive consequences, alongside the blessings they bring? A truth that calls for deeper reflection and nuance?

I’ll elaborate on these themes in my next blog.

Phil Hefner 8/29/2015

Wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas

6 Jul

The title is Rabbi Lord Sacks’, who writes that “the battle against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Isis, and their myriad mutations, will be the defining conflict of the next generation.” His thesis is both simple and grand: The ideas that drive these groups are religious ideas, embodying a seventh century Islamic Apocalypticism; consequently, what is required are religious ideas that can engage and overwhelm the ideology of these groups. Rabbi Sacks has devoted his new book, Not In God’s Name, to this conversation of ideas.

As far as I can discern, Rabbi Sacks’ concern is totally absent from Christian churches today. Thinking and its by-product, coining ideas, are not high on the churches’ agenda.

We are geared up to condemn the jihadist groups, to label them as evil, to mobilize military forces against them, and to affirm “moderate” religious groupings. These responses are not constituted by any new ideas, nor by religious ideas. If ideas can be said to underly our responses, they fall into three forms: (1) we are good, our opponents are evil; (2) “moderate religion” is better than “extremism”; (3) if we don’t destroy them first, they will destroy us.

These ideas may be factually true, but they are not ideas likely to turn the tide of history in ways that we need today. The challenge posed by Sacks is formidable and also intriguing. More than gut-level responses, it calls forth serious theological and philosophical thinking. I have no high pretensions, but I have, after all, devoted my life to such thinking, and I feel some responsibility to take the Rabbi’s proposals to heart. In this installment, I shall focus on one such idea: Religions must grow beyond their present sect-like thinking and behaving.

Religion is not essentially sectarian, but rather universal, and while it takes innumerable distinctive forms, religion is a network or league of equally sacred individuals and communities. These communities are dedicated to discerning and obeying what they perceive as the deepest and truest in life. All religious people are kin in their commitment to foundational values. The burgeoning inter-faith movement is a witness to this new understanding.

Why do I say this is a new understanding? After all, over two hundred years ago–in the late 1700s–Gottfried Lessing wrote his play, Nathan the Wise, whose centerpiece is the Parable of the Three Rings. Briefly, the parable symbolizes the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three identical gold rings, which are bequeathed by a father to his three sons. Since the rings are indistinguishable from one another, when the sons seek to determine which ring is the original, they are told that the quality of each ring is found in the life of the wearer, whether or not it is lived in ways that are pleasing to the father.

After two centuries, this idea has scarcely taken hold among the various religious communities. So far as I know, none of the world’s religions acknowledges equal status to other religions. Each of the major religions has constructed a narrative to explain the other religions, and each is accorded inferior status–only “our” religion is the truest and most revealed religion. My own Lutheran Church emphasizes ad nauseum the uniqueness of Lutheranism. We do not inculcate our children with knowledge of what they share with other Christians, let alone other religions, but rather with their distinctiveness from the others. Every Protestant church has a theory of how and when Catholicism ceased being the true church, and Catholics can reciprocate. Similarly, every religion has a theory that explains its superiority to others. No religion has a doctrine describing the equality of other religions–in other words, no parable of the three rings.

In proposing this idea of religion, I am focusing on an idea that, while it is held by many who do not identify themselves as religious, has hard going among the religious. Much hard work is required before the idea of the equality of religions takes hold among religious folk. But unless it does take hold, the witness of religion to the world is blurred.

In the present situation, each of the religions is in effect behaving as if it were a sect–even though they would vehemently deny the fact. A sect is a group that accentuates its identity–at times, even obsessively–and constructs clear and complex procedures for relating to other groups. Such a group considers itself to have a quality of truth that is higher than that of its peer groups, and it has a clear sense of how it has come to possess its truth–often rooted in a designated lineage that leads back to divine revelation. Sects not only believe that good fences make for good neighbors, they also insist that the fences be well-built.

The stakes are high for a sect, because it has a vision of truth and it strives to remain faithful to that truth. Religious communities are not essentially self-seeking or self-aggrandizing, even though some of their adherents may be just that. These communities are sincerely devoted to a truth that transcends their immediate existence–truth that is ultimately rooted in God or in what the group believes is the ultimate reality. Each community believes that relationships with other groups will alter their identity and, in some sense, dilute its truth.

The real challenge for a religious community is to define its truth in such a way that the truth is enhanced, not diluted, by relationships with other groups. Such re-definition is a serious and difficult matter; it requires intellectual, theological, and spiritual depth, together with the will to change.

To speak personally, I have never believed that the significance of Jesus in my life is anyway compromised by what other people believe about Jesus. I think of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book, Jesus through the Centuries, which describes many views of Jesus that have been held through the centuries–from Thomas Jefferson’s humanistic image to the high sacramental beliefs of Saints Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux. Similarly, I do not believe that my devotion to the sacrament of Holy Communion is cheapened by the fact that others who stand around the altar with me have differing understandings. In the 1950s, my wife was a representative of our denomination to a large ecumenical assembly. When it came time to receive the sacrament during a worship service, our presiding bishop issued the communique that none of our delegation was permitted to go to the altar, because there were worshippers there who “don’t have a correct theology of the sacrament.”

Is my Christianity cheapened if I believe that God has spoken just as authentically through Muslim or Hindu traditions? Or if I believe that I have something to learn from Jews and Buddhists? I have often wondered how Christians can believe that their God of love would consign billions of people to error, simply because they had not heard about Jesus.

As long as the religions of the world act like sects, denying equality to other religions, the Muslim jihadist sects are confirmed in their belief that they are in competition with the other sects and that they are destined to win the competition.

What lies beyond the sect mentality? I wrote above that religion is dedicated to discerning and obeying what is deepest and truest in life. I propose that this working understanding of religion
begins, at least, to get at the task of framing the new ideas that Rabbi Sacks speaks of. The point here is not that the Jihadists are not truly Muslim or that they are opposed to Christianity or Judaism or any other specific religion. The point is that the Jihadists are a threat to the human consensus of what is deepest and truest–as witnessed by all the world’s religions in concert. Making this point forcefully and in concert is the challenge to all religious communities and individuals. Of course, each religion will state this consensus from its own body of wisdom or revelation. When this consensus is clearly and forcefully asserted, then the Jihadists are put in their place as they should be–they are anti-human. Not anti-capitalist or anti-western or against any specific religious community, but in opposition to the human understanding of deepest truth.

When such a statement is made, non-religious people who stand for true humanism can and will join with the religious consensus. As long as the religious communities speak and act as sects, the broad range of humanists have difficulty declaring solidarity.

What I have written here is but a rough draft and a personal attempt to comprehend a challenge that demands enormous intellectual and spiritual effort for its resolution. But it is high time for the religious communities of the world to give attention to ideas, and ideas that are helpful in meeting basic challenges that face the human community in general. Pope Francis has taken such a step in his recent encyclical. It may be that my feeble attempt here can also be of use in our facing the challenges of the environment, as well, since the environment is also a defining issue for our time. But that requires a different discussion.

see–http://rabbisacks.us7.list-manage.com/vcard u=2a91b54e856e0e4ee78b585d2&id=3fee45c1ad

Phil Hefner
(C) 2015