This past week, the last, I assume, of the Christmas trees in my neighborhood seemed to have been taken down, judging by the sorry, dried-out remains that some folks still insist on dumping on their curbs in the vain hope that our local garbage collectors would ignore the official policy on tree disposal and pick them up anyway. Despite all the instructions and warnings about breaking them down into smaller pieces and stuffing them in authorized yard waste bags, or taking them to Christmas tree graveyards to be ground into mulch.
But there are still here and there, lavish strings of lights on outdoor pines, and in one house, they are strung in between brightly colored Tibetan peace flags that have boldly appeared to break up the pattern of Old Glories waving day and night along the same block.
I didn’t check out any of the local North Georgia Wal-Marts to see if they were found in the holiday decoration section, but in my neck of the Metro Atlanta woods, where there is a considerable population of Orthodox Jews, in the holiday decoration isles this season, there was a selection of over-sized electrically lit Menorahs and outdoor Hanukkah lights.
A far cry, a very far cry, from winter holidays past, growing up as the daughter of secular Humanist Unitarian Jews in, at least culturally, Christian communities. Part of why I felt sorry for my Conservative Jewish cousins was that they weren’t allowed to put up Christmas trees with twinkling lights, let alone string them outside.
And in the towns where I lived, menorahs were never displayed on window sills for the outside world to see, even though Jewish law requires that the candles be seen from the street to publicize the miracle that the Macabee oil lasted eight full days.
It was, you see, still too anti-Semitic and dangerous a time to shine that much light, to be that public in identifying yourself as being part of, what was then considered, and in many quarters is still considered, an unenlightened and even un-American faith.
For even mildly observant Jewish families, including my husband’s, theirs was strictly a second-hand, vicarious experience of holiday lights. You could cruise around the Christian neighborhoods after dinner and admire the showy and wondrous displays, or sometimes you were invited into the houses where the tall, good-smelling trees blazed with lights. But never inside your own home. Even if you called it a Hanukkah bush, it was still not OK.
Only the Christian Christmas was electrified. Hanukkah was still strictly no-wattage. There were at least some unwavering lines of distinction between different religious holidays and traditions in the melting pot called America, and this was one of them.
So, I will admit that these relatively new Hanukkah celebration elements — the electrified Menorah and the lights in the shape of dreidels (tops) — seemed at first sight incongruous, even inappropriate, to me, like hearing unmistakably Jewish diva Barbra Streisand singing Oh Holy Night on one of those all-Christmas-music FM stations — which, finally undeniable in my religious DNA, found this, not threatening but at least odd, very odd.
Somehow or other, I couldn’t help but notice a little woefully, a line had been crossed for me between the sense and symbol of one distinct religious tradition and another.
Now, some choose to label this blurring of religious boundaries as syncretism — a nearly-always disparaging term for what they believe is the ill-advised attempt to combine different systems of religious belief or practice.
A worldview that counts on perpetuating the differences, indeed, what they see as inevitable and competitive fault-lines, instead of the common ground among various faiths.
It is a perspective demonstrated in spades just last month in a statement issued by the Rev. James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, urging his fellow Southern Baptists to fast and pray that Muslims would be converted to Christianity on December 16, the last day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
I call on all our Southern Baptists to pray and fast that God will miraculously and supernaturally reveal himself, Jesus Christ, to Muslims that day, he urged.
There is this idea we all worship the same God at these interfaith meetings, and we do not, he declared. If Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, the only true religion, therefore, must be Christianity, he said. Every other religion gives a false hope of having a relationship with God.
Of course, this is not the first time in recent history that Southern Baptists have attempted conversion campaigns during holiday periods, having previously targeted Jews and Hindus.
And then, there was a wave of letters supporting the Southern Baptists presidents’ position, reminding readers that only Christianity, in their view, addresses the issue of sin, that all other religions teach that God will let you into his heaven if you earn it, and that Jesus is the only way to God and salvation.
Some of these same folks, and others, like columnist Bill O’Reilly, the current popular columnist among social and political conservatives, were especially perturbed that, in his opinion, those folks who wanted to celebrate Christmas publicly had been silenced, that even saying “Merry Christmas” had been censored, and that this bothersome business of having, perhaps, also to say “Happy Hanukkah” and “Happy Kwanzaa” was another indication of the mixed-up state of multiculturalism we have come to.
On the other hand, there are some who see the bumping-up against, and mingling of, religions, especially at holiday times, as inevitable, even rich and promising, including professor of comparative religion Diana Eck, who has spent considerable time studying what she has come to see as a new religious America, a self-described “Christian” country which has become, instead, the world’s most religiously diverse nation. She has had the opportunity to experience our increasingly multi-religious society through her own Pluralism Project, inspired by one of her students at Harvard University in the spring of l990, a young man named Mukesh, an Indian-American, who told her about a Hindu summer camp he had attended in the nearby mountains.
She had no idea there was a camp like that, nor was she aware, then, of how many students she would begin to come across who were trying to make sense of their original cultural and faith traditions within the academic context of what had been almost exclusively the white, Christian, Anglo-Saxon culture of Harvard (our original Unitarian seminary). Her exposure to Hindu students like Mukesh, Muslims from Providence, Sikhs from Chicago, Jains from New Jersey, signaled to her the emergence in America of a new cultural and religious reality. Which, she admitted with some embarrassment and a renewed sense of humility, about which she knew almost nothing.
If she was going to teach classes on Hinduism, for example, perhaps it was time to learn something about Hindus in this country. And if she was going to teach about comparative religious traditions, she had better start exposing herself to other immigrant religious communities: Korean Buddhists and Christians, or African-American Muslims.
She developed a research seminar called World Religions in New England — visiting various houses of worship in the greater Boston area — which has expanded and exploded over the years into a nationwide search by her students on their semester and summer breaks. Forcing them to become strangers in their own towns, where they uncovered, for them, astonishing new data and perspectives, for example, that in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, once solidly Lutheran, there are now 80,000 Asians and Pacific Islanders whose Buddhist temples are now a part of that religious landscape, along with Islamic Centers and Baha’i communities.
So, a society where, as she writes, members of various religions no longer live on the other side of the world from each other, but in our own neighborhoods (or at least our neighboring counties), we have the opportunity to shape, what she calls, a positive pluralism — which she likes to describe as a symphony of society, each retaining its differences, all sounding together with an ear to the music of the whole.
All of them aspects of what former (and a silenced and eventually ex-communicated) Catholic Priest, spiritual theologian Matthew Fox, calls deep ecumenism.
As a way of explaining what this thing called deep ecumenism is, Fox quotes Meister Eckhart, who said that Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can damn up.
There is one underground river, he writes, but many wells into that river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Muslim well, a Goddess well, a Christian well. To go down a well is to practice a tradition, but we would make a grave mistake, he believes, an idolatrous one, to confuse the well itself with the flowing waters.
This expansive and enthusiastic approach to different faith traditions is a very different one, for sure, than the one chosen by the current leader of the Southern Baptist Convention or, indeed, many other religious leaders, as they attempt to build up and shore up their particular denomination or tribe.
Employing, what Fox describes bluntly, as relating one religion to another religion with our reptilian brains and testosterone in high gear: My God can beat up your God.
My cross beats your Crescent. My star beats your star.
Reptiles, he reminds us, after all, do not engage in religion or pretend to, so why would we want to engage one another religiously at that level?
Fox’s approach to religion is not to put up individual fences around it or abandon it, make it into yet another science, or strip it of its symbols and myths, but to, indeed, let religious and spiritual images and stories multiply and explode with more and more creativity and glory.
In his recent and wonderfully helpful book, titled, not surprisingly, One River, Many Wells, he lays out 18 themes that he sees as making up the universal religious tradition humankind. In contrast, for example, with a passage I came across in a brand new guide for Advent worship, which declares emphatically that Christ is indisputably THE one and only light of the world — as symbolized by the lighting of candles on the four Sundays before Christmas — deep ecumenism calls for a rich and inclusive understanding of the significance and role of light in spirituality and worship.
We are reminded, then, that to talk of Creation at all is to talk of light. This is evident in so many stories about the beginnings of the world, from Egyptian myths to Genesis, and the prologue to John’s Gospel in the Bible to that of today’s Creation story from science — the brilliant burst of light that some call the Big Bang.
Scriptures or sacred text from all over the world describe light and tell stories of the magic and mystery and power of light.
In the Vedas — ancient Hindu scriptures — Brahman, or God, is celebrated as Light:
The cosmic waters glow. I am Light!
The light glows. I am Brahman!
We are told that parallels about light abound among the African, Celtic, Native, and Hindu teachings and the scriptures of the three faiths of the biblical tradition. In Jewish mystic tradition, the meaning of the title of famous medieval mystical work, the Zohar is radiance, splendor, or brilliance, and the text itself teaches us that the glow of the Shekinah, the female God spirit, shined in Moses, and when he was born, the whole house was filled with light.
The Islamic Qur’an celebrates the divine light and the light of Creation:
God is the light of Heavens and the Earth.
In other words, light is not the exclusive property of one religious tradition or another at the winter holidays or any other time of the year. In fact, it seems to be a universal symbol of enlightenment and hope.
Matthew Fox anticipates that some people will raise objections to this universalist (small u) approach to religious myths, symbols, and rituals by once again calling it “syncretism.” Are we fusing too many religions together, they will ask, he wrote, and in doing so, dishonoring the differences between faiths? Or denying that there are some exclusive revelations and truths?
It is time our species grows up, Fox boldly asserts in response. The horrible genocides in Bosnia and Kosovo, the recent eruption of Islamic Jihad, the endless conflict in Israel, the Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms, religious wars, and colonial conquests in the name of religion —
Haven’t we seen enough of the shadow side of religious exclusivity, the limited and particular, he asks plaintively? It may be time, it must be time, he proposes, to emphasize the likenesses instead. The alternative has simply become too deadly.
We Unitarian Universalists — despite much bad PR about our lack of a religious center — have had the tendency, mostly a good and constructive tendency, it is turning out, to universalize spirituality — to look for and emphasize common stories and symbols.
When we mindfully remembered this holiday season to light both the Menorah and Advent Candles, resurrect the Earth-centered winter solstice rituals of light, and in years past, have added the candles of Kwanzaa, one of our newest cultural traditions, we recognized what African-American theologian Howard Thurman saw as the central call of his vocation — to move from our little walls, little altars, little God, little lives, of defending our little barriers, to living in the universe that sustains great adventure.
That which inspires the mind, he believed, to multiply experiences in unity — which experiences of unity become over and over and over again more compelling than the concepts, the ways of life, the sects and creeds that separate us.
There is a least a small “on the other hand” to be spoken here, in what might be our complete self-congratulation. I don’t believe that Matthew Fox or Howard Thurman or Diana Eck, or any of the other true leaders in this brave and prophetic movement to develop what is in essence a world bible — and to find, what one writer calls, the core of religion in the faith of the common heart — would want to see the holy-days and rituals of individual traditions so reworked, chopped up, or homogenized that they completely lose their original culture and context.
Or that we force or mistake commercialized cultural assimilation for a meaningful mingling of religious waters, speaking from my original religious tradition, for example, turning what was and is a particular eight-day remembrance of a Jewish story and a relatively minor festival — Hanukkah — into just another piece of what has become a two-month-long blow-out of Christmas.
Putting out the Menorah, for example, at the same time we put up the green garlands of pine. Lighting the Menorah when it is convenient, for example, or lighting the eight candles all at once so that the lights look pretty, as if they are just another holiday decoration. Or consolidating a month of Ramadan in a single worship moment.
Or, for that matter, limiting our congregational religious pluralism only to holiday ritual, symbol, and song. Skirting the matter of the beliefs, theological and ethical, that underpin different faith traditions by not really learning about them in any sort of depth, and then not going through the process of critically comparing them with our individual beliefs or our UU principles and purposes.
We can practice genuine positive pluralism, for starts, by having interfaith conversations within this congregation. Intentional efforts to hear and speak to each other about differing faith traditions, just as many of us have spent the better part of a year learning about and engaging each other on different sexual orientations in our Welcoming Congregation program. To keep learning and experiencing that we are different from each other, but not distant from each other. That we live, as we affirm in our seventh UU principle, in an interdependent world of which we are all a part.
It takes research and sensitivity — and sincere religious dialogue — to understand and practice this wonderful notion of one river, many wells. Our children are beginning a series of classes this morning devoted to teaching them about neighboring faiths — religious traditions that may not yet be visible in these North Georgia Mountains, but are neighbors to us in the larger and more significant New Religious sense of the word.
Howard Thurman, again, said it well when he gave his vision of what the common faith of deep ecumenism can accomplish: the lines of connection, the shared ideals, and the celebratory magic at the center of all world spiritualities.
What we see dimly now in the churning confusion and chaos of our tempestuous times, will someday be the common experience of all the children everywhere.
Neither male nor female, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before that which we call by many names — or no names — and in many forms — God.