Kid Spirit. Deep Ecumenism or Interfaith

Kid Spirit. Deep Ecumenism or Interfaith

Matthew Fox

It is an honor to be asked to address the important topic of “Deep Ecumenism” or Interfaith in this primal issue of Kid Spirit magazine.  Let me say that it is so important that young people be treating the “big ideas” and showing “their colors and share each others’ belief systems, cultures, art, traditions, ideas and values” as the Mission Statement of Kid Spirit so wisely articulates.  Without a new and deeper appreciation of one another’s traditions and diverse ancestors, our species will not survive for it will choose war instead of peace; ignorance instead of understanding.  It is wonderful that the young people of Kid Spirit are taking initiative and leadership in this important work of sharing and learning.

Among these big ideas and sharing of colors is the sharing of the wisdom traditions of the world.  So often adults get hung up on the differences between religions—then they fight and go to war over whether “my god can beat up your god” or “my god beat up your goddess.”  Enough of that!  The world is too small today for such petty posturing, such little ideas.  Bravo to Kid Spirit for going for the big ideas!  It is universally taught in all the world’s religions that NO NAME for the Divine Creator suffices for so great a mystery.  And thus every name says something; but no name says everything.

And all religions, at their deepest level, honor the wisdom of other faith traditions.  For example, Howard Thurman, the great African American mystic who was close to both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., declared that “it is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”  While these words were published in the 1950’s, they echo what many young people are experiencing today as the Internet and travel and immigration bring us all together rubbing elbows with people of a variety of faith traditions.

The key is what Thurman warns us about: “our spirit being stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”  It is that bare honesty that counts the most.  We all have much to learn from one another but most of all from looking to the naked truth within our own spirit and our own selves and the best in our own traditions.  The Dali Lama warns us that the number one obstacle to interfaith is a bad relationship with one’s own faith tradition.  What a warning this is!

All traditions honor the sacredness of creation.  How important is this at this time when global warming and the destruction of other species is proceeding at unstoppable rates?  Dostoyevsky, writing from his tradition as a Russian Orthodox Christian, wrote in the nineteenth century: “Love all creation.  The whole and every grain of sand in it.  Love every leaf, and every ray of light.  Love the plants.  Love the animals.  Love everything.  If you love everything you will perceive the Divine Mystery in all things…and you will come, at last, to love the whole world with an all embracing love.”  Isn’t this good advice for all of us?  Won’t the plants and whales, the elephants and the polar bears, the soil and the waters, rejoice if we humans were to live this way?

Thich Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writes how “all beings in the animal, plant, and mineral world are potential Buddhas.”  Speaking as a Christian, I can say this: All beings are other Christs, they are the Cosmic Christ that John’s Gospel writes about when it says Christ is the light in all beings (today’s science teaches that photons or light waves exist in every atom in the universe).  To destroy rain forests or other species is to crucify the Christ all over again.

Black Elk, speaking form the Native American tradition, declares that we should know that “the Great Spirit is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains and all the four-legged animals and the winged people.”  But God is also “above all these things and peoples” as well.

All world traditions call us to our capacity for service and compassion.  The Jewish teaching is that Compassion is the secret name for God.  In the Koran the most used name for God is “the compassionate one” and Jesus taught his followers to “be compassionate as your Creator in heaven is compassionate.”  Buddha calls his disciples to compassion as well.  The Dali Lama says that we can do away with all religion and all ideology, “but we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion.”  How are we doing?  Have we learned much, taught much, practiced much compassion lately?

All spiritual traditions honor our likeness to Divinity that is found in our imaginations and creativity.  An ancient meso-American poem, for instance, honors creativity this way: “The true artist, capable, practicing, skillful, maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with her mind.  The true artist draws out all from his heart.  The good painter is wise, God is in her heart.  She puts divinity into things; he converses with his own heart.”  The Hebrew Bible talks about humans being the “imago dei,” the image and likeness of God the Creator.  Hafiz, the Sufi Muslim mystic, writes: “All the talents of God are within you.  How could this be otherwise when your soul derived from His genes!”

The Hindu Upanishads declare: “Where there is creating, there is progress.  Where there is no creating, there is no progress: Know the nature of creating.  Where there is joy, there is creating.  Know the nature of joy.  Where there is the Infinite, there is joy.”  Joy and creativity go together!  Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic, says that the only work worthy of human beings, the only work that satisfies, is creative work.

Dona Marimba Richards writes about African spirituality when she says: “Few have understood what music is to us.  Black music is sacred music.  It is the expression of the divine within us….Our music manifests our relationship with the whole as it puts us in tune with the universe.  It explains to us the mysterious workings of the universe and ourselves as cosmic beings….As in ritual, in music the human and the Divine meet….Dance, for us, is a religious expression.”

The world religions teach about the multiple names for Divinity.  For example, the ancient Baghavad Gita of India proclaims that “God has a million faces” and the Rg Veda declares that “The one Being the wise call by many names.”  In the Muslim tradition there is a beautiful prayer that recites the “100 most beautiful names for God”—names that range from “The Great One” to “The Alive” and “The Witness” and “The Forgiver.”  Thomas Aquinas, writing from the Christian tradition, says that every being in the universe is a name for God—and yet none of them are.

The names of Wisdom and Sophia in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles honor the feminine side of God as does the title of “Tara our mother” in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the Tao in Taoism.  The Tao is “The Great Mother, Mother of the Universe.”  An ancient prayer to Isis in Africa calls her “Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements.”  Medieval Christians appropriated Isis as the Black Madonna and more recently as the Brown Madonna of Guadalupe.  Benedictine abbess and Christian mystic, musician, artist and healer of the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen honors Mary as the “ground of all being, mother of all joy, glowing, most green and verdant sprout.”

Another common teaching among world spiritual teachings is that of quieting the mind, of calming down, of making silence.  We call it meditation or contemplation.  Given today’s science, we might say such practices are about calming the reptilian brain which, being 420 million years old, plays a dominant role in our lives.  But reptiles are not good bonders as a rule; they like solitude.  Crocodiles lie alone in the sun.  Solitude is what we all encounter in meditation.  So solitude befriends our reptilian brains. How important is that?  Well, the reptile is win/lose.  The reptilian brain offers an action/reaction response.  Our species can’t run on that brain’s energy any longer.  It is killing us all and killing the planet.  We have to learn to meditate in order to calm the reptilian brain and allow the more recent brain, our mammal and compassionate brain, its proper space.  So the teachings to calm the mind, to find that stillness where we face God and Nothingness directly, these are especially valuable in our time.  “Be still and know that I am God,” say the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Meditation is stopping, calming, and looking deeply.”  Breathing exercises help with this and so too does doing art.  Meditation is about focusing and centering.  We can do that by sitting but also by walking or by painting or writing poetry or composing music.  We can learn to let go, at least for a while, of the past and of our future worries and live fully in the present, fully in the Now.  The Tao te ching puts it this way: “Empty your mind of all thoughts.  Let your heart be at peace….Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source.  Returning to the source is serenity.”

We have treated about seven  themes that all the spiritual traditions teach in common.  There are many more as well.  Though diverse in their expression, these traditions share the same common wisdom.  It is important at this time in human and planetary history, when so much is in jeopardy, that we pay attention to what our traditions share in common instead of focusing on their differences.  As Rumi, the Sufi and Islamic mystic put it seven centuries ago: “All religions, all this singing, is one song.  The differences are just illusion and vanity. The sun’s light looks a little different on this wall than it does on that wall…but it’s still one light.”


All citations can be found in Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths (New York: Tarcher, 2000).