(A friend asked if I had anything to say about Dr. Redding and her deposition as a priest on account of claiming to be both Christian and Muslim. This is a much too long commentary on things I thought about as a result. But here it is.)
I have to admit that its coming up on Palm Sunday and I've nothing to show for it except this lousy grump of an attitude. I come to this Palm Sunday amazed at the effrontery of righteous Christians who have turned the recounting of the events of the last days of our Lord into the basis of a larger story in which all religions are slammed in the name of Jesus and all spiritual paths are suspect unless they lead to what we understand to be THE path, which we then conveniently claim as The Way. I cringe to realize that I am that righteous Christian myself sometimes.
The Way of the Cross is the way of life, no doubt about it. But the way is not known by doctrine or correct behavior or even overt obedience to the Lord Jesus. It is known in the only way possible for people of flesh and blood. It is known by participation.
The events we remember, and the Way of the Cross were and are of great spiritual importance, by which I mean they were and are equally of great political importance. That's the way it is with the genuine article - God with us. Nothing is so spiritual that it is not also political, nothing is so holy as not also to be profane. In the end the spiritual path and the grim realities of execution and the way of life all get wrapped up together. We end up at the end of the week calling the executioner's Friday "good."
If there was any doubt about the spiritual power of the incarnation, the Crucifixion puts it to rest. We are confronted with a mystery: the Way of Life is found in the presence of death. We Christians believe God participates in this mystery and that in some sense God takes on our suffering and death in order that the Way of Life can be ours.
Given humankind's propensity for control, religion arises to codify such spiritual mysteries so that we don't wander off into strange and esoteric worlds in which we could avoid the central mystery: that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell even to death on the Cross. The Cross became a signal, a sign, and the Way became the way of the Cross. It is Jesus and the hard wood of the cross, and not doctrine or creed, that is the Way, the Truth and the Life. But of course we religious people could not let it well enough alone. It may be that Jesus did not come to found a new religion, but his followers did so, not I suppose having a better way of keeping on keeping on. The trouble is, the religion, being about rules, sets sometimes unfortunate limits on the spiritual life of adherents.
There have been times when those limits have served the Church well. There are others where the rules almost stifled people we now think of as saints. The basic need is to constantly overcome the temptation to disconnect the holy from the profane, and to maintain that God (who is as holy as it gets) and humankind and the flesh (sometimes as profane as it gets) are joined in Jesus and, by adoption and grace, in all of us. But the maintenance of that central point is too easily joined with a total discount of the spiritual insight of others, of belief amongst other elements of the profane world for which Jesus died, of the righteous person who does not believe that Jesus is God with us, died for us and is raised.
All of this, of course, comes home to us at one time or another. In this particular moment in The Episcopal Church there are questions raised about the ways in which it is or is not right for Christians to make use of, practice, or have spiritual benefit from, the religious practices or the faith of other people. In particular we have the immediate concerns about Fr. Forrester, Bishop -elect of Northern Michigan and Dr. Ann Homes Redding, now deposed priest of Rhode Island.
These two persons have been talked about all over Anglican blogland, particularly by those who have left The Episcopal Church and who are constantly looking for reasons to prove they were right to do so. They have been vilified as incompetent and unbelieving, illogical and distructive of real Christian witness. Even some of the more even handed have felt it was naive to think one could practice in the Buddhist way or the Muslim way and not lose ones way as a Christian.
There are of course questions to ask about any bishop-elect and about his or her views, practices, understandings, beliefs, etc. There are of course good reasons to question the extent to which a priest might or might not have abandoned the communion of this Church, or of the faith. That is why we have the process of seeking consents as well as elections, and that is why all priests are subject to oversight from their bishop and councils. Not too often do people get off without some scrutiny.
And yet, I wonder. God is present even for those who do not know Christ, otherwise when Christ comes we don't know him as God with us; otherwise the Jews were not our forbearers in the faith but simply lost because Christ had not yet come. God is present for those who have found God in other ways, and those ways serve the deep spiritual needs they have. We may wish them to know God in Jesus Christ, precisely because all things are made new in Christ, including the breakdown between holy and profane. But is there some way to honor the spiritual possibilities that people of other faiths have experience from which we can draw?
In an extreme example of the problem here, I remember visiting a student group at St. Nicholas Romanian Church in Bucharest and being told by one of the theological students that he did not believe they should be meeting with me, since the only reason to meet with me was to convert me, and I did not seem a candidate for such conversion. I told him that I believed I was already converted, but remained open to the possibility that my faith could be made complete by the experience of the Orthodox churches. On the other hand, if he thought the case was hopeless, perhaps he was not very interested in trying.
So late in the evening before Palm Sunday I am thinking again of spiritual practice and the matter of faith.
Here at Preludium there have been several posts and threads of comments on Fr. Forrester and the increasingly convoluted exploration of whether or not he is espousing some sort of amalgam of Buddhism and Christianity. As time goes on there is appearing a more important issue of whether or not he is prepared to speak to the faith in ways that would be recognized by his peers to be as appropriate. As the issues of consents have moved away from his meditation practices to his preaching and teaching we at least get a better sense of what he believes is appropriate language for witness and proclamation. And we move further away from the question, can a person be a Buddhist and a Christian at the same time.
It is just as well that we do move away from that question. The ranting out there is that "of course" it is impossible and it is all just another sign of how sorry The Episcopal Church is that such a person would be elected anyway. But in the world of spiritual practice, I believe we have a lot to learn from people who value self-emptying, apparently as much as did our Lord. More, I believe that Christians can and do use Buddhist practice to great spiritual benefit and do so without renouncing their faith at all.
Just to be clear, as if anyone in blog land cares, given that they are having so much fun dumping on fellow pilgrims, the whole point of spiritual practice is that you bring who you are, use what you must, and encounter God as you can. Buddhist meditation passes the test.
There are many ways to gain spiritual discipline, to find spiritual stability. If that means sitting very very still and letting whatever comes into your mind pass from it without grasping, fine. If that means praying five times a day with considerable body movement, fine. If it means chanting the psalter over a seven day period or the upanishads over several weeks, fine, if it is finding ten Jews to pray with for daily prayers, fine.
The thing is these spiritual practices, these small efforts by human beings to attend to the presence of the God beyond all words including god-referencing words, are amazingly uniting. There are wide differences in time taken in meditation or prayer, in signs and symbols, in stance (sitting, standing, bowing, etc). But most of us would catch on rather quickly that much of the core is about the practice of letting in that Other, letting go of self, and opening out to the suffering and needs of the world.
Even if I don't know enough Arabic to say daily prayers with others, in Muslim countries or communities I am perfectly willing when there to pray five times, in harmony with them. I often traveled in the Middle East, staying in cheap hotels across from local mosques. The morning call to worship would sound in my window at full force. After a few days of being startled, I'd learn to say a prayer and the Lord's Prayer, and go back to sleep. But I'd also attend to the reality that the calls to prayer over the day were a call to me as well.
After all, God is indeed great, worthy of praise, gracious, merciful, final judge, worthy of worship, who shows us the straight path, the pilgrims way. And yes, I know that in addition to the first recitation in the daily prayers, for which no Christian would find objection, although in which every Christian would recognize the missing person - the Lord Jesus, there are other recitations, some of which would be more difficult to say. But the basic prayer is solid adoration of God.
Meditation practice out of the Buddhist tradition is widely varied, but the core idea of emptying of self, of becoming no-thing, is worth the effort, even if I can't get very far down the path without attending to the distractions of the moment. Still, sitting is just fine.
Last week I went to service at the Jewish Community Center, the prayers and readings rolled over me in familiar waves, even when the Hebrew was beyond me there was translation before me. I was allowed the honor to help carry the Torah scroll through the congregation. Only I knew, "once a deacon always a deacon." And yes, I know that there are prayers that are sometimes said that would be hard to say, and yes I know, Jesus is missing in the prayers.
I have stood in Hindu temples and read the Tao in simple shrines, and sat for hours in the temple of the jade Buddha, and so forth and so on. For the life of me I cannot see how any of this has been anything but beneficial to my spiritual health.
What I know is that these were moments of spiritual refreshment, meaning I am trying to indicate, that they were helpful to this pilgrim. So I have no truck with people who want to throw out the spiritual refreshment that such occasions have brought.
Of course I go into those places and times and states with all that I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. Of course I understand that we Christians have bound together Incarnation, the Transfiguration of Jesus and the New Creation that he inaugurated, and the death and resurrection of our Lord, in a way that is unique and informs our way, our pilgrimage, so that we are participants in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The questions for Fr. Forrester perhaps should be to know more about what he understands his practice to have brought to his faith in Jesus Christ. I believe we ought not judge him on the basis of practice. Rather we have every reason to want to know just how his witness to Jesus Christ and the reality of God with us is stated.
In writing this poor essay I am unfortunately showing just how hard it is to state the faith, since every personal effort to do so is precisely that, personal. That's the value of the creeds, the liturgy, the ancient prayers. They help us along. But we also have to state it for ourselves.
As for Dr. Redding. She said somewhere along the line that she was in trouble and called on God, and heard of the news from a Muslim that one might surrender to God. I'm for that. "Letting go and letting God" may be edgy as pop religion, but as a basic formula for overcoming anxiety and fear, it's not bad. Taken with the seriousness that Muslim belief brings, it is a remarkable spiritual gift.
I have no idea if Muslim believers, any of them, would agree, but my sense is the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) would not particularly have been too put out if we got the message and thought the prophet just a man with an idea from the heart.
As to the complex and ornate full whammy of the Quran I have little to say, except that when I read it in translation I find parts that are spiritually enlightening, parts that are historically intersting as alternate readings of history I already knew, parts that are too local in terms of tribe or people, parts that I don't much like, and parts that are simply baffling. It reminds me, in a parallel universe sort of way, of the Bible. And, no, I don't think it contains all things necesary to salvation.
My sense is if one were a biblical literalist one could not at the same time be a Quran literalist (however that looks), any more than one can believe the core of the Christian faith, of which the earlier muttering was a stab at stating, and the core of Islamic faith. The jumps from the one to the other are too great to cross.
Bishop Wolf deposed Dr. Redding while also honoring her. The ENS report on the deposition states that Bishop Wolf believes Dr. Redding is "a woman of utmost integrity and their conversations over the past two years have been open, honest and respectful." The reports continues, "However, Bishop Wolf believes that a priest of the church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim."
My sense is Bishop Wolf is right. One can be a Christian and engage in a great deal of Muslim daily prayer and discipline. Giving to the poor, fasting, and pilgrimage are all fine efforts. The role of the Prophet as prophet is a bit more complex. Is he a prophet? Well I think William Stringfellow is a prophet. So sure. Is he the last Prophet? or the Greatest? or the end of the line in the prophetic run? No, not as I read it. And, further, as a Christian I believe that the role of prophecy is forever changed by the presence of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have the fulfillment of prophecy past and future, if only we will live out that same love of God.
Now I don't know if Dr. Redding can make the case for uniting the spiritual practice of Islam and Christianity, but I think it could be made. I don't think she can make the case for "being a Muslim and a Christian." What remains for me unclear is just which she is - a Christian who practices both Muslim and Christian spiritual practices, or someone beliving two very different faith "systems", or someone trying to meld them together.
The process by which she was deposed, while apparently carefully followed, determined that she had abandoned the communion of this Church. In a way it would have been instructive, and perhaps more widely enlightening, if she had the opportunity to state her case not only for the bishop and committee (assuming there was one) but for all of us. Perhaps she will write on this at some point.
It will be instructive to see just how these issues of spiritual practice might spill over into the wider ecumenical and interfaith discussions that need to go on all the time.
Meanwhile, hold onto that feeling of triumph entering the City. It will pass. It turns out all who enter the City at the Spiritual Center are likely to get questioned, and not all of our answers will suffice.
In our prayers this week we might well pray for Fr. Forrester and Dr. Redding and all of us (and it is all of us) who find the Way to the wonderful City to include crosses of our own.
As John Dominic Crossan says, "We all stand in the shadow of the Cross."