Friday, April 2, 2010

Religious Literacy or “Toward the Mystery”

 Photo by Robin Kobaly

While on my book tour in Palm Springs I was asked to speak at the William Edelen Symposium. Every Sunday this elder statesman of what he calls “religious literacy” gathers a large crowd of spiritual seekers to listen to his erudite talks and discuss their deepest beliefs. It is just the kind of spirited, intellectual communion that invites epiphany – and community.

Since this is Holy Week, with Passover and Easter, it’s good timing to talk about how opening our hearts and minds to the Divine Mystery in all creation is a true antidote to the religions that encourage only lock-step devotion or dogma.

As I looked out over the Symposium crowd of upturned, engaged faces I saw none of the fear or guilt that can so often typify a religious gathering. Instead, I saw humor, even joy, in those upturned faces. And most of all, the precious gift we can offer one another: true listening.

No attention deficit here. Only the poise and awareness that comes from people deeply engaged in their own spiritual path. A path that is inclusive of other cultures, faiths, and embraces all that is alive, and so sacred.

The great French mystic, Simone Weil, who was Jewish and also profoundly engaged with Catholicism, once defined prayer as “rapt attention.” The most expansive spiritual life, in my experience, is more inward than outward; it does not seek converts to one’s own beliefs, but rather engages with others in dialogue. It is curious rather than self-righteous, contemplative rather than judgmental.

Bill Edelen inspires this dialogue through his many books, his Sunday community meetings, his gracious spirit. I particularly enjoyed his book EarthWise, for its far-ranging intellectual grasp of both literature and religion. His writings have been cherished by such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller, Charles Shultz, and Joseph Campbell. An ex-Marine pilot and author, Edelen has the tough-minded intellectual rigor of a scholar. Though he sometimes gives his talks balancing on a cane, his words are bracing and his wisdom mighty, enduring. He looks like a favorite professor with his black frame glasses and tousled silver hair. But when he speaks, we all lean toward him like plants toward light.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from his website this week:

“To simply stand before this Mystery in wonder, astonishment and awe leaves us free to join the dance of spirit toward a more refined consciousness.”
From “Spirit Dance”

I also really enjoyed this archetypical Bill Edelen commentary:

“A Dead Sea scroll records a disciple asking Jesus, “Master, how can we get into the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus answers this way: ‘Follow the birds…the beasts…the fish…and they will lead you in.’”

My own spiritual searching has been to discover other souls, like Bill Edelen who, like me, don’t fit into any church. Who have too many questions for any dogma. There are a lot more seekers like me in the 21st century. As I write in my new book, spirituality, if not religion, is thriving. Ecumenical councils are coming together to work for social change and to face environmental challenges. In fact, Newsweek ran a cover story in 2009 on the diversity or religion flourishing, calling this trend in America “post-Christian.”

In Seattle, my homeland, 90 percent of those surveyed when asked to check a box for religion, chose “none such.” But the paradox is that Seattle is the best place to have a heart attack because more people have trained for CPR than in any other city. As I write, “Fewer churchgoers, more compassion.” Perhaps that’s why the Dalai Lama packed our football stadium with over 55,000 people to attend the spring, 2008 “Seeds of Compassion” conference.

When I study a religion I consider its capacity for joy instead of fear; for individual freedom over blind loyalty, for community service over the illusion of being “Chosen.” I observe what that religion embraces rather than what it condemns and how the faithful embrace rather than exclude others. And most of all, I look at whether that religion cares for the earth and all other life. I would say that in the end, gratitude is my religion. That and the strong sense that there is a higher wisdom at work here and in all worlds. As I said my book Build Me an Ark, “We float on divine waves.”

Whether you’re celebrating Passover Seder or Easter this week, whether you’re dancing a Spiral Dance or a Sufi dance; whether you’re sitting in Zen meditation or studying with a Buddhist master of compassion; whether you’re fishing an abundant stream as my friend, Jim, says is his way [or, as the cartoonist Ray Troll asks, “Fish worship, is it wrong?”] or whether you’re visiting a botanical garden to marvel at the magnolias – may you find spiritual sustenance and kinship. All that is alive is sacred.

For more information on William Edelen’s writings and his podcasts, visit here.