Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

Learning to Hear the Music: Toward a Mormon Mystical Tradition

Raised as a devout Mormon, my religious life began taking new direction in about 2011, when I started teaching a World Religions class at Salt Lake Community College. The seeds of that new direction came while attending the Easter Vigil in Salt Lake’s beautiful Cathedral of the Madeleine, one of the few Cathedrals under the patronage of Mary Magdalen, the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. As I entered the dark Cathedral with hundreds of other candle lit faces, I realized that we were at a funeral; that we were not just talking about Christ’s death, we were mourning it in preparation to celebrate his resurrection; a gift freely given. Something clicked, I felt sincere sorrow and then joy. I began to finally understand that word so many other Christians were using: Grace. Since then, I have taken slow and cautious steps toward the Catholic faith, and during this year’s Easter Vigil, I was baptized, confirmed and received first communion.

Liturgy, participating in cycle of Christ life and death, helped me to realize that God’s love was always already there. And it was through this Grace, this freely given gift of the world, I was loved, unconditionally. But not loved as an object of a distant Father’s affection, actually loved into being. Creation is and continues to be an act of grace.

I am not completely checked out of Mormonism. Most of my family still practices, and I am plugged in to the Bloggernacle. So during my Easter retreat this year, I decided to tune into to a bit of General Conference. During Wilford W. Anderson recent General Conference address, he began with a story about a Native American man who asked a doctor if he could dance (dancing being a way of healing for this man). The Doctor said no, and asked if the man could teach him. The Native American said that he could teach him to dance, but that the doctor must first learn to hear the music. Applying this to contemporary Mormonism Anderson stated:

“Sometimes in our homes, we successfully teach the dance steps but are not as successful in helping our family members to hear the music. We learn the dance steps with our minds, but we hear the music with our hearts. The dance steps of the gospel are the things we do; the music of the gospel is the joyful spiritual feeling that comes from the Holy Ghost. It brings a change of heart and is the source of all righteous desires.”

This peeked my attention. My major problem with Mormon spiritual practice was that in my experience, morality and church participation were means of earning God’s love, of earning the presence of the Holy Spirit, who, I was taught, would flee at the slightest offence. In this mode of spirituality, guilt became the primary motivator for avoiding certain behaviors, believing certain doctrines, and even attending church. Christ’s atonement made my sins forgivable, but somehow, caught up in right action, I missed the whole point of Christ in the first place. Thus, learning to hear the music before we learn to dance seemed like a perfect metaphor for understanding Christ’s love: Hearing the music is primary, and learning the dance steps comes with practice, over a lifetime. Mystical encounter, the act of being present to God loving us into being, is at the core of Christian spirituality, and from which flow our desires to do good. But then Elder Anderson continued:

“The challenge for all of us who seek to teach the gospel is to expand the curriculum beyond just the dance steps. Our children’s happiness depends on their ability to hear and love the beautiful music of the gospel. How do we do it? First…”

Elder Anderson then attempts to teach us the steps to hearing the music. In order to hear the music you must learn the steps!? At this my heart sunk and I turned off Conference and began to pace my room. I began to wonder why a religion founded on a profound mystical encounter with the Father and the Son in a grove of trees, could have become so anti-mystical. I looked in the LDS Topical Guide to see what it had to say: “Mysticism: See False Doctrine Sorcery Superstitions Traditions of Men.”

The guide refuses even an attempt at defining the tradition which gave rise to its own religion! So I went to the always reliable (sometimes controversial) Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar: “All I mean by mysticism is experience-based religion whereby you come to really know something for yourself. It’s not just believing something; it’s knowing something.” It seemed so curious to me that Mormonism embraces this definition of mysticism as the means to understanding doctrine reject it as a spiritual practice for knowing God’s love. Somehow, instead of seeking personal experience of the truth and reality of God’s unearned, ever-present love, Mormonism uses ‘mystical’ encounter as a tool to confirm propositions of faith, identity and personal morality. Again, there is nothing wrong with morality, identity, or beliefs. But when we start with them as a means of getting to God, we will ALWAYS come up short. The person of Jesus came to reveal to us that this is backwards. We start with God’s love, and then live into beliefs, identity, and morals. As a Mormon I was living this process completely backwards, and as a fledgling Catholic, I still struggle with it.

Then, an article, like a cyber-revelation, came across my Facebook feed. It was Adam Miller’s General Theory of Grace. Miller agrees that Mormons have a “tendency to read the gospel as a kind of secular manual for can-do humanism and self-improvement.” For Miller “righteous works only become righteous when they are motivated by the pure love of Christ, when they are the product of God’s grace as that grace works its way out into the world through our hearts, minds, and hands.” And here’s the clincher: “Grace is this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents (human and nonhuman) embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence.” [i] Beautiful words, felt deeply. Mysticism, in this light, is learning to be quiet and experience the grace of God creating us from moment to moment in what has been called by Jean-Pierre De Caussade the sacrament of the present moment. I encourage my dear Mormon friends and family to pick up Adam Miller’s books. His prophetic writing could help us put the horse back in front of the cart so to speak and as Elder Anderson hopes, to hear the beautiful music of the gospel, to which our lives become a dance.

[i] http://bycommonconsent.com/2015/04/07/a-general-theory-of-grace-ldsconf/

Holy Ground

ShackThere is something about being in a place that our spiritual, historical or literary ancestors have once tread. Ones that walked, worked, wrote or traveled through a place or landscape. The practice of retracing their steps is an ancient human practice, we call pilgrimage. I didn’t go on foot, but between a lovely wedding in Chicago among family and an amazing Religion and Ecology conference in New Haven among friends, I was lucky enough through the grace of some old friends to visit several of these places over the last week. While in Madison, Wisconsin we travelled by car just north of Baraboo to a small shack on the western shore of the Wisconsin River. It was here that Aldo Leopold, Yale Alumnus and ecology saint wrote his famous A Sand County Almanac. The locale is no pristine wilderness, a sandy soiled pine forest that gives way to riparian grasses and shrubs at the river’s edge. But walking the numbered stations of the Leopold Foundation’s pamphlet, like an ecological stations of the cross, those typical trees took on the spirit of the Leopold family, who planted the trees in an act of ecological restoration. The shack as temple in a sacred grove. A temple, not of worship or divinity, but a tangible shrine to one of the early voices to suggest that humanity was not conqueror of Nature, but citizen. As we stood on the sandy river shore in silence, water lapping against the sandy ground, a flock of 15 sand hill cranes passed overhead on their way to their nightly roost. The water was deep blue and the air was chilly when the sun passed behind clouds. There was nothing otherworldly about the experience, but it certainly enriched my love for Leopold and his contribution to the ecology movement.

CWOn foot, I seek an inconspicuous corner of 1st Street in East Village, Manhattan. The St. Joseph Catholic Worker House of Hospitality has been in continuous operation since Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded them in 1936. When I arrived, a small crew of volunteers that included two Mormon missionaries, were serving a simple soup, and a smiling woman made the rounds topping off coffee mugs. The guests sat mostly in silence, some in quiet conversation. I struck up a short conversation with a volunteer and he immediately offered to let me serve some coffee. We chatted about the project, the place, and Dorothy Day, the movement’s founder, who is currently being reviewed by the Vatican for Canonization. The Catholic Worker Movement is a lot like other homeless shelters, but more than that it was an early socialist attempt to live the Gospel by fulfilling Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. They espouse a simple philosophy of Christian pacifism, agrarianism and personalism. They serve daily meals and give free clothing away and house several dozen people on a temporary basis. A drop in the bucket in a city of 8 million, but just looking around I could feel of Dorothy’s spirit, silently fulfilling the most basic of Christian practices.

A young parish priest opened the Rectory door of Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights and asked “How can I help you?” I told him I was a reader of Thomas Merton, and asked if I could see the chapel. Without hesitation, he slipped into tour guide mode, opened the door and showed me to the room where Merton first met with Father George Barry Ford. A small hand painted portrait of Merton hung on the north wall. The Priest showed me into the church and guided me toward the back of the chapel to a small baptistery where Merton was baptized. The church was beautiful, built in 1936 in a Baroque Revival style. A little too ornate for my taste, and nothing like the Cathedrals I had visited throughout the day in Manhattan. But the place help a special presence as the place where Thomas Merton worked out his conversation and eventual decision to join the Trappists in Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky. Merton went on to become one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century, and his writing is widely read.

I am no expert on these writers, but they have all, Leopold, Day and Merton influenced by thinking, the way I live my life and the subject of my research. Being in the places where these wonderful human beings worked out their own questions, ideas and lives gave me a kind of strength and assurance that I was at least moving in the right direction.