Sermon by Jim Burklo for Pluralism Sunday, May 3, 2015
Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, MI
One evening at the Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, at the weekly meeting of the student Interfaith Council, the subject turned to something decidedly unusual. Unusual even for our Interfaith Council, which has representatives from student clubs of all the world’s major religions, including some religions, and sects of religions, about which I knew next to nothing before taking the job of Associate Dean of Religious Life seven years ago. On this evening, the discussion turned to the question of what people of different religions do when they lose things. One of our Muslim students spoke up right away. “When I lose my keys, or something else, I do what other Muslims do. I repeat the phrase “ya seen” forty times. And then very often I find what I lost!” I couldn’t help asking: “What does ‘ya seen’ mean?” The young woman answered “We don’t know. In the Koran there are three words for which their is no known meaning. Ya seen is one of them.” “You mean even Arabic speakers don’t know what it means?” “Yes,” she answered. There’s a passage in the Koran called the Surah Ya Seen. I’ve read it, at least in English, and for the life of me I cannot see what it has to do with losing keys. So I speculated with the student. “So you use a word that has lost its meaning to find things that you have lost?” I asked. “Hmmm,” she said. “Maybe that’s it!” The group thought about it some more and we made another guess. Repeating a mysterious couple of syllables over and over and over may have the effect of distracting one’s mind from obsessing about where the lost item was left. You know how it goes: you think about something else for a while, and then, unbidden, out of nowhere, the answer bubbles up on its own, and you remember where you left your keys.
I mused that “ya seen” is an example of spiritual homoepathy. You know, homeopathy is the ancient healing principle that a dose of that which ails you is the cure. “Ya seen” is a lost word that you dose yourself with in order to find your lost keys. So I pondered the resonance of this concept in my own religion. We’re all familiar with the substitutionary sacrifice concept of the cross: that Jesus died to save us from our sins. But right there in the book of John is a radically different interpretation. John’s gospel suggests that as the people of Israel in their exile gazed on a brass snake to get cured from snakebites, so we are cured of our human condition of suffering by gazing at the suffering of the Christ on the cross. You learn more about your own religion by pondering what you learn from other religions, finding resonances, but also dissonances that get you to re-think and even re-feel your own faith.
In the Interfaith Council meeting, a Catholic Christian student spoke up to inform us that in his tradition, one prays to St. Christopher for divine intervention in finding things that are lost. I asked why Catholics don’t pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, to find lost things. He shrugged. Another religious mystery.
It’s mystery all the way down, folks! Because if I’ve learned anything in this job for the last seven years, working in the interfaith center of a university with 40,000 students from around the planet, it’s this: the more you know about the religions of the world, the more keenly aware you are of your ignorance about them. You start praying to St. Jude in earnest, because really understanding all the world’s religions in any depth is a lost cause. I’m a Christian pastor, not a real scholar but with a scholarly bent. I’ve steeped myself in the history and spirituality of Christianity, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own tradition.
So many lost keys to religion, so little time! Ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen….
So it’s all the more bewildering to a person in my position when I hear Christians claim that Christianity is the only true faith, that nobody can get right with God except by accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. I just want to ask a person who says that, woah, dude, you know all there is to know about all the world’s religions? You’ve read all the uncountable pages of even the most obscure scriptures of the most obscure sects of all the faiths of the world? You’ve prostrated in submission to Allah, not just with Sunni Muslims but also with Shias and Alawites and Ismailis and Sufis? You know what is in the heart of a Sikh woman as she closes her eyes in the gurdwara and listens to the soulful kirtan music of praise to God, to the beat of tablas and the reedy sound of the harmonium? You know enough about the spiritual status of a Hindu bowing reverently as waves the smoke of the aarthi flame over his head with his hands, enough to know that God will condemn him to eternal hellfire for following the wrong religion? You’re really quite sure that the devout Jewish nurse who sings sweetly to her elderly patient while very carefully changing the dressings on her decubitus sores is a lost soul until she believes Jesus is the only begotten Son of God?
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” says Paul in the letter to the Philippians. I ask, how did the religion of an empty man get so full of itself as to claim to be the only way to God?
Yet that’s still what a lot of Christians believe. And it’s what most non-Christians believe that Christians believe. And it’s what a fair number of people who drive past Fountain Street Church believe that Fountain Street Church members believe, because of the word “church” on your sign. So to change this perception, we have to get vocal and publicly explicit about our support for the idea that other religions can be as good for others as our religion is good for us. The wider community won’t know that there is a humbler kind of Christianity that doesn’t claim to be superior to all other faiths unless we tell them about it. That is why ProgressiveChristianity.org created an 8-point welcome statement for churches. Hundreds around the globe have adopted this statement, which includes an explicit endorsement of religious pluralism. As a volunteer for ProgressiveChristianity.org, I initiated Pluralism Sunday about a decade ago, as a Sunday when progressive congregations all over the world could “go public” with this position, and also incorporate elements of other faiths into worship, to encourage greater religious literacy.
So I’m very grateful to my friend and colleague Jason Hubbard and his dear wife Dana for hosting me to come to your historic and courageous church to celebrate this special Sunday with you. Today we lift up our hearts with gratitude to the Ultimate Reality of the Universe for the extraordinary richness and depth of the faith traditions of the world. Today we take on an attitude of gratitude for the faithful people of these many religions who have put their spirituality into action for compassion, peace, and justice. Today we open our hearts with deep humility toward people who practice faiths about which we know very little, and open our hearts and our minds to learning more about them. We open our hearts to the spiritual growth that awaits us through intimate exposure to the faith traditions of others.
A very important lesson in spiritual humility toward other religions came to me when I started seminary in 1976. I was hardly a theologically orthodox Christian when I got to San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin County. I think the school understood this, so they paired me with a roommate who was at least as unorthodox. Ken Meece arrived at the seminary after spending about a year in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. After meditating intensively for many months, he told Lama Yeshe, a famous Tibetan monk, that he wanted to take the vows to be a Buddhist monk himself. Lama Yeshe said, “No, go home. You’ve learned all the Buddhism that you need. Go home and study the religion of your culture. Become the most enlightened Christian you can be!”
Ken saluted and went home and signed up for seminary right away. There he was, his head shaved, doing yogic headstands in our seminary student apartment, meditating and chanting. I asked him to teach me everything he knew. So every morning we’d go up to the seminary chapel and bask in the light pouring through the stained glass and we’d practice Vipassana mindfulness meditation for about 45 minutes and then take a six-mile run through the redwood forest up Mount Tamalpais.
I have been practicing mindfulness meditation ever since, and have taught it in all the churches and campuses I’ve served. In this practice, I observe my thoughts and feelings, striving to do so with an attitude of deep attention, openness, non-judgment, and compassion. After a while, I begin to identify with the observer within myself, more than what the observer observes. This inner observer is God. So my experience of God, as a Christian, owes very much to this Buddhist practice. I am a better Christian because of my exposure to Buddhism.
Now imagine a Tibetan Buddhist going to a Christian seminary and being told to go home and be the most enlightened Buddhist he or she could be! That would be a rare event indeed. Part of the mission of Pluralism Sunday is to make such moments more common.
I love how succinctly Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, describes the belief that one religion is superior to all others: “It doesn’t help.” He doesn’t attack the idea. Rather, he simply points out the fact that it is not a belief that is useful for spiritual development or for growing in compassion toward others. It doesn’t help Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. And if it doesn’t help, why hang on to it?
So it should not be a surprise that millions of Americans are letting go of the idea of religious exclusivism. According to the statistics kept by the Pew Research Center, a majority even of evangelical Christians now believe that non-Christians can get to heaven without becoming Christians. This is a huge and important change. But it is a change that hasn’t come to many of their leaders. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the definitive book on the religious views of Americans, American Grace, gave a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors in the Midwest. They told the pastors about the fact that most evangelical lay people believe non-Christians can get to heaven. “Well, that’s not true in our church!” huffed one of the pastors. Putnam and Campbell replied that in fact, the statistics were broken down by denomination, and that in fact, a majority of lay people in the Missouri Synod were religious pluralists. Silence followed this revelation, and then a pastor blurted out, “We have failed!”
That might have been a good time for the pastors to say “ya seen” forty times. Alas, even if they’d known that Muslim practice, they would have forsworn it as assent to heresy.
But the cracks are forming and widening even among evangelical clergy. Two years ago I had the privilege of inviting Rob Bell, your former neighbor, to speak at USC. He was pastor of the big evangelical Mars Hill church here. As you may know, Rob Bell had an epiphany one Sunday at Mars Hill. There was an image of Gandhi on a wall in the church, part of a larger exhibit, and someone in the church had placed a sticky note on Gandhi’s face with the message: “He’s in hell, you know.” Rob Bell stared at the sticky note and had a moment of truth. He knew in the depths of his soul that no, Mohandas K. Gandhi is not in hell because he remained a Hindu for his whole life. And Rob knew he could never again preach a gospel that could be interpreted as suggesting that such a thing was the case. So he wrote Love Wins, a book that got him on the cover of Time Magazine, and earned him the fury of the evangelical and fundamentalist establishment of America. I brought him to USC to speak to a group of about 450 young recovering evangelicals, many of them students at our university. They were electrified by his inclusive message of love. They mobbed him with adulation after his talk.
The good news is that Fountain Street Church is here, alive and thriving in the land of Zondervan and Eerdmans, and churches like yours dot the landscape of this whole country, and there are more and more people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who are attracted to congregations like yours that are not hung up on creeds but are focused on deeds. They’re excited to find churches that don’t worry whether or not you’re a Christian or anything else, churches that make room for the gifts of all the world’s faiths, and the spiritual gifts of those without religion, as well. Your historic church is on the side of the history that’s in the making!
It has been gratifying to be part of the national progressive Christian movement for nearly two decades, and to witness its growth. Nobody knew the term back in the early 1990’s, but now it’s understood by the media and some of the public as a real category. The public perception of Christianity is changing. I’d like to give our movement all the credit for that, but really, the biggest reason is in front of my face every day. It’s the exposure Americans get, more and more, to lovely, caring people of all the world’s faiths. I work on a university campus with truly staggering religious diversity. It’s impossible for our students not to be exposed intimately to other students who practice faiths other than their own. We have at least a thousand Muslims, even more Hindus, hundreds of Sikhs, a Zoroastrian student club, five Buddhist clubs. They are almost all really kind, thoughtful people and it’s hard to imagine that any of them are going to end up in hell because they didn’t recite this creed or that. Religious pluralism is no mere concept, no mere belief. It’s a lived reality on our campus. And as the world’s religions are represented by more and more congregations spread all over our country, the whole US is becoming like USC.
This past year we hosted a Shia Muslim theologian from Iran for a talk, and most of those who came to hear him were Sunni Muslim students. A very respectful dialogue resulted. It was a conversation that hardly happens in the Middle East, but on our campus, it is normal. It’s hard for one kind of Muslim at USC to believe that other kinds are heretical. On a few occasions we’ve hosted a Sufi Muslim rock star, Salman Ahmed, for concerts of his spiritual music at USC. Who shows up? Indian Hindus, Indian Muslims, Indian Sikhs, and Pakistani Muslims — all doing “banghra” dancing to the beat and singing along with his songs, which are well-known in South Asia. Pakistanis and Indians don’t dance together in South Asia. But they do at USC. This kind of lived religious pluralism is a reality in America today, and it’s a model for the whole world to emulate. And we’re not just talking about toleration, not just talking about putting up with each other. We’re talking about recognizing that there is no one final true religion, or even non-religion, exclusive of all others. Many religious leaders in America have not caught on to this reality, but I think it’s just a matter of time before the leaders follow their followers and accept that God or Ultimate Reality cannot be named with just one name, or praised with but one language of faith. Your church is hastening that glorious day by living out religious pluralism, not just on Pluralism Sunday, but every day.
In my novel, SOULJOURN, the young protagonist has an experience that propels him on a quest to learn all he can about the world’s religions. Joshua T. Stoneburner lives literally in the middle of nowhere, in a little town in the southern Arizona desert. But within a hundred miles of nowhere, he’s able to find people who practice many of the world’s religions. Of course he is able to explore many kinds of Christianity – the Southern Baptists, the mainline Protestants, the Quakers; and the homegrown American Christian groups: the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He participates in a Torah study with a Jewish group. Such faith groups are old news in America. But within an easy drive he finds a Sufi Muslim community, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh gurdwara. The more he learns, the more boggled he becomes, the more questions he asks, and the more wonderful people he meets. He joins an interfaith community of border justice activists and finds himself living his questions about religion through works of compassion. Joshua T. Stoneburner’s “souljourn” isn’t about finding the one true faith. It’s about learning many languages of spirituality. The religions he explores aren’t all the same – far from it. They might not even be different paths up the same mountain. But they share a deep human proclivity, a deep human impulse, to connect with the Cosmic Source of life and love. Will he one day focus on one religious path, join one particular religious community? The novel doesn’t answer that question. But certainly it suggests that whatever path Josh follows, it will be one that honors deeply those who walk other paths.
So I invite you to hop in the cab of Joshua T. Stoneburner’s beat-up pickup truck and see for yourself – do what Josh did, and go on your own souljourn to discover the spiritual treasures of the world’s faiths, right here in Western Michigan! Let us cheer the religions of the world to rediscover the spiritual humility so many of them have lost! Ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen! and amen —