In mid-June of 2011, I was a guest of Camille at the Snowmass Inter-Spiritual Dialog, held in the lovely setting of St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. The Dialog is an on-going process with more than a 25 year history in seeking to promote communication and exchange among many of the world’s spiritual or contemplative traditions and to identify “points of agreement” among them. Each of the core members or “mentors” of the group, of which Camille is the current Islamic/Sufi representative, invited several guests. During our 4 days together, mentors and guests alike explored a variety of issues including our personal spiritual journeys, the idea of a “true human being” in our various traditions, how we each deal with difficulty, and the relationship of spirituality and service. We shared samples of our spiritual practices, and we meditated and worshiped together.
It was an immensely rich time during which I came to appreciate the great benefits that attend this kind of conversation across the boundaries of our various traditions. I was impressed, inspired…and very much humbled… by the spiritual depth reflected in each of the participants. At the level of appreciation and understanding, I learned a great deal—about Judaism and its rich textual analysis, about Vedanta forms of Hinduism and their deep philosophical traditions and spiritual practices, about Tibetan Buddhism and its non-theistic yet profoundly spiritual path; about Roman Catholicism and its beautiful mass and monastic tradition. It was marvelous to hear Father Thomas Keating, now in his late 80s, and the figure behind this whole movement, speak at and participate in our various sessions.
Another great benefit of this kind of dialog lies in its capacity to counteract religious pride or any lingering tendencies toward religious idolatry, toward seeing our own traditions, practices, or formulations as somehow uniquely or exclusively “true.” There was much useful talk about the limitations of language in describing or defining the Divine. It is from this understanding that Jews, in fact, refuse to utter a name of God at all, and Muslims refer to the “One without compare.” And the efforts to identify points of agreement suggest significant commonalities across traditions, likewise undermining claims of exclusive truth. Such perspectives render our traditions “relative” rather than absolute and seem to reflect the outlook in the Quran: “Make no distinction between any of God’s messengers; for they all say, ‘We have heard and we pay heed’. Grant us your forgiveness [perhaps for our intolerance and religiously-based conflicts???], O our Sustainer. For it is with You that all journeys end.” (2:285)
Yet for all the benefits of inter-spiritual dialog, I became aware of some of the limitations of that effort as well. Certainly no-one at the gathering sought to create some blended spiritual Esperanto. I suspect most of us came away from the event with a renewed appreciation for the loveliness of our own traditions and a determination to explore their spiritual dimensions more deeply. One of the limitations of inter-spiritual dialog lies in the issue of accessibility. While I might appreciate other traditions, some of them are simply not very accessible to me, for reasons of culture, education, sensibility, and background, having nothing to do with validity or truthfulness. Here too the Quran underscores the point: “Unto every community We have appointed [different] ways of worship…” (22:67).
Furthermore, there is, or so it seems to me, a point of diminishing returns when it comes to defining in words our points of agreement. As an exercise, the guests in our group were asked to come up with one or more points of agreement across our several traditions. After much hard and earnest effort, we agreed, more or less, that all of us experience a kind of yearning, but we could not agree on a verbal formulation about the object of our yearning. And in one sense, I’m not sure that it matters very much, for there are other ways of defining, or better yet, experiencing our points of agreement. One certainly is friendship. We readily formed bonds with and felt affection for those with whom we might have intellectual differences. Another is service. I am sure that we could work together to feed the hungry, a task rather more significant than forging statements of commonality. Does not the Quran tell us to “vie with one another in doing good works” (5:48)? And finally we could worship and meditate together with little sense of discord despite our theological variety.
Inter-spiritual dialog then has the capacity to diminish occasions for misunderstanding and to foster a genuine appreciation that goes well beyond mere tolerance. The Snowmass experiment also revealed in action the Quran’s injunction to “speak in the most kindly manner [unto those who do not share our beliefs]” and in so doing model for the rest of us “adab-like” ways of interacting across spiritual traditions. For me it was a reminder that we can hold our traditions dearly, even as we hold them lightly. Those traditions, formulations, and practices are not the goal of our searching; they are but the means, the pointers to that Ultimate Reality or that pervasive Presence that lies both beyond and within.
Photo courtesy of Bruce F Heitler