Signposts on the Way to God
On a daily basis, in the early morning hours ... I receive an email message inspired, and collected, from the words and wisdom of Henri Nouwen. "A Daily Meditation". "A Spiritual Reflection". A signpost ...... steering me — steering us — on the Way to God.
How do we know about God's love, God's generosity, God's kindness, God's forgiveness? Through our parents, our friends, our teachers, our pastors, [our rabbis, our imams], our spouses, our children …. they all reveal God to us. But as we come to know them, we realise that each of them can reveal only a little bit of God. God's love is greater than theirs; God's goodness is greater than theirs; God's beauty is greater than theirs. At first we may be disappointed in these people in our lives. For a while we thought that they would be able to give us all the love, goodness, and beauty we needed. But gradually we discover that they were all signposts on the way to God."
- Henri J. M. Nouwen
Henri Nouwen understands, as well as any author or spiritual leader that I've encountered, the active, burning, all-consuming presence of God in the hearts, and lives, of compassionate … caring people. Not necessarily (just) the people within one family, one community, or even one religion - but rather, all those that share a thirst for the Divine, and a hunger for the Eternal.
On a bookshelf in my library lies a rather old — somewhat decaying — underlined, and dog-eared, trade paperback written by Huston Smith (published in 1957). The title of this 94¢ "gem of knowledge" is The Religions of Man […if written today, I would expect Mr. Smith might call the book 'The Religions of Humanity' … but in the 1950s, language often took a primarily masculine direction]. Religion. Our Faith Traditions. Our Spiritual Pathways. Our complex, complicated, sometimes confusing religions.
What does 'religion' tell us about who we are …. or, what is important to us, and why …. or, how we should deal with the problems, and struggles, that are faced - daily - in life? Some people would argue that our religions, in fact, entangle more of their energy in the roots of the world's problems than in the spiritual medicine box that we would hope helps solves many, if not all (some day), of our global, human difficulties. Certainly, there is some truth to this critical statement. However, we should also consider: if all of 'this energy' is going into the root, and none finding its way to the branches — where it can display beauty and reflect harmony — then the problem is absolutely not with the Gardener; it's with the plant itself!
Our "human plants" — whether fed by religion or not — unfortunately, do not show an attractive record of success …. specifically, in the course of relationships, in neighbourly (or nation-ly) cooperation, in generosity, in compassion. But that does not mean the plant is about to self-destruct. Optimists ( .. and I am one of them) will argue that there are signs of progress. And, not suprisingly, one of the clearer signs of progress …. is dialogue, and understanding.
'Isn't it ironical,' remarked G. K. Chesterton upon hearing of the first round-the-world wireless communication, 'that we have learned to talk around the world at precisely that moment when no one has anything to say.' … this [however] is far from true of religion. Here the people of the world have a great deal to say to one another, and they have drawn close at precisely the time when man's spiritual life, facing severe threats from nationalism, materialism, and conformity, stands in desperate need of the stimulus that searching conversation can encourage."1
Understanding — conversation, dialogue with one another: to probe, and reveal, and appreciate the differences …. in culture, and values, and religious traditions — will always remain a bridge that helps us to see one another as brother and sister, and friend.
The community today can be no single tradition; it is the planet. Daily the world grows smaller, leaving understanding the only bridge on which peace can find its home. But the annihilation of distance has caught us unprepared. Who today stands ready to accept the solemn equality of nations? Who does not have to fight an unconscious tendency to equate foreign with inferior? We live in a great century, but if it is to rise to its full opportunity, the scientific achievements of its first half must be matched by comparable achievements in human relations in its second. Those who listen in the present world work for peace, a peace built not upon ecclesiastical or political empire, but upon understanding and the mutual involvement in the lives of others that this brings. For understanding, at least in the realms as inherently noble as the great faiths of mankind, brings respect, and respect prepares the way for a higher power, love - the only power that can quench the flames of fear, suspicion, and prejudice, and provide the means by which the peoples of this great earth can become one to one another."2
Our success as humanity — in 'becoming human' — dwells as much in our addiction to love [ ... an addiction that we must cultivate] as in the fuel of understanding. Both conditions work together and reinforce one another … each drawing upon the other to feed, and grow, the human condition. A signpost that tells us we can (and must) pursue the Shadow of the Divine. Never reaching, never attaining — fully …. but desiring — in our heart — to unite with the Ultimate. And reminding us …in mystery, as with so much of God's Wisdom …. that it is through our differences — the uniqueness' of our faiths, cultures and beliefs — that we ultimately discover the common bonds we all share with our Creator.
In The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks speaks eloquently — passionately — about the richness of diversity in God's world. In the final chapter of his book, he spells out 'a covenant of hope' — his personal conviction, and belief, that "no tradition is free from the constant need to reinterpret, to apply external truths to an ever-changing world, to listen to what God's word requires of me, here, now. That is what religious leaders have always done, in the past no less than now."3
The question is: To what extent will we see our present interconnectedness as a threat or a challenge? As the work of man, or as a call from God to a greater humanity, as well as to a greater self-restraint? As for me, I believe that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine Other. The test - so lamentably failed by the great powers of the twentieth century - is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger; to heed the cry of those who are disempowered in this age of unprecedented powers; who are hungry and poor and ignorant and uneducated, whose human potential is being denied the chance to be expressed. That is the faith of Abraham and Sarah, from whom the great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, trace their spiritual or actual ancestry. That is the faith of one who, though he called himself but dust and ashes, asked of God himself, 'Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?' We are not gods, but we are summoned by God - to do His work of love and justice and compassion and peace."4
What should be our approach to the religions of the world … and to the differences — and diversity — between people, between nations, between cultures? Should we not respond with Understanding?! Appreciation?! Reverence?! Respect?! Dignity?! Dialogue?! The religions of our planet, experienced in and through the lives of people who are close to us, who we know as friend or neighbour or colleague — and especially as revealed in the lives of caring people who are strangers — are signposts ... remarkable, historical signposts ... directing us on the way to God.
There are multiple universes of wisdom, each capturing something of the radiance of being and refracting it into the lives of its followers, none refuting or excluding the others, each as it were the native language of its followers, but combining in a hymn of glory to the creator."5
We are different for a reason — we are diverse for a reason. We were created with difference, each from the other: Sikh from Hindu, Muslim from Buddhist, Jew from Christian. Our diversity is more than our difference — it is our strength. It is the channel that opens-up the path of God's love to flow from one human being to another, regardless of religious tradition, ethnic culture, race or gender.
Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities. Our last best hope is to recall the classic statement of John Donne and the more ancient story of Noah after the Flood and hear, in the midst of our hypermodernity, an old-new call to a global covenant of human responsibility and hope. Only when we realize the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same - the same faith on the one hand, the same McWorld on the other - will we prevent the clash of civilizations, born of the sense of threat and fear. We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference."6
Diversity and Difference — Dialog and Understanding — Religion and Spirituality. Together, these are the keys to moving the world forward ….. in hope and healing, and in love and reconciliation.
[If] understanding … can lead to love … [then] the reverse is equally true. Love brings understanding; the two are reciprocal. So we must listen in order to further the understanding the world so desperately needs, but we must also listen in order to practice the love which our own religion (whichever it be) enjoins, for it is impossible to love another without listening to him. If then, we are to be true to our own faith we must attend to others when they speak, as deeply and as alertly as we hope they will attend to us. We must have the graciousness to receive as well as to give."7
* * * * *
Fifty years ago, Huston Smith published his small pocketbook — a book as relevant, and meaningful, today as it was decades ago. A book that reminds us, and challenges us, to look at the world through the eyes of another … and, there, see and discover that vast array of signposts … that reveal the journey of the heart to the God of love, and to the love of God.
- Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.
- Sacks, Jonathan. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. New York: Continuum, 2002.
- Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.