I had never imagined a room filled with people who were so different from one another. There was a woman with a head scarf, a man with a chequered scarf around his neck, a woman with a beautiful sari and others with a variety of western clothing. One man with a yellow toga and a shaven head was, I surmised, a Buddhist. They were mingling with one another but they were distant from one another. I began to speak with a young man who declared immediately, “I am a Sikh,” and the Buddhist I had already recognized declared, “I am a Buddhist.” We knew little about each other. I was soon intrigued by what they shared about their traditions. They were adamant about their traditions. They unquestioningly accepted what they had inherited from the past. I inquired of the Buddhist and the Sikh, “Are we not allowed to question our religious traditions? Do we have to give up thinking when we have found faith?” A short silence followed. The Buddhist was born a Buddhist and would die a Buddhist. The Sikh nodded his approval. I shared:” Doesn’t our faith grow when we interact with people who are different from us and how can we forget that we share the same world!” The Buddhist tells us, “We Buddhists withdraw from the world and seek perfection through meditation. We believe in re-incarnation and we return each time to make ourselves better and become more enlightened.” The Sikh: “Our Sikh religion is about giving everybody the basic necessities to live as a human being.” A young man with a kippah on his head had stood listening: He joined in, “Judaism is all about Tiqun Olan, healing the world, and we say the rest is all commentary.”
Now a rather attractive young woman wearing no identifiable religious symbol contributes: “The strength of any religion is its ability to be self-critical. Unless we rethink our faith we will not be able to change the status quo. And the great tragedy of maintaining the status quo is that injustices, the denial of human rights, and any sense of solidarity will remain unquestioned.” I interjected: “What about faith? Is there anything we hold in common in faith?”
“The young woman in a soft spoken voice adds: “Faith is important but blind faith leads us nowhere. We need to refocus and reinterpret faith for today. God is no longer discussed except by atheists.” We all chuckled at how right she could be. The young Jewish man expressed a thought that caused all of us to stand back for a moment: “Jews and Christians had to rethink a God of Providence after the Shoah, what is usually called the Jewish Holocaust, and to believe in a God in aparallel world to history became impossible and providencewas redefined as an affirmation of humanity. Faith is now this world-oriented, not another-worldly orientation as it had been in the past. Now all faiths have to be concerned about humanity and reclaim humanity.”
The young woman spoke: Does faith not also requires the use of reason; otherwise, faith could be reduced to piety. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries requires that faith respect reason; it is not at odds with faith. All religions must be on guard to balance the importance of faith with the use ofreason. There was a time when the quest for the certainty of faith was solely in the hands of the authorities. It is important for all people of all religions to recognize the need for ongoing reforming of faith and religion.” I looked around and saw in the faces of many that that would require a quantum leap of faith.
I then asked, “What about prayer? Do we need to reinterpret prayer when God is not in a heaven and intervening with humans?” A young man who has been on the periphery of our circle chimed in: “ ”The realization that God is not operating parallel to history demands that religion question the meaning of an interventionist God,a God who answers prayers from a supernatural realm of existence. Those who purport a “spiritual” life are those who now must realize that religion cannot rely on a supernatural God to solve problems in the natural world.” Everyone wanted to say something. You just felt it. He continued: “In this context prayer comes from a new awareness and self-understanding and the question that arises is how God comes to us in our new situation. The first discovery is that God is actively redeeming, reclaiming life in the world and now we have to realize that our secular existence is not of secondary importance. Prayer is our way of contemplation that allows us to look more deeply into what happens in our everyday, ordinary lives, and to learn in our secular experience how God is present and reclaiming, redeeming us. Together, all religious traditions must unite and look to the future in very responsible ways.” You could just feel that everyone wanted toagree but most, by their body language, had reservations. It’s hard t change overnight.
The group dispersed, we took our seats in the auditorium, andthe key-note theologian began her lecture:
“The Spirit of God hovers over us today as the Spirit hovered over creation and created order out of chaos. God is not over and against humanity, we are to become aware of the changes he summons forth in human life. Knowledge of God clarifies the new consciousness created by faith and reflects on its implication for our understanding of the whole of reality. The transcendent mystery takes place in human life, and the when we acknowledge this in faith we are led into a new self-understanding and this will radically transform us. To believe that God exists means man is more than man and that human life is orientated towards a gracious future. Prayer is not to place ourselves before two worlds, God's world and ordinary life. Prayer is to lay hold of ordinary life in a new way, a way to reconciliation. Today, perhaps more than ever, we are all offered a faith that allows us to live where we are, deepen our appreciation and understanding of the ordinary things of life, remain in touch with our own religious traditions, and ourselves, to find the deepest meaning of everyday life, to know our faith, live our faith, and appreciate how prayer refocuses us on a God ever-present in the most ordinary of lives, yours and mine.”
That day I realized that human experience is the stuff of theological reflection. God is so close to us but are we looking for her/him in the right places?