Thursday, September 8, 2016


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Faith” is placing our trust in someone or something. “Faiths” are different persons or things where people place their trust. We live in a time of religious pluralism that brings people of different faiths into daily contact with each other. In the hope of better understanding, compassion, and cooperation, we engage in “interfaith dialogue” or conversations to bridge division. At least in Christian theology, the presence of multiple faiths in the world is something we have to interpret. What does the persistence of religious diversity say about God, about us, about our particular faith? It is hard to even think about that question without some personal encounter with other (competing?) worldviews.

Interfaith conversation makes the religious world considerably more interesting and can be a rich blessing. But there are better and worse ways to go about it. It can lead us deeper – or it can lead us shallower. It can bring us into relationship or it can break relationship or it can inoculate us against real relationship by coating over our differences with a false veneer of sameness.

This epistle aims to offer some modest guidance for how to think about other faiths and how to relate to people of those faiths. I for one have no interest in engaging in such a dialogue in the context of a secular nationalism (John Dewey) for the sake of making us all better secular nationalists despite our regrettable religiosity, which we hope to minimize. I approach interfaith dialogue first and foremost as an unabashed (“not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”) Christian. Why would a Christian – because he or she is a Christian – value this conversation?[i]

The Christian Starting Point. We begin with our understanding of God as Trinity. The Trinity is not a structural diagram of God. It is a metaphorical image of God that suggests multiple things about the fundamental nature of reality (God) without presuming to pin God down with a precise definition, that is to say, without pretending to know more about God than anyone can possibly know.[ii] One truth about God we express in this image is that there is an essential unity to all things – but that unity eternally proliferates diversity – a diversity that manifests as the Cosmic Dance.

As applied to religions, that means the religions are really, truly, not just superficially, different. Nirvana and Heaven are not the same thing and to tell a Buddhist his spiritual practice will get him into the Christian Heaven is an insult. But their difference does not deny or disprove the essential unity and coherence of reality. It means reality looks rather like a rainbow, like pure light that de-lights in refracting. That makes a difference for how we talk with each other. The objective is a unity made up of mutual respect and compassion. But it is not uniformity. Uniformity would flatten the religious landscape of the world. It would deny the genuine diversity that makes the world so fascinating.

         Two ways of relating across religious lines miss the diversity boat we Christians value. The first is to engage in conversation with the attempt to bring the other person over to our side. Authentic interfaith dialogue is not proselytizing. It is not proving the superiority of our faith over that of the other person. I will argue later that interfaith dialogue should be a process of mutual conversion – but not usually the sort of conversion that leads a person away from her faith tradition to follow another. The goal isn’t to turn “them” into “us” – thereby erasing the tension of difference. We like difference.

          The second unfortunate way is to replace the different faith traditions, each of which is a distinctive coherent system, with an interfaith salad bar in which each of us picks whichever beliefs and practices strike our fancy. Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am advocating a narrow-minded Christianity, let me tell you I was converted from the interfaith salad bar by my late Tibetan Buddhist teacher,[iii] the Ven. Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Rinpoche used to say, “You must sit on one pillow.” He was comparing our tendency to pick this and that from one tradition or another to trying to meditate sitting on several zafus (meditation pillows) at the same time. He explained that if we pick this and that from various traditions, we must ask, “who is doing the picking?” He said it was invariably the ego – or in Christian parlance, the prideful self – and it will pick only the pieces that fit it, that support it, not the pieces that challenge it – and the whole point of spiritual practice is to transcend that ego (prideful self) to reach the Truth (which we Christians call “God.”)[iv] Rinpoche saw our cherry picking the world religions as a kind of spiritual dilettantism, at odds with any serious spiritual discipline. It is an expropriation of the gems from other faiths for our self-deification, akin to what sociologist Robert Bellah identified as “Shelia-sim.”[v]

         One of the great scholars of world religions, and along with Joseph Campbell one of the greatest popularizers of interfaith dialogue in our time, was the late Huston Smith. When asked about mixing and matching pieces of various religions to form one’s own particular brand of faith, he said that we need a basic diet. As for his basic diet, Huston Smith said, he was a Methodist. Indeed he worshiped faithfully with his UMC congregation in Berkeley. But he said he also took nutritional supplements. The world religions provided the supplements. Do you see the difference? Other traditions can supplement, but not displace inconvenient parts of, our own faith.

         Conversion. In order to have a good interfaith dialogue, we start with two things: first, enough respect for the other person and their faith tradition to listen with an open mind; second, enough respect for and knowledge of our own faith tradition so that we will have something to bring to the table. When all parties to the conversation approach it in that spirit, we will find some of our beliefs challenged – not attacked but challenged. That is a good thing because it pushes us deeper. It makes us refine our faith. For example, there is language in John’s gospel that makes “everlasting life” depend on believing in Jesus. But there is also language in Paul that prophesies the redemption of the whole cosmos – “for God so loved the world” even John said – and would God decide the fate of those he loved based on their getting the right answer on a religious multiple choice test? I do not propose to answer that here. It is just an example of how interfaith dialogue pushes us to question our faith – and if we value our faith, we must take it seriously enough to question it.  

         If we have a good interfaith conversation, there is always the risk that we will find ourselves changed. And if we are changed there is no guarantee what we will become. But a Christian talking with a Jew should hope to become a better Christian and to help the Jew become a better Jew; the Muslim, a better Muslim, etc. Then both diversity and unity will be served. That is the kind of conversion we hope for – a conversion not from one belief system to another but a conversion from a shallower form of faith to a deeper one, and a conversion of our hearts to one another.

         The “good Samaritan” did not become a neighbor to the Jew by becoming a Jew himself. He became a neighbor by lending a hand. Jesus had no interest in the Samaritan becoming a Jew; nor in the Jew becoming a Christian. He invited us to become neighbors across our lines of difference.

         Theology Of The Hammer. We are blessed to be in conversation with each other. We can learn more about each other’s faiths and about our own from such conversation. But that conversation will be so much mind gaming unless it is rooted in an earthly, real world context. Another of my former teachers summed up this earthy context beautifully. This teacher came much later in my life. He was a South Georgia Baptist named Millard Fuller. As director of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller called it “the theology of the hammer.” He meant that we can believe what we want on Sunday morning or Friday night, whenever we meet for worship. But what counts is coming together to saw planks and drive nails to build houses for poor people.

         I have treasured this past decade spent with the Episcopal flock in Nevada. But to be candid, living in our little Anglo-ghetto might have been less enlightening, less of a growth opportunity – even in colorful Nevada, even with the flowering of ethnic diversity in some of our churches thanks to Latino ministries -- it would have been less memorable had it not been in the interfaith context of our work with Nevadans For the Common Good, where Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews have joined hands to combat child sex trafficking, support public education funding, provide home health care to the disabled, and expand Meals On Wheels. We have talked about our different faiths. We have not pretended we all believe in the same thing. Finding common ground is all the more precious because we have our differences. We look past the differences for the common good, and in the course of working for the common good, we have become friends.

         Good And Bad Religion. Now lest I seem too sanguine – you know me better than that – let me also add a note of judgment. Respect for each other’s faith traditions does not smooth over – in fact it casts in sharp relief – the distinction between good religion and bad religion. We cannot prove our faiths by science or logic, so you may well ask: how does one judge between good religion and bad religion. The test is moral. We can discover morality from reason (Kant) and from the common sentiments of human hearts (Scottish moral philosophy). Morality is our plumb line.[vi] Some religion makes us kinder, more honest, more compassionate, more respectful of each other, more reverent for the mystery, more at harmony with the earth. Other religion is bigoted, hateful, violent, cruel, arrogant, and crude. We disregard the distinction between good and evil at our peril – especially the distinction between good and evil religion.

         But the distinction between good and evil does not correspond to the boundary lines between the world religions. It is a fault line (pun intended) running through each of our traditions. There is a good Christianity and an evil one; a good Judaism and an evil one, a good Islam and an evil one, a good Buddhism and an evil one; etc. There is no religion with clean hands and I have not yet studied a religion without its share of virtue. So – and here’s the uncomfortable part –how good is our religion? It is rather hard to tell from the inside. The challenges to our religion we need most to hear are the moral challenges. And we are not likely to hear those from our co-religionists. We are likely to hear such challenges from people of another faith. That is what can push us deeper, call us to conversion.

[i] As for why a devotee of another faith would value the conversation, that is for the members of each faith to say. But it will be a far better more interesting conversation if we each approach it from our own distinct perspectives rather than a bland “aren’t we all Americans” bland commonality.

[ii] Some have, rightly I think, defined “irreverence” as just such a presumption.
[iii] This was a long time ago in a state some distance away.

[iv] St. Augustine and the architects of the orthodox Christian faith would readily concur.

[v] In Habits of the Heart, Bellah related an interview with a young woman who identified her religion as “Shelia-ism” meaning believing in and practicing whatever fit for her.

[vi] Amos

Friday, July 22, 2016


One of my spiritual heroes, the late Fr. William McNamara, was once teaching moral theology to a class of second graders. He asked the students, “If the good people were all red and the bad people were all blue, what color would you be?”

One little girl answered, “I’d be stripe-y.”

This second grader was expressing St. Augustine’s version of human nature. In his day, there were great saints who told their stories. The theme of their stories was (to borrow a phrase from centuries later), “I once was blind but now I see.” Augustine disturbed the late Roman world with his book The Confessions, in which his theme was “I once was blind but now I see ‘as through a glass darkly.’” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

In this life, we are all stripe-y. We all see through a glass darkly. It is a paradox and a frustration. We are given this life to grow in wisdom and grace, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to descend into our very souls (true selves if you prefer secular language) and live out of them. And yet – and yet – we remain muddled, sometimes foolish, reactive, prone to do all sorts of wrongs. “The good that I would do, I do not. The evil that I would not do, that is the very thing I do.”(Romans 7: 19). We long to become like Christ, and therein lies our happiness and the meaning and the value of our mortal lives[i] – but if our salvation and ultimate destiny depend on our success at that project, we are doomed by our incorrigible and ineradicable fallibility.[ii]

That is why there are several kinds of grace – two of which apply here. One is the forgiving, reconciling, justifying mercy of God who accepts us and loves us as we are. The other is the transforming grace of transformation, the hand of God sculpting, the breath of God enlivening, the will of God aiding our own wills to become more than we are today. As someone said, “God loves us the way we are, but because he loves us, he does not leave us this way.”

Now let’s bring this abstraction to earth. I had expected to be a considerably more enlightened being than I am at this stage in life’s journey. I would have wanted to be a better person. But it turns out I’m still pretty flawed and fallible. But there’s actually something good about that. One way I have improved is that, thanks to my failings, I am far less likely to look down on others. I am too aware of the plank in my own eye. (Matthew 7: 5). And the truth is: my spiritual ambition to become ethereal and serene was about 65% imagining it would make me feel better and 35% anticipating how great it would be looking down on the less spiritually advanced folks. I am still a pretty foolish person but I have learned this much about life: the project is considerably more substantive than feeling better and there is no room in it for lording it over other people, especially based on subjective moods.

Oddly enough, that brings us to the Church. As a young adult, I kept my distance from the Church because I didn’t respect Church folks very much. That is a common attitude among the young, especially these days. And it often persists late in life. One of our hospice chaplains reports that as she serves unchurched people they express no need for a faith community because they feel that they are “good with God.” I don’t know what that means but it could be they think they will go to Heaven without the benefit of the Church, which (there is some argument about that, but) I think they are probably right. And they may mean they are reasonably calm (which is nice but not, in my view, the purpose of human life) or they have a clean conscience (which, in my view, is more likely an anaesthetized and morally indifferent conscience).[iii] More and more folks are choosing to practice their spirituality “on their own cloud” as one anti-church person put it to me this week while telling me to get off his – yes it was a grumpy old boomer.

So let’s have a truth moment about the Church. We’ve done some wonderful and noble things – inventing hospices, hospitals, and hostels; standing against slavery, apartheid, and genocide. We’ve produced some heavy-duty saints that any secularist or spiritual-but-not-religious person would be hard pressed not to admire. But as a whole, Church people are not better than other people; and Church people are not nicer when they are in Church than when they are at home or work. Oddly enough, they are often worse. The Church as an institution and its members individually have also behaved abominably.

So, why complicate life by getting mixed up with such people? Today, we can hold ourselves out as better, holier, more spiritual and righteous by saying we are better than the Church so we don’t get its mud on our clothes. Why be part of the Church?

There is the upside of necessity. We cannot maintain any kind of spiritual practice without community support. This is not just a Christian thing. Buddhists, AA, etc. all say the same. We need each other, no matter what the soloists claim. We soon learn that our spiritual journey will be either short or circuitous if we do not dare wander beyond the little cloud of our own subjectivity. So we look for a faith community that is worthy of us. We hope in such a community to hang out and bask in each other’s holiness.

But such a faith community must be pure enough for us and by our standards of purity (which these days may or may not be restraint from fleshly sins – purity can as easily consist in holding all the right opinions of inclusivity, etc.). In recent years, we have seen people separate themselves from churches that were deemed impure by virtue of LGBTQ inclusion. Before that it was women’s ordination. In every era, there is some issue leading to separation in the quest for a pure and holy enough Church to live up to or personal standards.

This centrifugal impulse toward purity goes back at least to the 4th Century when the Donatists broke away from the Catholics because some of the Catholic clergy had been ordained by bishops who had betrayed the faith during the last Roman persecution in 303 AD. The Donatists wanted a pure Church, untainted by cowardice and moral laxity. So they formed their own group as a community apart from Roman society generally and apart from the rest of the Church. It was an enclave of the good. Peter Brown called it “a place of refuge, like the Ark.”

The person who challenged the Donatists was none other than St. Augustine who, you will recall, had come to see himself as still a deeply flawed man despite his position as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He saw himself as a field in which wheat and weeds had both been sown. Matthew 13: 24-30. And that shaped his view of the Church. Now this takes close reading but it is worth it. Augustine’s biographer Peter Brown writes:

         The Donatists might be content to find themselves in the Ark;
         Augustine was concerned with a deeper problem; the human
race was divided; communication between fellow men in society was difficult . . . A man who feels intensely that the existing bonds . . . in society are somehow dislocated, but that the group to which he belongs, can consolidate and purify them, will . . .  be very different from the man who feels he can only create an alternative to this society
-- a little ‘Kingdom of Saints’ -- . . . in a hostile or indifferent world.

Augustine saw the religious project, the project of human life, altogether differently. It isn’t about being “good with God,” securing our ticket to heaven, easing our conscience, or managing our anxiety. Neither the Church nor the world make those things easy. But it isn’t about that. It’s about sharing God’s love with the world in its brokenness. No one in the Bible describes “the world” more darkly, more cynically, more pessimistically than St. John the Evangelist, but he is the one who says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever believes (trusts) in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3: 16)

So this Church thing isn’t about what we get out of it but what we put into it. It’s about sharing God’s love in a broken world and a broken Church. In our own broken fallible way, we serve other broken fallible people. We show them as best we can the path of grace. But even when we show the path well, they are apt not to follow it. What then? Augustine says:

         The man you cannot put right is still yours: he is part of you;
         either as a fellow human being or often as a member of your
         church. He is inside with you.

Right or wrong, we are in this together, “for better or worse, in sickness or in health, till death do us part.”

When Churches splinter into little pockets of purity (self-defined) or splinter into individuals practicing their own brand of spirituality on their own cloud,[iv] it is not surprising to see the secular society follow suit into disintegration. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy In America, said the great threat to democracy was our penchant for individualism but that democracy was sustained by certain “habits of the heart” fostered by our religion and experience in voluntary associations. As we 21st Century Americans have lapsed into neo-Donatism, we only exacerbate the deeper problem that concerned Augustine, “the human race (is) divided; communication between fellow (people)  in society (is) difficult.” Or as Yeats put it,
         “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
          Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
         The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
         The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
         The best lack all conviction; while the worst
         Are filled with passionate intensity.

We join the Church, not for our sake, but to love the world because God loves it, and here’s the kicker – in the awful, painful, dreadful, endlessly frustrating act of loving the world – that is how we are changed – changed into the likeness of Christ “who loved (us) and gave himself for (us.) (Galatians 2: 20)

It is a stripe-y Church for us stripe-y people. But it turns out the stripe-y-ness is not all bad. It is in fact the very means of our transformation. I have long loved this saying of St. John of the Cross, but only recently have I begun to grasp more of its meaning. John said,
         God has so ordained to sanctify us through the frail
         Instrumentality of each other.

The new point for me is that it is our very frailty that makes us the instrumentality of each other’s sanctification.[v] We do need each other to be kind, supportive, courageous, and inspiring. But we also need each other to be ornery, wrong-headed, mean, duplicitous, and all those “bad” things that come to us so naturally. We don’t want it but we need it because when people are difficult, that is when we learn the spiritual arts of forbearance, forgiveness, and grace.

One does not get to be a bishop without loving the Church, but no one spends much time as a bishop without seeing more of the Church’s faults than most people do, and most people see plenty. To hang in with this love “till death do us part,” I have to love the Church “warts and all” and that has become all important to me – because the Church is the Body of Christ “who loved me (warts and all) and gave himself for me.” Those pure communities of the spiritually advanced are too sterile for authentic human life. In the worlds of the song, We All Need A Little Dirt To Grow.

[i] The problem with theologies that consist entirely of assuring is that grace abounds and it’s all alright and we don’t’ have to do anything is that they render this mortal life meaningless. There is nothing to do but wait.
[ii] The problems with  spiritualties that consist of our mastering and advancing are that: 1. We are usually unable to do them; and 2. They turn upon themselves in self-defeating ways. Prince Charles jokes he had always wanted to be recognized as a humble man. Finally someone gave him a medal for humility but when he put it on they took it away from him.
[iii] In my experience an easy conscience is the product of a strenuous discipline of self-delusion. None of us are that good. On the moral scale, I am not good with God; but, thank you Jesus, God is good with me. Thomas Merton said, “the man who is not afraid to admit all that he sees wrong with himself, but recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of these shortcomings, may begin to become sincere. His sincerity is based not on his illusions about himself, but on the endless, unfailing mercy of God.” No Man Is An Island
[iv] In Habits Of The Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah told the story of a woman named Shelia who practiced the religion of Shelia-ism, which consisted of doing what seemed right to her, believing what she chose to believe, and generally subscribing to doing her own thing.
[v] “Sanctification” is an old word in the Christian tradition. It means to be made “holy” but that leads to the need for more definitional unpacking. It isn’t about being pious. It is about the surrender of ego and being given away to God. It is akin to growing into the likeness of Christ. In psychology terms, it could be called self-authentication if “self” means the true soul, which is linked, to Christ as opposed to our ego.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


First night in Verona. I dreamed Bishop Katharine was ordaining me or installing me – some sort of clergy initiation rite – in Nevada, though I had been serving there already for all these years. It felt like a fresh beginning. I introduced the offertory with some of my usual explanation but added this: when the alms, bread, and wine are brought together from the congregation to the altar, it extends a lifeline from our hearts to God, a lifeline by which God draws us into Godself.

It is true: “Praying shapes believing.” The way we worship shapes our view of reality, our spiritual experience, and eventually our behavior. So it is not just nit-picking to say it really is a problem that most of our congregations perform the offertory wrongly. The point I was trying to make is the heart of what I fear the Church is misunderstanding about who we are and our path to wholeness and authenticity.

When we have the elements already inside the sanctuary or when we surreptitiously slip them up for the setting of the table while the offering is collected, it suggests the priests are in possession of God who will be dispensed at the altar rail to sustain the needy for another week. But when the offering is performed as the rubrics prescribe, it signifies that we give ourselves to God for transformation, and the grace we receive is not merely a sustaining but also a transforming grace, that the movement of grace is a gift exchange that extends out into the world. The effect of ritual is subtle, slow, almost subliminal. It takes years and years to shape the soul. But I do wish we were doing a better job of shaping souls for dynamic interaction with God instead of passive dependency on sustenance doled out by clerical hands. Do not worry Nevadans; I will not attempt to force this change. I only dream of it – literally -- for it for all our sakes.

The first day in Verona, I spent mostly reading in cafes. I was prepping for my upcoming Church & Society class for our postulants. It was a slow moving lovely day, followed by a reception with law school folks and dinner with good friends who told me about more new books I need to read.

The second night in Verona, I dreamed Linda and I were changing planes in Houston. As we were getting on the plane, I realized I had lost my computer somewhere in the airport. I had to get off the plane and go looking for it. This reminds me of the last time I flew into Houston. My computer had died and was then lost by the Geek Squad in the course of repairing it. But to be a bit more psychological, I wonder if there is something I’ve lost that I need to go back and reclaim for use in what lies ahead. I wonder if trying to move ahead is impossible until I have gone back for something. What might that be?

Our second day in Verona, we toured the Arena where they used to pit gladiators against each other in the good old days. Today they were setting up for an Adele concert followed by the summer opera season. We then took in the museum in Castel Vecchio, a huge castle with lots of wonderful late medieval and Renaissance art, almost all on sacred themes. On thing that struck us was the feminine representations of Jesus, reflecting the “Mother Christ” theme we read about in Julian of Norwich. One could have spent a few hours on any of the statues or paintings. These artists truly had a gospel to proclaim, and it wasn’t simplistic happy-clappy feel good stuff. It was about the love of God running in the deep currents of human life where love and sorrow flow together, often intermingled.