I was encouraged when I picked up the newspaper today and saw the headline, “Pope says church will stress unity.” “Gosh,” I thought, “maybe the new Pope has had a sudden change of heart. Perhaps he’s forsaken his absolutist position that Christianity is the only way to God and Catholicism is the only true form of Christianity.”
I was ready to give a “thumbs sideways” to Pope Benedict XVI instead of my previous thumbs down. However, now that I’ve read the entire text of the homily he delivered, the supposedly more inclusive Pope Benedict sounds a lot like the dogmatic Cardinal Ratzinger—which isn’t surprising, since they are the same person. Tigers don’t change their stripes so quickly.
Admittedly, the new Pope reached out to Jews and non-Catholic Christians. He also added, “Finally, like a wave gathering force, my thoughts go out to all men and women of today, to believers and non-believers alike.”
But when you get to the end of the homily, it’s evident that the unity Pope Benedict seeks is for every person on earth to become Christian:
Here I want to add something: both the image of the shepherd and that of the fisherman issue an explicit call to unity. "I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must lead them too, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd" (Jn 10:16); these are the words of Jesus at the end of his discourse on the Good Shepherd.
And the account of the 153 large fish ends with the joyful statement: "although there were so many, the net was not torn" (Jn 21:11). Alas, beloved Lord, with sorrow we must now acknowledge that it has been torn! But no -- we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint, and let us do all we can to pursue the path towards the unity you have promised. Let us remember it in our prayer to the Lord, as we plead with him: yes, Lord, remember your promise. Grant that we may be one flock and one shepherd! Do not allow your net to be torn, help us to be servants of unity!
At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter's Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: "Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!"
I don’t hear a genuine call for unity in the Pope’s words. His conception of oneness is limited to the bounds of Christianity, not the cosmos. He isn’t seeking a universal truth that encompasses people of every faith, including those who believe in not having a faith. His message, though eloquently phrased, is still divisive. His theology still merits a thumbs down.
The Pope spoke yesterday to 350,000 people in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square. I gave a talk also on Sunday, to 4 people in the McKinley Elementary School music room. Call me biased, but I liked my “satsang” (an Indian term for a talk about spiritual truth) a lot more than the Pope’s homily.
I started by speaking about how to speak about spirituality, inspired by some guidelines for authors that I’d received from the Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) Publications Department. I’ve had my differences with the Department, mostly because I have a strong distaste for claims to a singular knowledge of spiritual truth. In the past RSSB has been as guilty as the Catholic Church in asserting that its Way is the only Way.
I find this attitude distasteful. It’s bothered me so much that at times I’ve considered cutting off my ties with RSSB and becoming a genuine spiritual independent, which also happens to be my political affiliation. But I agree with the central goal of the RSSB metaphysical philosophy: uniting one’s personal consciousness (“soul”) with universal consciousness (“spirit”). And I enjoy socializing on Sundays with the people who come to our local RSSB meeting (“satsang”), few though they may be.
So it was heartening to read this new missive from the Publications Department. I’ve often sounded off on similar themes when speaking at RSSB gatherings and have observed a fair number of quizzical looks from audience members after I launched into my favorite “Why would anyone think we’ve got the sole franchise on spiritual truth?” rant. I would imagine that cries of “Heretic! Rabble-rouser! Burn him at the stake!” were going to erupt from the crowd.
How nice, then, to find that the Publications Department now is saying what I’ve been preaching: it’s insulting to people of other faiths (which includes my wife) to come across as claiming that this is the only Way of knowing ultimate reality, God, whatever you want to call it. Hopefully this humble attitude will permeate down into the minds and hearts of everyone associated with RSSB.
Maybe even more broadly, because open-mindedness is a universal virtue. Who knows? Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI is fond of surfing the Internet and will come across this post. For him, and everyone who writes or speaks about spirituality—which includes most people, since speaking to ourselves inside our head is a form of communication—I’ve edited the RSSB guidelines into a form more suitable for universal consumption. Click on the continuation link below to read them. (The unedited guidelines can be found here.)
Edited Update to RSSB Publications’ “Guidelines for Authors”
(To make this paean to communicating spiritual truth in a universal fashion more universal in its own right, I have edited these guidelines by removing particularized references to Radha Soami Satsang Beas and the teachings of this faith. The unedited version can be found here.)
We are given the privilege to use our intelligence and words to contribute to the dissemination of an all-embracing truth. The challenge for us is that this truth belongs to everyone, and it lies beyond words. How do we meet this challenge?
Do we, when we use terms and quotations that are familiar to us, make it seem that our Way is the only Way, or that only people associated with our particular spiritual path can know God? Do we inadvertently project our organization and its fellowship of believers as something exclusive and unique?
All the special terms we use to describe our faith can become counterproductive in our challenge to communicate if we are not sensitive as to how we use them. Unintentionally, we can project the same confusion that makes people leave religion, the confusion of identifying the form of a religion—a unique vessel of concepts, words, writings and practices that meets the demands of time and place—with the timeless, formless, spiritual reality of God.
What, we may reflect, are the key aspects of this all-embracing truth that grows in our hearts as we live the life of a true spiritual seeker?
With the Lord’s grace and within our limitations, we come to understand that in spite of life’s apparent diversity, there is one truth for all and it is Spirit. We see that just as all humans share certain fundamental physical characteristics, (viz Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: if you cut me, do I not bleed?) so too we share a fundamental spiritual nature. We see that as humans we are a microcosm of the macrocosm, that being true to ourselves and objective is to be true to our most fundamental spiritual nature; to be reasonable is to use our common spiritual reason.
Whether Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Jain, or other, we begin to grasp that at our deepest level, we are of one spiritual nature and the “God” we seek is one and the same.
The inward route is one – of closing attention to outward things, of detachment and living a life that supports an inward priority, of building a moral framework that enhances spiritual values. In different religions and cultures, it may express itself in differing ways but the route is one.
Inner practice is one—an uncompromising discipline of concentration and obedience that builds one-pointedness, receptiveness, submission and spiritual growth.
The bliss and intoxication of inner experience is one—whether it is known through contact with a form that we relate to our outer, time-bound experience of our path, or whether through our experience of formless spiritual light and sound.
The power, the energy that is Spirit is one, and inexpressible—whatever it is called.
The experience of union with God is one, and indefinable—whether we experience God personified or whether God is experienced as perfect bliss, perfect tranquillity, perfect void. When the drop merges in the ocean, when the being dissolves in the void, no power can disturb it, the impurity that was there is of no significance, its reach is unbounded, it knows itself, and loses itself, in union with all there is.